Sula was Toni Morrison’s second novel, and was started in 1970, when second-wave feminists insisted on female solidarity; when labor market demanded women both in the workplace and at home, and when the position of women had not been as polarized by domestic ideology since the Victorian Era. It was a time when feminism ceased to be a middle-class privilege and women from all ethnic backgrounds took up their pens to voice their dissatisfaction. This novel may be considered a product of Morrison’s own curiosity towards female relationships, as she wonders in the Foreword to Sula: “What is friendship between women when unmediated by men? What choices are available to black women outside their own society’s approval? What are the risks of individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet racially uniform and socially static, community?” (ii)
Set against the background of postwar Union State Ohio, Sula discusses among many issues the problematics of race and segregation, and the unequal treatment of colored soldiers who returned from the services in Europe during World War I. It is also a story of motherhood and the sacrifices it imposes on single mothers, but most of all it is a story about womanhood and the definition of its boundaries through various agents of social normativity.
In her 1988 essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”, Morrison explains that Sula “is New World black and New World woman extracting choice from choicelessness, responding inventively to found things. Improvisational. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable. And dangerously female.” (153) In other words, the character of Sula is an extreme example of the shape womanhood and female identity took in the face of social change brought on by the devastating outcomes of World War II. It came with the realization that gender roles were not finite and that the struggle for equality and liberation for women was boldly claiming the right to sexual freedom.
What precisely makes Sula the odd and unexpected heroine of this novel is her stance on the body politics maintained by the second-wave feminists. While Nel was forced by her mother to pull her own nose in order to make it narrower and more pleasing to the eye of the male beholder, “Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full rein, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.” (118) Sula is, therefore, a product of her environment. Raised by her matriarchic grand-mother Eva and her sexually uninhibited mother, Hannah, Sula learns early in life to dissociate sex from love, and considers her body and her behaviour as belonging to no one but herself.
Nel, too, is revealed at the beginning of the novel as self-possessed. After she returns from the trip to her grandmother’s funeral, she witnesses a moment of self-revelation: ““I’m me,” she whispered. “Me.” Nel didn’t know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant. “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me.” Each time she said the word me there was a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear.” (28). She recognizes her own entity not in terms of being an extension of her mother and father, but an individual belonging to herself. Unlike Sula, Nel is not a product of her environment, but fails to resist the forces of identification her mother imposes, and conforms, finding financial security in marriage.
One reason for such a development of character might be explained through the absence of a father figure. Sula’s father dies while she is still young.
Henceforth, she is relieved from aspiring to reach her father’s expectations of a decent female figure. Nel’s father, however, even though absent for work, remains still a lingering presence, dictating the code of moral behaviour and honour. Nel’s oppressive and manipulative mother, Helene, who proudly transgresses from a Creole prostitute’s daughter to a respectable married woman, plays also a decisive role in tailoring Nel’s socially acceptable position in the Bottom community.
The threat that Sula brings to the community after ten years of absence is far worse than the seduction of men. It is the threat of an educated woman, whose behaviour shakes the foundation of the old ways and introduces new ways of life, including interracial relations between white men and black women.
Both Nel and Sula, “when they met, first in those chocolate halls and next through the ropes of the swing, they felt the ease and comfort of old friends. Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.” (52) Through the course of time, Nel succumbs to the pressure of the community and her mother to conform, while Sula emancipates herself through college from the shackles of mental slavery. Years after their first meeting, when Sula lies on her deathbed, Nel reproaches her: “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don’t.” (142) Furthermore, in a pretentious effort to help her dying friend, Nel arrives at Sula’s house after having rehearsed for hours not only the right words to say, but also the appropriate tone to use in the conversation. Her entire existence proves to be someone else’s construct; someone else’s expectation and the reader witnesses her childhood promise to stay herself and become wonderful vanish into thin air.
The representation of Sula in the novel entirely depends on how the community perceives her. What Morrison makes very evident, though, is that “she never competed; she simply helped others define themselves.” (95) Indeed, Sula has since her return served as a collective unifier. She was a threat to married women, since she lowered their husbands’ self-esteem. The wives became more loving and caring. Mothers who neglected their children became very tentative and protective. Sula had become the Other; the despicable and corrupted force, whose behaviour was promising the fires of eternal hell and the norm against which women defined themselves against against.
In her essay, “The Bluest Eye and Sula”, Agnes Suranyi suggests that “she rebels against the role she is assigned to take within the black community. Consequently, she becomes a transgressor and an outlaw.” (20). In the Foreword to Sula Morrison explains: “Outlaw women are fascinating —not always for their behaviour, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men. In much literature a woman’s escape from male rule led to regret, misery, if not complete disaster.”(iv) Needless to say, Morrison’s heroine, even though regarded by the community as a disastrously failed woman, does not necessarily embrace that status. In her mind, she is free and therein lies Sula’s success.
Suranyi writes: “As Morrison herself has stated, “Friendship between women is special, different, and has never been depicted as the major focus of a novel before Sula. Nobody ever talked about friendship between women unless it was homosexual, and there is no homosexuality in Sula.” (20) In the end, what endures is the friendship between the two women. When Sula dies, she transcends the moment of death and thinks immediately of Nel. Sula is very excited to tell her dying does not hurt, and when, towards the end of the novel, Nel is confronted by Eva about her involvement in Chicken Little’s death, Nel finally cries out in pain at the realization having lost Sula was worse than losing Jade.
Sula’s and Nel’s friendship has from the outset of the novel been a monument to female solidarity. While they were still young, male involvement was incapable of disrupting their relationship. They were complementing and protecting each other, seeing the other always as the missing piece of the self. However, it is important to stress that jade never interrupted their marriage. The process of Nel conforming to social norms did, but just like Sula was responsible for Nel getting married, she was responsible for her parting from her husband. Regardless, the two women remained friends even after Sula’s decade of absence and even after her death parted them. More important, Sula’s death was received with a collective confusion in the community. Women returned to neglecting their children, wives returned to rejecting and cursing their husbands. The familial and cordial relationships between neighbours turned into hostility.
In conclusion, Sula remains the tale of female friendship, which lives long beyond the grave, but also of the female outlaw who dared to not only challenge traditional roles, but also to step outside them. Sula’s scandalous sexual ferocity, her shamelessness and unwillingness to be held responsible for what she considered her birth right have certainly helped to form a path for other outlaw heroines to come. Echoing the spirit of the second-wave feminists, Sula has remained faithful to herself alone. She discovered that female freedom is not only financial freedom, as the one her grandmother enjoyed nor sexual freedom, which her mother welcomed, but also freedom from marriage, tradition and norms. For Sula, real freedom was freedom of the mind, the only kind that sets the body free.
List of References
- Morrison, Toni. Sula. 1973. New York: Penguin; New York: Vintage, 2004. Print.
- Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. 201–30. Print.
- Suranyi, Agnes. “The Bluest Eye and Sula: Black Female Experience from Childhood to Womanhood.” The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Ed. Justine Tally. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 11-25. Print.