Gender is one of the themes that Morrison explores in her novel Sula. Gender roles help to create unevenness in terms of the power balance between women and men. This unequal balance of power that is prevalent in the social environment of her characters in Sula ultimately becomes a part of them. The impact of this is that it becomes nestled in the psychological conflicts they encounter and experience. In this novel, these psychological conflicts play out on the sexuality platform. The sexuality of the characters results in the internalization of the unequal balance of power between women and men and it is a symbol that is used to show the inequities and ills prevalent in society.
In Sula, sexuality manifests itself in different ways. This helps to develop the characters and this characterization helps to bring out the theme of gender in this novel. The social environment the characters find themselves in greatly influences their thoughts, actions, and emotions. To show how the social environment does this, the author uses varying sexuality strands.
Characters in Sula develop different relationships between them, and these relationships carry different connotations of sexuality. The various representation of sexuality can be linked to the various constructions of gender roles this society has developed. Morrison intelligently uses the sexual behavior of the various characters to show how dysfunctional relationships, conflicts, and degeneration of individual arise from the unequal balance of power between women and men.
Women are main characters in Sula, and the novel tells the life of Sula from when she was a teen till the time she breathed her last in 1940. By the time of Sula’s death, she has transitioned into a superstition and hatred object in her neighborhood, Bottom. In addition, sexuality ruins her relationship with her childhood friend, Nel after she engages in promiscuity with her husband.
However, Morrison introduces both Nel and Shadrack in the early stages of the novel to show the kind of society Sula is born and grows up in. The socialization she goes through as she grows up has an immense influence on her sexuality, character, and personality. Shadrack is a good representation of this society, and sexuality is used to portray him. The author says this about Shadrack: “Blasted and permanently astonished by the events of 1917, he had returned to Medallion handsome but ravaged, and even the most fastidious people in the town sometimes caught themselves dreaming of what he must have been like a few years back before he went off to war. A young man of twenty, his head full of nothing and his mouth recalling the taste of lipstick. . .” (Morrison 7).
The participation in the war has permanently damaged him, and he is no longer the beautiful person he was initially, and he does not succeed to recover from his sorry state. His experiences in the war have affected his sexuality and therefore, he is unable to play the gender roles the society expects of him. The only improvement he goes through is growing lonelier and transforming into a freak in his community. He walks around shouting obscenities, his genitals hanging out, and scaring children and women. Essentially, Shadrack’s sexuality has been damaged by the events of 1917 and is unable to act manly as it is expected of him in this society. His mouth can only recall the taste of lipstick which shows that he has failed to put his sexuality in order and settle down in an a relationship or marriage.
Additionally, a war that both Plum and Shadrack participate in retards them, making them lose their sexuality, their attractiveness, and their health; hence they are unable to deliver in their gender roles. They are unable to attract female partners and hence fail to fulfill the demands of their sexuality. Due to this situation, Demetrakopoulos notes “Like the town’s mad prophet, Shadrack, Plum loses his masculinity impetus, his initiative, in the white man’s army. Shadrack returns mad; Plum comes home a drug addict” (Holloway and Demetrakopoulos, p. 56). Plum’s addiction to heroin has turned him a zombie who is useless to his mother, Eva, and to the larger society. Moreover, it makes him unable to take up gender roles.
Furthermore, the author introduces the audience to Eva Peace, who is Sula’s grandmother. Eva Peace had been married to BoyBoy, who later walked out on her. Due to this she forced to work hard to support herself and her three children. Eva leaves her children to stay with her neighbor for a while, and she returns when she is a bit economically sound which enables her to build a house on Carpenter Road. Eva staunchly takes on male roles, and she does so and while at the same time persistently flirting with men who visit her residence. This persistent flirting is shown in “The Peace women simply loved maleness, for its own sake. Eva, as old as she was, . . had a regular flock of gentlemen callers, and although she did not participate in the act of love, there was a good deal of teasing and pecking and laughter” (Morrison 41). Eva, as much she was older, enjoyed the company provided by her male visitors. She had been left by her husband BoyBoy, and after that, she failed to commit to any of her male visitors. Interestingly, she does not engage in any romantic relationship, she expertly uses her female sexuality to control and interact with her men who visit. The breakup of her marriage makes her return to her earlier virgin state, and she uses male visitors as toys that amuse her.
The males of this society had a role of providing company to the females, and this is something Eva could not get because her husband had left her. Because of this, she uses her female sexuality to get male company and thus perpetuate the male gender role.
Female sexuality is a force that enables her to experience the male roles of providing company to her. Moreover, because of her sexuality, she had no obligation to provide for her family but she is forced to after her husband, who is supposed to distance himself from their marriage.
A majority of the problems of this society stem from outrageous sexual behaviors of the characters. Essentially, sick sexuality fuels many problems in society because people are unable to commit themselves to relationships, men and women will not deliver on what society expects of them, and children will lack good role models to influence their growth. Hannah is one woman who doesn’t hold any inhibitions when it comes to sex. She misuses her sexuality by constantly engaging in casual sex with any man who visits Peace house. Her addiction to casual sex makes her unable to commit to any man for a long-term and healthy relationship. This is what her mother, Eva, had bequeathed her because it was common practice for her to flirt incessantly with all male visitors who called in at Peace house. This is the same behavior that Hannah passes to Sula, who is her daughter.
In describing Hannah, the author states, “Hannah simply refused to live without the attentions of a man, and after Rekus‟ death had a steady sequence of lovers, mostly the husbands and friends of neighbors. Her flirting was sweet . . . she rippled with sex . . . she made men aware of her behind, her slim ankle, the dew-smooth skin and the incredible length of neck” (Morrison 42). Her sexuality defines her priorities which all revolve around sex. Because of this she fails to deliver on her gender role of bringing up Sula in the right manner but instead neglects her. She is only able to engage in this behavior because of her female sexuality. She influences her daughter to use her sexuality in the same manner as her, and their behaviors are in conflict with the expectations of the Bottom society. The people of this neighborhood perceive their promiscuous behavior as a factor that will destabilize the harmony that exists in marriages. Their inability to tame their sexuality and form stable and long-lasting relationships destabilizes the definition of female gender in this society.
Moreover, her behavior conflicts the traditional values and norms in the Bottom society because she is emotionally disengaged from her sexual partners.
In addition, the prostitutes loathe her because her pursuit of sex is due to the pleasure it gives her and not for any financial gain, hence affecting the competition for male sexual partners.
Furthermore, sexuality is used to dichotomize the gender expectations in society. Both Sula and Nel encounter with sexuality for the first time when they are sexually harassed and depicted as sex objects by Ajax as they were passing the Time and Half Pool Hall in Bottom. The first encounter shows that sexuality is a mixture of pleasure and fear. The authors Santyaraj and Neelakantan suggest this sexual harassment and being regarded as sex objects represented “.certain stereotypical social attitudesperpetuating the gendered dichotomies of human society” (Sathyaraj and Neelakantan 3).
The men of Bottom were at liberty to sexually harass both Sula and Nel and depict them as sexual objects because it was an accepted gender convention. Moreover, the two young girls secretly react to this harassment with pleasure because to them it was the prevalent thing to be regarded as sex objects in this society. This positive reaction to sexual harassment is reinforced further by the fact that both their biological fathers were absent; Sula’s father had died whereas Nel’s father was just absent. Both girls enjoy this treatment because this is the only male attention and interests they receive in their pre-teen years. Surprisingly, they both enjoy it despite their varied upbringing since Sula had been immensely exposed to sex by her mother while Nel was brought up by a strict mother who was hell-bent on suppressing her sexuality since childhood.
This indicates that both men and women in a society always act in the expected manner, as prescribed by the gender conventions created by society, when they are transitioning into adulthood. These gender conventions emerge as a result of sexuality whereby women are depicted as sex objects, something they react to with pleasure, whereas men are at liberty to harass women sexually and view them as sexual objects.
Furthermore, the two girls’ sexual awakening became very clear on their twelfth birthday. Their restlessness makes them throw themselves on the ground and symbolically dig holes in the ground. This instance is preceded with tightening of their flesh, and their breasts cause them to feel a pleasure and discomfort at the same time. They use their thumbs to pull away barks on twigs after they use to dig two holes that coalesce into one. This instance is used to show how the two girls are discovering their sexuality. The discovery will lead them to thinking the construction of gender roles because gender conventions were very much connected to the biological makeup of a person. The two girls stop their activity of digging holes in earth and for a moment they get disgusted with their personalities. They then throw rubbish into the hole they have dug and use grass to cover it. This shows that the discovery of sexuality among teenagers was something that was frowned upon since it made the girls get disgusted. The disgust figuratively illustrates the sexual harassment they are about to face as they transition from childhood to adult sexual human beings. It stems from the reality that it was acceptable for males to harass women sexually and view them as mere sex objects. This is something that will make them command respect from men; their sexuality will result in subjugation by men and hence is totally alright to get disgusted at it.
Moreover, the disgust provides a foreshadowing of how sex will degenerate in their adulthood because it turned out to be the cause of their problems. Additionally, the hole dig together represents their friendship, and by both engaging in its destruction points to “.future burial of their relationship” (Suranyi 21). Experiencing sexual awakening together is something that had characterized their relationship but it is sexuality that will drive a wedge in their relationship and cause their fallout.
Elsewhere, Nel is one individual who links sexuality to the institution of marriage and household chores. She is blind to the fact that sexuality is an expression of her healthy desires and longing, and lack of seeing sexuality in this mold makes her adopt the gender norms as prescribed in this society. She strongly believes that sex is something that has to take within the confines of marriage, and when Jude leaves she is devastated. She utters: “And what am I supposed to do with these old thighs now. . . with never nobody settling down between my legs even if I sew up those old pillow cases and rinse down the porch and feed my children and beat the rugs and haul the coal up out of the bin even then nobody” (Morrison 111).
Nel is unable to separate her sexual needs from the norms of this society, and this makes her sexuality be thwarted. To her, a life without Jude, will be a life without sex for the foreseeable future. In this society, the expectation was that women could not freely take other lovers even after separation from their husbands as they will be seen as loose.
However, men like Jude had the freedom break from their marriages and get other women. This underlines the double application of morality as dictated by gender conventions in this society. Nel is forced to suffer misery and stay as a victim of Sula and Jude’s betrayal.
The way that Sula treats men in Bottom in many of her sexual encounters with them further indicates the inversion of the relationship between sexuality and gender codes. Sula creates fury in women of Bottom because “she would lay their husbands once and then no more. Hannah had been a nuisance, but she was complimenting the women, in a way, by wanting their husbands. Sula was trying them out and discarding them without any excuse, the men could swallow” (Morrison 115).
Surprisingly, Sula uses men in a manner consistent with the traditional way men have been treating women. In this society, men could sex with women and immediately distance from them and still manage to get away with it.
However, in Sula’s situation, a woman was using her sexuality to step in the traditional gender conventions that defined men. This practice was not anticipated at all, and it even made the women be furious. The message beneath this fury is that women were expected to be submissive to their husbands and not question them when they take up other lovers. Sula is among the first women who go against this gender convention, and she aggressively uses her female sexuality to fulfill this. Her sexuality is the weapon she uses to challenge established gender conventions.
Gender conventions in Bottom create immense unevenness in the balance of power between men and women. The women are subjugated because of their sexuality whereas men have the free will to use their sexuality in affirming these gender conventions. Women like Eva, Hannah and Sula use their sexuality to topple this balance of power between men and women. However, Nel suffers because she is not ready to use her sexuality for her own benefit; she is tied with gender conventions. Their female sexuality is a powerful weapon that they use to challenge and confront the prevalent gender conventions. The decline in sexuality of males such as Shadrack and Plum rob them their masculinity and hence their ability to play gender roles. The novel is steadfast in showing the relationship between sexuality and gender.
Holloway, Karla FC, and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos. New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. No. 84. Greenwood Press, 1987.
Morrison, Toni. "Sula. 1973." New York: Plume 76 (1982).
Sathyaraj, Venkatesan, and Gurumurthy Neelakantan. "Dragon Daddies and False-Hearted Men': Patriarchy in Toni Morrison's Love." Notes on Contemporary Literature 35.5 (2005): 2.
Surányi, Ágnes. The Bluest Eye and Sula: black female experience from childhood to womanhood. N.A. 2007