Toni Morrison’s Sula is a novel that challenges typical ideas of race, gender, and community in general. From the beginning of the novel, Morrison challenges ideas of right and wrong when she places her characters in the Bottom – indeed, the black community lives in the Bottom, even though this community is actually on top of a hill. This inversion of the black community’s placement within a larger societal framework in many ways mirrors the other inversions throughout the narrative. Indeed, Sula’s relationship with her mother alters typical ideas of mother-daughter relationships, which is similar to the relationship that Nel has with her mother Helene and the overt and stark difficulties that they face, and both of these relationships set up the friendship between Nel and Sula that constantly shifts and changes throughout the narrative.
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Because of the focus that Sula has on community, these relationships between black female characters carry a particular significance in the larger themes of the story: these are not only isolated friendships and familial relationships, but rather are bigger statements about the nature of black womanhood. Even though all of these female pairings are close and clearly significant to the characters, there is also some measure of hostility in all three. In fact, Sula and Nel, the central figures of the novel, are overtly competitive superficially. Morrison, however, makes it clear that this is a part of the relationships between black women: while there is harshness in all three relationships, this harshness in many ways mirrors the difficulties of being black, and these relationships demonstrate the difficulties of being a black woman.
Sula immediately disrupts traditional conceptions of African-American communities through its placement of the story and the characters. Indeed, the place the characters live is “in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom” (3). Not only is this region not actually called the Bottom anymore, but we immediately see that its name is a misnomer – the Bottom is actually on the top, and it is actually called the suburbs. This demonstrates that the information given to the people of the Bottom is imposed by society instead of a truthful representation. Indeed, Morrison is subverting traditional ideas of blacks being lower than whites through this region: if African-Americans actually live in the Bottom, they would not be in the hills overlooking the whites.
This immediately inverses traditional oppressive ideas held towards black communities. Not only does the name of the town challenge traditional ideas of race in this novel, but the use of Greek mythology in the novel also provides a classical spin on a contemporary, race-related novel. According to Raleen Closser, the character of Shadrack’s National Suicide Day in many ways mirrors that of Dionysus, further propelling the community she describes out of a stereotypically oppressed role and instead displaying it alongside a classically well-received and highly-acknowledged myth in Greek mythology. Through stating and then challenging traditional conceptions of black communities, Morrison immediately sets her novel in the context of complexity and difficulty in terms of relationships.
Sula and her mother Hannah continue to disrupt traditional ideas of relationships. Obviously, this is not a “normal” relationship between a mother and daughter: after all, Sula watches her mother burn to death and does nothing to stop the act from happening. Indeed, Eva describes Sula watching Hannah burn: “Sula was probably struck dumb, as anybody would be who saw her own mamma burn up. Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested” (78). This demonstrates how far Sula is outside of traditional society, and also how harsh and distant her relationship with her mother is. Indeed, Sula is a distinct woman: as Yung-Hsing Wu describes in “Doing Things With Ethics: Beloved, Sula and the Reading of Judgment,” “With Sula, then, the novel leaves one wondering what standard would define her actions as good” (791).
Sula does not conform to traditional ideas of womanhood, morality or what it means to be good, thereby placing her far outside of her society. Hannah is similarly ostracized: the narrator describes her as “exasperate[ing] the women in the town—the ‘good’ women…the whores…the middling women” (44). Obviously, there are no women left for Hannah to be a part of. Because both Sula and her mother are placed outside of women, and particularly black women, their relationship is even more volatile. Indeed, while both women are not “normal” representations of women, their relationship as mother and daughter is even farther outside of the norm, demonstrating violence and a fundamental lack of overt caring between the two women, thereby lacking traditional characteristics usually present in mother-daughter and other familial connections.
One of the other mother-daughter relationships, between Hannah and her mother Eva, is similarly complicated, though in a different way. The two are blatantly uncomfortable with their relationship: indeed, Hannah asks her mother, “Mamma, did you ever love us?” to which Eva replies “No. I don’t reckon I did. Not the way you thinkin’” (67). This immediately subverts mother-daughter relationships – in American social consciousness, all mothers love their daughters, but here we see that Eva does not love Hannah in the way that society feels she is supposed to.
That’s not to say that Eva does not have her own way of loving her daughter. After thinking more about the question, she states, “You settin’ here with your healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t” (68). Indeed, Eva rejects traditional ideas of matronly love and discusses the difficulty of raising a family to be healthy even though society views motherly love as needing mothers to “play rang-around-the-rosie” (69). Chuck Jackson explores the role of Eva in motherhood in his article “A ‘Headless Display’: Sula, Soldiers and Lynching,” arguing that Eva’s murder of her son Plum, who was in the army, is both a metaphorical act of lynching and a motherly gesture regarding Plum’s heroin use.
This is yet another example of the different style of parenting that Eva employs – she kills her own son, something certainly not acceptable by conventional standards, and she tells her daughter that she doesn’t love her as she’s supposed to. This is yet another example of complicated relationships with women: not only does she have a volatile and openly hostile relationship with her daughter, but her view of motherhood does not adhere to traditional conceptions of what a mother is supposed to do.
Just as these two mother-daughter relationships challenge preconceptions of how African-American mothers should treat their daughters, Sula’s friendship with Nel similarly calls traditional ideas regarding friendship into question. According to Lorie Fulton, “Morrison did not set out to explore the possibilities of women’s friendships and even told Tate, ‘I was half-way through with the book before I realized that friendship in literary terms is a rather contemporary idea’” (71). This only furthers the close ties between different types of female relationships: indeed, female friendships are not always deeply explored in literature, and in doing so in Sula, Morrison is further discussing what it means to be a black woman. Sula and Nel’s relationship is in fact very complicated: Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband, both are present at the accidental death of Chicken Little, and the two essentially grow up together.
While this demonstrates how close their relationship with each other is, it is also important to explore the more negative emotions that develop between the two women. When Sula is on her deathbed, Nel searches for some resolve to their conflicts and asks, “I was good to you, Sula, why don’t that matter?” to which Sula responds “It matters, Nel, but only to you. Not to anybody else. Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it” (144-5). Morrison continues to invert how the reader considers relationships between people – just as Hannah’s mother challenges what it means to love and care for her daughter, here Sula challenges what it means to be a friend to another woman.
Indeed, she doesn’t get anything from being nice or mean to them. Sula herself is the definition of an inpidual: she never intentionally helps or hurts anyone, but instead is interested in what happens to each other, just as she watches her mother burn and passively sleeps with Nel’s husband. She did not consider others in either of these situations, and acted in pure self-interest because that is the life philosophy that she carries. As Karen Stein claims in “Toni Morrison’s Sula: A Black Woman’s Epic,” “Sula’s final speech asserts her own goodness, and questions Nel’s assumptions of righteousness” (148). This is yet another inversion: goodness and righteousness in relationships is questions, just as in other relationships in the novel, and the ways in which black women navigate prescribed social roles demonstrates that these social rules are not necessarily right for every community.
Toni Morrison’s Sula immediately challenges the way that society places rules and regulations on communities: even though the black community lives in the Bottom, it’s physically placed at the top, and even though the black female relationships in the novel should be loving and exist in the ways that society has always viewed them, they are much more complicated than that. Eva pushes the idea that a mother must love her daughter in a way that is always bright and sunny, and instead places emphasis on the more logistical aspects of motherhood as demonstrating love. Sula and Hannah are both women placed outside of traditional feminine roles, and this comes through in how they treat one another, as well as how Sula’s friendship with Nel develops.
The two women are close but not in a normal way: indeed, they have each hurt one another, and their ideas of what is good and rights do not always coincide. Because all of these traditional values are challenged by Morrison, the reader sees that relationships are more complicated than popular conceptions of them are. Further, this change in perspective on relationships is directed at the African-American community and that community’s placement within larger society.
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