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Toni Morrison's Sula is highly complex novel in its structure, character development, and message as Sterling Plump said "too complex and too ripen to be classified" (Morrison 226). It is difficult to define what Sula is about: It is the story of the friendship of two African American women; it is the story of growing up Black and female; it is the story of African American community (Nigro 724). What makes Sula distinguished from other novels which dealt with black women's lives is that it depicts each black woman's life and identity as independent and existential, not as collective black identity (Sook Hee Lee 54). Ae Joo Kim states, while former literary works described black female characters as obedient and oppressed by men or as priestess with her femininity lost or as victims of family and community, this novel's female characters such as Sula, Eva, and Hannah are free from any of those stereotypes (Morrison 226-228).
Toni Morrison's interest in black female life is closely related to her strong sense of identity as a black woman author. Odette C. Martin noted that Morrison, as a black female author, was a double outsider in the patriarchal, white culture - a position which allows her to criticize both the white and the black worlds (qtd. in Stein 146). She once said in an interview:
"I write for black women. We are not addressing the men, as some white female writers do. We are not attacking each other, as both black and white men do. Black women writers look at things in an unforgiving loving way. They are writing to repossess, rename, re-own." (Pal 2439)
For her writing is a liberating tool, a subversive strategy and an artistic mode for self-expression. Along with other African-American female writers such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison explores how the intersection of race, class and gender in the American society influences the shaping of Black female life (Pal 2439).
The setting of the novel, the Bottom, which is a representative typical black community, has an important role in the novel. As many critics also observed, says Susan Wills, community is no doubt a central concern in most writings by black women writers (Yoon 244). The novel has a chronological structure, each chapter having a title from 1919 to 1965. It might be seen as a mere listing of years, however, it means something significant. It is African-American's history itself and changing process of black community (Hwajeong Kim 8). In other words, events that befall the denizens of the Bottom, can be seen as those that might befall residents of any Black community in any town during the years of this narrative, 1919 to 1965 (Nigro 724). Also, the relationship between community and individual, more specifically, the heroine's confrontation with the community is quite clear in the novel. The acute tension between them functions as an axis which leads the whole story (Ae Joo Kim 43). Therefore, it is almost impossible to fully understand Sula without knowing the interaction between them. .
Among all the black female characters appeared in Morrison's novels, Sula is the most radical and preposterous in reaching self-realization. In the typical black community called "the Bottom," she affirms herself in extreme way, deconstructing standardized black woman's image (Myung Ja Kim 364). Since traditional heroic patterns describe male characters, the lives of questioning female heroes are often anomalous. To Some readers, the female heroes' actions may seem aberrant, more suited to punishment than reward (Stein 146).
The Purpose of this paper is 1) to understand Black Community through the setting of the novel, the Bottom and 2) to analyze the character Sula and ultimately 3) to find its new meaning and functions.
2. Understanding the Black Community
In order to understand why the images of woman Sula represent is so exceptional, we need to examine "the Bottom" which the novel is based in first. Bottom is spatial and social background all through the novel except for only two scenes, one is when Nell takes a train journey with her mother and the other is when Shadrack experiences the horrors of war. Even those scenes help readers to understand racism and sexism which are prevalent in black society. Although Toni Morrison ever directly induced the readers to interpret this novel in terms of either antiracist or anti-sexist line, racism and sexism are by no means overt in this novel as Barbara Christian observes something "so pervasive" that has become "so illusive"
(qtd. in Yoon 243). In Bottom, racism and sexism are not separate ones but each one is kind of by-product of the other. They are double-pressure for black women. Therefore, understanding the black community called "the Bottom" is essential to grasp in what ways Sula different from other black women.
The fact that the time when Sula based in is white dominated society is shown by the very first chapter of the novel which explains the reason why the town is called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up in the hills.
A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain. Freedom was easy-the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn't want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, "Oh, no! See those hills? That's bottom land, rich and fertile."
"But it's high up in the hills, said the slave.
"High up from us," said the master, "but when God looks down, it's the bottom. That's why we call it so. It's the bottom of heaven-best land there is." (Sula 5) 
There pervaded racial deception and exploitation in the beginning of the Bottom, which is the way black slaves settled in America at the first time (Kim, Ae Joo 45-6). Economically and politically powerless, the black community is vulnerable to white society's exploitative self-aggrandizement (Stein 146). Nevertheless, people in the Bottom never question it rather just "take small consolation in the fact that every day they could literally look down on the white folks" (5). Earthly events which take place in the everyday lives in the Bottom are the only concern of them. They regard the race problem same as natural phenomenon such as drought or floods to survive, not to defeat.
Bottom is characterized by its primitively homogeneous culture. Although this novel is not an angered antiracist text, it is embedded in the novel that racism essentially has much to do with the black community's symbolic absence of self. As the narrator comments in the novel, what the Bottom people cannot bear most of all is "people who take themselves seriously" (40). The black community, says Christian, "having suffered so much from being seen as a different and therefore of lower quality," it "seeks normality, a discernable and appreciated order" (qtd. in Yoon 245). This tendency is dramatized in the novel through the presence of the Deweys. Although the Deweys are all different in age, appearance, and birth-background, Eva treats them as one personality, saying "They's all deweys" (38), and after all, they become beings who do not need to be individualized (Yoon 246).
Racism affects differently men and women in this novel. For men, it appears as black men's emasculation. Morrison said in an interview with Stepto, "I think everybody knows, deep down, that black men were emasculated by white men" (qtd. in Yoon 246-47). Sula is full of male characters which are all drawn as pitifully incapable and alienated from both family and social life (Yoon 247). BoyBoy, the man Eva married, is a typical irresponsible man. Nor did he financially support his family was he preoccupied by womanizing, drinking, and abusing Eva (32). The hatred toward BoyBoy made Eva stronger woman. "She only
hated one, Hannah's father BoyBoy, and hating him kept her alive and happy" (37).
Other men in Bottom are also incapable and disengaged having nothing to do.
Old men and young ones draped themselves in front of the Elmira Tneater,Irene's Palace of Cosmetology, the pool hall, the grill and the other sagging business enterprises that lined the street. On sills, on stoops, on crates and broken chairs they sat tasting their teeth and waiting for something to distract them. (49)
Jude, Nel's husband, is anxious to be involved in constructing New River Road. He wanted to do something productive, constructive, the "real work". However hard he tried, the opportunity was not easy to come by. His wish to do manlike work, for example, "swing the pick or kneel down with the string or shovel the gravel" (81) is frustrated just because of his color. So, he chose another thing which he could do man's role-marriage. He needed someone "to care about his hurt."(82)
The more he thought about marriage, the more attractive it became. Whatever his fortune, whatever the cut of his garment, there would always be the hemã…¡the tuck and fold that hid his raveling edges; a someone sweet, industrious and loyal to shore him up. And in return he would shelter her, love her, grow old with her. Without that someone he was a waiter hanging around a kitchen like a woman. With her he was head of a household pinned to an unsatisfactory job out of necessity. The two of them together would make one Jude. (83)
Ajax, the man Sula had "genuine conversation with," also cannot be thought to have done man's role as black community defines. While dreaming of flying an air plane, he was leaning against the barbed wire of airports, or nosing around hangars just to hear the talk of the men who were fortunate enough to be in the trade (126-7).
Black women, who are neither white nor male, are victims of double pressure of racism and sexism. Nel is one of the victims. She was brought up by her mother Helene Wright who was a daughter of Creole whore but persistently denies her origin for all her life time. Helene was impressive and exemplary woman in the town. Nel is her mother's only hope, so under Helene's hand Nel became obedient and polite (18). It was November 1920 that Nel watched her mother losing her dignify for the first time. Nel takes a journey to her great-grandmother's funeral with her mother. When they went mistakenly into the white-only train coach, the white conductor humiliates her mother saying "What you think you doin', gal?" Nel saw her mother "smile dazzlingly and coquettishly at the salmon-colored face of the conductor" (21). Nel could not believe that her mother who is respected by neighbors in the town, the most dignified and elegant woman she had ever known, is humiliatingly obsequious to the white man. This is not the only embarrassment she felt but the black soldiers' eyes watching her mother are, too. She decided to let no man look at her that way. The trip made Nel think about "self" for the first time.
It had been an exhilarating trip but a fearful one. She had been frightened of the soldiers' eyes on the train, the black wreath on the door, the custard pudding she believed lurked under her mother's heavy dress, the feel of unknown streets and unknown people. But she had gone a real trip, and now she was different. She got out of bed and lit the lamp to look in the mirror. There was her face, plain brown eyes, three braids and the nose her mother hated. She looked for a long time and suddenly a shiver ran through her.
"I'm me. I'm not their daughter. I'm not Nel. I'm me. Me." (28)
Unfortunately, however, "it was the last as well as the first time she was ever to leave Medallion" (29). Her journey to find "me-ness" ended there, which is shown in her dream. In her dream, she is "lying on a flowered bed, tangled in her own hair, waiting for some fiery prince" (51). Nel still remains as conventional and passive image of woman, leading a restricted life of typical Black women. Nel casts her visions in traditional romantic fantasies and sacrifices her independence to conventionality (Stein 147).
Nel and Sula get along with each other because they are different in all aspects. Nel liked Sula's house where the mother never scolded or gave directions, where all sorts of people dropped in, which is very different from the "oppressive neatness" of her home (29). The personality is also wholly different from each other. Whereas Sula could hardly be counted on to sustain any emotion for more than three minutes, Nell seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula (53). Together they create a single complete individual: Sula the impulsive, emotional one; Nel the practical one (Negro 727).
In spite of the differences, they have something in common which is that they are neither white nor male.
So 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)
Knowing what it feels like to live as a Black woman in a white dominated patriarchal society very well, they share sense of equality and make strong friendship.
Nel conforms completely to a patriarchal system by marrying Jude. She decided to marry Jude not because she needed him but because she "wanted to help, to soothe" him (83). She recognizes her role and performs the expected functions: She supports her husband, raises their children, and joins the church (Negro 728). Their married life, however, was vulnerable enough to be broken by comeback of Sula. Jude left Nel and their three children after having sexual relations with Sula. Nel cannot find "a place to be." in her home. Being devastated, she feels the existence of "gray ball," which is something she obviously recognizes but desperately rejects to see.
She spent a whole summer with the gray ball, the little ball of fur and string and hair, always floating in the light near her but which she did not see because she never looked. But that was the terrible part, the effort it took not to look. But it was there anyhow, just to the right of her head and maybe further down by her shoulderâ€¦ (109)
The gray ball is a symbol of the oppression placed on Black women, and this is what most black women have to carry for their life time. The women like Nel live as a subordinate of their family and society, painfully denying the "gray ball."
3. Sula: A Rebel or Symbol of Freedom
Morrison carefully delineates Sula's family tree, allowing the reader to better understand the remarkable young woman that is Sula Peace (Nigro 726). Morrison said in an interview with Stepto, the house where Eva Peace, her daughter Hannah, and granddaughter Sula live in is free, independent, and sexual place (qtd. in Lee Young Cheol 102-3). The house is always crowded with its tenants including newly married couple and three children called Deweys who Eva took in. Eva is "the creator and sovereign of this enormous house." The main characters of this novel are all women, which is related to the fact that Black community had traditionally been matriarchal society (Lee Sook Hee 49). In the novel, Peace women have something in common. That is love for men. "It was man love that Eva bequeathed to her daughters." For them, love for men means nothing more than "simply love for maleness, for its own sake" (41). It partially explains Sula's unconstrained sexual life afterwards.
Eva, the matriarch of the Peace family, has a strong sense of responsibility and motherhood. After BoyBoy left, she made desperately a living for her three children. She is remarkably strong enough to let her leg stuck under a train in order to receive compensation money, by which she could build a big house. By the physical damage she inflicted by herself, she was able to be free from any social or financial obligation. In such a tough situation where she had to struggle for a living, she overcame the difficulties by herself rather than beg for help from neighbors, which is a seed of anti-community individualism of Peace women (Lee Young Cheol 92).
Eva has a strong maternal love for her children than any other else. Nevertheless, it is shown to be iconoclastic. Her son, Plum, "slept for days in his room with record player going, got even thinner" after he returned home from World War â… " (45). He turned into baby doing nothing and even was hooked to drugs. Since Eva could not endure his son go wrong, she burned him to death. When Hannah asked her about this later, Eva said:
"He give me such a time. Such a time. Look like he didn't even want to be born. â€¦he wanted to crawl back in my womb and wellâ€¦I ain't got the room no more even if he could do it. I done everything I could to make him leave me and go on and live and be a man but he wouldn't and I had to keep him out so I just thought of a way he could die like a man not all scrunched up inside my womb, but like a man." (71-2)
What she did on her son look immoral in the eyes of others. However, it can be explained as another type of motherhood (Lee Young Cheol 93). She thought that it is the only way to end his son's pain. Not only that, did Eva throw herself from the third floor to save her daughter Hannah, by which Eva is proven to have self-sacrificing motherhood.
Eva had a regular flock of gentleman caller and the men wanted to see "her lovely calf that neat shoe, and watch the focusing that sometimes swept down out of the distances in her eyes" (41). Being undeterred by her age or one leg, she always seeks her love for men and remains sexually attractive.
Hannah, Eva's daughter, "simply refuses to live without the attentions of a man" (42). After the death of her husband, she has had constant lovemaking with men of Bottom. With whom she has sex is absolutely of no importance. It could be the husbands of her friends or anyone else. Sex is just to fulfill her sexual appetite. Unlike Eva who "tested and argued with her men, leaving them feeling as though they had been in combat with a worthy, if amiable, foe," Hannah "rubbed no edges, made no demands, made the man feel as though he we complete and wonderful just as he was" (43). She has sex only in daylight because she hates that her love mate falls asleep after lovemaking. She does not put any meaning to sex because it is merely for physical pleasure. Women in town are angry at her not just because she has sex with their husband but she "seemed too unlike them (their husbands), having no passion attached to her relationships and being wholly incapable of jealousy." Watching her mother's spontaneous lovemaking, Sula regards sex as "pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable" (44).
There is an incident in her childhood that shows Sula's explosive temperament. It was when Sula counteracted white boys on her way home.
Spotting their prey, the boys sauntered forward as though there were nothing in the world on their minds but the gray sky. Hardly able to control their grins, they stood like a gate blocking the path. â€¦ She slashed off only the tip of her finger. The four boys stared open-mouthed at the wound and the scrap of flesh, like a button mushroom, curling in the cherry blood that ran into the corners of the slate. She raised her eyes to them. Her voice was quiet. "If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I'll do to you?" (54-5)
This can be interpreted as her strong will not to compromise with any rule or threat. According to Tally, this is also an expression of resistance against racism and sexism (qtd. in Hwajeong Kim 21).
Several other incidents contributed to form her self-consciousness. The one is when Sula accidently drowned Chicken Little, a boy living in the town. She twirled the boy holding his hands, and suddenly, he slipped from her hands and was thrown into the river. The second is when Sula overheard her mother say, "I just don't like her." She feels like she is rejected from her. Later, it is explained that "the first experience taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either" (118-9). This is the beginning of her center-less identity.
Sula reacts unusually when she saw her mother burn up. While Eva struggled to save her daughter, Sula was just looking, and Eva was the only one to notice her. Even though friends of Eva said that Sula was probably too frightened to take an action, Eva convinced that Sula was watching her mother burn because she was interested. Since she did not feel affection for anyone including her mother, she made no attempt to save her nor suffered sadness at all.
The birthmark over Sula's eye is a symbol of evil in the eyes of town people. The birthmark that "spreads from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose" gets darker as she gets older. It is look like "copperhead" or "rattle snack" in the eyes of Jude, "scary black thing" for Nel's children. Later, the people talk about the birthmark. They say that "it is not a stemmed rose, or a snake," "It was Hannah's ashes marking her from the very beginning" (114). The birthmark is the thing by which the people drive Sula to a public enemy of the town.
When Sula came back to Medallion after 10 years' of drifting outside the world, she was accompanied by a plague of robins. Her comeback is an ominous sign to the people of the Bottom as Eva says, "I might have knowed them birds meant something" (91). It was Eva who had detected something dangerous from Sula since her childhood. Outraged by Sula who retorts upon her, she calls Sula "roach." Sula forcibly moved her to a residential home for elderly, which is now one more reason for town people to blame her. She violated one of the ethics of community, which is strengthened family tie. According Myung Ja Kim, it has been highly valued in black community to support their family and neighbors in order to contend with racism and ideology of the ruling whites (374). People in the town, also, call Sula roach since she has broken the rule that has been kept so long in their society.
Besides she seduced and had sexual affairs with Jude, a husband of Nel who can be said another herself. This also counters to the unwritten rule of the society, marriage. Sula becomes to be called bitch by the people. Not only the people but did Nel turn her back on her. She could never forgive Sula because she thought that Sula would take her husband away, which is obviously an act of betrayal for her. She decides to be one of the people who regard Sula as a devil of the Bottom.
Of all the things that the evil witch Sula did, the most unforgivable was that Sula had sex with white men.
They were the ones who said she was guilty of the unforgivable thing-the thing for which there was no understanding, no excuse, no compassion. The route from which there was no way back, the dirt that could not ever be washed away. They said that Sula slept with white men. It may not have been true, but it certainly could have been. She was obviously capable of it. In any case, all minds were closed to her when that word was passed around. (112)
Sula violates a taboo that black woman never have a sex with white man. According to Young Cheol Lee, it is a big shame for the people because black women had historically been treated like attachments of white men since the slavery. They set no boundaries of their extortion, from labor to sex (98). The only possible union between white man and black woman that the people could imagine was rape (113). Like the white who had black phobia, the black have white phobia, too
One more thing that made women in town angry was that Sula never wanted their husband again after having sex once. This made them feel offended.
The fury she created in the women of the town was incredible-for 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. (115)
Also, she comes to their church suppers without underwear, bought their steaming platters of food and merely picked at it-relishing nothing, exclaiming over no one's ribs or cobbler. They believed that she was laughing at their God (114-5). This means that Sula gainsaid all of the things-family, the institution of marriage, race, and religion.
The people ascribed all the bad things which happen in the town to Sula. Yet, ironically the hostility toward Sula leads the people to the good. For example, Betty who was indifferent mother for her Son Teapot insists that Sula pushed her son to roll down the stairs. Then, Betty changes dramatically into an affectionate mother with strong motherhood in order to protect her son from Sula.
Their conviction of Sula's evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst (117-8).
To the community, Sula is a devil because she is a woman who has ruined a life of her only friend and who beds the men of the town and who appears to give no purpose in her life but that of self-gratification. She is a pariah, being different from anyone the townspeople have ever known, not seeking money or material gain, feeling no obligation to explain her actions. As Barbara Smith pointed out, folks in the Bottom hate Sula not only because she refuses to settle for the "colored woman's" lot but also she is a "living criticism of their dreadful lives of resignation" (Nigro 730-31).
If there is a word to express a life of Sula, it is "experimental life". The word, experimental, has significant meaning here because by which all of her actions transcending convention, system, and ethics can be explained (Myung Ja Kim 375). She did not value on any things which her society values. She declares herself, saying "I don't want to make somebody else," "I want to make myself" (92). Marriage is also part of the system as Stein states "Sula, who alone, of all the women in the Bottom, rejects the limits, the obligations and restrictions, of marriage and mother hood" (147). This is why Sula leaves the town on Nel's wedding day.
Sula does not understand why Nel feels betrayed by her affair with Jude at all. Rather, she is disappointed by Nel who "now is one of them" (120). She regards Nel of "one of the spiders whose only thought was the next rung of the web, who dangled in dark dry places suspended by their own spittle, more terrified of the free fall than snake's breath below." She differentiates herself defining hers as "free fall." Hers is "a thing to do with the wings, a way of holding the legs and most of all a full surrender to the downward flight if they wished to taste their tongues or stay alive" (120). Unlike all the other women who only care how they look in the eyes of others, she lived a life of "intimating with herself." However, since her life has no forms or disciplines she became dangerous like "any artist with no art form" (121). Stein states, "Sula is the daring, sensuous, active woman, seeking to experience life and her own being to the fullest" (147).
When Ajax, the man who made Sula think about possession for the first time, left her,
she does not resent him as Nel did. Instead, she finds her own responsibility for him to leave.
"I didn't even know his name. And if I didn't know his name, then there is nothing I did know and I have known nothing ever at all since the one thing I wanted was to know his name so how could he help but leave me since he was making love to woman who didn't even know his name." (136)
Even in such a situation Sula actively finds her role in their relationship. By doing so, she firmly asserts herself.
On a visit of Nel to Sula just before she dies, she says:
"You think I don't know what your life is like just because I ain't living it?
I know what every colored woman in this country is doing."
"Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I'm going down like one of those red-woods. I sure did live in this world." (143)
Still not understanding what Sula means, Nel asks Sula if she is lonely. (Because Nel thinks that the evil in Sula completely isolated her from the people) "Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A second hand lonely" (143)
To her, loneliness is her own because all kinds of feelings she has is only from her, not from anyone else.
It is not until twenty-four years after Sula's death that Nel understands Sula, more importantly herself. Nel visits Eva in Sunnydale and hear from her something she never expected.
"Tell me how you killed that little boy."
"What? What little boy?"
"The one you threw in the water."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Just alike. Both of you. Never was no difference between you." (169)
This is the epiphany for Nel to realize that she is not different from Sula. She has never known what she wanted and of course what Sula lived for, hidden by hypocrisy which is not only her own but the community's (Hwa Jeong Kim 37). She realizes that whom she has been really missing is Sula, not Jude. At the moment, a soft ball that has hovering around her after Jude's departure broke and scattered. Sula is the only one who can make Nel find herself, and true "me-ness."
There are conflicting opinions on Sula who is anti-social heroine. Hortense Spillers thought Sula "a literal and symbolic breakthrough for new feminine form," while Judith Gardiner saw Sula "a woman who stuck in narcissism" (qtd. in Seongeun Lee 127). Myung Joo Kim also refers Sula to "an extreme of narcissistic self who failed to communicate with others" (297). Stein said, "She never makes the existentialist's commitment, lacking any discipline or aim" (148). In a sense, however, freedom costs aberration from conventional systems. We have to pay a price to get it (Ae Joo Kim 60). Moreover, what Sula did in her life is not what "human" never do, but black women cannot do. This is shown by the last conversation between Sula and Nel.
"You can't have it all, Sula." Nel was getting exasperated with her arrogance, with her lying at death's door still smart-talking.
"Why? I can do it all, why can't I have it all?"
"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)
In other words, what Sula did is what men do, but especially black women cannot do. In that sense, Sula is a new woman in the new world who overcomes all the limitation of race, gender, conventions, and ethics rather than a devil incarnate (Myung Ja Kim 377-8).
Sula has its significance in another way. Sula can be a symbol of freedom and liberation not only for black women but for any other group in the world. One of the crucial reasons why Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993 is that Morrison succeeded in acquiring universality by the special experience of black community (Ae Joo Kim 9). Therefore, Sula has potential to be an emblem of freedom and independence for the whole society. As Sula said in the novel that the world she experienced is just "a big medallion," oppression and invisible restrictions are everywhere. That is why Sula should not be considered just one of rebels or failed revolutionist.
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