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Toni Morrison’s Sula is a novel in the tradition of African-American literature.
Toni Morrison’s Sula is a novel in the tradition of African-American literature, exploring the legacy of the African diaspora through the images of loss and recovery. Sula is set in a black community in the Midwest called The Bottom, and centres on the relationship between Sula and Nel from their intimate childhood friendship to their diverging paths as adults. Sula, in her quest for autonomy, becomes the personification of both the potential of black woman and, ironically, the pariah of her community. In contrast, Nel forsakes her own dream of leaving The Bottom for the sake of her husband and children, diminishing her identity to that of wife and mother. Sula is, essentially, a novel concerned with the emotional growth of both Nel and Sula’s friendship to eclipse social constraints. Pin-chia Feng (1998) argues for the textual construction of identity in novels by African-American writers centering on minority women in a society “permeated by race, class, and sex/gender oppression” (2). Morrison presents Sula as a tragic figure who fails to negotiate her own identity, but as a character who encourages the reader to engage with a notion of kinship and unity among black women as a means of recreating a lost community.
Critics often approach Morrison’s writing as if the discourse of gender and the discourse of race are mutually exclusive, but to interpret Sula as representative of ‘black’ literature or ‘female’ literature is a limiting approach. Traditional feminist criticism interprets the intimate relationship between Sula and Nel as an imitation of the nurturing bond between mother and daughter, and a substitute for the lost sense of kinship in the post-diaspora black community. The return to the maternal relationship in Morrison’s novels is an attempt to recover, or recreate, the lost object of desire, in this case kinship and community, as well as an attempt to recover the past. Laura Mulvey (1981) maintains that the ‘lost memory of the mother’s body is similar to other metaphors of a buried past or a lost history that contribute to the rhetoric of oppressed people’ (167). Sula maps a discourse of maternal intimacy as a means of reclaiming a sense of self as well as a sense of community. Missy Dehn Kubitschek (1998) maintains that the distinguishing characteristic of feminist criticisms is their feminocentricity, the exploration of issues and interests of women “from women's points of view.” The two main female characters, Sula and Nel, are drawn together out of a shared lived experience as black women in a white patriarchal society.
Sula and Nel met out of a common experience: both only children, both isolated, their friendship is a surrogate for the intimacy denied them in both the family and community. ‘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. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he wasn’t), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for’ (52). There are critics who attempt to read the intimacy between Sula and Nel as a lesbian relationship. Barbara Smith (1985), for example, argues that the novel ‘works as a lesbian novel not only because of the passionate friendship between Sula and Nel but because of Morrison’s consistently criitical stance toward the heterosexual institutions of male/female relationships, marriage and the family’ (165). Smith’s reading of Sula is symptomatic of a feminist scholarship which has focused on the study of femininity and alienation, central to stories about women’s identity, frequently concentrating on heterosexual conflict at the expense of the individual relationships and communities constructed between women. Deborah McDowell and Alisha Coleman refute Smith’s analysis, claiming that the intimacy between the two characters is an act of platonic union and a reaction against the authority of white patriarchy. Both arguments have merit: Coleman’s analysis of the platonic intimacy is valid given the prerogative of reclaiming black kinship and community, but Smith’s reading allows for the fragmented relationships within the black community. As Sula tells Jude, ‘Colored women worry themselves into bad health just trying to hang on to [black men’s] cuffs. Even little children – white and black, boys and girls – spend all their childhood eating their hearts out ‘cause they think you don’t love them. And if that ain’t enough, you love yourselves. Nothing in this world loves a black man more than another black man’ (104). It is implied in Sula’s speech that the heterosexual bond is fickle and unstable because of the male ego, whereas the female friendship is reciprocal and enduring. This is the myth to which Sula and Nel cling, but is tested by Sula’s betrayal.
Returning after ten years away from The Bottom, Sula’s sexual exploits alienate her from the rest of the community. Refusing to maintain the family home and to conform to the heterosexual normativity of marriage, Sula’s one constant was her relationship with Nel. Sula ‘had clung to Nel as the closest thing to both an other and a self, only to discover that she and Nel were not one and the same thing … Nel was the one person who had wanted nothing from her, who had accepted all aspects of her. Now she wanted everything, and all because of that. Nel was the first person who had been real to her, whose name she knew, who had seen as she had the slant of life that made it possible to stretch to its limits’ (120). Despite having travelled the country and gained a college education, Sula is still rejected and ostracised because she refuses to conform to the ideology of black womanhood to which Nel submits. As they grow and move apart, Sula and Nel recognise their inherent differences, but it is only after Sula’s death that Nel realises their friendship is a bond which nurtures the construction of a new, privileged black womanhood.
Morrison reveals the construction of motherhood in the context of the African-American experience. Responding to the interrelationship between gender, class and race, Morrison creates situations which concentrate on the way in which black women attempt to structure their own social orders but who are limited by their class and race identities. Sula foregrounds the conflicted status of race and gender in post-slavery American culture. The inhabitants of The Bottom represented a political system which ‘represent a political system which has enslaved a people, emancipated a people, enfranchised them, disenfranchised them’ (Hunt 459). Sula and Nel, born into a social position of instability and loss, turn toward each other to reclaim the fractured story of African womanhood in a bond which recreates the nurturing intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship.
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