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In the world that Toni Morrison crafts in Sula, society seems to force women into the age-old binary roles in which they have always been cast: Lilith or Eve? In the Christian book of Genesis in the bible, it is said that the first two humans in existence were Adam and Eve. However, in Judaism, it is told that Adam had a wife before Eve. This woman was made at the same moment and with the same clay as Adam, making her his creational equal. This is compared to Eve who—according to Genesis—was created from the rib of Adam and biologically predetermined to be his subservient. Adam’s first wife was named Lilith. Lilith was headstrong, independent, and supposedly sexually wanton, and ultimately, she divorced Adam. In some conceptions of this string of stories, she goes on to become Satan’s wife or mistress. A pagan character, Lilith is often considered the end-all-be-all worst incarnation of femininity—even more vilified than Eve herself after she succumbed to sin and ate the Forbidden Fruit. In Sula, Toni Morrison uses the dichotomy of the choices in of motherhood and sexuality in the lives and upbringings of Nel and Sula to illustrate the binary gender roles at play in black communities in the setting of the novel.
The community that Nel and Sula are raised in while living in Bottom places restrictive expectations on them as they pertain to expectations surrounding marriage and submission to men. Both girls are brought up by mothers who represent the different sides of this coin. Hannah, Sula’s mother is routinely seen in a bad light in the community and cast as an adulteress. In the novel, she definitely holds a negative place in the community. It was said that, “Hannah exasperated the women in the town–the “good” women, who said, “One thing I can’t stand is a nasty woman” the whores, who were hard put to find trade among black men anyway and who resented Hannah’s generosity,” (Morrison, pg 46). Sula grew up observing the way that her mother was regarded in the community in this negative light. Hannah was socially branded as this promiscuous woman, and while she did not represent a grand threat to the community as a leech of financial resources, her station in life was very much defined by her decisions surrounding her sexuality. Sula was taught by her mother to enjoy sex as a pleasurable act, and as her father left the family, Sula saw that one could be sustained without a husband or father in the picture. She was not brought up in a household with an emphasis on the male presence as an enhancer.
Even further, Hannah approached her role as a mother with such indifference that it laid the groundwork for the way that Sula would feel repelled by motherhood. In a conversation with Sula’s grandmother, Eva, Hannah says of her feelings for Sula, “You love her, like I love Sula. I just don’t like her. That’s the difference,” (Morrison, pg 59). This attitude of her mother’s seeped into the way that Sula was brought up in her home as well as the way she was conditioned to view her family. It is clear that her mother felt somewhat forced into motherhood, and every lesson she taught Sula about sexuality and relationships came with an underlying encouragement to put yourself above all others.
Nel—on the other hand—received a very different kind of upbringing that would go on to inform her life choices. Nel’s mother, Helene, took to motherhood and marital life like a fish to water, and this taught Nel to do the same. As described in the novel, “Helene Wright was an impressive woman, at least in Medallion she was… A woman who won all social battles with presence and a conviction of the legitimacy of her authority,” (Morrison, pg 22). Nel’s mother was perceived in the community as an upstanding and pious woman. Her actions and words both directly and intrinsically encouraged Nel toward the pursuit of the same kind of life with the same values. Helene loved her daughter totally and completely. As it says in the book, “her daughter was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life. She rose grandly to the occasion of motherhood,” (Morrison, pg 22). Helene raised Nel to be the embodiment of what the community expected a woman to be in Bottom. These expectations would carry over into Nel’s adulthood, and despite the influence of Sula, Nel expresses her womanhood and motherhood in a much different way than Sula does. Helene knew the right things to say and behaved in the correct manner, and when compared to Hannah, Helene was rewarded for her values and actions by being put in the good graces of the community.
The differences in their upbringing led to Nel and Sula making opposite choices in their adult life that determined the way they would go on to be viewed in the community. Nel chose married life and motherhood, and Sula left Bottom for ten years in favor of finding a life outside of the model she deemed restrictive. When Sula does eventually return, she is confronted with the perceived failure on her part to find a husband and settle down. Her grandmother, Eva, confronts Sula upon her return by saying, “Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man,” (Morrison, pg 88). Eva’s perspective represents that of the community. The disdain and disapproval she feels for Sula’s actions and lack of conformity to social values reflect the feeling of the community.
The choices of their mothers are reflected in the social restrictions that govern Nel and Sula’s place in their communities. Just as their mothers were judged for their decisions and actions in regard to motherhood, Sula and Nel were held to the same standards. In her article, Lindsey Rock simplifies this comparison by stating, “Every ‘Good Mother’ lives striving to achieve ‘good’ mothering and most every ‘Other’ mother lives in a space where her parenting skills are other than ‘bad’. The binary logic that confines mothers to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is socially constructed and propagated in western culture to serve patriarchy and the state, dividing mothers and women” (Rock, pg 20). Simply put, Nel and Sula’s respective decisions in their lives. The binary that surrounds the definition of a good woman in Bottom kept the two in a constant state of moral deliberation. Sula chose to chase her independence and her desires, and Nel chose to be a wife and a mother.
The expectations that weighed on Nel and Sula throughout their adolescence and into adulthood were gender-specific. That is to say that the men in the story were not held to the same standards when it came to the pursuit of desire and parenthood. Sula’s father was absent after from her life after his death (Morrison, pg 44). Nel’s father was also largely gone on business as she grew up, leaving all the responsibility for parenting bequeathed to Helene (Morrison, pg 21). These absences were never seen as shortcomings on the part of the father, but rather, it was expected that their wives pick up the slack when it came to the child-rearing. The expectations of ‘real’ women being good and upstanding mothers create a more precarious place for Nel and Sula to exist in the novel. They have very few options, and it becomes easy for them to be painted in a negative light in the community.
The options for Nel and Sula to live full and respected lives in their community are restricted by their decisions surrounding motherhood
- Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.
- O’Reilly, Andrea. “Toni Morrison’s Theory of Motherhood as a Site of Power and
- Motherwork as Concerned with the Empowerment of a Child.” Toni Morrison and
- Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart, SUNY Press, 2004, pp. 1-20.
- Rock, Lindsey. “The ‘Good Mother’ vs. the ‘Other’ Mother: The Girl-Mom.”
- Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 20-28.
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