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In Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” the main character’s isolation, triggered by her masculine behavior and unique self-identity, brings to light the need for the Black community living in the Bottom1 to have “bad” to justify their “good.” Through purposefully brandishing Sula’s character as a self-made social pariah, Morrison suggests that madness and evil are necessary for the Black community; by immersing yourself with the “bad” that people assume about a person, one can find peace in their individuality. Furthermore, being the outsider in a biased society makes space for the “good” that people long for and connects people in a way that can survive even the inescapable fate of death. The distinct separation between “good” and “bad” in “Sula” emphasizes the tensions that exist in a racially biased America, as well as the devastating effects for the Black community and the individual characters themselves.
While other women in the Bottom strived to achieve the maternal expectations of femininity passed down from generation to generation, Sula had different plans. Her masculine sexuality robs men and women of their sense of superiority when she “takes” the community’s husbands for her pleasure. According to the text, she was “trying them out and discarding them without any excuse the men could swallow. So the women, to justify their judgment, cherished their men more, soothed the pride and vanity Sula had bruised.” Therefore, Sula is seen as a curse to the Bottom’s Black community because she jeopardizes traditional gender roles, which, despite their problematic restrictions on feminine rights and independence, were widely accepted at the time. Her choices to disconnect from her roots and disdain for cultural symbols of stability, such as motherhood and marriage, come from stolen male privileges. Even so, the rebellious abandonment of her sex becomes the glue that, ironically, keeps marital relationships in the Bottom intact and connects her to the positive growth of her community. In this, we can grasp that evil behavior can foster lasting bonds in communities.
Though her masculine identity brings her isolation from her hometown’s community, it is also the source of her creativity and need for self-authority. Sula is connected to the tradition of female monsters who usurp male power in the act of defining — that is, “authoring” — themselves.
A quote from Cedric Gayle Bryant’s “The orderliness of disorder: Madness and evil in Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” says “Like the Black girl in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem ‘A Song in the Front Yard,’ Sula’s rebellious song could be, ‘I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life / I want a peek at the back / Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows / A girl gets sick of a rose.’”
The Black rose-shaped birthmark above Sula’s eye serves as an intriguing connection between Brooks and Morrison. The symbol of the rose can equate to both beauty and mystery for Sula; the rose destroys the line between the known and the unknown for the adventurous girl in Brooks’ poem.
It is also a symbol of the undiscovered feminine self, an unexplored territory that can only be reached by “stepping outside the gender-determined physical and metaphorical ‘frames’ that stifle female self-expression—fences, gates, and front yards,” writes Bryant.
Sula’s birthmark, combined with the self-efficiency and independence she gains from being exiled, sheds new light on her mysterious and creative side. If Sula had “paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous,” explains Morrison. This further establishes the benefits of being exiled from your home by clearly displaying the freedom that lies behind self-sufficiency.
Sula’s sense of otherness is vividly portrayed in the way she not only ostracizes herself willingly from her community but also in the confidence she has when it comes to her role in the Bottom and its importance. In a quote from Maggie Galehouse’s “‘New World Woman’: Toni Morrison’s Sula,” the author details that Sula’s birthmark also heightens her ego and “invokes the supernatural, exposing, in the second half of the novel, the irrational influence Sula claims over her community and the formal limitations that an otherwise realistic narrative imposes upon Sula’s character.” Though some of it was vulgar, her final message to Nel on her deathbed acknowledges her role as a symbol for the changes that foreshadow the community’s demise at the novel’s conclusion. Galehouse writes:
Oh, they’ll love me all right. It will take time, but they’ll love me…After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the Black men [expletive] all the white ones: when all the white women kiss all the Black ones; when the guards have raped all the Jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mothers trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchlt; after all the dogs have [expletive] all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs . . . then there’ll be a little love left over for me. And I know just what it will feel like.
Sula’s point is that her presence — her unconventional sexuality — ironically benefited the community in ways that it will only understand after far more threatening changes have occurred. In this way, Sula foreshadows the community’s death, which the authorial narrator describes as “a falling away, a dislocation” that arises “hard on the heels” of Sula’s death.
Though she had no physical outlet, Sula is her artwork because her “art” is the power of self-creation; therefore, the “danger” she poses to the community is the power to engender chaos by changing the terms by which the community defines itself. In the end, the Black community in this novel is most afraid of change. Through being exiled from her community for being evil, Sula’s evident madness become a vital check and balance, routinely measuring and re-stabilizing the community like a moral compass. In “Sula,” the Black community’s survival is predicated on the presence of evil, which forces the community (and more so, the pariahs of the community) to reexamine its ideals constantly.
Review by Ogechi Onyewuchi
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
1Editor’s note: Bottom is a predominately Black community in Ohio. It is situated in the hills above the fictional town, Medallion, a whiter and wealthier town. The Bottom was given to a freedman by his former master.
Papers on Language & Literature: “`New World Woman’: Toni Morrison’s Sula,” by Galehouse, Maggie; Chicago Public Library; vol. 35, no. 4, Fall 1999, p. 339.
Black American Literature Forum: “The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison’s Sula,” by Bryant, Cedric Gael; Chicago Public Library; vol. 24, no. 4, Winter 1990, p. 731.
Vintage International: “Sula”; by Morrison, Toni; First Edition; June 2004
eNotes: Where is the “Bottom”? How was the neighborhood established, and how is the name symbolic? By Beth Sullivan
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