Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
Interpersonal Relationships in Toni Morrison's Sula
Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Mgr. Martina Horáková, Ph. D.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor Mgr. Martina Horáková, Ph.D.
for her patient guidance, valuable advise, and the kind support
she provided me with during the writing of this thesis.
Table of Contents
2. Living in the Bottom...............................................................................8
3. Dysfunctional Mother/Daughter Relationships......................................12
4. Sula's and Nel's Friendship in Adolescent Years....................................19
5. Sula's and Nel's Estrangment..................................................................23
Résumé in Czech.........................................................................................44
The purpose of this thesis is to analyze interpersonal relationships in Toni Morrison’s second novel Sula (1983). I especially focus on the significance of women’s bonding between two female protagonists, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, from its onset
in the girls’ childhood until its end in their adulthood. The analysis will explore the reasons for Sula’s and Nel’s estrangement and for the consequent termination of their friendship.
Toni Morrison is one of the most remarkable African American authors and her novels remind readers that there is a past to remember. African American literature, which has its origins in the 18th century, has helped African Americans to find their voice in a country where laws were set against them. The position of African Americans in the dominant society of the United States of America has not been an easy one. African Americans needed to find a new identity in the New World and were considered an underclass for a long time. In literature, African American writers have been telling the story of their complex experience and history. The mission to find their own voice was even more difficult for African American women who became targets of numerous insults, both during and after slavery, and were forced to be silent and to stand in
the background for a long time. Many stereotypes existed about African American women, about their behavior, family organization, or their abilities. These stereotypes undermined African American women’s position in the mainstream society and portrayed African American women as non-human beings. African American women writers helped with the reversal of these stereotypes and African American women have become to be seen as “living human being[s] with [their] own desires and needs” (Christian, Black Feminist Criticism 16). In her novels, Toni Morrison presents
the complex stories of African American experience, and especially African American women’s experience and their search for identity in the American mainstream society.
In the first chapter of this thesis, which is entitled “Living in the Bottom,” I provide a general background concerning the fictional community of the Botom. I also provide-outline..? a short cultural-historical background which outlines the struggles
of African Americans who needed to improve their situation in the American mainstream society. This section is supported by the works of leading African American female critics, such as bell hooks, Barbara Christian, or Patricia Hill Collins. In addition, this chapter discusses the problems of emasculation of African American men and
the lack of protection African American women received. These concepts are compared to the situation of the African American community in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (1973). The following chapter deals with the main protagonists’ complicated relationships with their mothers and with the problems the African American mothers and their daughters face and need to deal with. African American children, and especially daughters, need their mothers’ affection and protection. I argue that the main female characters in the novel lack support and affection from their mothers which lowers their self-esteem and therefore, the two main female characters look for the support in their friendship. The next chapter concentrates on Sula’s and Nel’s friendship in their adolescent years and on the benefits which spring from their mutual bond.
A close analysis proves that Sula and Nel provide each other with the necessary protection they miss in their relationships with their mothers, and that their friendship is a crucial bond for them. The subsequent chapter moves a little further into the girls’ adulthood and concentrates on the differences between Sula and Nel. The main reasons for the women’s estrangement are explained in this chapter. Sula and Nel choose different life paths-- Nel chooses to dedicate her life to a husband and children, which is the acceptable role for an African American woman in the patriarchal society, whereas Sula chooses to be independent of men and becomes an outcast in her community. Sula’s and Nel’s different views of life separate the two women from one another. Nevertheless, neither Sula nor Nel are contented with their lives and what they are missing is their friendship bond which would help them fight the patriarchal oppression if it did not fall apart. This chapter also deals with the Bottom community’s absence
of male characters and describes the dynamics of male/female relationships which are presented in the novel. The African American men’s need to prove their manhood and their need to gain respect from the mainstream society results in the break-ups
of African American families. I argue that relationships with men and the power
of patriarchy pose the main threat to Sula’s and Nel’s friendship.
2. Living in the Bottom
Toni Morrison’s second novel Sula (1973) follows the lives of two African American childhood friends- Sula Peace and Nel Wright. They are growing up in a place called the Bottom, which is a hilly part of the town of Medallion where the African American community lives. Despite being situated up in the hills, it is called the Bottom and it started to be called this way as a “nigger joke . . . The kind white folks tell . . . ” (Morrison 4). A white farmer once promised freedom and a piece of land to his slave; nevertheless, the farmer was not willing to give fertile land to the slave, therefore, he tricked the slave into thinking that the richest and most fertile land lies in the hills.
The slave believed him and took the land from him, he even let himself believe that the reason for calling the place the Bottom is that when God looks down from heaven, the Bottom is the the first place he sees (Morrison 5). The name which Morrison chose
for this part of the town indicates that the African American inhabitants of the Bottom were dealing with racial oppression and moreover, they still are dealing with racial oppression in 1919, where the novel begins. And despite the fact that the African American inhabitants of Medallion are now freed from slavery, they are still denied equal job opportunities.
Male protagonist are mostly absent in the Bottom community because they are trying to gain economic success and to win their manhood back in the patriarchal society of the United States. The Bottom’s men are struggling with their position in the society and are on their mission to prove the dominant society wrong about their view
of African American men. It is important to note that “African American men have historically been blocked from enacting both the traditional African and traditional American mainstream gender roles of provider and protector” (Lawrence-Webb, Littlefield, and Okundaye 628). African American men were emasculated during slavery and with the emasculation, they lost their power to protect their women. When an African American woman was raped by her owner, for example, African American men did not have the power to intervene. As hooks points out in her book Ain’t I a Woman: “Most black male slaves stood quietly by as white masters sexually assaulted and brutalized black women and were not compelled to act as protectors. Their first instincts were toward self-preservation” (35). With little or no protection from African American men, African American women needed to be independent of men which was
“an independence imposed rather than desired” (Christian, Black Feminist Criticism 7). From their experience, African American women learned to be self-reliant, which was a character trait that stood in opposition to the ideal of femininity of the time. As a consequence, African American women began to “be characterized as tough, domineering, and strong” (hooks 83). Nevertheless, the racist practices changed the view of African American women who began to be seen as “masculinized sub-human creatures” by the American mainstream society (hooks 71).
Barbara Christian asserts that “in both Anglo- and Afro-American literature [African American women] have been assigned stereotype roles” (Black Feminist Criticism 2). One of the most prominent stereotypical images of African American women became the “mammy figure” who “is in direct contrast to the ideal white woman [. . . ] and her identity derived mainly from a nurturing service” (Christian 2). Another images were developed, which portrayed African American mothers as controlling and “bad,” such as “the Black matriarch” or “the welfare mother,” who does not work, is
a single parent and who “passes her bad values to her offspring” (Collins 77). These controlling images of African American mothers were “designed to oppress” both African American women and men (Collins 118). Southern mainstream literature focused on the portrayal of African American women as dominant and the “mammy” stereotypes, which portrayed the African American mothers as the heads of their families only supported the emasculation of African American men who were often criticized for not being able to control their women and to provide for, and take care
of, their families.
African American women were in a difficult position because they had to cope with both racism and sexism in the patriarchal society of the United States. This is confirmed by bell hooks who argues that: “Sexism and racism intensified and magnified the sufferings and oppressions of black women” (22). Nevertheless, for many African American women, motherhood presents “a symbol of power” and is “an empowering experience” (Collins 132-7). Motherhood is also seen as “the standard of womanhood” (Christian, Black Feminist Criticism 76). And according to this standard, women should live their lives to sacrifice for others. Toni Morrison sees an African American woman “as a parent [ . . . ] a sort of umbrella figure, a culture-bearer in that community with not just her children but all children” (qtd. in Stepto 27).
However, in Sula, Toni Morrison creates a strong female character who “not only refuses the role [the standard role assigned for a woman], she steps outside the caste
of woman, beyond any class or definition [and] insists on making herself” (Christian, Black Feminist Criticism 76). Sula will not surrender to the assigned role and she counts on her friendship bond with Nel because this bond allows both Nel and Sula to fight against oppression; but the two women separate in their adulthood because of the different roles they take up in their community. However, neither of them leads
a satisfactory life because the strong bond which they shared in their childhood is missing and cannot be replaced neither with marriage nor with motherhood. Barbara Christian argues that “African American women who internalize the dominant society’s definition of women are courting self-destruction” and that in Sula Toni Morrison “critique[s] motherhood as the black community’s primary definition of woman” (“Gloria Naylor’s Geography” 364-5). Sula depicts, among other things, the importance of female friendship because when men are absent and preoccupied with their own struggle to win their manhood back, women need to stick together and support each other in order to survive and in order to overcome the obstacles life brings them.
3. Dysfunctional Mother/Daughter Relationships
Due to the fact that “Black women have been denied male protection,”
the mother/daughter relationship becomes fundamental for African American women because mothers need to “teach their daughters skills that will ‘take them anywhere’” (Collins 126). According to Patricia Hill Collins, African American mothers try to provide protection for their daughters and try to teach their daughters to love themselves for who they truly are in order to survive in the patriarchal society: “African-American mothers try to protect their daughters from the dangers that lie ahead by offering them
a sense of their own unique self-worth” (Collins 127).
Nonetheless, this sense of protection and sense of unique self-worth are missing in mother/daughter relationships which are depicted in Sula. The absence of protection and support may be pointing to the historical experience of African Americans: “the historical experiences of African Americans have had some effects on how women, men, and children express tenderness, affection, protection, and support to each other” (Lawrence-Webb, Littlefield, and Okundaye 634). This novel illustrates how important the role of a mother is.
Nel Wright’s mother Helene is in some sense trying to protect her daughter but the ways in which she does so are not encouraging the development of Nel’s self-worth. Although being a mother is everything Helene has ever wished for, her relationship
with her daughter is complicated. Part of the problem might be the fact that Helene herself struggled in her relationship with her own mother since she has been ashamed of her mother’s occupation as a prostitute. Helene feels that her family is “somehow flawed” (Morrison 20). Helene finally escapes her Creole family, which she views as shameful, in her marriage to Willey Wright who brings her to the town Medallion.
The Wright family enjoys living their life following the town’s standards and Helene stands in complete opposition to her mother when she becomes highly conservative and religious. I would suggest that the name Morrison chooses for this family indicates that the (W)rights always do the “right” things.
When Helene’s daughter Nel is born, it is “more comfort and purpose than she [Helene] ever hoped to find in her life” (Morrison 18). Wiley is frequently absent because of his occupation of a seaman, but his absences are bearable for Helene and she does not miss her husband very much. Nel is the one who becomes Helene’s priority. Helene wants Nel to become a respectable citizen of Medallion. She also wants her daughter to get married to a decent man one day. The mistake Helene makes is that she guards Nel’s every move and does not like to see any exposure of inappropriate behavior so that “any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by her mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground” (Morrison 18). Helene does not see anything wrong in her own behavior— what she is trying to do is to protect her daughter. Helene does not want Nel to stray from the community in any shameful way like Helene’s Creole family did. Consequently, what Helene does not realize is that Nel is missing her affection which is clearly visible after Helene and Nel return home
from their visit to Nel’s grandmother, whom Nel sees only once in her life, and when Nel cannot stop thinking about the way her grandmother embraced her: “Nel sat on the red-velvet sofa listening to her mother but remembering the smell and the tight, tight hug of the woman in yellow” (Morrison 28). Helene never showed this kind of affection to her daughter and this is why Nel cannot get the image of her grandmother’s hug out of her head.
Nel’s mother Helene is deeply interested in insuring her daughter’s well-being but as Beaulieu points out, Helene “is not particularly ‘maternal’ or nurturing” (116). The ways in which Helene shows her affection for her daughter are not exactly motherly in the sense that Helene critiques Nel’s appearance or does not allow her daughter to behave like a child. Helene fails to provide Nel with the sense of the unique self-worth when she makes her daughter pull her “broad flat nose” which Nel inherited from her father (Morrison 18). Helene is not fond of the shape of her daughter’s nose and she hopes that she will improve it by making Nel pull it; but when Helene constantly reminds her daughter that there is something wrong with her appearance, she does nothing to help increase her daughter’s self-worth: “Don’t just sit there, honey. You could be pulling your nose” (Morrison 28). Nel must constantly obey her mother’s rules and not much space is left for her own imagination or childish behavior and it is Helene’s obsession with order which represses Nel’s personality.
A few acts of Nel’s rebellion towards her mother are visible in the novel. When Helene and Nel go to visit Helene’s mother and her ill grandmother to New Orleans, Helene accidentally enters the white section of a train and a white conductor banishes her from there in an impolite way. Helene feels humiliated, apologizes for her oversight and smiles at the conductor “like a street pup” (Morrison 21). African American soldiers who sit by watch Helene with hatred in their faces and they are disgusted to see an African American woman smiling at the white man who has just insulted her. Nevertheless, the revelation that there exist people who do not worship her mother and are not under her control pleases Nel: “She [Nel] felt both pleased and ashamed to sense that these men, unlike her father, who worshiped his graceful, beautiful wife, were bubbling with a hatred for her mother” (Morrison 22). Nel is happy to discover her mother’s weakness and it is this discovery which leads Nel to a promise she makes
to herself. It is a promise that she would not become the person her mother wants her to be, she promises that she would find her own identity. Nel looks into a mirror and she whispers: “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me” (Morrison 28).
At this moment, Nel is determined to rebel against her mother and to find her own identity; Nel is also determined to discover life outside her mother’s control which she consequently does in her friendship with Sula.
There is yet another significance of the trip to New Orleans because Nel meets her grandmother there and as Morrison points out in her interview with Robert Stepto, Nel is attracted to Sula also because of Nel’s grandmother’s “questionable roots,” “which is what make[s] it possible for her [Nel] to have a very close friend who is so different from her, in the way she looks at life” (qtd. in Stepto 13). Nel is attracted to the difference which is there between her and Sula because Sula and her family members stand in a complete opposition to Nel’s mother in the way they behave and the way they lead their lives.
However, Sula Peace finds herself in a similar situation to Nel’s. Even though Sula lives in a household together with her mother, grandmother, her uncle and a few other people to whom Sula’s grandmother kindly provided shelter when they had nowhere else to live, Sula is also missing affection. None of Sula’s female family members provide Sula with the necessary protection or teach her how to love herself. Sula’s grandmother Eva is not particularly affectionate and likes to control the lives
of people around her and Sula’s mother Hannah enjoys attention from different men after her husband, and Sula’s father, died and she engages in many affairs with
“the husbands of her friends and neighbors” (Morrison 42). Hannah shows more affection for her male friends than she does for her own daughter; as Toni Morrison herself claims in her interview with Robert Stepto: “She [Hannah] would do things for her [Sula] but is not particularly interested in her” (qtd. in Stepto 16). Hannah is not very considerate towards Sula when she engages in sexual intercourse with men in the bedroom which Hannah and Sula share: “She [Hannah] liked the last place [her bedroom] least, not because Sula slept in the room but because her love mate’s tendency was always to fall asleep” (Morrison 43).
There is not much hope left that Sula’s and Hannah’s mother/daughter relationship could ever work after Sula overhears her mother stating that she does not like her: “I love Sula. I just don’t like her” (Morrison 57). This discovery is also crucial for the consequent development of Sula’s character: thinking that her family members do not care about her leads Sula to reject her family. According to Beaulieu, the revelation of Hannah’s feelings towards Sula and Sula’s rejection of her family members leave Sula without a center: “when women deny their mothers in Morrison’s novels, as they often do, the result is a loss of self or center” (116). When Sula does not find the sense of belonging in her relationships with her family members, she looks for it somewhere else and consequently, she finds her sense of belonging and her center in her friendship with Nel.
Nevertheless, the main problem of the Peace family is not the lack of love but the lack of communication. Hirsch points out that in Sula: “Mothers and daughters never quite succeed in addressing each other directly; mothers fail to communicate the stories they wish to tell” (419). If Sula did not overhear her mother’s conversation with women from their neighborhood about Hannah’s feelings, Sula would not know about them and moreover, Sula understands what she hears differently than her mother meant it and is not able to comprehend the meaning of her mother’s words because she is just a child. In Morrison’s point of view, there is a difference between loving and liking someone; this is because “sexual relationships, like parental ones, derive more from biological and cultural conditioning than free choice” (Abel 428). Hannah loves Sula just because Sula is her daughter but liking her is something else. This “pattern of missed communication” is also visible in Hannah’s relationship with her own mother Eva (Hirsch 419). Hannah missed affection from Eva too when she was a child and the two never quite succeed in addressing each other as well.
Hannah questions her mother’s love because she knows that her mother Eva is the one who killed Plum— the most beloved child of Eva’s. Eva certainly loves her children as well as her granddaughter but the ways in which she expresses her love