for them and the ways in which she shows her protection of them are not always easy to understand. Eva puts herself in a position of “God” after her son Plum returns from the World War I as a drug addict. Plum finds it difficult to lead normal life after the war and takes heroin to escape his memories. As Eva cannot watch him killing himself, she decides to end his life and burns him so that “he could die like a man not all scrunched up inside my womb, but like a man” (Morrison 72). Eva justifies her action by stating that she felt as if Plum tried to climb back to her womb and that he acts like a baby, not like a grown man. When Plum was a child, Eva struggled to keep him alive as he had problems with his bowel movement and Eva remembers how much energy it cost her
to keep him alive and when she sees him not appreciating his own life, the life she gave him, she decides to end it.
Hannah feels that she and her siblings did not receive enough love from their mother when they were children and therefore, she comes to Eva and asks her whether she loved them: “Mamma, did you ever love us?” (Morrison 67). This question makes Eva furious: “You settin’ here with your healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes if I hadn’t” (Morrison 68). Both Eva and Hannah have different views of what love is. Hannah thinks that a mother should show more affection to her children if she loves them: “I know that you fed us and all I was talkin’’bout something else. Like. Like. Playin’ with us. Did you ever, you know, play with us?” (68). What Hannah does not understand is that Eva had no time to play with her children when they were small because Eva went through a hard time just to make ends meet and to secure the fundamental needs for her children. Nevertheless, Hannah’s feelings of insecurity about her mother’s love subsequently project into her relationship with Sula and neither Hannah nor Sula possess the sense of unique self-worth; Hannah is looking for her self-worth in her relationships with men and Sula finds it in her relationship with Nel. The mother/daughter relationships portrayed in Sula suggest that the historical experience of African American women has had a great impact on parental relationships. Mothers in the novel fail to provide their daughters with the sense of unique self-worth because they are still struggling with their own memories of childhood. Motherhood does not represent a fulfilling relationship in the novel and does not provide protection or affection.
4. Sula’s and Nel’s Friendship in Adolescent Years The friendship which Sula and Nel share in their childhood is highly beneficial for both girls. According to the narrator of Sula, Sula’s meeting with Nel is “fortunate” because the two girls find a soul mate in one another. Both of them are “daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers” (Morrison 52). Sula and Nel lack the essential affection in their relationships with their mothers and this affection cannot be found in the relationship with Sula’s and Nel’s fathers either because Sula’s father is dead and Nel’s father works at sea and is absent from home most of the time.
Beaulieu suggests that Sula’s and Nel’s “friendship during their adolescent years can also be explained as an attempt to ‘mother’ one another” (116). As both girls do not find the support they need in their relationship with their mothers, Sula and Nel support each other and understand what the other one needs. The fact that neither of the girls can look for support in their families elevates the significance of their bond. As Patricia Hill Collins suggests: “African-American women as sisters and friends affirm one another’s humanity, specialness, and right to exist” (97). Thanks to Sula, Nel is able to escape from herstrict parents and in return, Nel represents a center for Sula, a center which Sula does not find in her family because she feels unloved. With Sula, Nel is free to express herself, which is something she cannot do when she is at home because there she must be the obedient girl. Sula and Nel never quarrel or compete and have “difficulty to distinguish one’s thoughts from the other’s” (Morrison 83). Sula’s and Nel’s friendship is invaluable because the two meet at the time when they need each other the most and according to Abel, this friendship “presents an ideal of female friendship dependent not on love, obligation, or compassion, but on an almost impossible conjunction of sameness and autonomy, attainable only with another version of oneself” (429). This is an important aspect of Sula’s and Nel’s friendship-- they are together because they want to, not because they have to; it is also this aspect of Sula and Nel’s relationship which is different from their relationships with their mothers.
Sula and Nel meet at the time in their life when they both start to realize that their position in the society is disadvantaged “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” (Morrison 52). The two girls make friends because they have a lot in common- they grew up in the same neighborhood and community, they are the same age, same race and gender and therefore, they understand each other’s problems and needs. What Sula and Nel experience in each others’ company is “the intimacy they were looking for” and the two young girls create this strong bond with each other because their friendship helps them overcome the difficulties they face both in their families and in their community (52).
The feelings the girls have about their place in their community and the society may be described as what Lucille Fultz calls “the handicap of being born black” which results from the “reality of being alternately attacked, ignored, then singled out for some cruel and undeserved punishment” (47). Some of the undeserved punishments Sula and Nel are facing are, for example, the attacks from a group of Irish boys who are harassing African American school children in Medallion. These attacks make the girls aware of their uneasy position in the society. According to Collins, African American mothers are the ones who should help their daughters overcome the “experience of being singled out” (127). But Sula and Nel need to learn how to protect themselves on their owns.
Sula and Nel are scared of the Irish boys and try to avoid them on their way from school until one day when Sula and Nel decide to take the shorter route home although they are aware of the fact that they might meet the harassing boys, which they eventually do. Sula takes the lead in this scene and protects herself and her friend Nel, who is scared and does not know how to react. Sula pulls out her grandmother’s knife and slashes off the tip of her finger to scare the boys away, which she does (Morrison 53-5).
In return, Nel provides Sula with protection after Sula overhears her mother Hannah stating that she does not like Sula. It is Nel’s company which gives Sula her comfort back after hearing her mother’s statement: “Nel’s call floated up and into
the window, pulling her [Sula] away from dark thoughts back into the bright, hot day” (Morrison 57). As Gillespie and Kubitschek claim: “in their childhood friendship, Nel’s and Sula’s antithetical strengths and weaknesses assure them mutual dependency and thus equality of participation” (41). In their friendship bond, there is no leader and no follower, the two girls are completely equal and complement one another.
The fact that Sula and Nel come from completely different households helps them in their complementation. Abel sums up the dynamic of the girls’ friendship:
“the girls quickly share their strengths and equalize their friendship; Sula encourages Nel’s independence and Nel enables Sula to experience consistency” (427). Nel likes to escape to the house where the Peace family live because the house is always full of people and noise and where Sula’s mother “Hannah, never scolded or gave directions” like Nel’s mother did (Morrison 29). Sula, on the other hand, prefers to stay in the house where Nel lives because it is calm and ordered and Sula needs at least some order in her life.
The basic difference between Sula’s and Nel’s strengths and weaknesses and between their naturesmay be observed in the girls’ reactions after they accidentally kill Chicken Little, a small boy from their neighborhood. Sula plays with the boy and swings him, but his hands slip from hers and Chicken falls into water; he sinks and does not come up. While Sula cries, Nel remains calm and is the first one to speak in the scene (Morrison 59-63). Sula does not know how to behave in stressful situations but for Nel, it is natural to stay calm and to deal with the situation. Nel is more reasonable than Sula because Nel’s mother has developed the need for order and calmness in her whereas Sula has faced with her mother’s neglect and a constant chaos in their household.
Even in Sula’s and Nel’s adolescent years it is easy to observe the different ways in which they perceive life; but again, their differences between them enable
the girls to get over their unsatisfactory family relationships, to overcome the oppression from a group of white boys in their neighborhood and to shape their identities. Together, Sula and Nel are strong because “each one lacked something that the other one had” (Toni Morrison qtd. in Stepto 13). However, after Nel meets her future husband Jude and after she dedicates all her time and energy to him, the women lose their special bond.
Sula’s and Nel’s Estrangement Although Sula and Nel were inseparable in their adolescent years, the differences in their natures become prominent and as years go by and they lose touch with one another. After Nel gets married, Sula leaves her hometown because there is nothing keeping her in the Bottom anymore as Nel devotes her life to her husband and children and puts Sula on the sidetrack, which is a natural course of events in Toni Morrison’s view: “friendship between women is not a suitable topic for a book. Hamlet can have a friend, and Achilles can have one, but women don’t, because the world knows that women don’t choose each other’s acquaintanceship. They choose men first, then women as second choice” (qtd. in Mc Kay 428). What Toni Morrison is pointing out with this quote is that being a wife is viewed as the traditional mainstream gender role of a woman. This notion is embedded in the society and it is believed that every woman’s desire should be towards creating a new life and building a family.
Sula stands in opposition to the ideal of a woman because her desire is not towards getting married or having children, friendship with Nel is Sula’s first choice. Nevertheless, when Sula loses Nel to a man, she is willing to find a new life for herself away from her family and community. But not finding what she had been looking for, she comes back to Medallion ten years later. Sula quickly recognizes how much has changed between her and Nel during herabsence. Sula is disappointed to find Nel living the same life as everyone else does; Sula cannot accept the fact that her friend is now as boring as all the other women in the town and that Nel “had given herself over to them” (Morrison 120).
Nel’s promise, which she makes as a child, to become herself is short-lived because it loses its weight the very moment Nel agrees to marry Jude Green. He is
the same type of man as Nel’s father Wiley Wright in the sense that both men are looking for an economic success and are not particularly interested in family life. Marrying Jude, Nel does exactly the same thing her mother wished for all along; however, Nel is not fully to be blamed for following her mother’s footsteps because Nel suffers from a low self-esteem which her mother developed in her by her constant critical remarks about Nel’s appearance.
Jude provides Nel with at least some self-esteem in the beginning of their relationship and Nel is amazed by the way in which Jude sees her: “She didn’t even know she had a neck until Jude remarked on it, or that her smile was anything but
the spreading of her lips until he saw it as a small miracle” (Morrison 84). Jude becomes Nel’s priority, she even puts him above her best friend Sula because with Jude, Nel experiences “this new feeling of being needed by someone” and the feeling becomes “greater than her friendship” to Nel (Morrison 84). Nel spent most of her adolescent years around Sula and Jude’s attention is flattering to her because she thought that he “saw her singly” and that he liked her only for who she is. Nevertheless, Nel is wrong
in her assumption that Jude saw her this way (84). When Sula returns to Medallion and her and Nel do not find the mutual understanding they had when they were girls, Sula stops caring about their friendship and cares only about her own good. According to Christian: “Sula wants everything or nothing and therefore flies in the face of compromising traditions that keep this community intact” (Black Feminist Criticism 27). Nel, on the other hand, still lives under the assumption that she and Sula are friends. Nel does not question their friendship and thinks that the fact that she has a husband and family does not change anything about her and Sula’s friendship. Nel is not able to see how much has changed, she does not question her life in the way Sula does. Nel’s family life makes her happy, or at least she thinks it does. But the fact that Nel does not question anything and surrenders to the way things are make it impossible for her to understand what happened with her and Sula. As Morrison claims: “living totally by the law and surrendering completely to it without questioning anything sometimes makes it impossible to know anything about yourself” (qtd. in Stepto 14). Nel does not understand that with her marriage, she lost a part of herself and therefore, she lost her friendship with Sula. Friendship bond has different dynamics than sexual or parental relationships and according to Abel: “Because it is a freely chosen expression of self, friendship is a relationship in Sula, implicitly contrasted to both parental and sexual bonds.” Nel’s marriage to Jude leads to the “consequent reduction of both [Nel’s and Jude’s] personalities,” whereas in Nel’s friendship with Sula, their personalities flourished (428).
Nel accepts, along with other female characters in the novel, the men’s need to dominate and puts herself in the subordinate position because as bell hooks claims:
“the fear of being alone, or of being unloved [which] had caused women of all races to passively accept sexism and sexist oppression” (184). Even though there is no successful and fulfilling marriage portrayed in the novel and most of the men who live in the Bottom consequently leave their families or lovers, all women, except for Sula, share the opinion that it is better for a woman to be married than to be single and that “no woman got no business to be floating around without no man” (Morrison 92).
The male characters in the novel are facing the threats of emasculation which derive from their historical experience in the American society: “African American men have historically been blocked from [ . . .] the traditional African and traditional American mainstream gender roles of provider and protector” (Lawrence-Webb, Littlefield, and Okundaye 629). Most of the male characters are willing to prove their manhood by obtaining suitable working positions and by the assertion of dominance over the community’s women.
Nel’s husband Jude is one of those men who are in need to prove something.
As Mayberry points out: “Jude Greene [is] the black male resentful yet envious of white male power” (526). What Jude is looking for in the marriage is “someone to care about his hurt, to care very deeply” (Morrison 82). He wants to be a man and a man needs a wife; in his marriage to Nel, Jude is willing to create “one Jude” and he chooses Nel because she is kind and is willing to obey (83). According to Mayberry: “he [Jude] turns to marriage with a pliant and nurturing Nel as a means of proving his manhood” (526). In addition, Patricia Hill Collins claims that: “Some African-Americans feel they cannot be men unless they dominate a Black woman” and Jude Green falls into this category
of men (186). Jude does not feel “manly” enough due to the fact that “he was a waiter hanging around a kitchen like a woman” (Morrison 83). Jude wants to be able to feel like a man and he thinks that a wife and a job on the construction of a road, which is more suitable job for a man from Jude’s point of view, would help him feel that way (Morrison 82-83). Nonetheless, African American men are inhibited from getting jobs
at the construction of the road and Jude becomes even more frustrated and blames his misfortunes on the dominant society.
Jude’s frustrations about his position in the society project into his relationship with his wife Nel and Jude breaks their marriage when he engages in a sexual relationship with Nel’s friend Sula. Mayberry claims that one of the main reasons why Jude chooses to engage in a sexual act with Sula is that: “since he [Jude] cannot usurp white male power, he will conquer the masculine black female [. . .] his incomplete masculinity is attracted to the masculine in Sula” (525). Jude does not find Sula particularly attractive but he likes the way she thinks and talks: “she stirred a man’s mind maybe, but not his body” (Morrison 104). But on the other hand, the fact that she is different from all the other women in the Bottom becomes attractive for him. Nevertheless, Jude’s attempts to prove his manhood lead to his departure from his wife and family. Jude’s departure creates a confusion in the life of his wife Nel. After Jude leaves Nel, she is not able to understand how he could leave her when he knew that she would do anything for him. Nel is left alone and knows that there is no new relationship waiting for her and that it will be only her and her children: “She spent a little time trying to make marry again, but nobody wanted to take her on with three children” (Morrison 165). Furthermore, Nel no longer has time to maintain relationships with men as she needs to work to provide for her children. When men leave their families, they create more confusion and frustration than they realize. Furthermore, Jude failed to provide Nel with his protection and failed to fulfill the expectations Nel had about their marriage.
Nevertheless, Nel is not the only character in the novel who suffers after her husband’s leaving. Sula’s grandmother Eva is a single parent as well, her husband Boy Boy left her and their three children to find a job and a better life for himself. After Boy Boy’s departure, Eva goes to great lengths to provide for her family. She mutilates herself by sticking her leg under a train to collect money from insurance companies so that she can grant a place to live for her children. Even though her sacrifice is enormous, Eva knows that she is left with no other possibility because there are no other opportunities of obtaining money; therefore, she literally sacrifices a part of her own body for her children to survive. Eva’s sacrifice is not appreciated by her former husband Boy Boy who avoids to talk about Eva’s missing leg or about their children when he comes for a visit several years later. Boy Boy has established a completely new life for himself where Eva and their children do not belong. After Eva realizes this, she feels hatred towards Boy Boy. However, the hatred makes her less accessible to her family and Eva starts to spend most of the time in her own bedroom, hating Boy Boy (Morrison 35-37). What men also create with their departure is despair. Women in Sula find it difficult to deal with their men’s absence; this absence affects the women’s lives and also the lives of the people around them negatively- Eva’s hatred of Boy Boy projects into her relationship with her children and Nel’s despair makes her put all the blame on Sula and leaves her desperate and alone with her children.
Gillespie and Kubitschek suggest that the difference between women’s and men’s behavior in Sula is largely shaped by their different upbringing: “men [are] raised to be autonomous, contained selves,” whereas women “are raised to be selves-in-community” (22). Men are taught to be independent and to fulfill their own dreams while women are taught to care about other members of the community and thus it happens that “the men roam, the women remain, and the children react” (Mayberry 524). African American women stand in a more difficult position than African American men in the American society which is supported by the fact that: “while black men married white women in ever-increasing numbers, large numbers of white men did not marry black women. While changes in public attitudes toward black men had occurred, there had not been any change in negative images of black women” (hooks 63). African American women continue to be viewed as domineering and strong, while African American men start to gain some respect from the dominant society. Nevertheless, to pursue their dreams of being accepted by the dominant society, men leave their community and their families behind and try to move on with their lives but the community they leave cannot function properly without them and women who remain are left with no male protection. Women need to remain strong for their children and have to sacrifice a lot to make ends meet. Consequently, their children suffer from fathers’ absence and from the lack of time and affection they receive from their mothers whose hard work is not appreciated by men and therefore, women’s self-esteem suffers a damage too. Sulaunderstands the different dynamics between male/female relationships and women’s friendship because her experience both inside and outside Medallion taught her that men “shared nothing but worry, gave nothing but money. She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be- for a woman” (Morrison 121). Women’s friendship has always been crucial for Sula and when she loses the strong bond she had with Nel, she also loses her center because she loses the only person to whom she could trust, who protected her and who understood her. Without Nel, who gave Sula her consistency, Sula has “only her own mood and whim” and her actions become unpredictable: “and like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous” (121).