Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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Nevertheless, Even Sula learns how painful the absence of a man can be in her relationship with Ajax. Their relationships is supposed to be a physical one because Ajax is not looking for a woman to settle down with but the problem is that Sulas attitude towards the nature of their relationship changes. Sula wants to care about Ajax and she “behaves like Nel when she goes with Ajax” (Toni Morrison qtd. in Parker 65). According to Fultz, Sula “changes from a masculine female into a regular female

in her relationship with Ajax” (51). Sula experiences feelings which are completely new to her, she begins to worry about her looks and is nervous and keen to see Ajax. One night, Sula prepares a dinner for herself and Ajax and puts a green ribbon into her hair to look more attractive for him (Morrison 33). When Ajax notices the change in Sulas view of their relationship, he is scared and runs away: “He looked around and saw the gleaming kitchen and the table set for two and detected the scent of nest. Every hackle of his body rose. . .” (Morrison 133). Ajax is afraid of any commitment, he is interested in Sula but not in the way she would like him to be; he is not a family type and does not want to belong to a woman. Ajax loves nothing more than his personal freedom. Ajaxs mother has taught all her sons that they need to be kind to women and has given her sons an absolute freedom, “known in some quarters as neglect” (Morrison26). According to Mayberry, the male-female relationships in Sula suggest that “one partners desire to possess the other does more to destroy than stabilize male-female relationships” (524). Therefore, Ajax cannot stand the fact that Sula starts to act as

the rest of the women in the town and wants to have him all for herself. Ajax is disappointed by Sulas need to possess him and therefore, no more words need to be said and he leaves her because he had thought Sula was different from the communitys women. When troubles occur in a relationship, Ajax, just like BoyBoy or Jude, leaves the Bottom.
However, Ajax is the only man in the community who does not reject Sula.

The stories Ajax has heard about Sula make him curious because she reminds him of his own mother and Ajax adores his mother. Ajax has the feeling that “he had never met

an interesting woman in his life,” besides his mother, of course (Morrison 126). Ajax is the only person from her community who does not speak down to Sula, who listens to her and who views Sula as a brilliant woman although everyone else views her as different and therefore, evil. Morrison states that the reason why Ajax is the only person who is not afraid of Sula is that he, as “a man is whole himself [ . . . ] and is not proving something to somebody else- white men or other men and so on- then the threats of emasculation, the threats of castration, the threats of somebody taking over disappear. Ajax is strong enough” (qtd. in Stepto 18). Ajax is not very ambitious in the working field, he is unemployed and free-spirited and has no desire of obtaining a routine job. Ajaxs life is not tied down by the dominant society’s notions about masculinity and femininity and therefore, he is satisfied with his life. However, Ajaxs views of life and his view of his place in the society stand in an opposition to the views of other male characters in Sula who project their own frustrations upon their families.
Sula misses Ajax and his absence is unbearable for her, like for the rest of the women in the novel who experienced mens departure. After Ajax leaves, there is nothing left but emptiness (Morrison 134-136). Sula has the impression that there is nothing new waiting for her in the world and that she has already seen everything there is to see: “There arent any more new songs and I have sung all the ones there are” (Morrison 137). Sula’s life becomes discontented once she was willing to submit to

a man and she starts to spend more time at her house, just like her grandmother did when her husband Boy Boy left her, and, consequently, falls seriously ill.

Sula is viewed as an outcast in her community because she does not honor

the laws of the community. Another reason why people in the community view Sula as an outcast is that Sula does not lie to people and she sees things for what they really are: “social conversation was impossible for her because she could not lie. She could not say to those old acquaintances, Hey, girl, you looking good, when she saw how the years had dusted their bronze with ash” (Morrison 121). For Sula, women who have husbands “had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and stream kettles” (122). Moreover, in Sulas view, men distort womens nature, so that women become domestic creatures without their own thought or will.

Although male characters are mostly absent in the novel, which should strenghten the importance of women’s friendship and empowerment, it is men “who have the final say in the community” (Henderson 129). The fact that men are the ones whose judgment is important suggests that women of the Bottom value their mens opinion and that men in the Bottom have the power in decision making over African American women. The Bottoms women love the presence of men, which is visible in the observation made about the Peace women, Sulas grandmother and mother: “The Peace women simply loved maleness, for its own sake” (Morrison 41).
Men are the ones
who “gave her [Sula] the final label” and even accuse her

of the “unforgivable thing- the thing for which there was no understanding, no excuse [. . .] they said that Sula slept with white men” (Morrison 112). Although nobody knows whether this statement is true or not, everyone finds it easy to believe since Sula is, according to her neighbors, capable of anything. As Collins describes: “Black women who have willingly chosen white male friends and lovers have been severely chastized in African-American communities for selling out race, or they are accused of being like prostitutes” (191). African American men in Medallion insist that there is “nothing filthier” or lower than an African American woman uniting with white men (Morrison 113). The mens outrage results from their frustrations from white mens supremacy and from their fear of emasculation.
The
mens need to dominate and their threats of emasculation may also be observed in the different ways they talk about Sula and her mother Hannah. Both Sula and Hannah engage in sexual relationships with numerous men from the community and are sexually free but men never gossip about Sulas mother Hannah whereas Sula, in contrast, becomes a target of gossips and the “root of all evil” for the community for doing the same thing. However, the reason why men do not gossip about Hannah is that Hannah helped the men feel good about themselves and she “made no demands,” which was a perfect combination the men in Bottom (Morrison 43). Paradoxically, neither the wives of the men Hannah slept with gossiped about Hannah and the women felt in some way “pleased” that Hannah wanted their husbands, which again proves the “superiority” of the men’s opinions over womens-- when men state that Hannah is a good women, women in the community consider her to be a good woman as well. When men start to gossip about Sula, soon the whole community shares the same view of Sulas character. Men are not fond of Sula because she does not compliment the men in a way her mother used to: “Sula was trying them out and discarding them without any excuse the men could swallow” (Morrison 115). Sula’s independence presents a threat to the community’s men, as Lawrence-Webb, Littlefield, and Okundaye observe: “female autonomy and independence is viewed as a threat to male authority rather than as a complement to the male gender role” (630). Thereby, Sulas views of marriage and her attitude towards men Sula are not welcomed in the community.

Even Nel turns her back on Sula just like the rest of the Bottom community members after Sula engages in a sexual relationship with her husband Jude. Although Sula does not intend to steal Nels husband because “Sula never competed; she simply helped others define themselves,” Jude leaves Nel after the incident and Nel blames Sula for it (Morrison 95). Nel feels a deep sorrow after Judes departure and it is difficult for her to imagine her life without him because having a family is a natural thing for her. Nel cannot forgive Sula for her actions and their friendship bond is lost forever.
The major difference between Sula and Nel in their adulthood is
that: “Nel is

a law-abiding woman. Nel knows and believes in all the laws of the community. She believes in its values. Sula does not. She does not believe in any of those laws and breaks them all. Or ignores them” (Toni Morrison qtd. in Stepto 14). Nel accepts

the role which is expected from her as a woman and she likes the role. As Bryant suggests: “Nel is one of Morrisons nurturers, who, in counterbalancing the rootless men who are perpetually in flight, make community a reality” (Bryant 739). Whereas Sula, on the other hand, is not willing to accept this role. Toni Morrison mentions that: “She [Sula] is masculine character [. . .] She will do the kind of things that normally only men do, which is why she is so strange. She really behaves like a man” (Toni Morrison qtd. in Stepto 26-27). The most terrifying thing Sula can imagine is dying like an African American woman: “I know what every colored woman in this country is doing. Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, Im going down like of those red-woods. I sure did live in this world” (Morrison 143). Before Sula met Ajax and before she started to behave like a “typical woman,” her life was more fulfilling. Sula and Nel have a completely different view of what is good and what is bad. Sula lives under the assumption that she can do anything she pleases, she states that: “Being good to somebody is like being mean to somebody. Risky. You dont get nothing for it” (145). Sula has built up this notion during her life and she has the impression that it does not matter if you treat someone right or wrong, the result of your actions is unpredictable. Sula did not do anything bad to her mother; yet, she hears her saying that she does not like Sula; Sula has the feeling that she never really meant anything to anyone and therefore, it is not important for her to behave nicely all

the time; what she does is that she follows her own feelings. This behavior is incomprehensible for Nel who reminds Sula that she is a woman and an African American woman and that she cannot act like a man: “You cant be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you dont” (Morrison 142). For Nel, being an African American woman carries certain responsibilities. Nels priorities are taking care of her children, her husband, her household and also taking care of people around her and she thinks that all African American women should be concerned about their children, family and community

in the first place.
Nevertheless, despite Sulas and Nels different views of a womans role in

the society, it is apparent that they still need each others help and support. Sula still needs Nels help because she is not able to make the important decisions by herself: “When it came to matters of grave importance, she [Sula] behaved emotionally and irresponsibly and left it to others to straighten out” (Morrison 101). It is Nel who has always helped Sula make the right decision and even now Nel is the one who makes Sulas decisions for her when Sula places her grandmother into a nursing home. Nel makes sure that Sula will receive her grandmothers payments from the insurance company so that Sula can pay for her grandomothers stay at the nursing home. Nel still needs Sulas help too and she is happy to find out that Sula is coming back when she first hears about it: “It was like getting the use of an eye back, having a cataract removed [ . . .] Talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself” (Morrison 95). Nel misses Sula because no one has ever understood her the way Sula did, not even her husband Jude with whom Nel lives in a routine marriage. With Sula, Nel steps outside the routine and feels “new, soft and new” (Morrison 98). Nel does not have to pretend anything when she is around Sula and has “a rib-scraping laugh [ . . .] so different from the miscellaneous giggles and smiles she had learned to be content with these past few years” (98).
It takes many years for Nel to understand that she should have never given up her friendship with Sula and that she never should have let a man dominate her life. It is Sulas grandmother Eva who helps Nel understand the importance of her friendship with Sula. Eva evokes Nels memories of the past, the past Nel has almost forgotten, and asks Nel about the accidental murder of Chicken Little. Although Nel does not want to admit that it was her who killed the small boy and insists that it was Sula who killed him, Eva holds on to the fact that there is no difference between watching the action and performing it: “You. Sula. Whats the difference? You was there. You watched it, didnt you?” (Morrison 168). These words make Nel realize that she is to be blamed too and she wakes up to the fact that she really is no different from Sula which is something Eva has known for a long time. Nel also starts to remember that she did not feel bad about Chicken Littles death: “Why didnt it feel bad when it happened? How come it felt so good to see him fall?” (Morrison 170). Eva even calls Nel “Sula” because for her,

the two girls were always the same, they were two parts of one soul.

When Nel leaves Eva, she ponders over her conversation the two of them engaged in. Nel finds out the truth about herself and Sula. All that time, Nel has thought that what she has been doing and the way she has been thinking was right but now she knows that it is not the truth; it was not right to reject Sula and to judge her because Sula was her real soul-mate and now she is gone. All those years, Nel was trying to find her happiness in marriage and was trying to live as a respectable citizen, but those were not the things that could make her happy, those were only the things which were expected

of her. Nel finally finds the truth about herself and she cries: “I thought I was missing Jude [ . . . ] O Lord, Sula. We was girls together” (Morrison 174). Nel realizes that the friendship she and Sula shared was far more valuable than any other relationship in her life.
Toni Morrison creates the
failed friendship between Sula and Nel to show the impacts of the social expectations on womens bonding. African American womens familiarity with the mainstream gender roles effects African Americans private lives

in the sense that African Americans usually accept these views of a role of a woman. The lives of the women in the novel are largely shaped by men who consequently leave them to improve their own position in the society. Women need the presence of other women to deal with the troubles of their lives, they also need each other’s protection when the male protection is missing. Women’s bonds are crucial for women’s survival in the community but the female characters in Sula do not value their friendships with women. Neither Sula’s mother Hannah nor Nel’s mother Helene, for example, have cultivated women’s friendship, Hannah s “friendships with women were [ . . . ] seldom and short-lived” and Helenes friendships with women have always been restricted to sociable and polite conversations (Morrison 44). The mistake the female characters in Sula make is that they submit to the social conditioning of marriage and motherhood and they do not cultivate women’s bonds. If the women in Sula did not cling on what the society expects from them, they would lead more fulfilling lives.




7. Conclusion

The interpersonal relationships among the characters in Toni Morrisons second novel Sula suggest that African Americans still face many difficulties when trying to assimilate into the American mainstream society. Discrimination of African Americans is still strong which is clearly visible in the denial of job opportunities for African American inhabitants of Medallion. The Bottom’s men’s fears of emasculation and their attempts to win respect of the dominant society result in the men’s frustrations which they consequently project in their personal relationships with African American women and with their children. The major problem of the novel’s characters is their acceptance of the dominant society’s ideas of masculinity and femininity and their submission to the dominant society’s views of marriage and social roles. Most male characters in the novel are looking for a submissive woman who would help them feel better about their own masculinity. The only male character who is not interested in proving anything to the mainstream society and who does not accept the defined notions of masculinity and femininity is Ajax, who leads a more contented and satisfactory life than the rest of the men in the Bottom.
Women’s fears of being alone and unloved force them to accept sexist oppression and to submit to the menial position. Nel Wright represents the submissive female character. Her need to nurture and to be needed by someone force her to settle down. Nel is not questioning her position in the society and she surrenders to the role


of a wife and a mother and believes that these roles will make her life complete. However, the opposite becomes true because in her marriage with Jude, Nel must constantly comply to her husband’s demands and she only lives to make him happy and to take care of their children. Jude is one of the community’s men who is willing to prove his masculinity by getting a suitable working position and by having a wife. In his marriage to Nel, Jude is not looking for an equal companion, he is looking for someone he can dominate. Jude’s view of marriage and Nel’s submission to it consequently result in the reduction of Nel’s personality. Male/female relationships portrayed in the novel are based on cultural conditioning and obligation more than a free choice.
Motherhood also represents the relationship which is based on cultural conditioning and obligation. When male characters leave their families, African American women are left w
ithout support or protection from African American men and therefore, African American women in the novel must take care of their families on their own and are put in the position of a family provider. The lack of the support African American mothers receive projects in the mothers’ ways of expressing affection to their children. Consequently, the relationships between mothers and their children become complicated because mothers fail to communicate about their struggles with their children and children miss their mothers’ affection. Motherhood does not represent a fulfilling relationship in Sula.
Sula sees thing for what they truly are and she understands the dynamics of male/female and mother/daughter relationships. Sula comprehends the fact that relationships with men involve the reduction of women’s personalities and that being

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