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In Sula, Toni Morrison chronicles the lives of two African-American women whose close friendship is torn apart by infidelity. In the novel, Morrison paints the relationship between the character’s leading women, Sula and Nel, as one of fulfillment, encouragement, and support. Patriarchal heterosexual relationships, by contrast, are painted as unsuccessful or damaging by restricting free will, leaving women to raise families alone, and creating competition and causing division within female friendships. According to Adrianne Rich, author of “Compulsory Sexuality and Lesbian Existence,” patriarchal heterosexual relationships should be examined as an institution much as the economic system of capitalism or the caste system of racism. Rich believes requisite patriarchal heterosexuality has been established as a means of restraining women’s unique identities and perpetuating male dominance, with the result that it “keeps numberless women psychologically trapped, trying to fit mind, spirit, and sexuality into a prescribed script because they cannot look beyond the parameters of the acceptable. It pulls on the energy of such women” (657). Morrison mirrors Rich’s beliefs in Sula when she fabricates the male presence as a negative force in the lives of the novel’s women, where males are typically absent and marriage is seen as a job. While the novel’s two main characters, Sula and Nel, suffer a period of disconnection, both women ultimately realize that their most intimate and essential relationship is with each other.
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Sula and Nel become fast friends very quickly as a product, describes Morrison, of realizing at a young age that they are “neither white nor male” (52). Knowing that all freedom is forbidden to them, each girl decides to become something else; they’re able to use each other to develop. The two grow so intimate that they frequently act in tandem, performing identical tasks without need of speech. The author demonstrates the girls’ nonverbal collusion when Nel and Sula dig holes in the earth during a sunny summer day: in concert, the girls strip the bark off twigs and use the twigs to dig two separate holes; still not speaking, they join their two smaller holes to form a single larger hole and, when Nel’s twig snaps, both girls toss in their twigs, add bits of trash, and then fill in the hole they’ve created. When thinking about their relationship, Nel relates that “talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself. Was there anyone else before whom she could never be foolish? In whose view inadequacy was mere idiosyncrasy, a character trait rather than a deficiency?” (95). The two girls evidence Rich’s sentiments that “woman-identification is a source of energy, a potential springhead of female power” (657). In each other, the girls find complete acceptance and an emotional rapport not evidenced in any of the heterosexual relationships in Sula.
As a product of this constant intimacy with each other, Morrison reports that Sula and Nel grow content and no longer experience the need to conform to the Bottom’s expectations. For example, Nel’s mother, Helene, urges her daughter to pull her nose with a clothespin in the hopes of giving it a more “attractive” appearance; Nel performs this duty with zest but without expectation until she meets Sula, at which point she retires the clothespin permanently. As well, though Nel still endures having her hair straightened with a hot comb once a week, the affect no longer appeals to her. Morrison’s detailing of Sula and Nel’s relationship is true to Rich’s description of the benefits of female friendship. Quoting author Audre Lord, Rich writes that female comradeship is “the empowering joy which ‘makes us less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial’” (650). Like Rich, Morrison illustrates that close female camaraderie makes it possible for the women to resist conformity.
Marriage, both in Sula and in “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” is viewed as the destructive, yet inevitable, outcome of the patriarchal heterosexual mold. In detailing marriage, Morrison writes that Eva, after being hospitalized following the death of Hannah, recalls Hannah’s dream from the night before of getting married in a red dress. Eva remembers that marriage, in dreams, always means death. Morrison’s views on marriage encouraged by patriarchal heterosexuality are even more clearly expressed through Sula’s eyes:
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Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bulging with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve. (122).
From Sula’s statements, it’s apparent that Morrison feels marriage is a negative construct into which women are lured as a way of filling what they are indoctrinated to believe is an unavoidable emptiness.
Rich writes in “Compulsory Sexuality” that women marry as part of the patriarchal heterosexual institution because it’s essential “in order to survive economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women because coming out of ‘abnormal’ childhoods they wanted to feel “normal,” and because heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfillment” (654). Consistent with Rich’s theory, Morrison states that Nel’s parents have succeeded in dulling any spark of individuality from Nel in their determination for her to be viewed as well-bred, desirable wife material. Helene, in particular, is resolute in her yearning for Nel to lead a more “normal” life: having been born to a whore and raised by her grandmother, Helene is still plagued with the need to prove, to herself and others, how far she’s risen on the social ladder, even if her daughter must serve as the proof. Nel marries Jude because he makes her feel singularly needed; in Morrison’s words, “[Nel] 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” (84). For his part, Jude desires to marry Nel in reaction to being emasculated by the white citizens of Medallion. Morrison conveys that the whites refuse to hire African-Americans for decent jobs despite their superior qualifications, so Jude is forced to rely on very little pay and must turn to his mother for support. To Jude’s way of thinking, marrying Nel allows him to justify his menial work; he can tell himself that he stays at his job out of necessity, to support his family. As for Sula, she encourages Nel’s marriage to Jude simply because “she thought it was the perfect thing to do following their graduation from general school” (84).
When Sula supports Nel’s marriage, however, she doesn’t suspect that Nel will settle down to the conventional patriarchal role of the possessive, sympathetic wife. When Jude complains about how tough life is for a black man, for example, Sula interjects her opinion that black men seem to have a rather easy life specifically to prevent Nel from uttering the expected “milkwarm commiseration” (103). In response to Sula’s comments, Jude sizes Sula up as “a woman roaming the country trying to find some man to burden down with a lot of lip and a lot of mouths” (103). Simply because Sula dares to voice her own beliefs, Jude becomes upset and concludes that Sula’s going to be trouble for men. After Jude leaves Nel, Morrison narrates Sula’s reflection that “she knew well enough what other women said and felt, or said they felt. But she and Nel had always seen through them. They both knew that those women were not jealous of other women; that they were only afraid of losing their jobs” (119). Instead, by the time Sula returns from ten years away at college, she discovers belatedly that Nel has changed: after Sula sleeps with Jude, Nel is unable to forgive her. Sula eventually comes to the bitter realization that “now Nel was one of them. One of the spiders whose only thought was the next rung of the web…They were merely victims and knew how to behave in that role (just as Nel knew how to behave as the wronged wife)…Now Nel belonged to the town and all of its ways” (120). In the end, Nel is so enveloped in the town’s customs that she chides Sula for her determination to remain independent.
Though Morrison narrates that Sula’s glad she lived for herself, Sula also falls for a man prior to her demise. When Sula first meets Ajax, she enjoys his company mainly because he doesn’t talk down to her like other men; a not-so-subtle critique of male condescension. Gradually, Sula feels herself developing a sense of possession over Ajax. When she makes the mistake of revealing too much of her emotions to her lover, he decides to leave. Sula realizes that she “did not hold my head stiff enough when I met him and so I lost it just like the dolls” (136). Morrison’s description of Sula’s self-scorn over falling for Jude shows the author’s view that females act as mindless “dolls” when pursuing a conventional heterosexual relationship; it also reveals yet another failed heterosexual connection. Further, Sula discovers that Ajax’s real name is Alan Jacks. Since she hasn’t even known his name, Sula concludes that she never knew the man at all. Their relationship represents Sula’s attempt to fall in with the heterosexual institution: the urge to conform insinuates itself so heavily that Sula constructs her own image of “Ajax;” repeatedly describing her craving to scrape off his outer layer to reveal the “gold” she’s sure lies underneath (137).
Within the first three chapters of Morrison’s novel Sula, the author sketches a picture of absent boyfriends, husbands and fathers. Eva, Sula’s grandmother, is forced to raise her family alone when her husband BoyBoy abandons her. Rekus, Sula’s father and Hannah’s husband, is granted only a single sentence in the novel, when Morrison explains that he died when Sula was three; the cause of his death isn’t mentioned. Wiley, Nel’s father and Helene’s husband, is alive but rarely home. The male image doesn’t improve as the novel progresses: Jude leaves Nel after having an affair with Sula, and Sula’s boyfriend, Ajax, leaves when he suspects Sula is beginning to feel possessive of him. The consequences of the little-seen or completely absent males are exhibited in various ways. For instance, because they’re left to raise their families alone, Eva, Hannah, and Helene are unable to spend much time playing with their children. The lack of personal attention damages not only the mothers’ relationships with their daughters, but the daughters’ eventual relationships with their own children: since Helene is birthed to a lower-class whore, she feels the need to groom her daughter, Nel, into the perfect, docile woman as proof of how far she’s come. Nel is therefore not allowed room for imagination or other personal expression.
As Rich urges in “Compulsory Sexuality,” Morrison closely scrutinizes patriarchal heterosexual relationships in Sula. Both women highlight the benefits of female companionship: when Sula and Nel are together in the beginning of the novel, Morrison relates that each is able to be her own person, express her own passions, and feel completely free, a sentiment echoed in “Compulsory Sexuality.” Morrison focuses on her belief that heterosexual relationships are an institution inflicted by males to repress females by continually stressing the failure of compulsory patriarchal heterosexual relationships and the harmful outcomes compliance exacts on women. Nel’s seduction into the patriarchal heterosexual relationship mold, for instance, costs Sula and Nel’s friendship to end in heartbreak and leaves Nel, in particular, feeling that she’s lost a piece of herself. Similar to Rich, Morrison describes patriarchal heterosexual relationships, and the marriage touted as the ultimate goal thereof, as a leech sucking women dry of joy and leaving them empty husks continuing to live for their children’s sake. Solely through an examination of the institution of patriarchal heterosexual relationships can the pattern of male dominance, which has set the mold for all forms of abuse, be broken.
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