In the dedication of Sula, Toni Morrison writes: “It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.” This statement resonates throughout the landscape of the novel, as Morrison utilizes two black female protagonists, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, to effeminately focalize the paradox inherent in missing somebody before they are gone. Although female characterization is typical in Morrison’s writing, Sula achieves a particular embodiment of questions pertaining to love and loss as they relate specifically to women, through women. Morrison metaphorically furthers the complexity of Sula and Nel’s relationship through their respective blackness: Nel has dusk-colored skin, long lashes, a broad nose and generous lips (Morrison 18), while Sula is a “heavy brown with large quiet eyes” (Morrison 52) and has a birthmark over one of her eyes. By distinguishing black from black, Morrison crafts racial identity as a harness of interdependence that neither woman can escape, thus achieving a commentary on how women identify themselves as well as the nature of female friendship itself; she considers the rules that govern womanhood and the extent to which the system depends on individual deviancies to reinforce the power of homogenous female friendships.
To entrench Sula and Nel in the black woman’s narrative, Morrison entraps them in their ancestry by using their mothers to substantiate their existence. Helene Wright works every day to escape the shadow of Sundown House and forget her Creole lineage, immersing herself in Nel, who “was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life” (Morrison 18). Hannah, however, unknowingly creates an irreparable rift in her relationship with her daughter when Sula overhears her say that although she loves her, she doesn’t like her (Morrison 57). These discrepancies in Sula and Nel’s relationships with their mothers seem to respectively encourage and detract from their autonomy, although the union of the young girls in friendship curiously represses any previously established identities they may have derived from their mothers, for not only do Nel and Sula complete one another, they are one in the same (Morrison). Thus, the preservation of their independence as women is paradoxically dependent on a lack of autonomy within their personal friendship, a structure that extends to other women in the community as well.. Morrison’s construction of female autonomy within the novel initially appears to challenge conventional gender structures, particularly in regard to the Peace household. “It was manlove that Eva bequeathed to her daughters. Probably, people said, because there were no men in the house, no men to run it. But actually that was not true. The Peace women simply loved maleness, for its own sake” (41). The repetition of the word “love” in close proximity and reference to males subtly flavors this passage with a sense of foreboding. Juxtaposing this undercurrent is the omniscient narrator’s ringing authority; there is no doubt that Eva is the source of manlove, and the direct declaration for maleness is underscored by the open-endedness of “for its own sake.” As a result, the Peace women acquire an ironically pure motif for Morrison’s representation of the female. Eva and Hannah are just as celebrated as easy women as they are, in fact, sexually easy. The double entendre Morrison creates out of their easiness is represented in the trichotomy of their relationships, with the Medallion men, Medallion women, and finally, each other.
Despite the differing natures of these relationships, Morrison takes care to cultivate a sameness of personality in Eva and Hannah; they exhibit no false pretenses or womanish vices, and are exactly as they appear: sexually charged creatures. I say creatures not to animalize them on the road to understanding them, but rather to acknowledge the simplicity of their existence and contextualize their gratification within their cognizant desire to exist simply. Their existence is, in fact, entirely autonomous, for they are removed from the traditional constructs of family by the absence of men in the household, and it is the very impermanency of their relationships with men which enables their independence, especially Hannah’s. “Seeing her step so easily into the pantry and emerge looking precisely as she did when she entered, only happier, taught Sula that sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable” (Morrison 44). Through Hannah, Morrison exhibits the circumstances necessary for detached sexual encounters, for she is essentially the Oedipus of Medallion’s desire; she naturalizes the illicitly primal desires in men, garnering their loyalty and, somehow, a certain friendship.
However, the impossibility of complete un-attachment is illustrated by Hannah’s reluctance to literally sleep with a man post-sex. “She would fuck practically anything, but sleeping with someone implied for her a measure of trust and a definite commitment” (Morrison 44). The narrator’s crass language in this statement is tempered by the vulnerability Morrison incorporates into Hannah’s character through this statement. The implications Hannah infers from sleeping with someone reveal an internal struggle to both classify relationships and discern whether or not she actually wants them. The primacy of sex, then, acts as a shield from such human consequences as regret, melancholy, and loneliness. The narrator’s observation that “she rippled with sex” (Morrison 42) furthers this claim, suggesting that Hannah gave herself as wholly as she did to her lifestyle to strengthen the buffer between a human existence, and that part of her sexual appeal resides in the impossible limbo she contorts herself within. Here, we see a curious parallel between Hannah’s affinity for sex and her relationship with her daughter: she cares naught for the men whom she has sex with, though she loves the act with an instinctual passion, and she casually dislikes her daughter, though she loves her with the same naturalness with which she engages men.
The abnormal feeling that permeates Hannah’s relationship with her daughter is reciprocated by the latter, potentially maliciously, as Morrison posits. The end of “1923” concludes with Hannah’s death, a gruesome event that is chillingly focalized through Eva, who was “convinced that Sula watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested” (Morrison 78). Morrison’s use of the word “interested” is appropriately vague for the unexpectedness of the situation, for although Sula does indeed watch the events surrounding her mother’s death unfold, her thoughts are kept hidden from us. However, her apparent unwillingness to move beyond the bystander role she finds herself within suggests a failing or defection in her human autonomy. If we recall the incident of Chicken Little’s death about a year earlier (Morrison 61), a crucial distinction between the drowning and the burning lies in the presence of Nel.
Thus, it is impossible to move an analysis of Sula’s detachment from Hannah’s death forward without pausing to contextualize the obvious elemental representations at play: fire and water. Both elements serve to encompass different aspects of death, however, Nel’s ability to recognize Sula’s immediate concern (did anyone see?), rather than what we may consider the immediate human concern (helping Chicken Little), wreaths the relationship of the two girls in a sinisterly over-dependent intimacy, where both characters embody a being that is as paradoxically perennially incomplete without the other as it is completed by the other. This is evidenced by Sula’s identical reaction to digress into the observer in both scenes; her trance is broken by Nel’s voice after Chicken Little’s accident, but remains intact during Hannah’s burning, acutely reflecting Nel’s absence and influence on Sula. Focalized through Nel’s presence (or lack thereof) then, Hannah’s burning acquires a sacrificial nature, foreshadowing Sula’s later betrayal of Nel by implicating her mother’s life in Nel’s absence; if Nel is the grounded rationalism of higher thinking in the Sula-Nel dichotomy, Sula is the passive self-preserver incapable of extricating herself from the immediate, sensory present.
In her essay “Resolving the Paradox?: An Interlinear Reading of Toni Morrison’s Sula,” Monika Hoffarth-Zelloe critically examines Nel and Sula’s relationship as it functions as a trope in the search for identity. Asking “Does the search for self-creation exclude the creation for a community or vice versa? The reader becomes disoriented—for which character does Morrison try to win the reader’s allegiance?” (Hoffarth-Zelloe 115), Hoffarth-Zelloe preserves Nel and Sula’s characters as separate while simultaneously acknowledging Morrison’s attempt to manipulate the reader’s “allegiance” to one woman or another. In positing allegiance as a prize through the word “win,” Hoffarth-Zelloe unconsciously suggests an implicit bias towards community; an allegiance of one is impossible. Or is it? Sula’s very essence boils down to allegiance to the self, a selfishness that is furthered through Sula’s disregard for communal values and assumed loyalties, the most striking example of which occurs when she has sex with Nel’s husband, Jude.
The audaciousness of this transgression is feminized through the sexual position Nel finds them in: “But they had been down on all fours naked…on all fours like (uh huh, go on, say it) like dogs” (Morrison 105). Focalized through Nel, we receive the impossible incredulity she feels walking into the unforgiveable scene. That Nel will be unable to forgive Sula is obvious; Morrison intensifies the reader’s experience of Nel’s pain by surrendering the narration to her naked observations, observations which are as metaphorical as they are literal. That Sula and Jude were having sex like dogs implies a number of starkly painful revelations with regard to Nel and Jude’s relationship. “Down on all fours” recalls a primal, animalistic urge beyond passion, while “like dogs” contextualizes this urge within the traditional scope of sexual intercourse: the dog is dominating the bitch. However, Hoffarth-Zolloe’s question with regard to reader allegiance surfaces here: is Morrison moving to instate Nel as the tragic heroine who must rise above the ultimate betrayal, or is she challenging the reader to rise above the conventional backlash Sula is facing and consider Sula’s function within Nel and Jude’s relationship as revealing a break, rather than causing it?
Here, I would suggest that Morrison refutes the possibility of the reader’s allegiance being something that can be won. If we truly embrace Sula’s character as Morrison presents her, we are forced to acknowledge that she ascribed no personal gratification to the act of having sex with Jude, thus, she removes herself from the reach of the reader’s approval or dismissal. For obvious reasons of infidelity, Jude also loses our favor, however, he also permanently disrupts Nel and Sula’s friendship, which is the one constant relationship that the novel provides us with. And finally, Nel. In this trifecta, Nel “wins” by default, but also loses the most. Is she winning our allegiance if Sula and Jude never truly had ours? By illustrating the fickle intricacies of reader allegiance, this scene also suspends the notion of self-creation as a byproduct of community.
That self-creation depends on the presence of community is evidenced through the individual’s need for a reaction in order to direct their individual, succeeding actions. This reciprocal relationship is inflexible, however, under this definition a community may exist in the relationship of two people. Sula and Nel’s relationship, then, constitutes a community, fragmented though it may be in the end. Nel’s inability to wholly remove Sula from her life may be contextualized within Morrison’s dedication: “It is sheer misfortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.” Knowing the painful evolution of Sula and Nel’s dynamic throughout the story, “sheer” acquires a nuanced meaning, paradoxically encapsulating the tenacity of the women’s friendship in reference to steepness, as well as the potential for volatility associated with “sheer” in conjunction with danger, such as sheer drop. Further, sheer also embodies the transparence within the women’s relationship; they were one in the same because of their familiarity with one another in two of the best and worst ways one human may be familiar with another: heartbreak and love. “Somebody” acquires a beautiful vagueness in that it strips Sula and Nel down to the naked essence of a friendship: its dependence on another in the search for the individual “somebody.”