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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sula and the Women at The Bottom

(Cover picture from Wikipedia)

(Original Title: Looking With an Eye on Gender at Toni Morrison's Female Characters in Sula)

In the critical essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," (1924), Virginia Woolf discusses with "greater boldness than discretion" what character in fiction means . She begins by identifying the Edwardian writers from the Georgians.

The Edwardians, represented by Arnold Bennett, are those who have "laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things" (Schorer, et. al., 1948). They built a house for the character (Mrs. Brown); gave her a father, servants, insurance policy; then, looked outside her window to the murky district where a flour-mill emitted enough smoke for everyone to choke. The Edwardians gave Mrs. Brown these necessities in the hope that they may be able to "deduce the human being" in her.

If one holds that novels are in the first place about people, why put so much store on houses and peripherals, and not so much as look at Mrs. Brown who happens to be just sitting in a corner? Woolf asks.

The Georgians, which Woolf favors, and are represented by James Joyce, have to begin by throwing away the tools set by the Edwardians, and will be left alone facing Mrs. Brown without any method of conveying her to the reader. But that is not totally so. We have been bewildered by the complexity of our feelings. In a day, thousands of ideas and emotions have coursed through our brains, meeting, colliding and disappearing in astonishing disorder. These are the very tools of the Georgian writers in creating a reality in Mrs. Brown.

As Edwardians busy themselves with the description of Mrs. Brown's outside world, the Georgians converse with her, and look into her eyes and drink in the mystery which later will be resolved.

And if one will talk about characters, writers and readers must never, never desert Mrs. Brown.

In talking about Mrs. Brown, the first thing to be considered perhaps, is her femininity - that which sets her apart, that which we cannot separate from her, and that which defines her identity. We look closer, and we will see how she is treated, how she is placed in the world created in the design of a male creator. Does she need to be rescued from the stereotypical association with inferiority? Or has she been liberated from this age-old design and association?

Adrienne Rich, as cited by Elaine Showalter in "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness" (1981), enumerates what feminist reading can do to liberate women behind bars of the dominant patriarchal order.

"A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, and how we can begin to see and move - and therefore live - afresh."

It is in this same breath that the author would like to look at the female characters in Toni Morrisn's 1973 novel Sula.

This novel, peopled by powerful and enchanting women, traces the lives of two black women who must come to terms with their beings. Set in a Midwestern black community called The Bottom, the story documents the life story of two friends, Sula and Nel, from childhood to womanhood to old age and death.

"In the place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood" (Morrison, 11). This is the opening sentence of Sula.

More than style, this opening beckons the readers to follow the lines of a community which serves as a master narrative of the differences between Sula and the other female characters in the novel.

In the place called The Bottom, the racist and patriarchal nature of Sula's society places women, especially black women in a position of powerlessness and vulnerability. The Bottom community, however, also serves as a protective shield within which women must function in order to survive.

Eva, Sula's grandmother, is a one-legged handicapped who, according to stories, had one of her legs run over by a train to collect insurance to support her children, having been abandoned by her husband who "liked womanizing best, drinking second, and abusing Eva third" (47). She may not have worked miracles to straighten up her children and a granddaughter, but she is the looming presence carrying the load when a male strength should have been instead.

Hannah, Sula's mother, is widowed early. She refuses to live without the attentions of a man, and has had a steady sequence of lovers after the death of her husband. She makes no demands in these men and makes them feel complete and wonderful. Because of this, she is liked by men and hated by their women.

Helene, Nel's mother, is the daughter of a Creole whore after whom she takes her custard-colored skin. She is that respectable (She's worked hard to be one.) woman who "never turned her head in church when late comers arrived." She loves her house and enjoys manipulating her daughter and husband.

These women have done "wild" things outside the dominant male boundary. They have spoken that which is repressed. But just when one thought they have reached the feminine ideal, here comes Sula breaking in the male barrier twice over. As Nel confronts Sula in this final conversation:

"You can't do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can't act like a man. You can't be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don't" (181).

Nel and Sula grew up together in that small Ohio town. On their path to womanhood, both decide to walk the road the other didn't take. Nel chooses to stay in the place of her birth, to marry, to raise a family, to be a good citizen of the community. Sula turns the other way. She leaves Ohio, enters college, and submerges herself in city life, to return only to The Bottom as a rebel and as a seductress.

These differences give rise to two opposite worlds - Sula's and Nel's. Thus, in this context:

"You think I don't know what your life is like just because I ain't living it? I know what every colored woman in this country is doing" (Sula).

"What's that?" (Nel).

"Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like stump. Me, I'm going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world" (182).

In the novel, the community provides a context for the story and a residence for the characters. It neutrally works as a setting for the story, and negatively as a model of conformity.

The dangerous results of conformity is seen in Nel's lack of independence. She does not know what to do with herself after Jude is gone. She has been trapped by a social convention which believes that a woman needs a man/husband to make her whole.

On the other hand, Sula, the non-conformist, retorts when accused of being lonely having been left by her lovers:

"Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your (Nel's) lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you…A second-hand lonely" (182).

A major mover of the rule of conformity in the community is gossip. The threat of reproach, judgment and isolation keeps most of the women do what is prescribed and behave according to what is considered appropriate for females.

In the community where Sula and Nel live, gossips spread fast like fire (as fast as that which killed Sula's mother and Sula's uncle Plum). Sula, through gossips, is made the meter stick for morality - she being the classic type of evil force. And Nel, as one of the pillars of the community, is the good one, the one to be sympathized for she is the one left by her husband for a wanton friend named Sula.

Even while Sula is dying, she questions this social assumption:

"How you know?" Sula asked.
"Know what?" Nel still wouldn't look at her.
"About who was good. How you know it was you?"
"What you mean?"
"I mean maybe it wasn't you. Maybe it was me" (186).

Sula defined herself by rejecting conformity. The primary symbol of her transgression of conformity is her departure from her community. Sula leaves after Nel's wedding and returns without warning ten years later. Sula's rejection of conformity is also expressed through her sexuality. Her sex is self-identifying and self-expressive. Here, the community is able to provide her with men with whom to express herself, including Nel's husband Jude. Her need for self-expression is fulfilled by the same community whose standards she has violated. Sula's sexuality is a demonstration of her love for life and for herself - the very thing for which her community condemns her.

We may ask why the community does not condemn the likes of Jude who leaves his wife for his wife's childhood friend? Why does not the community condemn BoyBoy who left Eva for womanizing and drinking? Why does not the community condemn the husbands who left their wives' bed to join Hannah's and Sula's chambers? Why only the women are condemned when it has always taken both a woman and a man to commit adultery?

Yet Sula believes that they (the community) will love her:

"It will take time, but they'll love me…After all the old women have lain with the teenagers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles…when all the black men fuck all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones…then there'll be a little love left over for me" (185).

Through Sula, we have conversed with the female psyche. She has spoken and we have listened attentively, paying little attention to the things outside her window. However, we could not help but turn our gaze with her as she beholds for the last time the "boarded-up window Eva jumped out of."

The women at The Bottom emerge and rise up from the muck.

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