TONI MORRISON: SULA
2005, Vintage (Random House), London.From the Foreword
Outlaw women are fascinating – not always for their
behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally
disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not
under the rule of men. In much literature a woman’s escape
from male rule led to regret, misery, if not complete disaster.
In Sula I wanted to explore the consequences of what that escape
might be, on not only a conventional black society, but in female
friendship. In 1969, in Queens, snatching liberty seemed compel-ling. Some of us thrived, some of us died. All of us had a taste.
And this is what Sula is about – snatching liberty. Though Morrison, in this excerpt from the Foreword, confines the notion to women and to black society, it really extends far beyond, to any human being in any society who will not be tied to convention. Sula is not a revolutionary defying social norms, she is simply a woman who ignores them. And because she does, she is looked upon as evil and to avoid being like her, others change their ways and adopt norms that they have been careless about. Even her best friend Nel, who like Sula lives an unconventional life, becomes traditional, marries and accepts patriarchal rule. After the accidental drowning of the little boy Chicken Little, Nel does not want to be like Sula. Sula was swinging the child around, lost her grip and the child was flung out over the river. This incident sends Nel off in the direction of accepted norms. Is it guilt for having colluded in Chicken Little’s death by keeping silent or is it disapproval of Sula? It is only after Sula dies that Nel finally acknowledges to herself that she had enjoyed seeing the little boy flying out over the river and the waters closing over him. Sula had been upset and had cried when the boy drowned; her reaction had been normal but not Nel’s. Inside of Nel there had been perhaps a stronger, even a criminal desire to break with convention. And to alienate herself from such anti-social feelings, Nel puts distance between herself and Sula. Nel marries and Sula leaves the Bottom, the neighbourhood in Medallion in which they live, straight after the wedding.
After ten years, Sula comes back to the Bottom. She has discovered that people everywhere imprison themselves in conventions. When she visits Nel and her family, Sula still being an ‘outlaw woman’ has sex with Nel’s husband. As far as Sula is concerned, it means nothing but Nel cannot forgive her. Jude is her husband.
When Ajax, decides to visit Sula, he finds a woman that he can respect because she is intelligent and unconventional. Sula for the first time enters into a kind of affair with Ajax, all her other sexual encounters have been once-off experiences. But Sula and Ajax are kindred spirits.
… it was not presents that made her wrap him up in her thighs.
They were charming, of course, (especially the jar of butterflies
that he let loose in her room), but her real pleasure was the fact
that he talked to her. They had genuine conversations. He did
not speak down to her or at her, nor content himself with puerile
questions about her life or monologues of his own activities.
Thinking she was possibly brilliant, like his mother, he seemed
to expect brilliance from her, and she delivered. And in all of it,
he listened more than he spoke. His clear comfort at being in her
presence, his lazy willingness to tell her all about fixes and the
power of plants, his refusal to baby or protect her, his assumption
that she was both tough and wise – all of that coupled with a wide
generosity of spirit only occasionally erupting into vengeance
sustained Sula’s interest and enthusiasm. (127)
But their relationship comes to an end when,
Sula began to discover what possession was. Not
love, perhaps, but possession or at least the desire for it.
She was astounded by so new and alien a feeling. First
there was the morning of the night before when she actually
wondered if Ajax would come by that day. Then there was
an afternoon when she stood before the mirror finger-tracing
the laugh lines around her mouth and trying to decide whether
she was good-looking or not. She ended this deep perusal by
tying a green ribbon in her hair. The green silk made a rippling
whisper as she slid it into her hair – a whisper that could easily
have been Hannah’s chuckle, a soft slow nasal hiss she used to
emit when something amused her. Like women sitting for two
hours under the marcelling irons only to wonder two days later
how soon they would need another appointment. The ribbon-
tying was followed by other activity, and when Ajax came that
evening, bringing her a reed whistle he had carved that morning,
not only was the green ribbon still in her hair, but the bathroomwas gleaming, the bed was made, and the table was set for two. (131)
Sula is succumbing to convention and when Ajax sees this he leaves. Sula does not blame him; she realises that she has broken the bond that held them together – their need for freedom. In introducing Ajax into the story, Morrison makes the search for freedom both a male and a female need. The difference between Ajax and Sula is that Ajax, being a man, is allowed to flout convention. Sula, being a woman, is not. To her community she is evil
The death of Sula Peace was the best news folks up in
the Bottom had had since the promise of work at the tunnel. Of
the few who were not afraid to witness the burial of a witch and
who had gone to the cemetery, some had come just to verify her
being put away but stayed on to sing “Shall we Gather at the
River” for politeness sake, quite unaware of the bleak promise
of their song. (150)
What is it that bedevils relationships? Sula has never been possessive and when she discovers that she is becoming possessive about Ajax, she understands why he leaves. Possessiveness is tied into human relationships; wives and husbands belong to each other, members of a family belong to one another, members of a community belong together. There cannot be the kind of freedom that Sula and Ajax need, the freedom from responsibility to other people. Nevertheless, it is the kind of freedom that everyone constantly advocates – the freedom of letting your hair down, of following your heart or your impulses – of being your authentic self. Sula was able to have that kind of freedom but it meant being alone; she didn’t mind. On her deathbed, she explains to Nel:
“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.”
“Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying
like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods.
I sure did live in this world.”
“Really? What have you got to show for it?”
“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on
in it. Which is to say, I got me.”
“Lonely, ain’t it?”
“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is some-
body else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t
that something? A second-hand lonely.” (143)
Sula says ‘I got my mind. And what goes on in it.’ She is free, not a slave to anyone. And that is why she does not need to have anything to show. She doesn’t have to prove herself to anyone.