Toni Morrison’s poignant and emotionally charged novel Sula is a rare glimpse into the lives of blacks living in post-WWII America. The plights and heartbreaks of the town serve as the backdrop to the lives of Nel Wright and Sula Peace. Separately the girls represent positive and negative behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles. Together, these women firmly stand as a testament to both the strength and the fragility of femininity and friendship. This essay will focus on the four main binaries found in the novel. These binaries will be analyzed and observed against French philosopher, Jacques Derrida’s theories of binary relationships. Derrida says, “If each element is said to be ‘present’ appearing on the same stage of presence, is related to something other than itself but remains the mark of a past element and already lets itself be hollowed by the mark of its relation to what it is not…” (Derrida). In addition, Chris Barker’s Cultural Theories and the writings of Simone DeBeauvior will be used to further understand meanings and importance of these binaries. The four main binaries are Medallion City and the Bottoms, male and female gender roles, the Bottoms before and after Sula’s departure, and most importantly the relationship between Nel and Sula. Together these four binaries will explain Sula with depth and understanding.
One of the major binaries found in Sula is the relationship between Medallion City and the Bottoms. Medallion City is located is located below the Bottoms in an Ohio valley. The Bottoms is located above Medallion City at the top of a mountain. A former slave whose master gifted him freedom and land to farm founded the Bottoms. Lacking the knowledge and any societal privileges, the slave agreed to the arrangement. Unknown to the slave, he had agreed to land which could not be farmed. Morrison writes, “The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds and where the wind lingered all through winter” (Morrison 5). Despite its flaws, the Bottoms was a beautiful place to live. The slave owner describes, “…when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven—best land there is” (Morrison 5).
In comparison of the two, Medallion City and the Bottoms are starkly different. In all binaries, one-half of the relationship is afforded some power and privilege beyond its counterpart. Within this binary relationship, Medallion City is privileged. Medallion City is a white community characterized by lush farmlands. Once a plantation, Medallion City blossoms into a flourishing Ohio town. In contrast, sitting above the valley is the Bottoms. It is a black community whose poverty and forlorn are offset by its natural beauty. Throughout Sula, Morrison plays with the idea of opposites. She often pits characters, places and emotions against each other in stark clarity to better reinforce their differences. However, the relationship between Medallion City and the Bottoms is opposite in itself. In most cases, the binary relationship between “up” and “down”, “up” has more power than “down”. However, in Sula, those living above in the Bottoms experience an impoverished lifestyle compared to those people living below in Medallion City.
The predominant races of each separate community is also speaks directly to the perceived privilege each area is afforded. Based on the ideas of Sociology professor, Robert Miller, Barker writes “…the historical formation of ‘race’ is one of power and subordination. That is people of color have occupied structurally subordinate positions in relation to every dimension of life chances” (Barker 248). By nature of the race of its inhabitants, the Bottoms was predestined to be less privileged than Medallion City. The relationship between Medallion City and the Bottoms sets the stage for the remaining major binaries found in Sula.
The people of the Bottoms are incredibly superstitious. Weight is given to everyday occurrences that coincide with the town’s major tragedies and happiness. Prior to Sula’s prodigal return the Bottoms is plagued by a large swarm of birds. Eva is unsurprised by Sula’s return. “When Sula opened the door she [Eva] raised her eyes and said, ‘I might have knowed them birds meant something…’” (Morrison 91). After Sula’s return to the Bottoms, things began to change. Mothers who were neglectful of their children became loving and adoring mothers.
Teapot knocked on her [Sula’s] door to see if she had any bottles. He was the five-year old son of an indifferent mother, all of whose interests sat around the corner of Time and a Half Pool Hall…When Sula said no, the boy turned around and fell half down the steps. He couldn’t get up right away and Sula went to help him. His mother…saw Sula bending over her son’s pained face. She flew into a fit of concerned, if drunken, motherhood, and dragged Teapot. She told everyone that Sula had pushed him… (Morrison 114).
Teapot’s Mamma changed her poor motherly habits and became a fit and model mother to Teapot. Other instances of change after Sula’s return can be observed in the positive change in relationships between husbands and wives in the Bottoms.
Wives, who learned that their husbands were sleeping with Sula, became wives that treated their husbands respect and love. Consequently, the wives slept with their husbands with more frequency and took more pride in themselves and their household.
Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst (Morrison 118).
Sula’s return had inadvertently changed the people of the Bottoms.
Nevertheless, just as her return had been detrimental to the change in their behavior, the death of Sula inextricably transformed the Bottoms people into their former selves. With no moral compass with which to measure their lives against, the people reverted to mothers who overlooked their children and wives and husbands who ignored each other once again.
Other mothers who had defended their children from Sula’s malevolence (or who had defended their positions as mothers from Sula’s scorn for the role) now had nothing to rub against. The tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made. Without her mockery, affection for others sank into flaccid disrepair (Morrison 153).
Sula was catalyst for positive change in the Bottoms. She reminded the people that were good Christian people, but with her death, the “devil” whose face they saw in Sula was no more. Without Sula as the constant reminder, the people once again returned their old behaviors.
The binary relationship between Sula and Nel is the most important relationship found in the novel. Sula and Nel’s relationship gives meaning to both women’s actions. Sula is aggressive, spontaneous, irrational, and impassive. She would be considered cultural deviant of her time. She is educated beyond general school, travels alone, sexually permiscuous, stands up for herself and is unmarried. In contrast, Nel is passive, quiet, unassuming, and rational. She represents the cultural norm of the time. Women of the time are expected to be passive, marry, have children and remain monongamous. All of which are practices that Nel adheres to. Despite all their differences the two women are fiercly bonded to each other. “In those days a compliment to one was a compliment to the other, and cruelty to one was a challenge to the other”(Morrison 84). Derridian relationships define themselves by their relationship with the other. In a Derridian, binary there is no moment of presence where a sign exists alone. Instead all signs and their meaning are constantly intertwined with their opposite. This is the same for Nel and Sula. Sula and her actions are always defined by her relationship to Nel and it goes for Nel. Even when there seems to be a moment of presence for either character, both women are still acting in response to their intense relationship. Nel marries Jude and at the time, it seems that perhaps she has finally exerted her singularity, but with further analysis it is realized that Nel’s relationship with Sula has decided the marriage for Nel. If the intensity of their relationship did not exist, Nel would not have found it necessary to marry in an attempt prove her individuality.
Nevertheless, agency is a culturally intelligible way of understanding ourselves. We clearly have the existential experience of facing and making choices. We do act, even though choices and acts are determined by social forces, particularly language, which lie beyond us as individual subjects (Barker 236).
Therefore, although Nel has the agency to do as she pleases, her relationship serves as the “force” behind the decision to marry Jude.
Nel’s marriage to Jude serves as a break in their friendship. Sula leaves the wedding and does not return for ten years. By the time Sula returns to the Bottoms, Nel is fully engrossed in married life. During the disruption of their relationship, Nel becomes part of a different binary. She becomes the wife in a husband and wife binary. When Sula returns, she tries to repair their bond. I believe she tries to do this by sleeping with Nel’s husband. Before Nel’s marriage to Jude, she and Sula shared everything. Because Sula is irrational and aggressive, in her mind the most logical way to return their friendship to its once state of intense closeness she sleeps with Jude. It an act that she believes will reinstate their previous relationship. However, it does not have the desired effect. Nel cuts ties completely with Sula and Jude leaves his marriage to Nel. After Sula dies, Nel goes to visit Eva. Eva says to Nel, “Just alike. Both of you. Never was difference between you” (Morrison 169). Eva is referring to the intense closeness between Nel and Sula growing up. At first Nel is disconcerted by Eva’s adamancy that they were the same. However, later as she visits Sula’s grave she realizes that the only person she ever cared for and who ever could offer meaning to her life is Sula. Nel cries, “‘All that time I thought I was missing Jude.’ And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. ‘ We was girls together,’ she said as though explaining something.” (Morrison 174).