Chat with us, powered by LiveChat The bond between Sula and Nel faces everything, including betrayal and forgiveness in the aftermath of Chicken Little's murder, Jude and Sula's affair, and Sula's final - EssayAbode

The bond between Sula and Nel faces everything, including betrayal and forgiveness in the aftermath of Chicken Little’s murder, Jude and Sula’s affair, and Sula’s final

Thesis Statement- The bond between Sula and Nel faces everything, including betrayal and forgiveness in the aftermath of Chicken Little's murder, Jude and Sula's affair, and Sula's final death. 

Circling Meaning in Toni Morrison's "Sula"

Author(s): Claude Pruitt

Source: African American Review , Spring/Summer 2011, Vol. 44, No. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2011), pp. 115-129

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of African American Review (St. Louis University)

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Claude Pruitt

Circling Meaning in Toni Morrison's Sula

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Circles" (1841)

But that's getting too far ahead of the story, almost to the end, although the end is in the beginning and lies far ahead. – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

In that 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. – Toni Morrison, Sula (1973)

[A] bove all it is necessary to read and reread those in whose wake I write, the "books" in whose margins and between whose lines I mark out and read a text simultaneously almost identical and entirely other. . . . – -Jacques Derrida, Positions (1980)

Twenty-five own martyred years life after as she the walks death to of the Sula nursing Peace, home Nel Green to visit recalls Sula's the grandmother. cycle of her own martyred life as she walks to the nursing home to visit Sula's grandmother. During the visit, she learns that Eva knows the most painful secret of her childhood, which she and Sula have closely kept. When Eva tells her that she and Sula are "just alike," Nel recoils in anger and embarrassment. She runs from the nursing home to Sula's grave and there faces her own complicity in the death of the litde boy known as Chicken Litde (163-71). Leaving the grave, Nel suddenly stops:

"Sula?" she whispered, gazing at the tops of the trees. "Sula?" Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green things. A soft ball of

fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze. "All that time, 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. "O Lord, Sula," she cried, "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl."

It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow. (174)

The scene actually begins in the chapter "1937" as Nel, betrayed by Sula and aban- doned by Jude, cowers in her bathroom:

Nel waited. Waited for the oldest cry. A scream not for others, not in sympathy for a burnt child, or a dead father, but a deeply personal cry for one's own pain. A loud, strident: "Why me?" She waited. The mud shifted, the leaves stirred, the smell of overripe green things enveloped her and announced the beginnings of her very own howl.

But it did not come. (108)

That scream does not come for twenty-seven years. In the interim, her repressed scream takes the form of a "litde ball of fur and string and hair always floating in the light," which Nel refuses to face. She believes that the ball represents her memory of Jude; actually it shields her from admitting that Sula is the real loss. Knowing that her grief for Jude will pass and that its passing will be her private hell, Nel fastens her attention on the details of this new life. When she refuses to look at the ball all

summer, her agony fades, but it will not entirely disappear (108-09). By the chapter "1940" Nel's psychological survival has taken the form of moth-

erly martyrdom. She refuses to depend on her parents, and assuming both male and female roles, works where Jude had worked and cares for his abandoned children.

African American Rew'ew44.1-2 (Spring/Summer 201 1): 1 15-129 © 201 1 Claude Pruitt 115

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Moored by "[v]irtue, bleak and drawn," she visits Sula's deathbed – ostensibly the good woman visiting a sick member of the community, she wants to know why Sula had betrayed their friendship and destroyed her marriage. She leaves "embarrassed, irritable, and a little bit ashamed," but no closer to resolution (138-46). Nel notifies the authorities that "a Miss Peace" has died at 7 Carpenter's Road, and attends Sula's funeral when the rest of the Bottom will not (172-73). In the years following Sula's death, Nel

pinned herself into a tiny life. … It didn't take long, after Jude left, for her to see what the future would be. She had looked at their children and knew in her heart that that would be

all. That they were all she would ever know of love. . . and years ago they had begun to look past her face into the nearest stretch of sky. (1 65)

This leaves Nel feeling righteous, but empty. The final scene of the novel resolves Nel's estrangement from Sula, but it brings no healing closure; Sula is dead, Nel can only mourn. With the loss of Sula, Nel has lost herself, the "me" which Nel could not admit and which Sula refused to give up (28, cf. 143). Nel's cry is not the end of grief, but its beginning; anticipating the last lines of the novel, that grief will multiply in "circles and circles of sorrow."

In completing the loop of this circle of sorrow, and by emphasizing the plurality of the áreles of sorrow, Morrison throws into relief the fact that Sula is metanarrative, a story about stories.1 These include all of the stories contained within the text of Sula , and as I will argue, a set of foundational texts upon which Sula is written in a kind of postmodern palimpsest. As my title would suggest, the present effort does not seek a direct reading of the novel; rather, by reading iteratively, in circles through Morrison's text, I seek to point to subtexts and intertextual inferences taking shape.2 If, as Jean-François Lyotard argues, the "business" of postmodernism is "not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be represented" (91), then Valerie Smith has suggested the technique by which postmodern narra- tives achieve this business: by "circling the subject," by treating culturally pressing subjects through narrative representation of their results or effects (342-43). Taking her cue from twentieth-century psychoanalysis, Morrison calls this speaking the unspeakable: "[t]he subliminal, the underground life of the novel," she asserts, "is the area most likely to link arms with the reader and facilitate making it one's own" ("Unspeakable" 161). The essentialist experience, beyond the knowledge of anyone but she who lives it, is approached indirectly: via narrative circles, marking the site of essential experience – by drawing its outlines not in direct discourse, but by circum- locution, by circumscribing what for the reader is the absence of experience. Meaning begins to take shape within the mind of the reader as silent centers of unspoken, unspeakable experience coalesce with the reader's own, equally essential, experience. I take such an understanding to be necessary for a close reading of Sula and argue not that circles exist within Morrison's text (which is patendy obvious), but rather that they are the carriers of meaning.3 Sula's circles of sorrow mark the site of black women's history at the center of black community, a center that had been denigrated and lost within black culture and was, as Morrison seems to indicate, in serious need of re-vision.4

Published in 1973, and Morrison's second novel, Sula opens with the absence of a black community that has died at the whim of the white community. Morrison begins with a description of the Bottom as it had been and immediately both populates and personifies the Bottom:

[0]n quiet days people in valley houses could hear singing sometimes, banjos sometimes, and, if a valley man happened to have business up in those hills … he might see a dark woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of cakewalk, a bit of black bottom, a bit of "messing around" to the lively notes of a mouth organ. Her bare feet would raise the saffron dust that floated down on the coveralls and bunion-split shoes of the man breathing music in and out of


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his harmonica. The black people watching her would laugh and rub their knees, and it would be easy for the valley man to hear the laughter and not notice the adult pain that rested somewhere under the eyelids, somewhere under their head rags and soft felt hats, some- where in the palm of the hand, somewhere behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew's curve. … [T] he pain would escape him even though the laughter was part of the pain. (4)

The black community came to be here, so the story goes, through a "nigger joke." A slave had been promised bottom land by a white farmer in return for a difficult service. When the task was completed, the farmer, not wanting to part with good valley land, convinced the black man that the hills were "the bottom of Heaven" – paradise, more desirable than productive land in the valley. This is the "nigger joke," the patendy ridiculous inversion of truth that, if it does not explain the topsy-turvy world of racism, social marginalization, and economic exclusion, at least provides cold comfort when laughter is the only alternative to despair. Although the Bottom was not much, it was theirs – at least until Medallion needed a golf course. In the space of a few hundred words, Morrison completes one of the "circles of sorrow" from which Sula is crafted, transforms place into character, and captures the essence of Jim Crow America.

The chapters following this prologue weave a complex narrative in great circles which encompass seventy years of life and death in the Bottom and enclose an apocryphal cast of characters. The central one hundred pages ("1922" through "1940") contain the coming-of-age story and adult relationship of Nel Wright and Sula Peace. The girls form an intense relationship in response to the pressures exerted on them by community and family. They become friends, pardy so that each can escape the too-close confinement in the house that the other envies. As they enter adolescence, Nel and Sula share an experience which closely mirrors a sexual awakening, but which ends in the accidental death of a young boy, Chicken Litde. They keep their secret knowledge as the community mourns and buries him. As the unnatural heat of summer presses down on the Bottom, Sula, who had been hysterical at Chicken Litde's death, watches calmly as her mother, Hannah, burns to death in a freak acci- dent. Part one ends as Nel is married and Sula leaves for college. Ten years later, Sula returns "in a plague of robins." Her sexually liberated lifestyle and self-mastery alienate the town; her sexual tryst with Jude (Nel's husband) alienates Nel. Having worked her way through most of the men in the Bottom, Sula falls in love with and loses Ajax, the only male character whose self-mastery approaches her own. Sula's death the next year is welcomed in the Bottom, by all except Shadrack, the town eccentric.

The story of Nel and Sula is inscribed within the other, equally sorrowful stories of the Bottom. Each man in the Bottom has his own circle of sorrow. Shadrack, like his biblical namesake, survived fire – the fire of World War I, and just barely. He manages existence by concentrating his madness into compulsive patterns of order and behavior; he staves off the fear of death by annually inviting his neighbors to participate in National Suicide Day. likewise Eva's son, Plum, returns from serving in the war in Europe to a country where the only opportunities are for self-destruction. Wandering home addicted to morphine, he retreats to his womblike room only to be burned in his bed by his mother. Tar Baby, an ostracized white boy, is taken into the Peace home so that he can commit suicide slowly even as he lifts the spirits of Greater Saint Matthew's Church with his ethereal voice. The three Deweys, also taken by Eva from separate families, never seem to grow up at all, but rather to grow horizontally into each other, ultimately forming a kind of parodie Greek chorus. Wiley Wright works on the Lakes, living in the compulsively ordered house of his wife only three days in sixteen. Jude Green begins as an ambitious man, but in the face of denied opportunity settles for an emasculating job and the comfort of self- pity with an accommodating wife. Ajax (or A. Jacks), on the surface the most capable


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of men, dreams merely of flying, but never flies himself, unless Iiis abandonment of Sula counts. The men of the Bottom, barred from economic competition by a surrounding army of white and immigrant laborers, duped and disfranchised by the white power structure, laugh at the "nigger joke" that also puts them in a place where even agriculture is not feasible. Along the four blocks of Carpenter's Row, "[o]ld men and young ones draped themselves . . . [o]n sills, on stoops, on crates and broken chairs they sat tasting their teeth and waiting for something to distract them" {Sula 49). Economically, socially, and politically powerless, the men are grotesque embodiments

"In [this] place," the circular model of the land 'Vhere they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches

from their roots," Nel and Sula come of age.

of masculinity waiting to be distracted by the only group for whom they are not completely emasculated – the one set of equally grotesque characters more margin- alized than they – the women of the Bottom.

Everywhere in the Bottom are woman-centered families: The Wrights led by Helene; the Peaces by Eva and followed by Hannah; Teapot's mother; Ajax's mother; Chicken Litde's mother; and the unnamed others. Described in varying detail, each mother is a grotesque in her own right, producing a new generation of children locked into equally desperate cycles. Helene Wright, daughter of a prostitute and granddaughter of a zealous Catholic, flees the stigma of die Sundown House brothel for a life of personal repression with a husband who is effectively, but not always physically absent. Helene's flight from family history and her determination to change is the doomed circle of sorrow that shapes Nel's own. Eva Peace, abandoned with three children in 1895, sacrifices a leg for their economic security, and then builds an incongruous house; raises an incongruous family; collects equally incongruous male visitors; boards newlyweds and other outcasts; and rules over life and death in a world of her own choosing and under her personal control. Hannah, Eva's daughter and Sula's mother, treats sex with some one of Eva's visitors or boarders as just another daily diversion. The community forgives her easygoing sexuality, but it alienates her only daughter. A neglectful woman, Teapot's mother can nurture him only when Sula seems to antagonize her, and then only so long as the community sets Sula in that role. Ajax's mother, "as stubborn in her pursuits of the occult as the women of [the church] were in the search for redeeming grace[J" raises her sons in "absolute freedom . . . (known in some quarters as neglect)" (127 cf. 126). For the women of the Bottom, most days are evil days to which they "reacted . . . with an acceptance that bordered on welcome" (89). They know that:

[t]he purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn't stone sinners for the same reason they didn't commit suicide – it was beneath them. (90)

"In [this] place," the circular model of the land "where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots," Nel and Sula come of age.

In light of Morrison's career as editor of many politically radical black texts and her outspoken position regarding the invisible blackness in American literature, one might expect to find on close reading of Sula that the metafictional structure of the novel would reveal, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has suggested, a subtext of African American literary criticism rooted in an African American folk tradition and the black vernacular language. In large part this is true, as Houston Baker, Jr. and Vashti Crutcher Lewis demonstrate. Baker sees in the work of Morrison's male predecessors, Wright and Ellison, a dialectical engagement that begins with displacement and con-


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finement and is compelled by economic forces, not the least of which is forced black labor, to black men's place in history (Baker 105-20). This place minimizes the role (and historical importance) of black women, replacing their generative function with a faith in technology and modernity. Baker reads Morrison's intention in Sula as an "an emerging vision of black women in the making," an oppositional voice grounded in the blues. He defines the blues as "an alternative expressive impulse in Afro-American life and culture that provides a notion of place . . . that looks not upward, but to the earth beneath black feet" (132). He offers an innovative reading of Morrison's approach to writing about intimate space. In strict counterpoint, Lewis contends that Sula cannot be understood via traditional modes of black or Western

criticism, but rather that "Morrison writes from an African point of view – an African aesthetic' " (Lewis 91); she reads Shadrack as a representative of African ancestors and Sula as a trickster and water spirit. When she flees to Shadrack's hut after the drowning of Chicken Little, Sula is symbolically united with Shadrack by his spoken word "always." Nel's scream in the final scene "acknowledges her love for Sula and no longer damns her, she too will be accepted by the gods of their ancestors" (95-96). 5 Lewis's folkloric reading of Sula resonates in many of its points with Baker's reading. While Sula is grounded in a traditionally African American speakerly text and the vernacular, and its characters nonetheless recall African archetypes, Morrison uses a Freudian-Lacanian symbol system that embeds her text firmly in the European psychoanalytic tradition. Sula is a litany of symptoms and symbols – castration images, phallic rituals, repression of desire, returns of the repressed, ego misdirection, and intrauterine fantasies so integral to the text that it is with some difficulty that they can be called sub- text.

Criticism of Sula has reflected this complex admixture of texts and subtexts. Barbara Christian has argued that the motifs of inversion and derangement are cen- tral to reading place and character in Sula: as the "nigger joke" signifies the commu- nity's relationship to the white world beyond its boundaries, so do people bound its interior space (75). Similarly, Barbara Lounsberry and Grace Hovet, in "Principles of Perception in Toni Morrison's Sula," read the novel as an exploration of the dilemma of preserving cultural identity while "mov[ing] forward, away from the limitations of a single cultural tradition, toward the multiple perspectives and opportunities of cultural pluralism" (Lounsberry and Hovet 126). For Lounsberry and Hovet, the major characters are examples of various failed attempts to order and contain reality using "past modes of perception." Helene Wright, for example, has protected her- self from the embarrassment of her prostitute mother by marrying and moving to the Bottom (from New Orleans); once established in social and religious respectability, the maintenance of that position requires rigid control of husband, daughter, and house, and high standards of "proper behavior" before the community. Jude Green, barred from the white economy, "needs" a second childhood, and marries Nel because he "needed some of his appetites filled [and] wanted someone to care about his hurt

(Sula 82). Sula herself offers "new perspectives on feminine reality. . . . [She] refuses to see women as only wives and mothers. . . . [and] views sex as something pleasant, frequent, experimental, . . . non-possessive, and otherwise unremarkable, and per- ceives relationships between women as non-competitive and supportive" (Lounsberry and Hovet 128). Lounsberry and Hovet conclude that although Sula suggests inter- esting new avenues for perception, Morrison asks many more questions than she answers, neither rejecting nor professing either principle, and leaves the reader in a state of ambivalence (129). Barbara Johnson compares Sula's signifying) on penis envy to Freud's observations in "The Uncanny" that the "homely" and familiar can become the most grotesquely "un-homely" and unfamiliar (6). She concludes that Morrison uses psychoanalytic imagery to make revolutionary political and aesthetic statements which are, by their historical nature, inseparably bound (11).


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Freudian theory marks Morrison's presentations of character. The men of the Bottom, for instance, signify varying degrees of castration complex. Shadrack, crazed and shattered, hangs on to a tenuous existence; Plum seeks only satiation and a return to the womb; Jude buries emasculation in self pity; and Ajax is content to watch voyeuristically as white men fly. All are without power, economically and socially castrated, just as their characters are symbolically castrated. The women of the Bottom are equally encumbered. Helene represses sexuality, diverting sex into control and control into order, obsessively cleaning her home and her public image. Hannah, who substitutes sex for love, is Helene's opposite, wanting only "some touching every day" ( Sula 44). Eva, every bit as deranged as Shadrack, is the person- ification of feminine sublimation. She is equally capable of sacrificing herself for her children and sacrificing her son for his manhood; of counseling young wives and taking children from their mothers; of indulging Tar Baby's self-burial and con- demning Plum's; of ignoring Hannah's easygoing, loose morality; and, of condemning Sula's willful, loose morality. Her every personal attitude is mated with its own inversion as Morrison creates in Eva possibly the single most internally conflicted character in postmodern fiction. Against this backdrop of this ego-misdirected, powerless, and conflicted community, Morrison tells the story of Nel and Sula. As she closes in on her central characters, the Lacanian symbolism becomes more overt.

The psychotherapy of Freud and Lacan resembles the very issues of its putative patients – it is all about the language of sex, which is to say, it is not about sex at all, but about language. The naturally profound differences between human beings cause conflict, and ego – the portion of the mind that deals with conflict – does so through misdirection. Consequendy, the human interface with reality and the external world creates distortion. According to Lacan, this same interface distorts both input and output. So we cannot know even our own deepest desires. What we can know is the imagery of our desires and perceptions described by the ego in language. In order for the psychotherapist to deal with these images, it is necessary to use language; but because many people use many words to convey many things, the "meaning" of language is never fixed. Lacan's "theory of language" is a structural arrangement of binary opposites, beginning with subject and signifier – the person speaking and the word spoken. To Lacan, what we say both constitutes and divides us. This model also describes "the unconscious [which is] structured like a language" (Lacan 139). This unconscious language has products that act as symptoms – errors of everyday life, jokes, and dreams. His theory of the mind includes three categories: the "sym- bolic," the "imaginary", and the "real." The symbolic is the area in which language functions, the imaginary is the realm of images, and the real is that which cannot be symbolized or imagined at a particular time, the impossible or unspeakable. Finally, then, Lacan's theory holds that our individual lives center on our own unspeakable realities. In Feminine Sexuality , he illustrates the theory with the Borromean knot, consisting of three rings; one ring each for the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real configured in such a way that breaking one knot frees all three (33):

Healing can occur when trauma is spoken about, even indirecdy: trauma is made more clearly "symbol" and less "real" as its symptoms are explored in language. The

boundaries, in other words, blur and col- – lapse.

The full import of Lacanian ideas in Sula appears as Nel visits Sula's deathbed.

I f 1 1 For these two, the memory of Chicken -Д ^ Little disappearing into the river is liter-

ally unspeakable; they cannot talk about it. J ( / i у ДА Since it cannot be spoken, it appears as II III y J I symptom: for Sula as promiscuity, for

Nel as first subservient wifehood and

then repressed sexuality and excessive


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mothering. The women talk, circling around, but not asking the question, not speaking the unspeakable to one another. Nel finally asks, "How come you did it Sula? [Why did you sleep with my husband?]." To Sula, however, Jude and Nel are not the point as Nel begins the exchange:

"And you didn't love me enough to leave him alone. To let him love me. You had to take him away."

"What you mean take him away? I didn't kill him, I just fucked him. If we were such good friends, how come you couldn't get over it?"

Saying, "I was good to you," Nel deliberately changes the subject to Sula:

"You laying there in that bed without a dime or a friend to your name having done all the dirt you did in this town and you still expect folks to love you?"

Her little ball of denial still intact, Nel has become defensive. But Sula envisions a time when Nel Wright will under

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