7 December 2012
Toni Morrison’s Sula is an extremely complex work of fiction that some argue functions as parable, satire, or Black-feminist writing. However, the complexity of the tale of Sula and Nel’s lives requires analysis including all of these elements. Morrison skillfully blends together gender roles with the binary opposition as she includes Biblical allusions to give clues to the characters’ personalities and future actions as they struggle against their community. It becomes clear to the reader through the characters’ actions and thoughts, that the world, which the Bottom created for itself, is inherently contradictory as the citizens of the community struggle to maintain binary thinking.
Sula and Shadrack represent the evil (or at least unacceptable) in the traditional good/evil binary that the Bottom’s community upholds. Both Sula and Shadrack face ostracization because of the negativity that is attached to them. Shadrack, however, chooses to live within the acceptable boundaries of the community with his celebration of Suicide Day. The community sees his celebration as bizarre, but in no way a threat to their existence as the years pass (Morrison 15).
Shadrack’s name is derived from the Biblical tale of Shadrach, who is condemned to die by fire because he refuses to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statues. Shadrach is saved from the flames by God along with the two other servants who were put in the flames with him (King James Version Daniel 3:27). Shadrack, Morrison’s character, does not abide by his community’s rules, but he is spared from his own holiday’s fulfillment at the end of the book while many in his community do not (Morrison 162). Shadrack’s equivalent fire is his ostracization, and when his compatriots die in his parade, he emerges unscathed. Those who join him seemingly accept him for those moments, similarly to Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel.
Sula as a representation of evil is much more sinister. Her birthmark, which the Bottom uses to ostracize her, critic Maggie Galehouse argues, could be a representation of the mark of Cain (Galehouse 349). It does not seem like an unlikely possibility as once Sula condemns herself by sleeping with Jude, rumors abound that it is not an image of a snake or a rose, but “Hannah’s ashes marking her from the very beginning” (Morrison 114). The idea of Hannah’s ashes being represented by her birthmark is a reminder of how Sula made no move to help her mother when she was on fire (Morrison 78). If her passivity can be seen as having a hand in the death of her mother, she plays an almost Cain-esque role.
Sula continues to play a Cain-like role when she betrays Nel, her sister figure of the novel. When Nel visits Sula on her deathbed, Nel asks Sula why she slept with Jude. Sula says, “It only matters to you, Nel… Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody…You don’t get nothing for it” (Morrison 144-45). This is Sula’s equivalent “I am not my brother’s keeper” (Galehouse 349). Sula makes it clear that it is not her duty to uphold Nel and Jude’s wedding vows, and that a person should not be kind to someone simply to expect kindness in return.