"Sula" and the Question of Social Identity in African American Fiction

A case study

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2010 39 Pages

Literature - Africa



1. Toni Morrison’s “Sula” as a case study

2. On Sula’s Identity and Subalternity
2.1. Sula as a subaltern other
2.2. Sula as the uncanny and the evocation of the other
2.3. Resistance and experience: Do they influence social conduct?
2.4. Making a difference: Selfhood impact on ideology power and convention praxis in the novel.

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Toni Morrison’s “Sula” as a case study

The story uncovers the differences between the relatives of Sula, the protagonist, and her best friend Nel. The latter’s family is considerably integrated in the communal mob and know their rights and duties the praxis of which is reckoned to be radically obstinate; whereas the former’s kindred is deemed unorthodox. Nevertheless, all of the forth-mentioned disparities did not hinder the birth of a friendship between the two, and build - under the shadow of distinct backgrounds - a seemingly unbreakable relationship.

In the beginning, Nel underwent a way of life separate from her mother’s, Helene; she even aspired to set sail to a sea of adventure, if it was not for her friend. The bond has endured for years, until an unfortunate accident. While Sula and Nel were playing with Chicken Little, the latter slept through Sula’s fingers only to end up drowning. This unexpected tragedy would eventually pave the way for a relational complex.

After spending ten years in college, Sula has notoriously changed. She was regarded as a pure epitome of evil, as she embraced no care to her societal beliefs and decorum, which has resulted in a profound hatred towards her. As for Nel, Sula’s erotic liaison with Jude (Nel’s husband) has turned out to be an impetus to break up the entire relationship. Nonetheless, just before Sula passed away, Nel had returned in an attempt to figure out Sula’s rationale behind acting as such, which was unexpectedly shocking. Intimacy encompasses the sharing of all that is precious – including Jude himself.

With Sula’s fatality, there was a glimpse of hope that her death may bring brighter days, which has proven, to the detriment of her fellow inhabitants, a mere ignis fatuus. “It was as though the season has exhausted itself.” (Morrison, Sula 155) Meanwhile, Nel, who visited Eva in her nursing home, has received onerous imputations vis-à-vis Chicken Little’s “accidental demise”. In this way, Nel no longer saw things as the “good” Nel versus the “evil” Sula, but that she began doubting her plausible “goodness”.

“Sula had cried and cried when she came back from Shadrack’s house. But Nel had remained calm.
“Shouldn’t we tell?” [Sula]
“did he see?” [Nel]
“I don’t know. No.” [Sula]
“let’s go. We can’t bring him back.” [Nel]
... “Why didn’t I feel bad when it happened? How come it felt so good to see him fall?” (Morrison, Sula)

2. On Sula’s Identity and Subalternity

2.1. Sula as a subaltern other

Toni Morrison portrays her female protagonist, Sula, as an autonomous figure, possessing a mysterious power that skins her from the depths of gender subalternity. We cannot fail to observe her individual preservation within a broken society, whose ground rule hinges on presentiments and credulity. “The meaning of the birthmark on her eye; that was not a stemmed rose, or a snake, it was Hannah’s ashes marking her from the very beginning.” (Morrison, Sula)

The author emphasizes the psychological state of Sula, which displays a substantial presence of emotional as well as bodily aspects, disclosing Morrison’s philosophical vintage point. She is not captivated by rational, objective reasoning; quite the contrary, she foregrounds postmodern aspects pertaining to culture, gender, body and emotion through her novel. Therefore, unlike the conceptual spaces of the traditional philosophies (some of which are reason, truth, certainty, essence and objectivity), Sula, the novel, is a literary work presented from a Postmodern stance.

“Postmodernists reject the search for underlying truth, certainty, and essences. They do not believe it possible to find universal principles that explain the natural and the social world; they reject standard notions of rationality and objectivity and the idea of a stable, knowing self… Postmodern discourses create the kinds of conceptual spaces that many feminists find appropriate for their intellectual work.” (Garry and Pearsal)

Many movements, Feminism to be included, have aspired to Postmodernism, as it helps, on the one hand, in the castrating of the representational process, social marginalization, racial discrimination and cultural alienation. On the other hand, it substantially stresses freedom and self-reflexiveness. Subaltern mobs have been witness to a long history of representation since the Ancient Greeks, to the Dark Ages, the Enlightenment, the Modern Age, among other historical junctures. The elite, in an otherwise epitomized stratum, has incessantly been the ruling power, the writer of history, and the legitimizer of the “appropriate” morality. Jean François Lyotard, in his book, “La Condition Postmoderne”, elucidates the concept of power legitimation from a language standpoint. As he exemplifies,

“Considering such a declaration as “"Give money to the university"; these are prescriptions. They can be modulated as orders, commands, instructions, recommendations, requests, prayers, pleas, etc. Here, the sender is clearly placed in a position of authority, using the term broadly (including the authority of a sinner over a god who claims to be merciful): that is, he expects the addressee to perform the action referred to. The pragmatics of prescription entail concomitant changes in the posts of addressee and referent.” (Lyotard 9-10)

An utterance can be construed in a manifold of ways, depending on the addresser, the addressee, the message tone, et cetera. This means that if the message addresser is in a place of authority, say, a priest, a governor, an intellectual, or a male figure, then their message has to be fulfilled, provided that the addressee is in a lower position. Lyotard borrows the term Language Game, which was coined by Wittgenstein, to describe “the various types of utterances he identifies along the way” and stresses that every utterance “should be thought of as a move.” (Lyotard 9;10)

Be that as it may be, such moves entail questions of critical significance, who is the creator of those rules, to begin with? And do they have a share in the profits gained by implanting them? For the sake of example, humanity, for centuries, believed that Aristotle and the Bible contained the whole truth. In the Renaissance period, otherwise known as the rebirth of Greek philosophy, supported Aristotle’s credo of theology and physics, the content of which was a platform for the Roman Catholic theology. However, new scientific findings, which are mentioned in neither Aristotle’s writings, nor the Bible, were discovered; one of the major errors ever to commit was the universe rotation around the Earth. We are ergo bound to be dubious of their legitimation to create the “rules of the Game”.

Furthermore, People, under the umbrella of cultural relativity, cease the meeting of other human beings with different cultural or religious affinities. The previously mentioned laws have to be respected and applied by the non-elite rest. As the time goes by, the constructed enactments prove an embodiment of a civilized culture, which are real to them. This engenders a cultural asphyxiation of the Other acceptance on a platform of mutual understanding. Hence, how can one become reflective of something the gist of which is unknown? What gives one the right to define or legitimize? The questions remain unresolved, for it is not a matter of moral judgment, but an interchangeable quarrel between an oppressor and an oppressed.

However, Lyotard notes that with the new postmodern thinking, the presence of dominion and representation, in the discourse of cultural studies, has eventually proved absent. The formerly known as oppressed, or represented, now has the opportunity to partake in the sender/receiver dialogue, depending on how they process their progress. No (wo)man is a separate island; each lives in interwoven relationships that are now more sophisticated than ever before, due to the radical changes prevailing among the postindustrial era.

Other postmodern philosophers spurn the idea that language can represent reality; that it is inherited in the objects we perceive in this phenomenal world. Bertens clarifies,

“Language is transparent, a window on the world, and knowledge arises out of our direct experience of reality, undistorted and not contaminated by language. Accepting Derrida’s exposure, and rejection, of the metaphysical premises—the transcendent signifier—upon which such empiricism is built, postmodernism gives up on language’s representational function and follows poststructuralism in the idea that language constitutes, rather than reflects, the world, and that knowledge is therefore always distorted by language, that is, by the historical circumstances and the specific environment in which it arises.” (Bertens 15)

Language, in this regard, remains a crucial element in the arena of contest and struggle between opposite powers. Sula proves to be a personification of Toni Morrison’s intellectual opinions and philosophical choices. She probes the question of Self and the implausibility of its constant stasis, which is confirmed by the fact of presenting characters that supposedly incarnate Manichean aspects (i.e. goodness versus badness). We find ourselves relentlessly disturbed by the moral difference between “good and bad”. If, with an otherwise high-minded dilemma, they turn out to be reliable measurements, how can one utilize them in real life situations?

The philosophical obscurity, or devaluation, of women’s sufferance that the author explains is relevantly perceptible. As the female sex, in the former philosophies, has been subject to psychological oppression and social peripheralization, Feminist postmodernism helps Morrison, among other postmodern Feminists, to,

“…scrutinize the deep methodological assumptions and practices of every philosophical tradition. The kinds of which the methods of philosophy presuppose or mesh with the dominant political ideology of the culture of its practitioners; the extent to which philosophical methods ignore, obscure, devalue, or deny the experiences and points of view of women and other outsiders; and whether or to what extent the methods of philosophy are compatible with or useful for the methods of feminist theory and feminism.” (Garry and Pearsal 8)

The presence of equal justice between men and women is absent; the male authority constantly build a GENDER BAR that women have to bear in mind when addressing or communicating their messages to men; there have to be a presence of politeness, a sense of weakness and an absence of violence in their discourse. As John S. Mill asserts, many philosophers and intellectuals, including Aristotle and Jean Jacques Rousseau, held

“the same assertion in regard to the dominion of men over women [which] is usually based, namely that there are different natures among mankind, free natures, and slave natures.” (Mill 8)

Subalternity and oppression of gender and race, therefore, turn up to be a matter of nature, not culture. I shall leave the matter of culture and nature to other researches to discuss. As a form of confirmation, the subjection of women to men, Mill further argues, being a universal custom,

“any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural. But how entirely… the feeling is dependent on custom, appears by ample experience. Nothing so much astonishes the people of distant parts of the world, when they first learn anything about England, as to be told that it is under a queen: the thing seems to them so unnatural as to be almost incredible. To Englishmen this does not seem in the least degree unnatural, because they are used to it; but they do feel it unnatural that women should be soldiers or members of parliament.” (Mill 8)

Naturalization is much influential a concept insofar that it masks submission with politeness, aggression with necessity, and discrimination with the natural order. It is seldom when a woman, from the Bottom, after a certain age, continues her scholarly education; quite the opposite, the majority gets married in their twenties, if not before. It is as if their ultimate objective is becoming a wife. Nel’s ultimate aim was marriage with Jude; in an attempt to achieve her prosperity, she needed to accomplish her mastery of relational life with her fellow Bottomians. This includes friends and next of kin, not to mention the mastery of the social traditions and cultural conventions of the Bottom. After she got married, her unhappiness was awaiting, her husband’s affair with her best friend.

In terms of a further example, Sula’s prosperous life was her intimate friendship with Nel. To shield that intimacy, in a kind of sub-objective, she ceaselessly endeavored to break down both of the families’ complaints. The sun of unhappiness rose as Nel got married with Jude. Sula could not help it, and thus went away to continue her studies in college, in search of a new journey. In this respect, we can deduce that life is but a continuum of temporary prosperities ending with miseries, and therefore lives of unlimited journeys begin.

Sula’s ten-year period out of Medallion has considerably governed her vision of life. “I don’t want to make someone else’s. I want to make myself.” (Morrison, Sula) As I have clarified beforehand, every being needs a reason to live - a purpose of life. However, are objectives the only rationale behind weighing life over death? Isn’t there another reason for fundamental change? The answer is yes, there is; for how can we account for all the beings who do not have a clear-cut purpose of life (at least on a conscious level)?

One changes for many reasons; personal reasons that touch upon all that is “natural”; what was found when he or she was born, e.g. beauty, physical handicaps, gender, race, time, family, and social status. However, change, in this manner, is bound to the person, and not his/her factual environment. Sula is a black woman living in a chaotic family, within an indigent village, during the Great Depression. She cannot change any of these facts, which are personal to her. A force, other than hers, has determined them (We can call this force God, Nature, or the author herself.)

Edwardo Guorrero asserts the influence that the look has on people of color in general, and women of color, in particular. He argues that,

“because Morrison is an African-American woman, the inscription of looking relations in her novels … assumes boundaries that encompass the sexual objectification of women. And because of her positionality at the intersection of gender and race, her explorations extend beyond this first issue to explore the complexity of "the look" as the controlling gaze of a dominant, racially oppressive society which constructs whiteness as the norm while viewing African-Americans as “Other." (Guerrero)

After considering the pros and cons of personal reasons, now comes the time to probe another logic, which is, to a greater or lesser extent, general, in that it relates to cultural, social, economic, and/or historical quandaries. This includes historical influence, educational praxis, political pressure, groups within an ideologically dominant mainstream, and so forth. Society, as a culturally homogeneous entity, alters lives by putting them under circumstances where they have to cope with touch-and-go situations. The influence of circumstances on the human character, which is one of the most fundamental analytic studies of modern psychology, plays a momentous role in deviating one’s social conduct from a way of life that has been long carried out.

Of course, when we get out of the finite square that our environment traces, we change our way of dealing with our relationships. Morrison personifies this with the war ravages and the psychological disturbances they have on people, in general, and soldiers, in particular. War calamities are a reason for, as well as an effect of, change. One of the soldiers that the author created was Shadrack, who was caught up into a situation where he needed to change his life, or at least a portion of it; such alteration was not in view of choice, neither was it due to a blindingly obvious choice, but because war factors have coordinated him to embrace his psychological trauma.

Furthermore, circumstances may sporadically persuade some (wo)men to change, for the sake of change, or merely out of interest – to have a life other than a past one. As Michel Foucault, in an interview, puts it, “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is equally true for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don't know what will be the end.” (Michel) If anything, this means that the situational occurrences correlate interest or disinterest depending on one’s objective of life.

A second general reason behind change is experience, which is too broad a concept; it could be social, cultural, religious, or psychological. Life is not unchangeable; at least we know this much. Therefore, human beings de rigueur undergo radical change, in all regards. To further elucidate the concept of experience, one can make a distinctive comparison with emotions.

“A feeling of elation…even if it occurs in a religious context, does not count in itself as a religious experience... If a subject feels a general feeling of happiness, not on account of anything in particular, and later comes to believe the feeling was caused by the presence of a particular person, that fact does not transform the feeling of happiness into a perception of the person.” (Webb)



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sula question social identity african american fiction



Title: "Sula" and the Question of Social Identity in African American Fiction