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Sula A Perspective On Redefining Social Conformities English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1401 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, many characters fall victim to defining themselves according to what society dictates that they should be. The women in this novel are expected to play the part of submissive wife, mother, and homemaker and to find identity and personal fulfillment through these things. There is one character in the text, however, who rebels against social norms and chooses to follow her own path. This character is Sula, a woman who gradually rejects social conformity in exchange for the opportunity to develop herself into the person that she chooses to be rather than the woman society expects her to be. Within the text, Sula sparks controversy and receives discrimination because of her boldness and individuality. However, Sula stubbornly stands strong throughout the text and remains unaffected in the face of this controversy. By rebelling against the oppression of her society, Sula is able to develop an identity that she can call her own. Though she does pay a social price for this identity, the wholeness that she is able to achieve is well worth the cost, and in the end it is this wholeness that allows her both to embrace death and to die beautifully and painlessly.

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One thing that Morrison does in this text is to create beautifully complicated characters such as Sula. One of the things that is fascinating to me about Sula’s character is the way that, as the narrator explains, “She simply helped others define themselves” (95). I love the way that the community’s disgust and resentment towards her actually helps them to behave better and to become better people.  I think that it is often the case in life, as it is in Sula, that we can only define and redefine ourselves by recognizing an “other.”  When we can identify this “other,” only then can we begin to recognize ourselves by way of comparison. By labeling Sula as evil, the people in “The Bottom” can, in contrast, define themselves as being “not evil”, and therefore good. Also, by defining Sula as the “other” and in turn the outsider, the community becomes more united.  They find something that they can agree upon; they are brought closer to one another by way of their collective and collaborative dislike of Sula.

I think that Morrison does something very specific and profound with this “other” role that Sula plays in the text. The reader can very distinctly observe the way that this outsider becomes the most important figure in the story simply because the other characters grow, develop, and learn in relation to her.  Also an outsider in Sula is another very complex character named Shadrack, who works in similar ways in the text by leading the rest of the community to come together in their talk of him, to come together because of him, just to try and figure him out or to gossip.  Interestingly, Sula is one of the only people in the text that Shadrack ever acknowledges.  Perhaps this is precisely because they do have this functioning role as “other” in common.  Not surprisingly, however, the two never bond in any significant way.  To do this would most likely ruin the dynamic of individual vs. community that exists and remains so vital to the text.

Additionally, something that I found quite interesting was the markings on Sula that Morrison used in order to demonstrate her originality and “otherness” from the other characters in the text. The narrator describes Sula and her birthmark in the following passage; “Sula was a heavy brown with large quiet eyes, one of which featured a birthmark that spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose” (52). Sula’s birthmark seems to directly serve the purpose of setting Sula apart from all the other characters. As Sula grows older, and simultaneously grows emotionally stronger and more independent, her birthmark mirrors this growth by “getting darker and [looking] more and more like a stem and rose” (74). This birthmark really works throughout the text to portray Sula’s inner strength and development. As the birthmark grows darker and more noticeable, she individualizes herself from society more and more.

I also find it interesting that Sula purposely separates herself from society by very brazenly rebelling against social norms. In fact, Sula completely shuns social norms and expectations in order to be true to herself and to further develop her own identity. Instead of remaining in the Bottom and settling down with a husband and children as was expected of a woman of her age at that time, Sula decides to leave and to go to college and to do some traveling instead. When Sula returns to the Bottom ten years later, it is during a conversation with Eva that Sula’s rebellion toward social expectations really becomes apparent. During this conversation Eva asks Sula “When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” to which Sula indignantly responds, “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself” (92). Eva’s response to Sula’s statement echoes the feelings that most of society had at that time. Eva says “Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man” (92). With this statement Morrison does such an effective job of demonstrating the battle that women like Sula were up against at that time and that many women, regardless of color or race, still fight against today. Instead of being praised for her strength and independence as a woman, Sula is called selfish and judged harshly by a society filled with women who have compromised their own identities. These same women dislike the fact that any woman might be able to live the life of personal freedom that they are too frightened and/or weak to fight for yet secretly desire.

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Another thing that I find particularly interesting in this text is the idea of love in terms of how it is presented, explored, and played out amongst the characters.  I think that Morrison definitely plays with the idea of love by presenting character’s who most definitely do love others, but who demonstrate this human emotion in very nontraditional ways. By showing these “alternative” ways to show and deal with love, Morrison demonstrates that this very universal human element cannot be narrowly defined and/or put in a box.  There are many ways of loving, and there are many people who love extremely differently from one another.  The reader is presented with somewhat of a challenge in this text; we are asked to explore Eva’s, Sula’s, Hannah’s, Nel’s, and other character’s actions, and to acknowledge that even though these people do some things that seem terrible, each of them does portray and/or convey love in one way or another.  I think that it is easy for the reader of this text to very quickly judge the character’s actions as “not loving” and/or not based in love.  It is harder to step back, however, and to really open up the mind enough to accept that, for example, somewhere behind Eva’s intention to murder her son was a very loving, sacrificial, maternal intention.  The reader must be willing to explore new alternatives and perspectives in order to fully appreciate all of the different possible interpretations and motivations of and in the love relationships in this text.

In general, I love the way that Morrison uses her text to explore so many complicated, emotional, and difficult issues. I also appreciate the character of Sula, who works to represent a woman who takes the time to consider her own meaning, her own worth, and her own desires. Sula is a character who really embraces herself and seems to realize the power of owning one’s own soul and being in charge of one’s own destiny. I think that this is a great theme to explore within a text and I believe that, through this text, Morrison does a fantastically interesting and captivating job of presenting this idea of strength in self, as well as the idea of multi-faceted love, and that every reader will learn something from engaging him or herself with this work.


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