A person’s identity is without exception shaped by the community she lives in. The community’s attitudes effectively mold a person into what it expects one to be, placing certain expectations on the individual based on factors such as social class and gender. In Toni Morrison’s literary masterpiece Sula, she writes about two friends, Sula and Nel, who, in their own ways, attempt to grow into their true selves, rather than that which their community preordains them to be. Because of the extreme opposite personalities these girls possess, they must go about finding their identities through two vastly different paths, Sula actively seeks it out, while Nel learns through Sula. With the protagonists’ search for their identities intertwined throughout her book, Morrison uses the theme of a community’s role in determining one’s identity to explore the metaphor of self. Morrison continues to communicate the metaphor of self through her complex yet vivid characterizations of the African American woman in a small Ohio town from 1919 to 1965.
To understand the character Sula and the search for her self, one must understand her childhood best friend Nel and observe the way Morrison creates contrasting personalities and behaviors between the two. Nel first becomes aware of the concept of her being a separate self at the age of nine after her first trip out of her hometown of Medallion. “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me” (28). With this revelation, Nel declares she will leave Medallion and lead the life she wants to live rather than fall into the path her mother and community set out for her. She cannot accomplish this goal, though, because she lacks the spontaneous and rebellious nature that would necessitate such an action. “Like Helene, Nel becomes exactly what the community wishes her to be. It is an all-too familiar process of commodification wherein Nel is used for the gratification and reinforcement of patriarchal order” (Bjork 73). Nel is left to live the life of the hardworking mother and wife that black women in Medallion seemed destined to live, marrying Jude to support his desires of what he must do to affirm his role as a man. Morrison’s style of characterization is powerful in the way she brings her characters to life through their thoughts and actions rather than general descriptions.
Morrison hints that the only way one can discover her true self is to leave everything she knows behind to completely rediscover her self. In contrast to Nel, Sula embarks on this adventure, proving that she is Nel’s other half, possessing all the qualities Nel desires she had and experiencing all the things she wishes she could have done. Though Sula never explicitly stated her future desires, she obviously displays a great deal of independence and courage. She shows this when she cuts off the tip of her finger to protect herself and Nel from being attacked by a group of Irish boys. After this act of self-mutilation, she exclaimed, “If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you” (54-55)? This sense of fearlessness and self-sacrifice becomes significant later in the book when Sula’s eccentric behaviors act as a glue to hold the community together at her own expense. When Nel relinquishes her dream and gives in to the conformist nature of the community by marrying Jude, Sula, probably feeling forsaken and incomplete after what she feels is an abandonment from her other self, leaves Medallion for the next ten years without having any contact with anyone from her childhood. Morrison strategically omits these ten years of Sula’s life because all that matters is that the reader knows she spent this time finding her true self, and when she returns to Medallion, it is as an entirely different person than the small community remembers. Morrison stresses the importance of moving away from one’s hometown as an essential function to breaking free from the expectations and pressures of conformity to discover one’s true self.
Though it is not accurate with Sula’s true self, when she returns to Medallion, the community sees her as a pariah. The ever-changing birthmark on her eye symbolizes this sentiment. “This birthmark remains an ambiguous sign variously esteemed; it appears “a rose” to the narrative voice, a stemmed rose to Eva and Nel, a “scary black thing” to Nel’s children, “a copperhead” to Jude, “Hannah’s ashes” to the community, and “a tadpole” to Shadrack” (Lee 572). The narrator describes Sula’s birthmark as a rose toward the beginning of the story, when Sula is a child, symbolizing her innocence. As she grows older, her grandmother Eva and her best friend describe it as a rose with thorns, portraying her as an innocent person with the potential to be dangerous. After Sula’s return, Jude describes the birthmark as a copperhead, displaying his vision of Sula as an immediate danger. This proves to be true, when he commits adultery with her, thus ending his marriage with Nel. Nel’s children see her as pure evil through their viewing of the birthmark as a “scary black thing.” This foreshadows Sula’s stepping in and breaking up their family. The community views her birthmark as “Hannah’s ashes” due to her troublesome behavior and the way she stirs things up; however, it is not until the novel’s resolution that her true self and impact on the community is completely revealed.
During the stint after Sula returned from Medallion, she was often questioned about who she is and what her motives are. Having found her self in college, she could easily answer such questions. When Eva asked her when she would get married and have babies, Sula responded, “I don’t want to make someone else. I want to make myself” (92). This shows Sula understands the expectations thrust upon her, yet refuses to conform to it because motherhood is not something that makes up her self. When Eva eludes that hellfire is burning in her, Sula counters, “Whatever is burning in me is mine!” (93). Sula is not interested in what other people think about her. What matters to her is she lives her life the way she wants with no regrets. With this statement, she shows a greater understanding of self than any other character in the novel.
As the book progresses, other characters begin to understand Sula’s strong sense of self. Nel sees Sula as, “(One who) never competed; she simply helped others define themselves” (95). Nel realizes that Sula’s strong personality had an immense impact on developing her own self. She understands how Sula possesses a heightened level of independence so much greater than anyone she has met. Therefore, she can see why Sula was able to break away from the conformist chains that exist in Medallion. What she wasn’t prepared for, however, was Sula’s continued development of self. Another character who appreciated Sula’s strong sense of self was Ajax, who after hearing stories about her, made it a point to get to know her. “So when his curiosity was high enough he picked two bottles of milk off the porch of some white family and went to see her, suspecting that this was perhaps the only other woman he knew whose life was her own, who could deal with life efficiently, and who was not interested in nailing him” (127). Ajax viewed Sula as the female equivalent of himself, an enigma of the town who refused to walk the line. Her unpredictable nature and carefree attitude sparked the same sexual interest in him that most women in town felt for him. Sula’s ability to find her self enabled those willing to get close enough to her to discover and appreciate who she truly is and what she was able to overcome.
Even those who were unable to appreciate Sula’s strong sense of self, in the end, discovered how she was the glue that kept the community together:
Now that Sula was dead and done with, they returned to a steeping resentment of the burdens of old people. Wives uncoddled their husbands; there seemed no further need to reinforce their vanity. And even those Negroes who had moved down from Canada to Medallion…returned to their original claims of superiority (153-154).
All the people in the community had united in the joint cause to hate Sula and denigrate her every action. This caused them to be on their best behavior in order not to be a hypocrite. When Sula passed, they immediately went back to their old disrespectful, intolerant, and irresponsible ways. This shows their envy for Sula and her ability to break free of the suppressive role she was born into. They, in turn, were relegated to live vicariously through her but meanwhile disparage her ways as a coping mechanism for their unrealized self and dreams. Sula’s attainment of self turned out to be the bond that held the community together, while at the same time she became the envy of everyone, a burden she had to bear while she was alive.
In Sula, Morrison shows the evolution of two girls’ understanding of their selves by taking the reader through the various important stages of their lives. Through the more malleable character of Nel, Morrison shows how a community can succeed in shaping a person to the way it feels she should be based on gender and status. Morrison’s message is clear, though, that if a person’s character is dynamic and independent enough to search for her true self, then she can overcome the restraints placed on her by the community and forge her own destiny.
Bjork, Patrick Bryce. The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Serach for Self and Place within the Community. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
Lee, Rachel. “Missing Peace in Toni Morrison’s ‘Sula’ and ‘Beloved.'” African
American Review 28.4 (1994): 572.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume, 1982.