Exploration of oneself and the narrative technique in Toni Morrison’s SULA

Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (1973)  has   been read as a black woman’s epic, a study of female friendship , and anti-war novel , a fable, an exploration of the feminine psyche, and a  prime  modernist  text.  Elaine Showalter’s  “A  literature  of  their own” clearly  shows the evolution   of  women literature,  starting from  the  Victorian  period   to  modern  writing. Showalter  breaks   down  the  movement   into  three  stages:  (i) the  Feminine,  a   period beginning  with  the  use  of the  male pseudonym in the 1840s until 1880; (ii) the Feminist, from 1880 till the wining of the vote in 1920; and (iii) the female, from 1920 to the present – day. Sula  is included in the third period which is characterised by a self-discovery and some freedom from some of the dependency of opposition as a means of self-definition. Sula embodies the gender relations of black African- American people. In Sula, characters tend to cope with the  haunted past and trouble present and have a   disparity in  their personality. It seems like they are trying to manifest the subjective consciousness by struggling hard to cope with their free self. Issues of family identity and possession are explored by Morrison in a slavery apparent world. People were deprived of every right to develop their own self while anyone who tries to  assert individuality was rejected by the society.

In this novel, with the portrayal of Afro-American culture, the condition of women and humiliating effects of slavery are explored in the gender biased society. Through the narration of the fates of two typical black women Sula and Nel, the novel demonstrate under the triple oppression of sexism, racialism and classism black women have experienced great hardships and misery in the process of searching for identity and struggling for freedom and equality.

In the character of Sula, Morrison has shattered the stereotypical image of black women and addresses her with strength , wisdom and rebellious spirit of exploring themselves. Also, three generation of women i.e. Sula,Hannah, Eva represent economically and sexually independent ladies who gain strength from each other in the absence of male member. Sula’s mother and grandmother leave a great impact on her since childhood in her development as a grown woman. They both are independent and sexually appealing to men, which is particularly relevant to Sula’s future sexual behaviour. With very few exceptions, Morrision makes her female characters – fiercely independent and subvert the traditionally assigned roles of dutiful wife, mother and daughter.

Eva, Sula’s grandmother, was left in poverty along with her three children after leaving of her husband. Eva returns to Bottom with one leg and a certain amount of wealth. She is able to provide for children by continuing her role as a determined matriarch. In a matriarchal   Afro-American house, Eva accepts her role as a single mother. Her residence is continuously “awry with things, voices and slamming of doors”. Sex was open in the house and Sula learns at an early age that it was pleasant, frequent otherwise unremarkable. Eva’s approach is divergent to generally accepted notion of motherhood. Black family families had to suffer a lot in case of a single parent, facing the inhumanity of slavery.

Despite of her physical handicap, Eva, defies the sexually inhibiting gender roles and tend to be openly flirtatious. She challenges the conventional notion of womanhood as well as of motherhood. No doubt, Hortense Spillers states, “Eva Peace is one of the most perplexing characters of recent American fiction who embodies a figure of both insatiable generosity and insatiable demanding. Similarly, Hannah is also a single parent known for sexual independence. She is highlighted by Morrison as a faultless woman liked by the social world. There is no doubt regarding her powerful sexual magnetism, which is certainly attached to an all – encompassing love of life.

Contrary to Eva, Helena tries to preach religious teachings to her daughter, so that, Nel could be a traditional and conventional lady. Women of Helena’s family live their lives with limited self-expression of these gender identified roles. Her daughter, Nel is also a conventional lady who tends to follow the authority imposed on her by the society. Helena largely shapes a personification of degenerated aspects of conventional female morality. Here, Gilbert and Guber state that the fears of patriarchal authority as well as offensiveness about the female creation are the phenomena that mark the sense of inferiority in woman. Due to the impact of slavery, fathers are often absent from the family. Therefore, role of mothers is dominating in this novel and such families which are run by woman undergo the traumas of emotional laps and psychic crisis. For example, DeLancy  views that love of mother becomes emotionally and psychologically toxic in the absence of father. Therefore, one can say that the survival of black community depends on the motherhood.

Though their contrasting characters, Sula and Nel evolve their friendship. Both come to realize at an early age that most freedoms and triumphs will be denied by them throughout their lives for they are neither white nor male. Sula’s feminist spirit makes her refuse to take the responsibility of marriage. Different ideas of Sula and Nel about womanhood breed different lives.

Toni Morrison’s fictional characters could be analysed from gynocritic view point because they confront with cultural issues of gender, class as well as race. For instance, Sula rejects the conventional values of the society and ultimately she is rejected. Sula left Bottom just after the marriage of Nel and returns after ten years with the charge of sexuality. Folks of the town repeatedly labelled her as an evil lady. It can be argued that Sula’s survival is possible because of her relations with the members of black community. Notwithstanding the relevance of her relationship with others, what is most striking about this woman is her relationship with herself; and it is also fascinating to consider the dimension of love -hate or hate -love in the arena of Sula’s self-exploration and self-construction processes. In terms of the text, this last statement is the most evident in Sula’s verbal encounter with Eva when she returns to the Bottom after ten years of absence:

“… Any more fires in the house, I’m lighting  them!”

“Hellfire don’t need lightning and it’s already burning in you…

“Whatever’s burning in me is mine!”

“And I’ll split this town in two and everything in it before I let you put it out!”

“Pride goes before a fall.”

“What the hell do I care about falling?”

That she loves herself is fairly evident here, but then again so is her carelessness about falling which just as easily can be qualified as a desire for self- destruction. We can also see the complexity to categorize  Sula as good or evil as in favor of love or death. But fundamentally speaking the place where we most see Sula as she really is, at the heart and soul of her conflict and in that very private place where love and death collide and converge, is during —and after — sex. In the physical act of sex, Sula finds the ultimate experience of the spirit — and what is most fascinating, this experience, in accordance to Lacanian psychoanalysis, is far from an act of sharing with a partner. Sula’s sexuality is neither located in the realm of moral abstractions nor expressed within the institution of marriage that legitimates it for women. Rather it is the realm of sensory experience and in the service of  self  exploration  that  leads  to  self  intimacy. Thus, by conforming the conventions of the social world, Sula realizes herself, on the other hand,  Nel realizes herself by conforming to the norms of the society. In sula, characters develop self-centeredness which helps in the defining the self.

Regarding its narrative technique, Deborah E. McDowell explains:

  “The narrative [Sula] insistently blurs and confuses… binary oppositions. It glories   in paradox and ambiguity beginning with the prologue that describes the setting, the Bottom, situated spatially in the top. We enter a new world here, a world where we never get to the  “bottom” of things, a world that demands a shift from an either/or orientation to one that is both/and, full of shifts and contradictions.”

Morrision  herself  describes  processes of  fragmentation  when  she   characterises contemporary American existence as one loaded with feelings of rage, fear, disorder, helplessness…the shudder of the intellect when language has failed it. In Sula, Morrision uses the narrative technique of defragmentation to (re)enact the processes of the female characters’   own  self-creations :   their  ordeals  and  experiment  of  becoming  other. Morrison’sstory telling epitomizes dialogism in time and space, point of view, character, technique and composition.

While going through the novel, we will experience ourselves trying to tie the loose cords of the text. Just as Shadrack whose very life depended on the release of the knots of his shoelaces. In  addition  to the  rhythmically  woven and  knotted  motif  of  literal  and metaphorical  deaths articulated in the pulsating imagery of water, fire, air and earth,Sula’s narrative design, on the other hand, displays a rich though fragmented pattern of sensual imagery. The narrative structure of this novel is related to the character’s struggle for the path of discover. Gyetavi expresses:

     “Morrision presents constantly though unexpectedly shifting view points, an unpredictable choir  of narrative voices and juxtaposed fragments of events and images that are in dialogue with one another but could hardly form, a straightforward linear cause and effect plot is a monologue.”

The sense of becoming an other is significant in the relationship of Nel and Sula. The intimacy of both the characters is presented in such a manner that they “themselves have problem  in  distinguishing  one’s thoughts  from  another”. As Nel  speak  that  talking  to “Sula has always been a conversation with herself”. With the passage of time, Sula realizes that no one could ever be a version of your own self. The relation of being friends becomes eminent in the description of pre-oedipal attachment of infant’s daughter to her mother. The  female  bonding  of  two  girls  in  friendship  exemplifies  a  relational  mode  of  self definition  and  one’s  craving  for  the  other. The  technique  of  defragmentation  in Sula  portrays the conflict of the self in the process of being another. It also presents the desire of black women to survive in a society that is hostile to their interests.Such narrative mode in fiction is  disjointed as  well  as linked. The narrative evolves along broken lines that are reminiscence of  split  descriptions, character  images  as  well  as  plots. Defragmentation technique in Sula enacts a yearning for a genuine self and existential totality.

Further, the  nature  is  being  described  very  frequently  in  the  novel. There is an extrinsic relation and comparison between  nature and  female characters shown  by  the author. Birds, flowers, fire and most importantly water is very much associated with Sula and other characters as well. Birds invoke the idea of flight, which make sense when Sula flee at some point in the story. Sula  has  a  birthmark  shaped  like a  rose  and  “The Rose Tattoo” is the  source  of  the  novels  epigraph. These  particular  flowers  are beautiful and fragrant, even intoxicating. Rochelle  intoxicates  Nel, and Sula  intoxicates the many  men around her.   These characters are also a little dangerous in that they disrupt the lives of the people they encounter. But the thing  about  flowers  is, once  they’re picked, they don’t live for  very  long.  Just as the flower’s beauty  is  fleeting, so too is the presence of  both  this women  in  the  novel. Water  is  often  associated  with  death  in  the  novel. For   Sula,  it represents chicken’s horrible drowning. Fire might be a cleansing force, but water engulfs and consumes the young world. Water doesn’t comfort Sula but rather agitates and upsets her because of her responsibility for chicken’s death. At the end of the novel, one of the townspeople who die in the tunnel slides and hits the ice blow.




  1. Gender analysis in Toni Morrision’s Beloved and Sula –HIRA ALI
  2. Toni Morrision Sula: Formation of the self in terms of Love-Death relationships with others and with oneself -ADRIANA JIMENEZ RODRIGUEZ
  3. Toni Morrision’s Sula: A satire on Binary Thinking -RITA A. BERGENHOLT
  4. https://www.ukessays.com/essays/english-literature/toni-morrisons-sula.php
  5. Toni Morrison’s Sula:The New York Times Book Review,1973


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Yenshembam Nandita devi (1325)




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