Gender Roles in Sula by Toni Morrison

Categories: Sula


Life in the Bottom in the 1920s was not the most conducive to the self-sufficiency of women. Most women around the world at this time were obedient to the stereotypical gender roles. Women were meant to stay silent and aid in the needs of the men in their lives. However, this was not always the case. At this time, some women decided to fight for their own independence which can definitely be seen in Toni Morrison's Sula. This essay depicts the shift in the role of women and the conflict between the old ideals versus the modern acceptance of independent women in Sula by Toni Morrison.

The Relationships Between Mother and Daughter

In the Bottom, the relationships between the women hold families and the entire community together. One of the main qualities that define these women is motherhood. The women are very connected to their families than are the men in the novel. The men often abandon their families, while the profound presence of women and mothers in the lives of their children creates a very intense bond between the two, especially between mother and daughter.

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Often the women rely on these intense relationships between themselves and their children to get them through life. After long years of marriage to Wiley, when Helene had Nel she had "more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life" (18). Helene clearly states that she only married Wiley to be accepted by the other women and because in the sexist society of the 1920s, she needs a man to support and protect her.

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Yet, when she has Nel she finds a life purpose which exemplifies how the relationships between a mother and her daughter can help a person find their purpose in life and can keep the family together.

Sula's Independence

As the most determined and carefree of all of the female characters, Sula is the epitome of the modern independence of women in the novel. She even uses her independence as an excuse for her actions, explaining that she's spent her adult life just trying to "live in this world" (Morrison 143). She wants to escape the inevitable fate of the black women of the Bottom, becoming compliant to the traditional roles of women, by being as strong and independent as possible. Even though she might grow lonely with this type of lifestyle because she has no one to share it with, Sula deduces that freedom and experience are the only things worth living for so she doesn't mind being lonely in the process.

At a young age, the more conservative lifestyle she saw in Nel's house was appealing to her, but instead, she follows in her own mother's footsteps of being the most self-sufficient she can be. After traveling all over the country for many years, Sula realizes how the black women of the Bottom resign to the traditional roles of women. She notices "how the years had dusted their bronze with ash"(121) and how "those [women] with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins" (122). Sula refuses to settle for a lifestyle like this. Because of this, the women of the Bottom despise her since they believe she is the antithesis of their submissive lives. Furthermore, when she returns, Sula has a newfound attraction to Ajax. This comes from her wanting someone more independent than she is. Ajax, in Sula's eyes, is super strong and free-spirited, even more so than herself. When Ajax brings Sula some milk, she believes that "he had done something dangerous to get it," (124) which she appreciates and also excites her. However, when Sula starts to have feelings for starting a family, Ajax begins to think that she is becoming the opposite of herself and conforming to society, which he was initially attracted to her for. Sula is the extreme of independence of the novel and is very dissimilar from the rest of the women in the Bottom because of those beliefs.

Nel Realizing Her Potential

Unlike Sula, Nel does not realize her potential autonomy until later in her life. She is raised by her mother to accept, without question, the passive roles of a wife, mother, and daughter. She envied Sula's household growing up because they were a lot more free and self-sufficient, but instead, she follows in the footsteps of her mother for a life of submission. In her childhood when she and her mother are on their way to Louisiana to visit Helene's family, Nel notices her mother complying with the rudeness of male train conductors and Nel vows that "no man ever looked at her that way" (22). Although, this does not reign true and she continues to live her life just as her mother did, compliant to men. After her marriage with Jude dissolves, Nel devotes her life to her children and decides to be chosen by men and not to do the choosing, once again being passive.

However, towards the end of the novel, she comes to recognize the power of womanhood and she realizes that she has lost the chance to develop into her own womanhood. Nel cries out to Sula for her own wasted potential as she realizes that she has been extraordinarily jealous of Sula's carefreeness all these years. She is so jealous that she feels joy when she watches Sula mess up and swing Chicken Little to his death. She contemplates "the good feeling she had when Chicken's hands come it felt so good to see him fall?"(170), which she realizes is because she wanted to see Sula fail. After watching Sula's free spirit be reckless for their whole lives, she was overjoyed to see that it had finally resulted in a consequence. Although Nel is nowhere near the independence level of Sula, she does finally realize her potential at the end of the novel and will hopefully continue to live out that independence.


In conclusion, the women play a huge role in the community life of the Bottom. The relationships between these women hold their own families and the entire community together. Still, many female relationships are torn apart because the women are taught that their sole purpose in life is to find a husband and start a family. With very few exceptions, the female characters in Sula overturn these assigned roles set for women and become the self-reliant, powerful women all females are meant to be.

Updated: Feb 24, 2024
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Gender Roles in Sula by Toni Morrison. (2024, Feb 24). Retrieved from

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