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In Morrison’s novel Sula, she tells the fragmented story of two black women, Sula and Nel, starting with their childhood in 1919, and ending fifteen years after the death of Sula in 1965, sporadically visiting other years in between. The two girls come from very different backgrounds, Sula’s house is full of disorder with “dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink” (29, Morrison), while in Nel’s house there is an “oppressive neatness” (29). Despite their differences however, Sula herself also describes the two as girls as being “two throats and one eye” (147).
In representing the main characters in such a fashion, Morrison paints for the reader a picture in which entities which appear strikingly different are also tied together in an inextricable fashion.
Morrison throughout the novel makes distinctions between common dichotomies in our lives which are then blurred by the author’s succinct use of literary devices which cause the reader to reflect and see these concepts in new ways.
In short, Morrison takes these Sula and Nel, and the different ideas themes they represent, and blurs the lines between the two women, making them become reflections of one another despite their differences. This paper will be focused on the way Morrison is able to obscure the binary between right and wrong through her use of focalization, imagery, and dialogue, as well as her use of temporality throughout the novel. Nel acts in a way that seems good, and Sula seems to act selfishly, yet by the end of the book, the reader is left without a clear distinction between who was right, and who was wrong.
The passages which seem to call the most attention to this blurred dichotomy are the ones in which Morrison uses focalizes on each character using stream of consciousness in order to reflect the thoughts and feelings of the two main characters. She makes use of this literary device twice, once for each character. In the first instance Morrison portrays to the reader Nel’s experience of finding Sula and her husband having sex on the bedroom floor. yet in having Nel see Sula in the way she does without talking to Sula about what happened, this view of Sula later seems wrong in and of itself. Nel describes Sula and her husband as seeming “like dogs” (105). Combining stream of consciousness with imagery, Morrison has Nel take away from Sula’s humaneness by representing her as an animal.
A dog has little self control, and does not have the human capacity to tell right from wrong. Nel, meanwhile stands “seeing it and smiling, because maybe there was some explanation” (105), she tries to see the situation rationally, and gives them the benefit of the doubt. The reader sees this and feels pity for Nel, because it seems as if she is expecting to receive reason from a dog, which has no rational reasons to offer. Sula’s selfishness is further embedded within her character when Nel describes her as looking both bored and impatient, as if “waiting for the hosts to get some quarreling done and over with so the card game could continue” (106).
Through imagery Sula is portrayed in this scene as though she is an animal, thinking only of her own needs, unaware of others, and so not being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, she acts selfishly and immorality. She sleeps with her friends husband, an act of adultery which is not accepted throughout the culture of many societies. Additionally, because the scene is presented from Nel’s stream of consciousness, the reader has no choice except to see things from Nel’s point of view, which although emotional, is presented rationally, and does not offer the reader a chance to see things from Sula’s side. This is also the beginning of Morrison’s use of temporality to reinforce the obscuration of this dichotomy between good and bad, because Sula’s interpretation of events is not offered to the reader until further into the novel, where presenting it has a greater effect. Morrison allows the reader to feel one way about the binary assigning each side to one character, before she forces the reader to see them intertwined.
In the previous passage it seems that, because of her rationality, Nel is able to see right from wrong, and paints Sula’s irrationality as selfish and inhumane; animal-like. Yet, when the reader is later given insight into Sula’s own stream of consciousness, a different idea is conveyed. While looking upon the face of Ajax as she nears orgasm, Sula’s stream of thoughts are altogether different than that of Nel’s, and yet there is nothing inherently wrong with them, she sees only the good. As she describes what Ajax’s features look like underneath his skin she describes it in terms of “good leaf” (130) , “alabaster” (130) and “the loam, fertile” (130). So although she does not see things from this same rational view of Nel, the way she does view things is to see the goodness in what she is looking at. Stark contrast is driven between the two views of the characters. Nel sees only the badness in the scene the reader is presented with. She portrays the lovers as dogs and her friend as selfish and uncaring.
The reader does not expect to get a glimpse into Sula’s mind which offers such a complex beauty. When given insight into Sula’s consciousness one sees that Sula is not this inherently selfish being, instead she looks upon others in this illogical and emotional manner which allows her to see this inner beauty which she is drawn too. In her eyes, Ajax, who is described earlier in the novel as having “a nastiness impossible to imitate” (50), becomes this figure of classical beauty, evoking images of art, wealth, and the beauty of nature. In this way Morrison is able to present Sula, although being irrational, as still being able to see this goodness in life. She still has a humaneness to her, and is not this dog that Nel has previously described her as. This point is driven home all the more because of the time Morrison allows to pass before giving the reader this insight into Sula’s character.
Sula is constantly shown as doing whatever she pleases and no insight is ever given into why she does what she does aside from attributing it to how she was raised. The reader is left to assume only that she is a selfish adulterer who is mad at the world. The way she is presented after returning home and sleeping with Nel’s husband only reinforces this idea. Yet now, towards the end of the novel, once one understands how she is seeing the beauty around her, it does not seem as if she is doing anything wrong. On the contrary it seems only that she is trying to find beauty in her life, trying to fight the loneliness she is confronted with in this world; something the reader can relate to.
Further blurring of right and wrong is also found earlier in the novel as well, when Sula and Nel are children and become complicit in the death of Chicken Little. While teasing and playing with the child, he drowns in the river, and the two characters have decidedly different reactions which are reflected through the imagery described which can be attributed to each of them. After Chicken dies the water is described as “so peaceful now” (61) to which Sula reacts by having “cupped her face for an instant” implying a disbelief that Chicken is gone, and a guilt because of her complicity in his death. She is stunned by the fact that it has happened, and when she runs to Shadrack’s shack, “there is no path” (61).
This lack of path implies that after realizing that she has played a part in Chicken’s death, she has now become lost, and there is no path out of it. It also reinforces the idea of Sula as this irrational person, following no path, further embedding in her character this idea of the irrational and uncivilized; the chaotic one; the wrong one.After speaking with Shadrack, Sula then returns to Nel, “and the dark closed place in the water” (62). Chicken died in this closed place in the water, and in having Nel be coupled with the imagery of his resting place, Morrison is giving to the reader the implication that she is at fault as much as Sula. Yet upon Sula’s return to Nel where Nel tells her “it’s not your fault” (63), Sula “stood up and allowed Nel to leader her away”. Nel, who is presented throughout the novel as the moral one, is leading her friend away from the scene of a child’s death.
Instead of doing the right thing, such as telling Chicken’s parents or another adult, Nel leads Sula away from the river, and the subject is never brought up again for many years. So while Sula reacts emotionally to Chicken’s death, Nel seems not to react at all, and moves on from the situation seemingly unfeelingly, bringing Sula with her. Morrison uses the imagery of the scene to encapsulate Nel’s own involvement in Chicken’s death without having the character actually express any feeling of having done something wrong, something which conveys to the reader that although she is a rational person, still seems wrong. A child has died, and something should be done, yet Nel merely tells her friend it’s not her fault and leads her away.
Sula on the other hand, feels lost and needs to be comforted, and through her emotionality is more relatable to the reader. This rationality of Nel’s is reinforced later on near the end of the novel as Nel once more becomes the centerpoint of Morrison's focalization as she reflects on chicken’s death after having spoken with Eva, “Sula had cried...But Nel had remained calm” (170). Morrison, by having Sula be the one who throws Chicken into the river, and then presenting Nel as being comforting, is able to simultaneously reinforce these binaries into the characters, while also beginning to make them questionable. However, by not revealing Nel’s thoughts on the event until later in the novel, is able to let the reader accept this binary as something that is comprised of two seperate parts before she breaks them down and ties them together in later parts of the novel, such as when Nel meets with Sula in the nursing home.
Over course of the meeting with Eva at the end of the novel, Morrison uses dialogue to further obfuscate the differences in this dichotomy between right and wrong as it is displayed between the two women. If Nel’s behavior was not immediately noticed as being wrong during the scene in which Chicken dies, only hinted at through imagery, Morrison now cements Nel’s wrongness here through focalization after Nel leaves the nursing home. Reflecting on the experience Nel thinks about “The good feeling she had had when Chicken’s hands slipped”, and then asks herself, “How come it felt so good to see him fall?” After letting Nel seem like the good one, the rational one, throughout the course of the novel, it now becomes very much apparent that she also has a badness running through her as she derived pleasure from the death of a child. Not only does this break down the dichotomy, it also begins to tie the two characters and their differences, together even more, as Nel’s pleasure in seeing Chicken die seems to reflect Sula’s own feelings at watching her Mother burn.
This idea of the two is even further reinforced with the use of dialogue between Nel and Eva in the scene. Best portrayed through one line in which Evasays, “You, Sula. What’s the difference?” (168). Morrison further reinforces this with the later line “Just alike. Both of you. Never was no difference between you.” (169). The dialogue of Eva (namer of the deweys who later became unrecognizable to everyone despite their differences) gives the reader the sense that although Sula and Nel represent these two different themes of right and rational, of the civilized, and that of the emotional, the chaotic, and the wrong, is brought together in a way which makes the reader wonder if although they are different, if the sum of each character adds up the same, what is the difference?
Because of Morrison’s use of temporality, the reader is then able to look back on the novel after having attained this information and see it in a new light. The reader can now see that Nel goes through life after Chickens death continuing to perceive things in this rational way because it allowed her to deny guilt in Chicken’s death. She never questions her complicitness until Eva says to her “Tell me how you killed that little boy” (168). Nel uses her rationality to deny her part in Chicken’s death, telling Eva “I didn’t throw no little boy in the river. That was Sula” (168), but as Eva responds in the same way the reader would by saying, “You was there. You watched didn’t you?” (168).
Through this dialogue with Eva and Nel it is shown the Nel acts the way she does because her rationality has allowed her to deny her part in Chicken’s death. By thinking that as long as she was acting rationally, she was acting morally, she was acting right. She then goes through life acting in this same way. Sula, on the other hand, because she knows Chicken’s death was her fault, sees herself as a bad person. Because of this she goes through her life acting as though she is a bad person, claiming things like “Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody” (145). She was trying to be nice to Chicken by playing with him, and it resulted in his death, so she is hesitant to be good throughout the rest of the novel.
Yet, she only acts in this way because of her guilt which comes as a result of being a good person. If she were bad she would have felt good the same way Nel did. Using dialogue in this way Morrison is able to further blur the differences between right and wrong because Nel has gone through life acting good because she has done something wrong which she has denied. Sula, on the other hand does the inverse. She goes through life trying to think of only herself because she has in a morally correct way seen that she did something wrong, which makes her believe she is a bad person, even if she did not purposely kill Chicken.
This dichotomy is further obscured with the Bottom’s reaction to Sula’s death. Precisely because of the fact that she is a pariah, because her wrongness, the town is unable to function without her. “Hard on the hells of the general relief that Sula’s death brought a restless irritability took hold”(153). Here Morrison ensures that even if the reader goes that even if the reader goes through the novel up to this point not seeing any good in her character, they must now be forced to. For now, because of Sula’s absence, “the tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made” (153). Morrison focalizes on different members of the Bottom in order to drive home that Sula was a needed part of the community, and did bring good, regardless of her adultery and apparent self-centeredness.
At the end of the novel, Morrison once more focalizes on Nel as she reflects on Sula, allowing Nel to see Sula for who she is, drawing them together once more and further blurring the right and wrongness of the rational and irrational. She realizes that Sula never meant to wrong her, that when Sula told her she never meant to take Ned from her, only that she thought they shared everything, she was telling the truth. Teapot’s mother beats him (153), daughters “returned to a steeping resentment of the burdens of old people” (154), and the black men from Canada lose their compassion for souther-born blacks (154). Regardless of how Sula reacted, she was an integral part of the community, and as such was a force for good. Additionally, this scene, which in a way is Nel’s end because it is the last scene in the novel, reflects Sula’s own end, her death. Both characters think of the other in their final scenes. By establishing this Morrison makes the reader question whether good and bad are two seperate sides to a coin, or whether they are two strings which wrap around and depend on the another to hold them up.
Through portraying her two main characters as rational and irrational and tying that dichotomy to one of good and bad, Morrison is able to blur and entangle the ideas of good and bad through her use of literary devices in a way which cause the reader to ask whether the two ideas represent opposite ends of a spectrum, or whether they are all part of the same force that comprises life. Without one, we can not have the other, and through her novel Morrison is able portray this to the reader in several different ways: she establishes that while Nel is rational and acts in an orderly and seemingly good fashion, she only does it because as a child it is how she was able to deny her fault in Chicken’s death. While Sula is emotional, part of this is only because she reacts to Chicken’s death so strongly, and so from then on is forced to believe that she is bad. Her selfishness comes from her reaction to Chicken’s accidental death, something which speaks to her goodness. Yet, even if she has acted immorally; wrongly, Morrison establishes that this wrongness was something integral to the community, because of her selfishness, Sula was able to inspire those around her to higher standards, which they lose with her death.
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