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Anti-Conventionalism in “Sula”

By Dr Omila Thounaojam


Morrison experiments with anti-conventionalism and most profoundly comes up with the creation of Sula, a woman whose personality in the novel totally diverts away from the conventional expectations of “how” an ideal woman should be like. She is a woman who will not mother, nurture, or take her place in the usual heterosexual social order that characterizes women like Helene Wright and her daughter Nel. Sula could be considered as an imaginative creation of Morrison’s experiment with feminist ideologies wherein, she tries to imagine a self-creation, rebelling from, and at odds with, all the preceding prescription. Morrison has asserted that she wanted to take a woman who is unlike Geraldine in The Bluest Eye or Helene Wright (Nel’s mother) and Nel in Sula who just folds away many parts of herself by just preparing oneself for marriage and home-making (Asinof “Fresh Ink”). Hortense Spillers notes that in Sula, the novelist imagines a woman, who, intends on opening up all parts of herself rather than folding them away, flouts convention and received morality (214).

Morrison cuts Sula free from the conventional responsibilities and definers of an ideal womanhood and provides her a kind of detachment and distance by cutting her loose from feeling and as well to make her in many ways surprisingly evil. In a series of events that unfold in the course of the narrative, one finds Sula coldheartedly disposing her grandmother Eva by placing her in a degraded old home meant for old people. A string of signs is linked to Sula based on the community’s mythology, thereby almost equating her with the devil figure. Morrison has noted in many of her interviews that she is fascinated with the way black communities tolerate evil, learning to live and survive in its presence rather than responding aggressively and anxiously to banish or exorcise it.

Nonetheless, the community in Sula, more than simply tolerating it, helps to add up in Sula the evil that it perceives and even needs. Sula’s presence is a need for the community for it challenges its members to explore their best selves and this facet is markedly evident in the novel when, after her death, the sense of relief, hope and order that the people of her community felt is short-lived: A falling away, a dislocation was taking place. … Without her mockery, affection for others sank into flaccid disrepair. Daughters who had complained bitterly about the responsibilities of taking care of their aged mother-in-law had altered when Sula locked Eva away, and they began cleaning those old women’s spittoons without a murmur. Now that Sula was dead and done with, they returned to a steeping resentment of the burdens of old people (153-54). Throughout the novel, there is a reiteration of “how” it is only Sula who can look upon pain and trauma with disinterest. Sula’s strength to live life on her own terms is best
expressed: “‘Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something?  A secondhand lonely’” (143).

Many commentators have argued that Sula’s conscious disinterestedness provokes unease and this illustrated when she admits that she is thrilled and “interested” (78) to see her mother burn and also when Ajax has left her, she recognizes that she would have liked to tear “the flesh from his face” (136) to get to the secret of his blackness and beauty.  Barbara Johnson’s brilliant reading of the novel draws our attention to Sula’s puzzling disinterestedness particularly focusing on the moment when Nel discovers Jude and Sula together. All Nel does is looking at them in disbelief at the adulterous scene before her and waits for one of them to say something by way of explanation: “I waited for Sula to look up at me any minute and say one of those lovely college words like aesthetic or rapport, which I never understood but which I loved because they sounded so comfortable and firm” (105). Johnson argues that the novel functions as a test for the reader of readerly aesthetics or rapport, interest or disinterest in the succession of horrible images, painful truths and losses, that it articulates and interrogates the readerly response to the horrible images we see and hence, asks “What is the nature of our pleasure in contemplating trauma?” (171).

Sula’s determination to live one’s life in one’s own term certainly made her disregard the usual constraints that socialization involves, but such a disregard for convention made her pay a heavy price, especially in the last chapters, the novel is explicit about the pain and suffering that Sula, disinterested as she seems, has not managed to leave behind. The aspect of Sula that we see by the second part of the novel seems “to have become a repository of pain – personal, local and cosmic” (Matus). Such an assumption about her could be drawn on the basis of the fact that Sula perceives even the act of lovemaking surprisingly, as a way to find “misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow” (122) and seeking out the “eye of sorrow in the midst of all that hurricane rage of joy,” she locates at the center of “that silence … the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning” (123). It is then that she wept: For loneliness assumed the absence of other people, and the solitude she found in that desperate terrain had never admitted the possibility of other people. She wept then. Tears for the death of the littlest things: the castaway shoes of children; broken stems of marsh grass battered and drown by the sea; prom photographs of dead women she never knew; wedding rings in pawnshop windows’ the tidy bodies of Cornish hens in a nest of rice” (123). Sula’s sense of cosmic grief as evident from the references above draws our attention towards an incident or rather an accident, a case of specific trauma of her past that involves the death of Chicken Little. One could ascertain that Chicken Little’s death is the central symbol of loss in the novel. As the narrator puts forth, with a “bubbly laughter,” he was there for one moment as Sula swings him, holding him by the wrists, but he is gone the next moment “The water darkened and closed quickly over the place where Chicken Little sank. The pressure of his hard and tight little fingers was still in Sula’s palms as she stood looking at the closed place in the water. They expected him to come back up, laughing” (61). The effect of Chicken Little’s death is as if “something” is “newly missing” and at the funeral, the women mourners connect to the event by identifying with the child as “innocent victim” and are also reminded of the “oldest and most devastating pain there is: not the pain of childhood but the remembrance of it” (65). The funeral foregrounds the notion that the boy’s death is a symbol of Sula’s own childhood hurt.

Chicken Little’s accidental death is one of the key moments in the novel and is an incident that introduces us with the notion of the pain of losing innocence and also through Shadrack’s promise to Sula, the permanence of childhood secured and captured by death. Realizing that Shadrack has seen the accident, Sula runs to his shack and all she gets to hear from him is the one consolidating word he utters, “always.” The notion of permanent peace in Chicken Little’s long sleep of water returns to Sula shortly before her own death. She dies with the dominating feeling of “being completely alone – where she had always wanted to be – free of the possibility of distraction” (149).

When Shadrack remembers of the exchange that he had with Sula, he promises her not ostensibly the sleep of water, but a stay against change and the “falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood. He had said ‘always’ to convince her, assure her, of permanency” (157). When he sees Sula’s corpse, he realizes that yet another whose face, he knew has died and finally the hope preserved in his sense of “always” disappears. A heavy sense of despair propels him so much so to the point that he starts doubting whether his suicide day has helped to keep order in the universe. One could undoubtedly infer that Sula’s death sets off the chain of circumstances that leads to the deaths of many of the Bottom’s community members.

In her final conversations with Nel, she says “Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it” (144-45). What becomes clear about Sula, having lived life on her own terms, is that she has not avoided pain, but simply objected to order or school her feelings to go with conventional practices. She finds the cult of womanhood that conditions, proscribes and prescribes emotions to be not worth following. In a most shocking declaration, Sula asserts that there will be a time when the world will actually love her: ‘Oh, they’ll love me all right. It will take time, but they’ll love me. … After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the younger girls have slept with their drunken old uncles; after all the black men fuck all the white ones; when all the white woman kiss all the black ones … then there’ll be a little love left over for me. And I know just what it will feel like’ (145).

Sula’s thought in the stated speech is distinctively about taboo breaking, iconoclasm and moreover, the shattering of social and sexual conventions. We find that Sula is comprised of voices echoing with delayed reactions, dissociations, repressed memories and above all, the “psychic discontinuity” of event and affect (Johnson). There are a series of moments in the text that contain incidents witnessing that discontinuity – Shadrack’s reaction to the experience of the battlefield, Nel’s response to discovering her husband Jude committing adultery with her best friend Sula, and Sula’s response to the drowning of Chicken Little – to mention a few examples. It could also be highlighted here that indeed many characters in the novel experience the disjunction between the immediate event and the registration of its psychic effects. Eva is the best example to point out, for the narrator describes how Eva feels when Boyboy leaves her and she doesn’t know what she feels and then suddenly it strikes her that she hates him: “It hit her like a sledge hammer and it was then that she knew what to feel. A liquid trail of hate flooded her chest” (36). There is a fascinating structural pattern that is formed by the accumulation of such delayed effects and Eva’s just one to be pointed out here. Barbara Johnson remarks: “While the chapter headings promise chronological linearity, the text demonstrates that lived time is anything but continuous, that things don’t happen when they happen, that neither intentionality nor reaction can naturalize trauma into consecutive narrative” (169). Robert Grant offers further input to such an observation by stating that the wrought, “quasipalindromic” structure of the novel is testimony to its concern with delayed effects: “Sula divides precisely into two equal parts and characters introduced and developed in ‘I’ are brought back in ‘II’ in inverse sequence. The novel begins in memory and concludes with Nel’s crucial remembrance of Sula” (95).



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