Academic journal article African American Review

Circling Meaning in Toni Morrison's Sula

Academic journal article African American Review

Circling Meaning in Toni Morrison's Sula

Article excerpt

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Circles" (1841)

But that's getting too far ahead of the story, almost to the end, although the end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.--Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.--Toni Morrison, Sula (1973)

[A]bove all it is necessary to read and reread those in whose wake I write, the "books" in whose margins and between whose lines I mark out and read a text simultaneously almost identical and entirely other....--Jacques Derrida, Positions (1980)

Twenty-five years after the death of Sula Peace, Nel Green recalls the cycle of her own martyred life as she walks to the nursing home to visit Sula's grandmother. During the visit, she learns that Eva knows the most painful secret of her childhood, which she and Sula have closely kept. When Eva tells her that she and Sula are "just alike," Nel recoils in anger and embarrassment. She runs from the nursing home to Sula's grave and there faces her own complicity in the death of the little boy known as Chicken Little (163-71). Leaving the grave, Nel suddenly stops:

       "Sula?" she whispered, gazing at the tops of the trees.
"Sula?"
      Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green
   things. A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores
in
   the breeze.
      "All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing
Jude." And the
   loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. "We
was girls
   together," she said as though explaining something. "O
Lord, Sula," she
   cried, "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl."
      It was a fine cry--loud and long--but it had no bottom and it had
no
   top, just circles and circles of sorrow. (174) 

The scene actually begins in the chapter "1937" as Nel, betrayed by Sula and abandoned by Jude, cowers in her bathroom:

    Nel waited. Waited for the oldest cry. A scream not for others, not
in
   sympathy for a burnt child, or a dead father, but a deeply personal
cry
   for one's own pain. A loud, strident: "Why me?" She
waited. The mud
   shifted, the leaves stirred, the smell of overripe green things
enveloped
   her and announced the beginnings of her very own howl.
      But it did not come. (108) 

That scream does not come for twenty-seven years. In the interim, her repressed scream takes the form of a "little ball of fur and string and hair always floating in the light," which Nel refuses to face. She believes that the ball represents her memory of Jude; actually it shields her from admitting that Sula is the real loss. Knowing that her grief for Jude will pass and that its passing will be her private hell, Nel fastens her attention on the details of this new life. When she refuses to look at the ball all summer, her agony fades, but it will not entirely disappear (108-09).

By the chapter "1940" Nel's psychological survival has taken the form of motherly martyrdom. She refuses to depend on her parents, and assuming both male and female roles, works where Jude had worked and cares for his abandoned children. Moored by "[v]irtue, bleak and drawn," she visits Sula's deathbed--ostensibly the good woman visiting a sick member of the community, she wants to know why Sula had betrayed their friendship and destroyed her marriage. She leaves "embarrassed, irritable, and a little bit ashamed," but no closer to resolution (138-46). Nel notifies the authorities that "a Miss Peace" has died at 7 Carpenter's Road, and attends Sula's funeral when the rest of the Bottom will not (172-73). In the years following Sula's death, Nel

    pinned herself into a tiny life. … 
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