Toni Morrison's 'Sula': A Satire on Binary Thinking

By Bergenholtz, Rita A. | African American Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Toni Morrison's 'Sula': A Satire on Binary Thinking


Bergenholtz, Rita A., African American Review


Attempts to define Toni Morrison's novel Sula are as numerous as they are diverse. The text has been read as a "black woman's epic," a study of "female friendship," an "antiwar novel," a "fable," an exploration of the "feminine psyche," and "a prime postmodernist text."! If one were to single out one particular interpretation and argue that it were somehow superior, somehow right while the others were wrong, that person would fall into the trap of binary thinking which is also what Morrison's text is "about." Deborah E. McDowell explains further:

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. (80)

In my own attempt to describe Sula, I will expand upon McDowell's thesis and argue that the novel may also be read as an extended satire on binary (reductive, cliched) thinking. Because satire is a notoriously imprecise term, a clarification of its usage in this essay is appropriate.

The traditional definition of satire as a didactic art form was articulated by Horace in the first century B.C., restated and amplified by Dryden at the close of the seventeenth century, and upheld by several prominent theorists in the first half of the twentieth century.(2) In fact, as recently as 1985 Linda Hutcheon argued that parody should not be confused with satire, "which is extra-mural (social, moral) in its ameliorative aim to hold up to ridicule the vices and follies of mankind, with an eye to their correction" (43). Dryden's "Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire" (1693) has largely been responsible for this view of satire. As Dustin Griffin explains, "Our reigning notion of satire as a moral art and as a carefully constructed and unified contrast between vice and virtue finds its fullest and most influential presentation in Dryden's essay" (15). According to Dryden, "Satire is a kind of Poetry . . . invented for the purging of our Minds; in which Humane Vices, Ignorance, and Errors, and all things besides . . . are severely Reprehended" (77). This definition highlights two related points which deserve attention. First, Dryden's theory of satire as correction and reformation clearly fails to describe his own satiric practice; and, second, it is intended to describe only formal verse (or Roman) satire and not Menippean (or Varronian) satire.

Regarding the first point, Edgar Johnson aptly notes that "it is hard to detect any reformatory zeal in Mac Flecknoe and the booby-trap denouement of its coronation scene" (4). The same may be said about the satires of Horace, who argues that his goal is to laugh men out of their follies - thus drawing attention to the moral aspect of his satire - but, as Griffin notes, "Satire, as Horace practices it, is considerably more diverse than laughter at folly" (8). In fact, contrary to what the satirist may claim in defense of his or her work, the satirist's primary aim has generally been to upset our conventional literary and moral expectations - not to validate them. Moreover, as John R. Clark argues, rather than attacking folly and vice, "Satiric plots regularly dramatize the triumph of folly or vice" (51). We need only recall the end of Gulliver's Travels - where Gulliver converses with his horses - or the conclusion of Pope's "Epilogue to the Satires: Dialogue I" - where Vice triumphs with great pageantry - to recognize the validity of this statement.(3)

Furthermore, it is significant that Dryden's theory is intended to describe only formal verse satire (as practiced by Horace, Juvenal, and Persius), and not Menippean satire. Like Quintillian before him and many theorists after him, Dryden draws a clear distinction between the two satiric traditions - privileging the Roman tradition of verse satire established by Lucilius (second century B. …

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