"New World Woman": Toni Morrison's Sula

By Galehouse, Maggie | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

"New World Woman": Toni Morrison's Sula


Galehouse, Maggie, Papers on Language & Literature


I always thought of Sula as quintessentially black, metaphysically black, if you will, which is not melanin and certainly not unquestioning fidelity to the tribe. She is new world black and new world woman extracting choice from choicelessness, responding inventively to found things. Improvisational. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out- of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable. And dangerously female.-Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken"

Although Toni Morrison's observations have the benefit of hindsight-they are taken from a 1989 essay and Sula, Morrison's second novel, was published in 1973-they outline and respond to a distinct, cultural group. Sula chronicles a community in which black women dominate public and private life, narrating, as Mae Gwendolyn Henderson notes, the "intracultural/racial sites from which black women speak"(24). Yet Morrison's point in her description of her protagonist supersedes questions of gender and race. Since Sula Peace is conceived outside of the constraints ordinarily felt by women in her community (Sula, alone, is "dangerously female"), her status as woman is only a small part of how she perceives herself and, ultimately, how she is perceived by readers. The same goes for race. While the near-absence of whites in the novel forces a recognition of difference within race, Sula's blackness, as Morrison defines it, also transcends race altogether. Sula is simply too much of an enigma to be truly representative of either group. As Morrison notes, Sula's "new world black" is more than moxy and melanin: it is jazz-inspired, something individual, fundamental, and internal, manifesting itself in a resistance to existing social mores and a cultivation of the untried and the unknown. In many ways, Sula goes as far as Morrison's Beloved in describing the extent to which one woman's rejection of every available social script generates tangible, even fatal, public tension.

Despite any real or perceived limitations imposed by her family, her community, or the era in which she is depicted, Sula does not put any limits upon herself. Still, her "quintessential blackness" isolates her from a community that enacts an utterly antithetical aesthetic. Sula becomes instructive to readers precisely because she is deemed destructive by the other characters in the novel. A young woman coming of age in a rural Ohio community during the period between the World Wars, Sula is marked, both literally and figuratively, by her singularity of thought and action. She leaves her hometown for ten years, during which she travels across the country and attends college. When she returns, she refuses to maintain the family house in the manner of her mother and grandmother before her. Her sexual exploits do not (nor does she intend them to) lead her to a state of monogamy, shared domesticity, or even steady companionship; with one memorable exception, Sula's interactions with men are consciously finite. And despite her status as protagonist-the novel does, after all, bear her name-Sula occupies a relatively small amount of page-space, even dying a full two chapters before the novel's close. This comparative absence from a text that purports to be about her, coupled with the moral slipperiness of her character, makes Sula both difficult to like and difficult to know.

Two incidents in the novel figure prominently in Sula's development: the first, a conversation in which she overhears her mother, Hannah, conclude, ". . . I love Sula. I just don't like her"; the second, her inadvertent participation in the drowning of one of her peers, a young boy named Chicken Little. Morrison sums up the overall effect of these incidents in one, pithy passage:

. . . she [Sula] lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her. As willing to feel pain as to give pain, hers was an experimental life-ever since her mother's remarks sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle. …

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