“Sula” by Tony Morrison is the story of a friendship between Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who are opposites in the way of relating to other people, to the world around them, and to themselves. Nel is rational and balanced; she gets married and gives in to conformity and the town’s expectations. Sula is an irrational and transient character. She follows her immediate passions, completely unaware of the feelings other people might have. However, Nel and Sula are able to function well only when they are together because they complete each other as opposites.
However, as separate entities, Sula and Nel are vulnerable and isolated from the rest of world; Sula because she is impulsive and disregards the feelings of other people, and Nel because she overlooks her own. The personalities of Nel and Sula form as a result of their childhood family atmosphere. Sula’s unusual exorbitance results from an eccentric upbringing that openly accepts and welcomes transience.
The narrator describes Sula’s house as a “throbbing disorder constantly awry with things, people, voices and the slamming of doors . . . 52), which suggests a family accustomed to spontaneous disruptions and fleeting alliances. Sula decides that “sex is pleasant and frequent, but otherwise insignificant. ” (44) Sula grows up in the atmosphere of an emotional separation between mothers and daughters in her family. The mothers provide only the physical maternal support but lack in the emotional attachment to their children. Sula overhears her mother, Hannah, say, “I love her [Sula]. I just don’t like her, that’s the thing. ” (57) Hannah’s words act as a determiner of Sula’s defiance.
Hannah and Eva, her mother, are also alienated. “Under Eva’s distant eye, and prey to her idiosyncrasies, her own children grew up steadily. ” (41) This dissatisfaction causes Hannah to ask Eva, “Did you ever love us? ” (67) “I know you fed us and all. I was talking ’bout something else. Did you ever, you know play with us? ” (68) Eva leaps out of the window to “cover her daughter’s body with her own” (75) to save her from a fire; she raises her children single-handedly and even sacrifices her leg to get an insurance because she does not have enough money to feed her children.
Proud of keeping her children alive through the roughest times, Eva does not realize that she needs to be more than a physical caretaker. An unrestricted household such as the Peace family, with little emotional attachment and moral responsibilities, causes Sula to become impetuous and independent. Nel’s household, however, is very conformist and proper, but also lacks in emotional attachments. Nel’s parents marry out of convenience, rather than love. For Nel’s mother, the absences of her husband, a sailor were “quite bearable.
Nel is raised in an atmosphere of “oppressive neatness” (29), a strict and organized household that instills society’s rules in her. Nel’s mother constantly attempts to destroy Nel’s spirit and imagination. “Under Helene’s [Nel’s mother’s] hand the girl became obedient and polite. Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground. ” (18) “Don’t just sit there, honey, you could be pulling your nose” (28) This emotional vacuum compels the girls to seek their missing components in each other’s company.
During their friendship, Sula and Nel do not have the feeling of detachment they acquire after their parting. In their friendship as girls, they “had clung to [each other] as the closest thing to both an other and a self” (119). They have an interest and curiosity in life and they are absorbed by everything they do. Together they can relate to other people better when they are together. “Humor returned. Nel’s love for Jude, which over the years had spun a steady gray web around her heart, became a bright and easy affection. 95)
When they are together, their characters balance out to make a complete, fulfilled, and self-contained person, a duet (97). To Nel, Sula’s return to Medallion is like “getting the use of an eye back, getting a cataract removed” (95). Sula’s thoughtlessness, irrationality, and transience are rounded out by Nel’s sobriety, solicitude, and commitment to people and things. “[Sula and Nel] found relief in each other’s personality. Nel seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted on sustaining any emotion for more than three minutes. 53) Their friendship was based on sharing, not dividing, as they “shared the affection of other people”.
However, when Sula leaves Medallion and Nel gets married, their separation causes each to become vulnerable and lonely. Sula is alienated from other people, and does not view their feelings to be as real as her desires. She sleeps with Jude, Nel’s husband, and leaves him soon afterward for another man. Even on her deathbed she refuses to recognize that she hurt Nel. Nel says to Sula, “What did you take [Jude] for if you didn’t love him and why didn’t you think of me? 144) Sula “puts [Eva] out” (99) into an asylum, completely insensitive to Eva’s condition there or the town’s opinion.
Sula and Nel both suffer a loss of an anchor without each other. After her marriage, Nel becomes a conventional, settled down woman. Her life when Sula is gone is much like her life in the “oppressive neatness” (29) of her mother’s house. She loses her true unique self after Sula is gone. She realizes this when Sula comes back to Medallion. “Nel felt new, soft and new. It had been the longest time since she had had a rib-scraping laugh. She had forgotten how deep down it could be.
So different from the miscellaneous giggles she learned to be content with these past few years. ” (98) Jude leaves Nel after meeting Sula because he is tired of the monotony of life with Nel, while Sula is something new and fresh to him. Jude thinks about Sula that she “had an odd way of looking at things, [had a] wide smile. A funny woman, he thought, not that bad-looking. ” (104) Without Sula, Nel becomes extremely dependent on Jude, and when he leaves her, she devotes the rest of her life to melancholy and virtue, “her only mooring. ” This loneliness is “somebody else’s lonely.
Made by somebody else and handed to [Nel]. ” (144) Without Sula, Nel needs to adhere to another people, she does not have desires and motives of her own. Nel is Sula’s connection to other people, while Sula is Nel’s connection to herself. Neither has a firm footing without the other. Without Nel, Sula becomes alienated from other people by acting extremely eccentric, and Nel looses her individuality and does what is expected of her without Sula. “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male they had set out about creating something else to be. 52)
In “Sula,” Toni Morrison dwells on the dream of a new, strong, African American woman. She challenges conformity and traditional rules of society. If old restrictions are never defied, new and better rules would never come. In this book, this image is contained in Sula and Nel together; each of them is a part of the image. By splitting the qualities of a whole and complete personality into two, Toni Morrison stresses how necessary both components are to the image of the new, strong African American woman.