On Friendship and Community in Toni Morrison's Sula / "A Black Woman's Epic"

“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 teenagers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men fuck all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mothers’ trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have fucked all the cats and every weather vane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs . . . then there’ll be a little love left over for me.”
-Sula Peace

I spent a recent weekend dissecting the symbiotic relationship between love -- of oneself and of another -- and friendship, wondering if, how, and where these concepts are conjoined. My musings were triggered by the fact that I was in the company of my best(est) friend in the whole wide world, and had much opportunity to both sink fully into the extended moment, and step outside its margins to reflect on the meandering journey that we’ve traveled together over the last eight years. I pondered the myriad of ways in which we have borne witness to miracles and tragedies in our individual lives. I basked in the joy of knowing that we have survived these blessings and calamities in no small part because of who we’ve been to, for, and with each other in those experiences that have passed, and who we pinky-promise to be to, for, and with each other in those experiences that are imminent.

There’s the rote and slightly hyberbolic (her version, not mine) story that we tell about the embryonic phase of our friendship -- the CliffsNotes’ version is that when we first met, which happened to be on a particularly sweltering summer day, she had an immediate distaste for me because I was such and such, and I couldn’t bear to be in her presence because she was this and that.

Then there’s the far more enduring and layered story -- the one that we don’t speak.

We know this second story as well and as deeply as we know each other and ourselves. In many ways, we’re still writing it. And we’re housing, nurturing, and guarding it in that narrow space between where she ends and I begin.

Thoughts on friendship, coupled with thoughts on this recent piece on the fracturing of the black community, led me to dust off my beloved copy of Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula. Morrison captures so aptly the inherent complexity of a friendship that exists despite the seemingly oppositional identities of the parties involved -- identities that differ and shift within the constraints of time and its unforgiving nature -- and against the backdrop of an evolving community struggling to redefine itself and its values. Below is an excerpt of a critique of Sula written by Karen F. Stein during her tenure as Associate Professor of English at the University of Rhode Island. (The full analysis is available on JSTOR.)

Read on. Then call a friend.

Toni Morrison’s Sula: A Black Woman’s Epic
by Karen F. Stein

The central figures in the novel, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, are diametric opposites whose lives are linked by bonds too powerful for either to resist. Ultimately hero and villain change roles, as their relationship grows into a larger selfhood. Using heroic conventions as a structural basis for her novel, Morrison creates layers of irony and multiple perceptions that add depth to her analysis of contemporary black women. Although the characters’ lives in an impoverished rural community, tellingly named “the Bottom,” contrast markedly with the epic figures whose names they bear (i.e., Ajax, Helen, Eve, and Judas), Morrison’s characters are measured by the heroic yardstick.

Set in a small Ohio town during the years 1919 to 1965, Sula chronicles the fortunes of the women in two matriarchal households within the black community, particularly Nel Wright and Sula Peace, whose lives represent the range of choices possible for black women in modern America. As we watch them grow to maturity, the heroes learn about sexuality, evil, power, love, and, primarily, about the prospects and limits of their lives, the difficulties of survival in an inimical world. Sula and Nel represent opposite approaches to the epic tasks of self-discovery and integration into society. Whereas the questing hero is traditionally an embodiment of a culture’s noblest values, the rigid Nel is too bound by convention to undertake a journey, and the adventurous Sula appears to be the antithesis of her society’s codes.

At the book’s heart is the tale of the friendship between Nel Wright and Sula Peace. Beginning when they are adolescent girls and continuing as they mature, the friendship changes in nature but remains the deepest attachment and most profound influence on both of their lives. Although the two girls share dreams of adventure and unfolding selfhood, their approaches to the task of maturation are diametrically opposed. Nel casts her visions in traditional romantic fantasies and sacrifices her independence to conventionality, while Sula, insisting on her independence, becomes isolated from society; she is free but directionless.

Obedient, quiet, and repressed, Nel first experiences herself as an individual apart from her family when she gazes in a mirror and dreams of traveling in the world beyond the Bottom [their hometown.] “But,” the narrator interjects at this point, “that was before she met Sula. . .” (p. 25). The introduction of Sula at this crucial birth of Nel’s self-awareness highlights the link between the two girls. In fact, it is her sense of her nascent identity which gives Nel the strength to defy her mother’s prohibition and establish a friendship with Sula. Yet it is to be Sula, rather than Nel, who eventually realizes Nel’s dreams of a journey and of independent selfhood.

As is frequently the case in epics, dreams play a significant role in the story. Dreams build the initial link between Sula and Nel, and foretell their different paths of self-expression. In her daydreams, Nel fantasizes “lying on a flowered bed, tangled in her own hair, waiting for some fiery prince” (p. 44) like the passive fairy-tale heroine. When Nel later marries, her life becomes one of passive limitation and stagnation, described in terms of spider web imagery suggestive of the entanglement in her own hair. Sula’s fantasies, by contrast, are actively sensuous ones in which she gallops “through her own mind on a gray-and-white horse tasting sugar and smelling roses” (p. 44). Resisting human ties, she is the daring, sensuous, active woman, seeking to experience life and her own being to the fullest. In her isolation, Sula is free, but she is directionless. Because neither of these two paths leads to personal fulfillment and social regeneration, the novel dramatizes the ironic contrast between epic expectation and actual achievement.

Nel’s marriage separates her from Sula, who alone, of all the women in the Bottom, rejects the limits, the obligations and restrictions, of marriage and motherhood. Viewing marriage as compounded of convenience and caution, Sula avoids such ties. While her repudiation of these bonds renders her an outcast in the eyes of her community, she perceives herself as free, and therefore able, as none of the other women are, to be honest and to experience life and self fully. Her journey is the enactment of that freedom.

It is consistently at the points of tangency to each other that the lives of Nel and Sula are most vitally lived. We remember that their friendship came into being in dreams before the two girls met each other. More significantly, Morrison’s imagery suggests a kinship so close as to be a physical connection. In their girlhood, “. . . their friendship was so close, they themselves had difficulty distinguishing one’s thoughts from the other’s ... a compliment to one was a compliment to the other, and cruelty to one was a challenge to the other” (p. 72). When Sula returns to the Bottom after a long absence, the ties remain strong. Nel’s home-centered life is expanded and enriched when Sula returns to the Bottom. Her reappearance is described in physical terms. To Nel, her friend’s return is “like getting the use of an eye back, having a cataract removed.... Talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself” (p. 82). For Sula, lacking a central core, Nel is “the closest thing to both an other and a self” (p. 103); she thinks of them as “‘two throats and one eye”‘ (p. 126). The imagery of physical connection suggests a more profound bond than friendship between the two women; they are two parts of one personality or, as Morrison has stated, “If they were one woman, they would be complete.” As doubles, they complement each other and, combined, make up a complete picture of the hero.

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