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It is well-known that evil people exist in the world. These sociopaths have no values. They do not care who they harm or how. Fortunately, there are few individuals like this who have no conscience. Most people are instead shades of good and bad. They are not always good, nor are they always bad. At times their behavior is exceptional; other times they may say or do something wrong toward someone else. The book Sula by Toni Morrison highlights these blends of human persona. "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" (McDowell 80). In Morrison's book, it is easy to see such characters as Sula as a "bad woman" or Nel as a "good person," yet as one looks beyond the obvious, vagaries of good and bad appear.
Morrison weaves good and bad and all the grays between these two extremes throughout Sula. As Carmean explains, "Sula insists that readers put aside conventional expectations to enter a fictional world deliberately inverted to reveal a complex reality, a world in which evil may be a necessary good, where good may be exposed for its inherent evil…where simple answers to ordinary human problems do not exist" (160). Eva exemplifies this lack of distinction between good and bad. It is easy to see the bad in Eva: She shows little affection to her family, she continually entertains men in front of her children, and says hurtful things about others. Yet, she also jumps from her bedroom window to save Hannah and may have cut off her leg to get insurance to care for her family. Her murder of Plum is also not black and white. Many men returned from World War I emotionally disturbed, physically injured or, in Plum's case, both psychologically disturbed and addicted to heroin. When Eva visits Plum, he asks her to hold him in her arms like a baby: "You holding, me, Mamma?'" Eva holds him closer and "back and forth she rocked him" (46). The tears run down her face as she nearly drinks "blood-tainted water" (47) and then proceeds to burn her son. Who can imagine doing something this horrible? Yet Morrison does not describe Eva as bad or evil for such actions. Instead, Eva becomes a "giant heron, so graceful sailing about its own habitat" (46). As she rocks her son, Eva must decide what is best for Plum, who feels "twilight" and "Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing" (47) to leave this painful world and sink "back into the bright hole of sleep" (47). Mothers many times need to choose the best course of action for them that may not appear on the surface as "good."
Many scholarly articles and books are written about Sula's negative selfish behavior. In these articles, Sula at best is adventurous and a rebel and continually taking actions that are in what she considers her best interests. She is strong willed, bold, and willing to accept blatant public condemnation for her behavior so that she can live her life the way she wants to. Being mean does not bother her, since when she is good, she does not get anything in return when personal risks are taken. As Weinstein (418) states: "The life of Sula was a philosophical parable about self creation." Yet, like Eva, Morrison does not make Sula entirely bad. Given Sula's upbringing it is easy to see why she has become so independent and narcissistic as a means of survival in this unfriendly world. For example, Sula is distressed when she overhears a conversation with her mother, Hannah, and other women complaining about their children. One woman says that she does not love her own daughter, and Hannah corrects her: "Sure you do. You love her, like I love Sula. I just don't like her, that's the difference" (57). The pronouncement sent Sula "flying up the stairs" and she is "aware of a sting in her eye." Her self-esteem and trust of others is once again injured, as she thinks of herself as unloved and unwanted by her own mother.
Hannah and Eva are Sula's role models, so it is not surprising that she assumes their fortified and independent persona as she becomes older. By the time she is an adult, she has become hardened and untrusting, protecting herself from more internal pain by detaching herself from other people, as Hanna and Eva always did. Following what she has seen growing up, Sula also has numerous relationships with men, always refusing to break down the outward barriers, give of herself and become emotionally attached, involved and vulnerable. She truly believes that she can stand alone, but Morrison adds another twist when Sula begins caring for Ajax and actually feels good: "She was astounded by so new and alien a feeling" (131). This supposedly independent, uncaring woman finger-traces the laugh lines around her mouth and ties a green ribbon in her hair. Ajax knows all about Sula's rebellious ways, but sees the two of them as equal free spirits. That is why, when he senses a change within Sula from a strong, independent woman who is becoming domestic and dependent, he leaves her. Sula's mistrust is vindicated.
It is with the relationship of Sula and Nel that Morrison clearly shows the vagaries between good and bad. This is demonstrated, for instance, when Sula cuts offer the tip of her own finger to protect herself and Nel: "She slashed off the tip of her finger…And her voice was quiet. 'If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I'll do to you?'" she asks the ruffians. (55). The Chicken Little story epitomizes this blurring between the two extremes. As they normally did, Sula and her friend, Nel, go to the river to play. Five-year-old Chicken Little comes by and, typical of younger children, wants to climb on the tree. Nel implores Sula not to help, but Sula, in her usual independent way, does not see the possible ramifications of her actions. She climbs with Chicken Little and then, when Nel says to come down, she agrees. "Yeah. We better. Come on, Chicken" (60). When Chicken stubbornly says he wants to stay, "Sula pulled his leg gently" (60) and carefully guided him down the tree. This is a caring Sula, close to what a mother should be. Sula then swings Chicken Little round and round for fun, but the action abruptly changes as he flies out of her hands and lands in the river and drowns. There is no evil or bad intent with Sula, with "the pressure of his hard and tight little fingers was still in Sula's palms…" (61). The girls expect him to "come back up, laughing" (61), but when he does not, Sula runs for help to the house of the horrible Shad. She does not say anything about Chicken Little, as planned, for she is too fearful when he says, "always."
At the funeral of Chicken Little "Sula simply cried. Soundlessly and with no heaving and gasping for breath, she let the tears roll into her mouth and slide down her chin to dot the front of her dress." Nel stood like granite, not upset about the death of Chicken Little, but afraid that the sheriff or Reverend Deal would point the finger at her at any moment. "Although she knew she had 'done nothing,' she felt convicted and hanged right there in the pew…" (65). Morrison has
transposed the good and the bad: Nel, who is supposed to be the example of all things good, shows no emotion, except for a fear of self-preservation. She does not reveal any compassion for Chicken Little and self-awareness that she, too, was at fault in this experience. Sula, who is supposed to be the example of all things bad, cannot keep her tears from falling. She feels remorse, guilt, sadness and cries perhaps for the last time in her life. This experience continues to affect both girls throughout their lives, although Nel actually grows up thinking that the incident had little to do with what she had become (Beaulieu 337).
Nel is truly the one character who demonstrates this dichotomy of good and bad. She is the non-rebellious girl and then the "good" woman who appears to follow society's norms and values. Some scholars point out that Nel and Sula are two halves that come together and make a united whole of good and bad. They cannot exist alone, but together they become a totality. They are the only ones who watch out for each other. "They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream" (44). However, despite Sula's independence, during childhood it is Nel unexpectedly leading Sula.…[continue]
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