From girlhood," Sula shows a natural gift for daring, Lorie Watkins Fulton writes in African-American Review (Fulton, 2006). Sula in fact persuades Nel to join up with her in order to confront the bullies on Carpenter's Road; and when Sula shows the guts to pull her grandma's paring knife from her pocket and slice a piece of her finger off, the boys star "open-mouthed at the wound" (Morrison 54).
If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I'll do to you?" (54-55) Sula asks the shocked bullies. Nel is impressed, the boys back off, and a feminine-strengthening act by Sula helps build an even stronger friendship between Sula and Nel. On page 58 of the book, an important passage leaves alert readers with memorable imagery - for some it relates back to their youth, and for others it builds up something that was perhaps left out of their youth - to discuss in class or with a fellow student on the back patio.
Nel and Sula are playing together in a rather erotic but wholly innocent moment, and Fulton's take on that scene is that Morrison is emulating Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but only up to a point. In Woolf's book, women do become involved in homosexual activities. Meanwhile, Nel and Sula stroke blades of grass "up and down, up and down," which is an obvious sexual pantomime.
Nel finds a nice twig and strips the bark away so what's left is "a smooth, creamy innocence." Sula follows suit; and when both twigs were "undressed" Nel moved into the "next stage" (then joined by Sula) as both eventually began poking their bark-less (phallic-inspired) twigs "rhythmically and intensely into the earth." Each started with a separate hole, but in the end, "...the two holes were one and the same." That is a very erotic scene, one that can cause arousal in the reader, and yet at the same time, it is entirely innocent, and brings with it the theme of genuine feminine sweetness.
Nel's twig breaks though, and she throws it into the hole; in order to move into a closer bond with her friend, Sula breaks hers on purpose, and throws it in. They both "replaced the soil and covered the entire grave with uprooted grass" (Sula 59). "Neither had spoken a word," the author added. So very kind and warm though that child-driven scene was, Morrison did not let the two continue on such a soft path later in life. When Sula returned to Medallion, and jump-started her friendship with Nel, the two are put to the ultimate female test.
Nel stumbles upon an incident with her husband and Sula "down on all fours naked, not touching except their lips right down there on the floor" (Sula, 105). Nel narrates to her husband Jude, saying that she expected Sula to "...say one of those lovely college words like aesthetic or rapport, which I never understood but which I loved because they sounded so comfortable and firm" (Sula, 105). As Sula sat naked on the bed, "not even bothering to put on her clothes" because in reality she didn't need to; "she didn't look naked to me, only you did." This embarrassing scene would keep the two women from being as close as they once were, and Morrison "deconstructs the affair in light of Sula and Nel's friendship." Clearly, Sula marches to an "alternative morality," as Fulton puts it; Sula has "no affection for money, property, or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments - no ego" (Sula 119). And along with that morality Sula had "no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude." Jude, of course, left Nel - in the same manner as BoyBoy left Eva earlier in the novel - and with Nel now living alone, she had plenty of time to reflect on how Sula had hurt her.
As for Sula, she had grown up in a house "with women who thought all men available" (Sula 119) so why wouldn't she just take what was there when it was available, as Jude obviously was? Here is a lesson in the fact that people are products of their environments; they are not necessarily products of their cultures, but of their immediate environments. Hannah had sex, casual quick sex, with men all the time, and Sula saw that and figured, hey, that's how it works. And Nel, meantime got hurt, while Sula "was ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she felt close to" (Sula 119).
On this very subject, black sexuality (the myths and the reality) and the values that emerge from the environments in which people are raised, author Patricia Hill Collins in her book Black Feminist thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, writes that there is a "mythical norm" (Collins, 165) that while "financially independent, white middle-class families" are built around a "monogamous heterosexual couple," the African-American family are "stigmatized" as "deviant people." This "myth," Collins continues, carries through and there are always allegations - though in the main they are false - about "black sexuality." However, Collins quotes Cheryl Clark, while black folks "have expended much energy trying to debunk the racist mythology which says our sexuality is depraved," there are "many of us" who, "unfortunately" (165), Clark continues, "have overcompensated and assimilated... [and as a result] black folk have to live with the contradictions...by repressing or closeting any other sexual/erotic urges, feelings or desires." Those repressed urges notwithstanding, Collins asserts that "...all Black women are affected by the widespread controlling image that African-American women are promiscuous, potential prostitutes."
Toni Morrison does little to debunk the myths mentioned above, but of course that is not the novelist's job. On pages 145-146, with Sula apparently on her deathbed, "her face glisten[ing] with the dew of fever," Sula launches into a nasty, albeit brilliantly twisted soliloquy:
After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men ***** all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when all the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mother's trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have *****ed all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs...then there'll be a little love left over for me."
Critic Biman Basu, writing in College Literature (Basu, 1996), notes that that the paragraph above represents the language genius of Morrison, as the passage presents "a bizarre coupling of crime and punishment, of criminals and the custodians of culture, or of law and lawlessness." These eight units, Basu asserts, "transgress sexual boundaries in their movement toward homosexuality and incest." But the last unit is "most spectacular in its embodiment of the grotesque," according to Basu's interpretation. The weathervane that "flies off the roof to mount the hogs" is "unleashed from all referential burden," Basu writes, "and strains toward an ontologically other embodied in the grotesque."
But raw and even hideous though those images may be, they do "celebrate the sheer material abundance of the body and of language," Basu continues, "one embedded in the other, one which both threatens and impels the other."
The novel also portrays male sexuality and male gentility too, of course; older men are mostly gentlemen, as many men in the greater society surely are; and younger men are portrayed by Morrison as horny aggressive young studs, which many younger men certainly are. When women were walking to the ice cream parlor (Sula, 49), the wind pushed their dresses "into the creases of their behinds" and allowed those with good enough eyes to "peek at their cotton underwear." And the men, old ones, "tipped their hats" as the ladies passed by, while young men "opened and closed their thighs." Those are fairly universal themes, but written in believable narrative by Morrison, they add a social fullness to the plot.)
And always within this story, the message is not just about characters - it's about bodies in the genre of feminism at work and feminism asleep, if you will. A great deal of discussion revolves around Toni Morrison and a feminism that questions the harmfulness of society's obsessing over how a woman should look. But the pressure is real. And the discussion goes further than Morrison; much further than Morrison.
MODERN FEMINIST VIEWPOINTS & THEORY
To come to terms with the female body, Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes that "...the body...provides an important means…