Toni Morrison (b. 1931)
Contributing Editor: Sue Houchins
Classroom Issues and Strategies
For the last twenty years I have taught at a women's college where ninety-five percent of the population is what we call "the traditional age," seventeen through twenty-two years old. These students always express dismay at three violent episodes, all of them in this selection: Eva's maternal infanticide, Sula's digital immolation, and Chicken Little's accidental death. I have as yet found no way to soften, prior to their reading the text, students' outrage. However, their discomfort is allayed by our discussion of the text and of Morrison's exploration in this book and in Beloved of the figure of the mother who believes she "owns her offspring" (and, therefore, who reasons she has the right to exercise the ultimate decision over her children) and our conclusion that Morrison is not advocating abuse of authority.
Some of you might also encounter the argument that Morrison engages in a vilification/feminist castration of African-American men. I suppose some might point to Boyboy in this selection as an example of the denigration of the black man; however, I would suggest that the narrator, if not Eva, shows some compassion toward this figure who was dragged west by his employer and who despite his posturing was "defeat[ed]" by life. Further, the passages on manlove delight in black men, celebrate their sexuality, and rejoice in their verbal skills. I contend that the allegations against Morrison arise from an erroneous assumption that to write about gender is to ignore race, or, in the words of some theorists, the discourse of race and the discourse of gender are mutually exclusive. Critics such as Dorine Kondo and Mae Henderson would argue that they are not, that few have learned to read and hear race and gender together. I hope the following will suggest some strategies for doing so.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
This selection from Morrison's Sula constitutes some of the most hotly contested passages in African-American women's fiction today. As you are undoubtedly aware, a number of critics--among them Barbara Smith in "Toward a Black Feminist Critical Theory"--suggest that, embedded within these chapters that celebrate "manlove" and heterosexuality, there is a lesbian "disloyal" subtext (see Teresa de Lauretis, "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation," in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre edited by Sue Ellen Case for a discussion of this term). Whether you choose to explore in your classroom this homosexual reading is up to you; however, these chapters demand that you discuss the following issues of race, gender, and sexuality: (1) the social construction of race through the figure of Tarbaby and the trope of Carpenter's Road, named after Boyboy's employer, which defines and delimits the town; (2) the social construction of gender and its problematizing through Eva's "test[ing] and argu[ing]" with her gentlemen callers while at the same time epousing a philosophy of a wife's duty to be the obedient helpmeet, Eva's matriarchal dominion over the house she crafted, through Hannah's sexual agency and the danger she represents to married couples, through the sexual autonomy exercised by the three generations of women in Eva's household; (3) the social construction of heterosexuality in the discourse on "manlove"; (4) the social construction of motherhood and its problematizing through the story of saving the infant Plum, the myth of Eva's sacrificed leg, the killing of her only son, and Hannah's remark about loving but not liking Sula.
The "theme" of mother-daughter relationships is sometimes expanded to include the bond of female friendship, such as the one depicted between Nel and Sula. Traditionally feminist critics read the girls' intimacy through a Chodorowian paradigm that, to summarize too simplistically, posits that female friendships reproduce the experiences of being mothered and of mothering and, therefore, are in some ways symbiotic and, thus, are related to pre-Oedipal stages in psychic development (see Nancy Chodorow, Reproducing Motherhood). Such readings hint at strategies for deploying subtle Freudian interpretations of parts of this selection: for example, to explain the digital mutilation, the hole-digging episodes, the death of Chicken Little, and Eva's amputation. The inquiry into the development of our cultural understanding of childhood is obviously related to the tropes of adolescent female friendships and a female's development into sexual maturity. Some examples are girlhood (remember the book ends with Nel recalling and lamenting, "We was girls together") and the enigmatic deweys appropriated by Eva and transformed by her in the community's imagination.
In addition, these passages introduce a number of themes that are reiterated in succeeding novels: scapegoating (of Boyboy by Eva, of Hannah by the townswomen, National Suicide Day as a variation on scapegoating, Pilate in Song of Solomon, or Sethe as the outcast in Beloved); flying (read Chicken Little's death against Eva's fall later in Sula, the death of Macon Dead I, Pilate, and Robert Smith in Song of Solomon, or the myth of Solomon's flight in the same novel-- the folktale of the "flying African" recounted many times in slave narratives--see Virginia Hamilton's When People Could Fly, a children's book); symbolic naming--for example, Shadrack, or Nel, whose name reverses the letters in the heart of her mother's name, Helene; the house, as in Beloved or other geographical sites--such as the Bottom in Sula or "Not Doctor Street" in Song of Solomon --as characters in the text.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
You might find it fruitful to place Morrison's work within the tradition of magical realism. Like her Latin American colleagues, her work is almost epic in scope, chronicling as it does the history of a people over five decades, for it begins in medias res and then looks back to the antebellum period when the first blacks settled in the area that was to be known as Medallion. This small Ohio town and the three generations of the Peace matriarchy that inhabit the house at 7 Carpenter's Road write in microcosm the struggle of the African-American down from the bottom, thus critiquing the myth of the American dream, the legend of "up from slavery." In addition, faithful to the dictates of the genre, Morrison paints the small town landscape, portrays almost every African-American character, represents linguist and cultural idiosyncrasies with an almost surreal/super-real clarity; and yet at the core of this descriptive fidelity is the incongruent, the illogical, the intuitive, the magical.
I believe that all of Morrison's novels have been written for a culturally diverse audience. While each work is situated within the black American community (U.S. or Caribbean), focuses almost exclusively on African-American characters, and draws upon black folk traditions and folktales, her books seem to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers as evidenced by the selection of Sula by the Book-of-the-Month-Club, of Beloved for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, and the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Morrison in 1993.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Houses, such as Eva's on Carpenter's Road or Baby Suggs and Sethe's on Bluestone Road (Beloved), figure importantly, albeit ambiguously throughout the history of black women's writing. So you might compare and contrast Eva's imprisonment but relative power with the plight of Linda Brent in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or of the protagonist in Our Nig, or compare her to Silla in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brown-stones. Marshall's first novel is also excellent for comparing the treatment of a girl's achievement of psychic and sexual maturity. Meridian by Alice Walker may serve as another example of a text that examines an adolescent's growing to sexuality, gender-political issues between black men and women, troubled mother-daughter relations, and the female hero as outcast. Michelle Cliff's Abeng treats many of the same themes--especially the episode of hunting the wild pig and the killing of Miss Mattie's prize bull--in the life of a Jamaican girl and even recounts the myth of the flying African. Richard Perry's Montgomery's Children deliberately draws upon the same themes and folk motifs as Sula and Song of Solomon. Look at Gloria Naylor's Women of Brewster Place for a portrait of mother-son relations.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
Study and discussion questions: Ask students to research the biblical derivation of the appropriate characters' names and to ascribe significance to the choice of appellation. For example, what radical theology is suggested when the character of Eve, temptress and sinner, is termed "creator and sovereign"? Or what is the significance of Hannah's namesake, the mother of Samson? It might be helpful to assign some students the task of contextualizing the novel by researching significant events in African-American political, intellectual, and social history from 1919 (the beginning of Sula) until the end of the selection. Also, you can ask for a reading of a troubling passage (that is, the killing of Chicken Little, Nel and Sula digging holes in the field) or troubling characters (Shadrack, Tarbaby, the deweys).
The works cited at the end of Morrison's headnote in the anthology are most helpful.