Revista Mulheres e Literatura – vol. 18 - 2º Semestre - 2016



BREAKING SOCIAL STRUCTURE IN TONI MORRISON’S SULA – Adonay Custódia dos Santos Moreira, Ana Isabel Mendes Rosa Marques





 

 Adonay Custódia dos Santos Moreira

CICS.NOVA.IPLeiria;

Instituto Politécnico de Leiria

 

Ana Isabel Mendes Rosa Marques

CICS.NOVA.IPLeiria;

Instituto Politécnico de Leiria[1]

 

Resumo: Toni Morrison é uma aclamada escritora afro-americana cujas obras evidenciam a problemática da construção da identidade da mulher afro-americana em opressivos contextos histórico-culturais que interligam índices raciais, sexuais e de classe. Esta comunicação examinará, em particular, o modo como os papéis sexuais condicionam o processo de construção da identidade da mulher afro-americana na obra Sula. Especial relevo será dado à personagem Sula, que subverte as dicotomias que subjazem a essa organização social. O seu processo de autodefinição constitui uma reflexão acerca da necessidade sempre premente de transpor obstáculos de sexo, raça e classe de modo a manter uma identidade íntegra numa sociedade pouco receptiva a alterações na estrutura de poder.

 

Palavras-chave: patriarcado, género, raça, identidade.

 

Abstract: Toni Morrison is an acclaimed African American writer whose works highlight the problem of identity construction for African American women who live under oppressive historical and cultural contexts, at the intersection of race, gender and class issues. This paper will examine in particular how gender roles affect the process of identity construction for African American women in the novel Sula. Special emphasis will be given to the character “Sula”, who subverts the dichotomy female/male underlying this social organization. Her process of self-definition is a reflection on the ever pressing need to overcome obstacles of gender, race and class, in order to maintain a full identity in a society that is not receptive to changes in the power structure.

 

Key words: patriarchy, gender, race, identity.

 

Minicurrículos: Adonay Custódia dos Santos Moreira é doutora em Tradução pela Universidade de Vigo (2010) e mestre em Estudos Anglo-Americanos pela Universidade de Coimbra (1998). É professora-adjunta do Departamento de Ciências da Linguagem da Escola Superior de Tecnologia e Gestão do Instituto Politécnico de Leiria, onde lecciona desde 1995. Foi docente da licenciatura em Tradução aí ministrada. Foi membro de uma equipa de tradução, com trabalho publicado em Theoretical Issues and Practical Cases in Portuguese-English Translations (1996) e a sua tese de doutoramento – Terminologia e tradução: criação de uma base de dados terminológica do turismo baseada num corpus paralelo Português-Inglês (2010) – foi publicada pela Universidade de Vigo. Actualmente, integra o centro de investigação CICS.NOVA.IPLeiria (Centro Interdisciplinar de Ciências Sociais).

 

Ana Isabel Marques é doutora em Línguas e Literaturas Modernas na especialidade de Ciências de Tradução, pela Universidade de Coimbra. É professora-adjunta do Departamento de Ciências da Linguagem da Escola Superior e Tecnologia e Gestão do Instituto Politécnico de Leiria, onde lecciona desde 1995. Foi docente da licenciatura em Tradução aí ministrada. É autora de Paisagens da memória. Identidade e alteridade na escrita de Ilse Losa (2001) e As traduções de Ilse Losa no período do Estado Novo – Mediação cultural e projecção identitária (2015). Actualmente integra o centro de investigação CICS.Nova.IPLeiria (Centro Interdisciplinar de Ciências Sociais).

 

 

BREAKING SOCIAL STRUCTURE

IN TONI MORRISON’S SULA

 

Adonay Custódia dos Santos Moreira

CICS.NOVA.IPLeiria;

Instituto Politécnico de Leiria

 

Ana Isabel Mendes Rosa Marques

CICS.NOVA.IPLeiria;

Instituto Politécnico de Leiria[2]

 

 

 

 

Toni Morrison is a widely-acclaimed African American writer whose works highlight the problem of identity construction for African American women who live under oppressive historical and cultural contexts, at the intersection of race, gender and class issues. In a patriarchal and racist society, whose hierarchical power structure determines the behavior and the construction of identity for both men and women, women are not powerless victims in the perpetuation of this structure, but essential agents of its reproduction.

This paper will examine in particular how gender roles affect the process of identity construction for African American women in the novel Sula (MORRISON, 1973). [3] Special emphasis will be given to the character “Sula”, who subverts the dichotomy female/male underlying this social organization by refusing normative roles and also by questioning two patriarchal institutions: religion and family. Her process of self-definition is a reflection on the ever pressing need to overcome obstacles of gender, race and class, in order to maintain a full identity in a society that is not receptive to changes in the power structure.

Thus, we start this presentation by reading an extract from a dialogue taken from Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz (1992, p. 242) [4]:

 

‘What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it?’

‘The way I want it?’

‘Yeah. The way you want it. Don’t you want it to be something more than what it is?’

‘What’s the point? I can’t change it.’

‘That’s the point. If you don’t, it will change you and it’ll be your fault cause you let it. I Let it. And messed up my life.’

 

These words take us to a key issue in Morrison’s work: the way individuals lead their lives in relation to cultural norms or, as Philip Weinstein sums up, “[…] the drama of the subject in culture […]” or “[…] the drama of identity formation” (1996, p. xx; xxvii). In an interview to Jane Bakerman (1978, p. 60), Morrison herself states that the fundamental issue of her novels comes down to maintaining a full identity in a world that weakens us at some moment:

 

But I think that I still write about the same thing, which is how people relate to one another and miss it or hang on to it…or are tenacious about love.

About love and how to survive – not to make a living – but how to survive whole in a world where we are all of us, in some measure, victims of something. Each one of us is in some way at some moment a victim and in no position to do a thing about it. Some child is always left unpicked up at some moment. In a world like that, how does one remain whole – is it impossible to do that?

 

Starting from the premise that cultural norms underlie the process of identity formation of every individual, and facing the latter as someone always pressed by social roles, we seek to analyze how these roles or norms seem to appear as “natural”, and hence inescapable, realities. Over time, women’s reproductive power has been put at the service of the social organization and the reproduction of unequal gender roles, which make up the core of patriarchy. In this regard, Gerda Lerner (1986, p. 20) explains that women’s participation in building this limiting system dates back to the need for survival of primitive people. The author argues that it became essential to the group’s survival for women to devote most of their energies to motherhood and childcare. However, although necessity created a division of labor, over the centuries this hierarchical power structure has been culturally reinforced. The patriarchal reasoning resembles that of colonization, for it entails the acceptance of power asymmetries, with evident political consequences. The psychological relationship with power is imbedded in the subconscious of individuals, influencing their future decisions. In other words, the traditional hierarchical structure that values men and women differently comes to be considered as natural and inevitable. Ultimately, patriarchy prevails because its reproduction mechanisms are deeply rooted in both men and women. Both men and women contribute to prevailing representations of masculine and feminine, through their behavior and the image they convey of themselves in social interactions (AMÂNCIO, 1993, p. 127). Shere Hite (1995, p. 95), in her report on the family, comes to the conclusion that hierarchical separations are aimed at the maintenance of male domination in family and society and that, in a society less obsessed with establishing gender roles, it is likely that values usually associated with the terms “feminine” and “masculine” are chosen by individuals of both sexes.

In the novel Sula, gender roles are exposed and subverted, namely the deeply-rooted principle of Western culture that all women naturally possess maternal instincts. In this work, black mothers are measured in relation to paradigmatic images of motherhood – that do not include feelings such as hatred, resentment, fear, disappointment or erotic pleasure – and suffer its devastating effects. When Hannah confronts Eva with questions about her love for her children (“‘Mamma, did you ever love us?’” (S, 67), Hannah shows her the intensity of her love by saying she remained alive for her children when it would have been a relief to die.

Eva criticises Hannah, for the latter seems to judge her mother more severely than others: “‘Everybody all right. ‘Cept Mamma. Mamma the only one ain’t right. Cause she didn’t love us.’” (S, 68). Eva’s sharp remark denounces the general social tendency to blame the mother and to consider as unnatural the non-display of maternal affection in terms of smiles and play. Hannah does not apprehend the economic and emotional pressure her mother was subjected to, when, in 1895, she was abandoned by her husband with three children to support, and judges her harshly, when her first priority was survival: “‘No time. They wasn’t no time. Not none’” (S, 69). This daughter is unable to recognize the inapplicability of socially disseminated ideals of motherhood, idealized for white women, and hence views her mother as a failure.

Sula and Nel, in their turn, try to stay away from their mothers in order to create an independent identity. Sula, after hearing her mother say she loves her, but does not like her, confirms that “(…) there was no other that you could count on” (S, 118-119). The sense of separation is obvious when Sula watches her mother die, marveling at the spectacle of movement and light that radiates from her mother’s body engulfed in flames. Nel decides to be different from her mother after seeing her smile at the train inspector that had humiliated her: “It was on that train, shuffling toward Cincinnati, that she resolved to be on guard – always. She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way. That no midnight eyes or marbled flesh would ever accost her and turn her into jelly” (S, 22). Although she admires her mother in the family sphere, Nel is ashamed of her inferiority as a black woman in a public sphere dominated by racism and sexism. Determined never to submit to male oppression, Nel refuses to be defined as Helene’s daughter, by saying “‘I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me.’” (S, 28). These words show an utter fear of an identity as vulnerable as the mother’s.

Thus, Sula and Nel, using “(…) each other to grow on” (S, 52), seek to transcend the relations with their mothers: Sula, in an attempt of self-creation (“I want to make myself” (S, 92); Nel, by claiming an independent identity (“I’m me.” (S, 28). However, even as children, they both realize they are confined to a widely accepted patriarchal doctrine that ranks people. Sula and Nel quickly discover “(…) they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them” (S, 52). This awareness of power asymmetries associated with skin color and sex translates into a negative self-definition, by what they are not – neither white nor male. However, Sula rebels against this order by leaving Bottom and coming back ten years later with the strong conviction she will not marry or have children, while Nel, like Eva and Helene, accepts the security of a conventional identity, fully identifying herself with the roles of wife and mother and putting her husband and children at the center of her life. Unlike Sula, that “(…) had no center, no speck around which to grow” (S, 119) and only submits to the will of the “I”, as predicted in her dream of a knight galloping a white and grey horse, wandering in search of a soulmate, Nel, abandoned by Jude, is devastated by the emptiness of her life without “Prince Charming” to whom she had previously entrusted her identity: “She didn’t even know she had a neck until Jude remarked on it, or that her smile was anything but the spreading of her lips until he saw it as a small miracle” (S, 84). Being brought up under a strict control that suppresses her individuality, Nel uses the moral values of her traditional education as a shelter from life’s hardships and her desperate and obsessed desire to merge with her children becomes a remedy for her loss. Nel resigns to the principle that the “maternal” is incompatible with the “individual.” Likewise, Eva, when confronted with degrading economic and emotional conditions, chooses to live for her children and self-mutilates to receive insurance money, in order to guarantee their survival.

But let us take up Sula’s analysis, in particular, the way she rejects the patriarchal model by breaking loose from all conventional emotional supports – religion, family and motherhood.

In terms of religion, there are several episodes that illustrate the way Sula defies biblical laws or despises those who subscribe to these laws. Sula arouses the anger of community women by going to their church dinners without underwear or refusing to eat their food: “She came to their church suppers without underwear, bought their steaming platters of food and merely picked at it – relishing nothing, exclaiming over no one’s ribs or cobbler. They believed that she was laughing at their God” (S, 115). Sula, in fact, laughs at this God when arguing with Eve, discrediting a God that was going to “magically” lift them up from reality. (S, 160). When Eva turns to the authority of the biblical text to criticize Sula – “Bible say honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land thy God giveth thee” (S, 93) – Sula not only challenges the monolithic version of good and evil that society at large subscribes, but also questions God’s power: “‘Mamma must have skipped that part. Her days wasn’t too long.’ (…) ‘Which God? The one watched you burn Plum?’” (S, 93). By questioning religious dogma, that is, by questioning the basis of our ethical system, that separates good from evil, Sula creates a state of moral ambiguity that Morrison well-defines in the phrase: “Sometimes good looks like evil – you never really know what it is” (STEPTO, 1979, p. 216). Thus, Morrison restores the necessary complexity to concepts that are normally seen as hermetic and often prevent us from knowing our true selves. A conventional morality seems to be insufficient to understand the natural complexity of human beings.

Apart from crossing the barrier of good and evil, Sula breaks the dichotomy “female/male” by adopting an alternative identity that Bell Hooks calls “radical black female subjectivity” (1992, p. 48). In her quest to create this radical identity, Sula does not let herself be repressed by patriarchal norms of behavior and lives in an experimental way, at the mercy of her freedom and amorality. She leaves Bottom for 10 years to see the world, contrary to what is expected of the normative female role, that is, to stay attached to family responsibilities. And Sula expresses once again her libertarian character, by diluting differences between men and women with the following response to Nel: “‘You say I’m a woman and colored. Ain’t that the same as being a man?’” (S, 142). Sula rejects this dichotomous convention; she adopts social male behavior and is only responsible for herself. However, this choice remains an insult to women like Eve and Nel, who devoted their entire lives to others, as Morrison points out in one of her interviews. According to Morrison, Sula’s adventurous masculinity is an outrage in the thirties and forties (STEPTO, 1979, p. 227).

In short, the “I” becomes the center of Sula’s life, as she wishes to create herself and utterly refuses to follow the path of mothers who forgo their wishes for their children. Sula rules over her world, acquires the coveted existential freedom and reinforces her dissociation from socially imposed feminine roles.

Sula’s radicalism also extends to motherhood, with the rejection of a mother’s role. “I don’t want to make somebody else” (S, 92) is the statement that expresses her rebellion against the role of women who merely defined themselves through motherhood and family bonds. It is the assertion that culminates her long process of identity formation. Sula looks for a genuine identity that isolates her from maternal and community connections, a seclusion that can be considered as negative according to Morrison, since the author believes in the importance of ancestors for the formation of personal identity.

In spite of breaking free from all family and cultural bonds, Sula cannot survive on her own.[5] In fact, the greatest drama of Sula’s identity lies in this ambivalence, as Sula wants total freedom, but she also needs a rewarding human contact in order to feel whole.[6] Although Sula challenges a patriarchal ideology that identifies women as mothers, a deeper analysis reveals the patriarchal paradigm is not completely thrown out.[7] This “(…)new world black and new world woman (…),” as Morrison (1989, p. 25) defines her, seeks to endorse a different world that seems to answer Violet’s question in Jazz – “‘What’s ‘the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it?’” (J, 242). In fact, at first glance, Sula seems to get from the world what she looks for, but ends up showing a terrible fear of the feminine by rejecting Hannah, Eva and the community of women. Sula refuses to communicate with her mothers, judges them by the same Manichean system she intended to eradicate and sees them as limited, but she only looks for the “how” and not the “why” and does not learn to unite her story to theirs.

In conclusion, this character lives at the mercy of a powerful will that blurs conventional gender roles and brings down the dichotomy good versus evil. However, by fighting for self-definition alone and by distancing herself from the collective condition of black women, Sula reveals a deeply-embedded patriarchal fear of a maternal inheritance. In fact, Sula’s identity, based on total subversion and challenge of conventional rules, is neither sustainable nor steady. After having confronted stereotypes and shaken community traditionalism, Sula dies alone and Bottom quickly returns to its conventional values.

Somehow, her endeavor failed, because Sula not only wanted to create herself as if it was possible to build an identity in a cultural void, but was also unable to acknowledge how racism, sexism and poverty distort all family ties, affecting the identity formation of each individual. Building a balanced identity seems to come precisely from the confrontation of a past and a present of oppression, so that we can, as Morrison affirms, “to survive whole in a world where we are all of us, in some measure, victims of something” (BAKERMAN, 1978, p. 60) or for the world to be “something more than what it is” (J, 242). If we do not try to find out the “why”, the assumption that oppression is a “natural” matter of fate will go on and we will remain “(…) wishing [we were] somebody else” (J, 242), like Violet, in the novel Jazz.

 

 

References:

 

AMÂNCIO, L. (1993). Género – representações e identidades. Sociologia – problemas e práticas, 1993, 14, p. 127-140.

BAKERMAN, J. (1978). The Seams Can’t Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison. Black American Literature Forum, Summer 1978, 12.2, p. 56-60.

HIRSCH, M. (1990). Maternal Narratives: ‘Cruel Enough to Stop the Blood’. In: GATES JR., H. L. (Ed.), Reading Black – Reading Feminist. New York: Meridian, p. 415-430.

HITE, S. (1995). Relatório Hite sobre a família: crescendo sob o domínio do patriarcado. Trad. M. C. Fernandes. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil.

HOOKS, B. (1992). Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press.

LEE, D. H. (1984). The Quest for Self: Triumph and Failure in the Works of Toni Morrison. In: EVANS, M. (Ed.), Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City: Anchor Books, p. 346-360.

LERNER, G. (1986). The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.

MORRISON, T. (1992). Jazz. New York: Penguin Books.

MORRISON, T. (1973). Sula. London: Pan Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1990.

MORRISON, T. (1989). Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature. Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 1989, 28.1, p. 1-34.

PAGE, P. (1995). Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison’s Novels. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

STEPTO, R. B. (1979). ‘Intimate Things in Place’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison. In: HARPER, M. S. & STEPTO, R. B. (Eds.), Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Urbana: U. of Illinois P., p. 213-229.

WEINSTEIN, P. M. (1996). What Else But Race? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press.

 

Notes to the Text

 

[1] Pode aceder-se ao Centro Interdisciplinar de Ciências Sociais, Pólo de Leiria em:  http://www.cics.nova.fcsh.unl.pt/polos/cics-nova-ipleiria.

NOTES TO THE TEXT

 

[2] Pode aceder-se ao Centro Interdisciplinar de Ciências Sociais, Pólo de Leiria em:  http://www.cics.nova.fcsh.unl.pt/polos/cics-nova-ipleiria.

[3] Hereafter, this novel will be referred to by its abbreviation; the page number cited will in parentheses.

[4] Hereafter, this novel will be referred to by its abbreviation; the page number cited will in parentheses.

[5] See PAGE, P. (1995). Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison’s Novels. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, p. 74.

[6] See LEE, D. H. (1984). The Quest for Self: Triumph and Failure in the Works of Toni Morrison. In: EVANS, M. (Ed.), Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City: Anchor Books, p. 350.

[7] See HIRSCH, M. (1990). Maternal Narratives: ‘Cruel Enough to Stop the Blood’. In: GATES JR., H. L. (Ed.), Reading Black – Reading Feminist. New York: Meridian, p. 424.



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