Mother-and-Daughter Relationships in Sula

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A prevalent theme in Sula is the influence of family and friends on the characters. The book focuses on two friends, Sula and Nel, but both have been shaped, and continue to be shaped, by their experiences with their families, particularly their mothers. Their mothers, in turn, have been shaped by their own mothers, in a chain reaction passing through the generations.

Eva, who has endured desperate and lonely poverty, is a strong, tough woman. She is also proud; she thinks of going back to her family in Virginia for help when her man leaves and she has no food, but as the narrator notes, "To come home dragging three young ones would have to be a step one rung before death for Eva." Instead, she scrounges as best she can for several months, and then heads out, either selling her leg to science or having it cut off in an "accident," for which she receives $10,000 in insurance payments.

This act indicates a certain ruthlessness in her character, and Eva is ruthlessly controlling, adopting three boys and giving them the same name, "Dewey," and treating them as a unit. The emotionally stunting effect of this treatment is plain; the boys eventually become so unindividuated that even their own mothers can't tell them apart, and they never grow, physically or mentally, but remain under Eva's sway.

When her son Plum returns from the war with a drug addiction, Eva pours kerosene over him and kills him by setting him on fire. She rationalizes this by saying that he would have lived a pathetic life, not the life of a man, so it was better for him to be dead.

Hannah, perhaps because she witnesses this event, gets up the courage to ask Eva if she ever loved any of her children. She feels unloved because Eva never played with them or said kind words to them. Eva defends her actions by saying there wasn't time for play and soft talk, that she was so busy just trying to get them food to eat that the notion of "play" was ridiculous, but it's clear that she's defensive, and the fact that she never actually answers the question shows that she's unable to answer "Yes."

When Hannah's dress catches fire while she's canning, Eva jumps out the window in an attempt to save her, showing that deep down, she does love her daughter. But Hannah's questioning of her mother, and her lifelong feeling of being unloved, shows that a certain amount of warmth was lacking in their relationship.

Although Hannah loves to spend time with men and has many boyfriends, she is never emotionally close to any of them; this is a legacy from Eva, who has the same temperament. Hannah passes this lack of warmth on to her daughter, Sula. Sula overhears her mother's friend discussing her daughter: "Well, Hester grown now and I can't say love is exactly what I feel."

Hannah says, "Sure you do. You love her, like I love Sula. I just don't like her. That's the difference."

To a child, however, there is no difference, and this comment sears itself into Sula's consciousness, filling her with a sense of her own unlovable nature and destroying her sense of trust. She has become just like Hannah and Eva, hardened and wary, and throughout the book, she remains detached from other people, as her mother always has. Although she has many relationships with men, she refuses to commit to any of them or to become emotionally vulnerable. She believes she doesn't need anyone else to be happy, and...

(This entire section contains 1717 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

when she finally does fall in love with Ajax, her need for commitment scares him away, hurting her deeply. When she dies, she talks bitterly about the lack of love in the world, and in her life, reflecting on her experience with her mother.

Cecile, who lives in New Orleans, took her daughter Rochelle's baby daughter away from her as soon as she was born. Cecile didn't approve of Rochelle because she was a prostitute, and brought up the girl, Helene, in a strict Catholic atmosphere:

The grandmother took Helene away from the soft lights and flowered carpets of the Sundown House and raised her under the dolesome eyes of a multicolored Virgin Mary, counseling her to be on guard for any sign of her mother's wild blood.

Morrison doesn't discuss Cecile's reaction to this, but it's evident that mother and daughter did not have a close relationship, and that the daughter has remained bitter and closed because of it.

This lack of closeness continues between Rochelle and Helene. When Helene goes back to New Orleans after her grandmother dies, she meets her mother for the first time in many years; although Morrison doesn't make this clear, it may be for the first time since Helene was an infant. "The two looked at each other," Morrison writes. "There was no recognition in the eyes of either." Then Helene said, "This is your... grandmother, Nel." The only conversation between Rochelle and Helene occurs when Rochelle asks Helene about Nel: "That your only one?" They have a stiff, chilly conversation about what will be done with the house, and when Rochelle speaks Creole, Helene tells Nel severely, "I don't talk Creole. And neither do you," thus denying her past, and her connection to her mother. When Nel says of Rochelle, "She smelled so nice. And her skin was so soft." Helene says scornfully, "Much handled things are always soft," referring to her mother's life as a prostitute.

Helene brings up Nel in a strict, religious, and emotionally chilly home. "Under Helene's hand the girl became obedient and polite. Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter's imagination underground," the narrator states, and gives readers a picture of Nel's life: "Nel, an only child, sat on the steps of her back porch surrounded by the high silence of her mother's incredibly orderly house, feeling the neatness pointing at her back..." Nel longs for excitement, variety, and passion, but her mother doesn't foster any of these.

Because of her strict upbringing, Nel is attracted to Sula's wild, disorderly house, and Sula is equally attracted to Nel's quiet, calm qualities. "Their friendship was as intense as it was sudden," Morrison writes. Throughout the book, she makes it clear that each girl finds completion in the other; they are opposites, but they fit together and make a whole. Each is only a partial person without the other, and as girls, they're inseparable, perhaps finding in each other the warmth, support, and reassurance they didn't get from their families.

The book could easily be titled Sula and Nel, because it focuses on the relationship between the two women, the most important relationship either of them ever has, superseding those with their mothers and the men in their lives. Although they are very close as children, when they grow up they each feel betrayal from the other—Sula has an affair with Nel's husband Jude, forcing the end of the marriage, and when Nel gets angry and possessive about her husband and the affair, Sula feels betrayed. She had counted on Nel. Morrison writes, "Nel was the one person who had wanted nothing from her, who had accepted all aspects of her. Now she wanted everything, and all because of that," meaning marriage. From being a free and accepting friend, Nel has become one of "them," the traditional, possessive, small-minded and limited women of the town, according to Sula's view. This "surprised her a little and saddened her a good deal," because she had thought Nel was different.

Throughout most of the book, Sula is viewed by the other characters as evil, and Nel is seen as good. However, by the time Sula dies, their positions have become reversed. Nel visits Sula on her deathbed out of a feeling of duty—not out of true friendship or love—and feels virtuous about doing so. Sula, however, tells Nel that she may not be as good as she thinks she is. She plants a small seed of doubt in Nel's mind when she asks Nel, "How you know?" Nel responds, "Know what?" Sula says, "About who was good. How you know it was you?" Nel asks, "What you mean?" Sula responds, "I mean maybe it wasn't you [who was good]. Maybe it was me."

Soon after Sula's death, Nel goes to visit Eve, who is in a nursing home. Perhaps senile, perhaps clairvoyant, Eve looks at her and says, "Tell me how you killed that little boy," asking about Chicken Little. Nel says Sula was the one who threw him in the water, and Eve says, "You, Sula. What's the difference? You was there. You watched."

Nel thinks about her response to the accident. She was calm; Sula was distraught. Sula had sought help; Nel had said, "Come on, let's go." She realizes, when Chicken Little's hands slipped and he flew out into the water, she had a "good feeling." "Why didn't I feel bad when it happened?" she wonders. "How come it felt so good to see him fall?" She realizes that she is far more evil than Sula, that what she had told herself was maturity and compassion was "only the tranquility that follows a joyful stimulation"—in this case, the thrill of his death.

Nel realizes that she was even closer to Sula than she thought, more like her than she ever thought, and that her relationship with Sula was more important than any other; that it was more important than her marriage. At the end of the book, after Sula's funeral, she thinks about her feeling of sadness after her marriage broke up and says to herself, "All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude," when in fact, she was missing Sula, and that now her life without her will be, as Morrison writes, "just circles and circles of sorrow." These circles reflect, and are an amplification of, her original sorrow over her relationship, or lack of a relationship, with her mother.

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Sula, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Winters is a freelance writer and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Black Spaces in Sula

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Sula, spacing—that is, closing down or opening up distances between things and persons—has extraordinary urgency. Houses and bodies are the sites of hyperactive mechanisms of containment and expulsion working to effect identity and distinction: of inside and outside, of self and other. Spacing, moreover, becomes crucial to issues of representation and meaning in the Bottom, the place in Medallion, Ohio, in which most of the action of the novel occurs. Houston A. Baker Jr. has called attention to the importance of place in Sula: "What Morrison ultimately seeks in her coding of Afro-American PLACE is a writing of intimate, systematizing, and ordering black village values," he suggests. But although the manipulation of persons and things in space can produce a symbolic order, Morrison seems more concerned with the placement of experience that orderly representation misses.

Two places in the novel that indicate her concern to locate missing experience are "the place where Chicken Little sank" in the river and the place Eva Peace's missing leg once occupied, "the empty place on her left side." Neither of these is quite what one would expect a place to be, for neither is the present location of anything. Like the empty spaces in a symbolic order, these places mark an absence. But unlike the lacks and open spaces that in works of Faulkner and James are necessary to structures of meaning, the experience of missing in Sula is a particular, historical experience. Absence is not represented by the open spaces that characterize an expansive white consciousness; it is experienced in the preoccupations of a historical consciousness with what has been and might be.

Placing Absence
Missing takes time and takes place in Sula; particular persons and things are missed from particular places. Although "the closed place in the middle of the river" and the place where Eva's leg once was have nothing in them, they mark the absence of persons or parts of persons once present. Morrison thereby fills in spaces of a kind white culture identifies as empty. In Sula, this means converting such unoccupied spaces into places on the basis of previous occupants. Morrison locates missing persons and parts of persons in places they have formerly occupied.

Locating such occupants is one kind of preoccupation that occurs in the novel. A second kind of preoccupation, however, rather than locating missing occupants once present, places missing occupations, ones that never occurred at all. By this I mean that Morrison identifies both failed possessions of places and failed actions: various connections between occupants and their places that never took place. This second kind of preoccupation is a more absolute missing—that is, missing compounded by the prior as well as present absence of what is missed. It is nonetheless a historical experience, given characters whose past is one in which the overwhelming "meaning" of experience was negative.

Such a history is "missing" in that it is not composed of positive facts known and recorded. But it is a missing history in another sense too: as a history of missing, a history made by people's knowledge of what they would never become, places they would never hold, things they would never do. In the first kind of preoccupation, people are aware of something that once was present; in the second kind, people miss things that might have been but never were. Thus Morrison places both missed presences and missed absences in Sula.

If the experience of missing is historical and specific, it is not abstracted into a component of cultural experience, as was the case when James confronted what white Americans were missing in the nineteenth century. Rather than being abstracted, missing is embodied in Sula, as missing persons and missing parts of persons become the focus of meaning. Preoccupations with absence in The Sound and the Fury, partly because absence seems not to be experienced bodily, can be universalized into abstract elements of white male psychology. When Faulkner's Jason Compson misses the job he never had, that lack becomes a stable determinant of meaning in his life; it also becomes the means of identifying him with other white men. What the Compson men miss, repeated in form if not in content, becomes a means of relationship among them, providing consistency in their experience. Over time, the experience of missing, represented as lost causes, becomes a historical likeness too. Men make history by reproducing themselves in the imagery of lost causes.

But Morrison's characters in Sula are missing the means of production by which James's and Faulkner's white characters make history. Those characters can experience individual consciousness as a medium of cultural reproduction because they can assume the representative character of individual consciousness. Inner experience and cultural experience become exchangeable, through the projections and introjections by which cultural identity is produced and reproduced. Characters in Sula neither produce nor reproduce the kind of forms or the kind of spaces that give both consistency and diversity to white identity. What these characters recognize in themselves and in their community are inconsistencies: broken bodies, broken objects, broken relations between persons and between persons and things. This means that they are able to produce meaning and community only by keeping experience within strict bounds.

The experience of missing what never was in Sula is not only an experience of missed objects but an experience of missed relations, missed connections. Such missing is clearest near the end of the novel, in 1941, when many people die at the construction site of the proposed tunnel. What the people of the Bottom see when they look at this place is not only what is there but what might have been there and is not there: all the things denied or negated by the fact that black people were never hired to work there.

Their hooded eyes swept over the place where their hope had lain since 1927. There was the promise: leaf-dead. The teeth unrepaired, the coal credit cut off, the chest pains unattended, the school shoes un-bought, the rush-stuffed mattresses, the broken toilets, the leaning porches, the slurred remarks and the staggering childish malevolence of their employers. ...

Like antelopes they leaped over the little gate... and smashed the bricks they would never fire in yawning kilns, split the sacks of limestone they had not mixed or even been allowed to haul; tore the wire mesh, tipped over wheelbarrows and rolled forepoles down the bank.

The first "thing" located in this place is hope; the second is promise. Both these relations to things were once alive and are now dead. The construction site seems preoccupied by them, and with their deaths numerous other losses are remembered. The losses recalled are things that these people did not do, things that they lost, things that broke or fell apart, but things that might have been done, kept, and changed for the better. What is missed here are hope and promise and the changes in things which they represent but which never happened.

When people turn to look at the objects actually present, these too are seen in terms of failed relations. The bricks, limestone, and wheelbarrows have been denied to the people of the Bottom as objects of their labor. What these people see, therefore, is not only the objects but also their own missing occupation with these objects: bricks not fired, limestone not mixed, wheelbarrows not used to haul. Characters' realization of what they are missing is a recognition both of lost objects and of missed relations to objects: the loss of hope, promise, repair, credit, attention, occupation. These relations are attachments of people and things that function as meaningful connections by occupying one with another. With neither their minds nor their bodies occupied in labor as a creative relation to the world, labor in which they might become means of production and change, these people are unable to use objects or themselves to form and reform the world around them.

The tunnel site, then, is preoccupied with absences. Missing absent attachments means a massive "displacement": people tear things apart, throw things around, and start a landslide that carries some of them to their deaths in the river and buries others in the tunnel. For most of their lives, therefore, these people do not allow themselves to recognize what they miss in this scene. The role of Sula in the Bottom is to take the place of the absences that preoccupy these people at the tunnel in 1941. What circulates through the community at the tunnel site are not images of self that reassure the self of consistency in and with others but losses that individuals recognize in their own and others' experience. This awareness of loss cannot enter into circulation except with destructive effects. To contain that circulation, missing is projected onto one person, whose identification with loss will keep it within bounds.

By identifying Sula as evil and rejecting her categorically, characters are able to keep their distance from absences they cannot afford to acknowledge. In this case, keeping order depends not on emptying space of occupants but on filling in spaces whose emptiness is unbearable. Sula, occupied with loss, takes the place of absences people cannot afford to miss. Morrison has said that she "wanted Sula to be missed by the reader. That's why she dies early." To miss Sula is to recognize her occupation in and of the Bottom: what she did there and how she was a necessary part of the place, not only as a presence but because she took the place of absence.

Placing Experience
Various characters in Sula create order through spacing practices that allow them to control loss. The first personal perspective Morrison narrates, however, is not the perspective of any character but instead an outsider's view of the Bottom. Not really even personal, this perspective belongs to a seemingly generic "valley man."

If a valley man happened to have business up in those hills—collecting rent or insurance payments—he might see a dark woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of cakewalk, a bit of black bottom, a bit of "messing around" to the lively notes of a mouth organ....The black people watching her would laugh and rub their knees, and it would be easy for the valley man to hear the laughter and not notice the adult pain that rested somewhere under the eyelids, somewhere under their head rags and soft felt hats, somewhere in the palm of the hand, somewhere behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew's curve. He'd have to stand in the back of Greater Saint Matthew's and let the tenor's voice dress him in silk, or touch the hands of the spoon carvers (who had not worked in eight years) and let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin. Otherwise the pain would escape him even though the laughter was part of the pain.

A valley man is a European American, but he is identified in Sula not by race but by where he comes from: "white people lived on the rich valley floor in that little river town in Ohio, and the blacks populated the hills above it." The identification of this man by his place begins a scene in which Morrison places experience where it cannot be seen and in which the watching man misses it. Because he does not see and does not go to certain places that are parts of the black people's experience, he perceives spaces as empty that for them are occupied by pain.

Seeing no sign of pain, the white man sees the people's laughter as excluding pain, whereas for them "the laughter was part of the pain." This difference in perception is located as Morrison identifies places that pain resides, such as "somewhere under their head rags." Preoccupied by pain, the bodies of these people are locations of both laughter and pain, which the white man cannot recognize because he is ignorant of certain other places too. There are places he could go—to the back of Greater Saint Matthew's or up close enough to touch the hands of the carvers—where the pain of the black people's experience would not escape him.

The white man stands at a distance from the black people in this scene, excluded and exclusive. But rather than being separated by an empty space of necessary detachment, a distance built into knowledge or representation, the white man could move into places in which he could feel what he is missing. It is not only in the experience observed, then, that something is missed in this scene, for the white man both fails to recognize certain preoccupations in the people he watches and has never been in the places occupied by their pain. His distances from the people he watches depend on excluding certain occupations—and certain missed occupations such as spoon carving—from knowledge and thereby converting places of occupation into empty spaces of separation.

Patterns of Containment
In the histories of the Bottom's inhabitants, Morrison goes on to redefine space as place. The occupants of the Bottom whose histories are first given in the novel include Shadrack, who was a soldier in the First World War, and Helene Wright, who came to the Bottom from New Orleans when she married. These are the first of the characters who practice strict containments and limitations of experience that keep things in their places.

Morrison first charts the need for such constraints in the story of Shadrack. Having seen a soldier's head blown off on a battlefield of the First World War, Shadrack reacted with a terror of things out of place.

Before him on a tray was a large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes....Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles....All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were—would not explode or burstforth from their restricted zones—he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands....Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack's beanstalk all over the tray and the bed.

Shadrack is able to put a limit on the size of his hands as well as the dimensions of death by "making a place for fear as a way of controlling it." He finds a place in the Bottom, founding National Suicide Day, in 1920, as a place for death: "If one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free." Having focused his fears on this containment, Shadrack himself can be focused and contained. "Once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things."

Like Shadrack, Helene experienced psychic chaos once when she left Medallion. With one slip, when she mistakenly gets into the "white" car on the train going south, she begins to lose control of her existence and slide back into an identity with her mother, "a Creole whore", from whom Helene has spent her life trying to separate herself. Morrison traces this slide in a series of displacements:

"What you think you doin', gal?"

...So soon. She hadn't even begun the trip back. Back to her grandmother's house in the city where the red shutters glowed, and already she had been called "gal." All the old vulnerabilities, all the old fears of being somehow flawed gathered in her stomach and made her hands tremble. She had heard only that one word; it dangled above her wide-brimmed hat, which had slipped, in her exertion, from its carefully leveled placement and was now tilted in a bit of a jaunt over her eye.

Watching Helene, two black soldiers observe her exchange with the conductor. Then, as Nel, Helene's daughter, watches them all, "for no earthly reason" her mother "smiled dazzlingly and coquettishly at the salmon-colored face of the conductor," and the two soldiers suddenly "looked stricken." "She saw the muscles of their faces tighten, a movement under the skin from blood to marble" and "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." Like Shadrack glaring at his rice and tomatoes, Nel watches the "custard" and "jelly" of her mother; she then resolves to resist their spread and slippage. Never again to leave Medallion, Nelreturns home to be her own self: "I'm me. I'm not their daughter. I'm not Nel. I'm me. Me."

The stories of Shadrack and of Helene and Nel's trip to New Orleans offer different experiences of a need for containment. Both characters set limits to preoccupations. These are memories that occupy their minds, but as memories of bodily disintegration they are, specifically, recollections of a loss of place. Shadrack, after seeing another body come apart, fears that his own body cannot be kept within bounds. Initiating National Suicide Day, he puts a limit to his fears, to death, and to bodily disintegration by limiting suicide to one day of the year and then "keeping" the holiday. Helene contains her fears by keeping house and keeping up standards of propriety, both in her house and in the Bottom.

But Helene's fears, and Nel's too, are apparently driven less by what they see than by what others, particularly men, see in Helene. Whereas Shadrack's body loses consistency in his own eyes, Helene is watched by others who see her body as that of a "loose" woman, "custard." Therefore Helene must contain not only her own slips but the way she spreads into someone else when men look at her. On the train south, she feels herself losing her place as Helene Wright and slipping into an identity with her mother, the whore. Then she sees herself losing her place in the men's eyes. They reflect not Helene Wright or her mother but just another black woman in sexual complicity with a white man. Once she begins to "slip," she spreads into this generalized identity because of history, memory, and fears of the men's own, preoccupations over which she has no control.

In the hospital, Shadrack is "relieved and grateful" when he is put into a straitjacket, "for his hands were at last hidden and confined to whatever size they had attained." He is further relieved when he is able to see his reflection. "There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real—that he didn't exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more." Helene, unable "to relieve herself” on the trip south because she is allowed no access to toilets, is perhaps without access either to the sense of presence that relieves Shadrack of his fears of nonexistence. As she sees herself reflected in men's eyes, she does not experience reflection as a means of bodily containment but as one other dimension in which she has difficulty keeping her place. Helene finds bodily relief in the grass but also in another "accomplishment": by the time she has reached Slidell, Louisiana, "she never felt a stir as she passed the muddy eyes of the men who stood like wrecked Dorics under the station roofs of those towns." She is relieved here not by bodily containment but by getting rid of something in her body: the urine she expels, as well as the feelings usually stirred by men watching her.

Patterns of Expulsion
Other women in the novel enforce more violent expulsions from their houses and their bodies, intent on getting rid of things and keeping their distance rather than keeping order. Whereas Helene Wright maintains strict standards and "the oppressive neatness of her home," the Peace women inhabit a "household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with things, people, voices and the slamming of doors." Their messy existence may not result from an indifference to limits, however; it seems instead one effect of a history of ejections and rejections by means of which the Peace women find relief in discharging fears rather than containing them. Walking out, throwing out, cutting off, sending things flying—these women affirm boundaries and their power over boundaries by getting rid of things.

Sula will walk out of Medallion on the day of Nel's wedding, as her grandmother Eva once walked out on her three children, to return "eighteen months later...with two crutches, a new black pocketbook, and one leg." Eva's lost leg becomes the subject of various stories. "Somebody said Eva stuck it under a train and made them pay off." But the stories Eva herself tells are of two kinds: "How the leg got up by itself one day and walked on off. How she hobbled after it but it ran too fast. Or how she had a corn on her toe and it just grew and grew and grew until her whole foot was a corn and then it travelled on up her leg and wouldn't stop growing until she put a red rag at the top but by that time it was already at her knee." According to these two versions, Eva's body is subject to both excursions and incursions of parts.

On her trip south, Helene Wright defends against the inconsistency of "custard" with "the best protection: her manner and her bearing, to which she would add a beautiful dress." Eva Peace deals with the inconsistency of her body not by means of consistent and beautiful forms but by making visible, even decorative, the difference between her absent and her present parts. "Nor did she wear overlong dresses to disguise the empty place on her left side. Her dresses were mid-calf so that her one glamorous leg was always in view as well as the long fall of space below her left thigh." Rendering her inconsistency itself a consistent expression of her distinction, Eva in her refusals to standardize her identity nevertheless places it by securing the difference between self and other, opening to others' scrutiny the space of the missing leg.

Eva's interest in boundaries and spaces is as evident in her house as in her body. "Sula Peace lived in a house of many rooms that had been built over a period of five years to the specifications of its owner, who kept on adding things: more stairways—there were three sets to the second floor—more rooms, doors and stoops. There were rooms that had three doors, ... others that you could get to only by going through somebody's bedroom." This house does not seem primarily a container so much as an excrescence. Eva keeps building, repeatedly pushing out and throwing up forms in additions whose messiness lies in the irregularity of access to them. Both over- and underaccessed, the parts of the house confirm Eva's control over ingress and egress. Spaces between are of more concern here than spaces per se, with an unusual amount of space given over to access. Even rooms are reduced to ways in and out of other rooms, so that any space may become itself a spacing, a distance between: not so much a room, as room to get in and out.

It is not that Eva and her house are open and free whereas Helene Wright and her house are constrained and closed. In terms of intent, the difference between the two is less than such oppositions suggest, because the primary concern of each woman seems her capacity to control and manipulate boundaries. Helene tries to preclude things slipping out of place; Eva lets things slip, even fly out of places in what may be an equally obsessive insistence on the permeability of boundaries. Hurling herself out a window of her bedroom to try to save her daughter Hannah, who has caught fire in the yard, Eva at another time burns up her son in his room because "there wasn't space for him in my womb" and "he wanted to crawl back in".

Both women are primarily occupied, then, with controlling, or even patrolling, boundaries so as to control the definition of their own selves. Both mark off the self through representations that rule out certain parts of their experience. Helene with her good form—her beautiful manner, bearing, and clothes—represents herself with a consistency that she lacks in her body and in her history. Eva's equally careful representation of her body presents an absence that also sets limits to her bodily and historical inconsistency. One woman places her past out of bounds to maintain consistency. The other maintains and thereby controls inconsistency by putting her past into a space defined by what is missing from it yet emptied of history as well as the leg. Eva's past can "take shape" only as something missing: an inconsistent, unknown, and mysterious gap in her existence.

Sula's Perspectives
There are at least three distances at which characters in the novel experience the representations that provide their identity, two of which I have already discussed. In the water in a toilet, Shadrack sees his definite identity as a black man reflected back at him. As in Lacan's "mirror stage," this experience of reflection defines the self as other. If Shadrack sees his ideal self reflected in a toilet, that reflection is both ideal and abject. Yet he is nevertheless reassured that he is "real" by the reflected image. Helene Wright and Eva Peace, I have argued, produce for themselves, by manipulations of things and bodies in space, definitive representations such as Shadrack finds in reflected images. For these women, definition is not provided by reflections. But they nonetheless, as they fill in and empty spaces, provide definite forms of and limits to meaning.

Eva's daughter and granddaughter both, like her, get rid or get out of things by increasing distances between one thing and another. As a child, Sula understands the defensive value of cutting off parts of her body; she scares away the white boys who chase her by chopping off the end of her finger. Later she lets fly a whole body when Chicken Little "slipped from her hands and sailed away out over the water" to his death. This is just after she herself has been "sent...flying up the stairs" by her mother's announcement that she does not like her. Sula, however, seems not to experience her manipulations of space as representative. Whereas Eva is characterized in stories as having cut off her leg, Sula actually cuts off part of her finger. And whereas her mother sends her flying figuratively, she sends Chicken Little's body through the air and kills him. Yet Sula does not control such acts; she does not mean them, and they effect no meaningful forms of experience for her. It is as if Sula does not have the distance from such events necessary to experience control of them.

On the one hand, Sula, like her mother and grandmother, is identified with breaks and separations. On the other, she does not use breaks and separations to give form or consistency to her experience. Unlike Eva, Sula does not place or contain inconsistency so as to limit it; she simply allows a place for losses, breaks, and separations that occur. She does not attempt to repair or reform or connect things that break or exercise any other control over them; she lets things go. Morrison says that Sula is "like any artist with no art form", and Sula does not use form to control experience. Nevertheless, she experiences definition, which occurs through the location of absence rather than in the re-presentation of forms. Because she does not use form to provide definition, Sula realizes the form and definition given to experience by absence. It is her recognition of the definitive power of missing that makes Sula's perspective extraordinary.

The ways in which Sula breaks meaning apart are to some extent familial. The Peace women enforce emotional distances, for example, with their tendency to throw things around. Because of such distances Sula can be identified, as Hortense J. Spillers argues, as "a figure of the rejected and vain part of the self—ourselves—who in its thorough corruption and selfishness cannot utter, believe in, nor prepare for, love." Sula's emotional detachment is evident in certain physical distances she maintains, such as "standing on the back porch just looking" as her mother burns to death. With this perspective, Sula goes beyond the bounds even of her family's sense of proper distance. She repeatedly opens up what Spillers calls "subperspectives, or angles onto a larger seeing" because she disconnects elements of meaning that other people connect.

Sula's capacity, to "just look" depends on experiencing no emotions or intentions that connect her to objects and no meaningful links, either, between one experience and another. She can look at things without presuming anything about them, holding to no assumptions that would affect the "clarity" of her perception. She thereby calls into question assumptions other characters hold. When Jude comes home from work expecting commiseration from Nel, for example, Sula looks at his experience another way.

[He] told them a brief tale of some personal insult done him by a customer and his boss—a whiney tale that peaked somewhere between anger and a lapping desire for comfort. He ended it with the observation that a Negro man had a hard row to hoe in this world....Sula said she didn't know about that—it looked like a pretty good life to her....

"...White men love you. They spend so much time worrying about your penis they forget their own.... And white women? They chase you all to every corner of the earth, feel for you under every bed....Now ain't that love?"

Sula's insistence on looking at things another way provides Jude the relief of laughter rather than the comfort of monotonous sympathy. But this relief depends on disconnection and detachment.

What occurs in such scenes is similar to what occurs when Henry James's Adam and Maggie Verver produce new views of persons and situations in The Golden Bowl. Yet although James identifies those views as occurring in clear or open space, Sula's way of looking at things suggests that the Ververs do not merely look. Compared with Sula, the Ververs look at things with many assumptions, with what might be called a "backing": made up, for example, of the belief that they can change situations, if not persons, by viewing them differently. Adam Verver's consciousness is one other open space that Morrison might view as preoccupied. Backed by such beliefs, the Ververs view objects in relations. Backed by no belief in relations, "just looking," Sula makes clear that Jude's experience is invisible. To look at it, it could be anything.

Source: Patricia McKee, "Black Spaces in Sula," in Producing American Races, Duke University Press, 1999, pp. 146-59.

Previous

Critical Overview