Sula Essays and Criticism
by Toni Morrison

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Mother-and-Daughter Relationships in Sula

(Novels for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 6,948 words.)