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Sula by Toni Morrison

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Diana Louis

on 13 October 2015

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Transcript of Sula by Toni Morrison

Morrison's 2nd Novel
Written in 1973
Divided into two sections & subdivided by chapters w/ dates 1919-1965

Core Themes
Confounding of binary oppositions

Belonging in The Bottom in relation to the broader town of Medallion

Relationships among women unmediated by men

Self-Definition in the midst of community conformity

"We enter a new world... a world where we never get to the 'bottom' of things, a world that demands a shift from an either/or orientation to one that is both/and, full of shifts and contradictions."

What are Binary Oppositions?
Social Constructions that Fuel Identity Formation:


"Throughout the text, Morrison interrogates the ground upon which individual and collective identities are constructed."

--Valerie Smith in
Writing the Moral Imagination
(p. 33)
The Bottom
Located in Medallion, Ohio
Town animated by black people's music, stories, dance, and rituals
Transformed by urban renewal
Urban Renewal
National effort in 1920s, 1950s through 1970s
Improve "Blighted" areas of cities and towns
Places like "Time and a Half Hall," "Irene's Place of Cosmetology," and "Reba's Grill" leveled to make room for Medallion Golf Course and Suburbs
Sula by Toni Morrison
Deborah McDowell in "'The Self and the Other': Reading Toni Morrison's Sula and The Black Female Text" ed. Nellie McKay, Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. p. 80
"Sula is situated in a place of change and lost. Here the interests of working African Americans have been displaced in favor of the creation of white leisure cultural spaces. (Smith 32)
The Bottom: Ironic Name
"Nigger Joke"
Bottom of Heaven
Difficult to Farm, but Beautiful
Exploitative Labor Practices
Violation of Property Rights
Strategies of Resistance
Blacks have made meaning from practices that seek to disenfranchise them:

An irony is the mainstay [for black people]. Other people call it humor. It's really not that. It's not sort of laughing away one's troubles. And laughter itself for black people has nothing to do with what's funny at all. And taking that which is peripheral, or violent or doomed or something that nobody else can see any value in and making value out of it or having a psychological attitude about duress is part of what made us stay alive and fairly coherent, and irony is a part of that -- being able to see the underside of something, as well. (Morrison).
"In her first two novels... Morrison holds racialized and gendered cultural norms up to scrutiny.

In the Bluest Eye, she explores the pursuit of idealized standards of beauty leads to self-loathing and victimizes the most vulnerable members of an already marginalized community.

In Sula, Morrison delves more deeply into the means by which they are based and from which they derive their force" (Smith 39)
"...rather than polar opposites [binary oppositions] are actually mutually dependent and inextricable constructions. Societies may need to demonize "the other" in order to shore up their own systems of belief, but their very survival depends upon the existence of that "other"; distinctions between insiders and outsiders are shown to be less stable and evident than they initially appear" (Smith 39).
Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. (p.117-8)
Sula's Disregard for Social Norms
Eva's arrogance and Hannah's self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full rein, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her. As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as to give pleasure, hers is an experimental life -- ever since her mother's remarks sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility has been exercised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle. (p.118).
"...[S]he seeks to live outside the restraints of prevailing social norms, especially as they are constructed for women" (Smith 38)
Freedom was easy -- the framer had no objection to that. But he didn't want to give up any land (p.5)
Underside of "Freedom"
WWI shell shocked veteran (mental instability from battlefield experience)

Defamiliarized from his own body and inability to connect words with meaning (nurse calls him "private"; he wonders why he is referred to as something secret)

National Suicide Day: Why Does he Create it?
He hopes to advert the power of the unexpected and keep himself and everyone else safe the rest of the time (Smith 33-4)

" [A] struggle to order and focus experience. It had to do with making a place for fear as a way to control it" (14)

"It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both" (14)

"The townspeople may think that the ritual of National Suicide Day is a mark of Shadrack's insanity, but they have comparable ways of shielding themselves from the unpredictability of evil and loss" (Smith 36).
Binary Opposition: Shadrack's Madness versus the Sanity of the ordinary people
Preoccupations of the Town
“They were mightily preoccupied with earthly things—and each other, wondering even as early as 1920 what Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about, and what they themselves were all about, tucked up there in the Bottom” (6).
Shadrack tells the townspeople, "This was their only chance to kill themselves or each other" (p.14)
Shadrack's Madness
"When they bound Sahadrack into a straitjacket, he was both relieved and grateful, for his hands were at last hidden and confined to whatever size they had attained" (9)
Shadrack's Madness
"The fear and longing were too much for him, so he began to think of other things. That is, he let his mind slip into whatever cave mouths of memory it chose. He saw a window that looked out on a river which he knew was full of fish. Someone speaking softly outside the door..." (10).
Here we have madness as a choice. It is a reprieve from violence, war, fear, terror, and “real” trauma. Confinement in straightjacket is comforting. He is “relieved and grateful” (11). However, we must consider the broader context. Confinement in places like jail and asylums (in this case a sick bay) are only comforting when they provide a relief from broader social confinement such as trauma, violence, and war (or war zones/states).

We will explore three things today:

1. Sula as Disruptive to Social constructions of gender "Oppressive Oddity"

2. The Bottom as Community

3. Shadrack and Madness
"... They thought they had no attitudes or feelings one way or another about Shadrack's annual solitary parade. In fact they had simply stopped remarking on the holiday because they absorbed it into their thoughts, into their language, into their lives" (15).
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