Although Sula moves between many different characters’ perspectives, it is almost entirely told from the point of view of women living in the Bottom. Often, the men in the novel can’t be “pinned down” for long: their jobs keep them away from home (Wiley Wright), or their desire for independence leads them to abandon their families (Jude Greene, BoyBoy, etc.). As a result, it’s no surprise that Morrison offers many insights into the lives of women and their role in their communities.
One quality that defines many of the women in Sula (Helene, Eva, Hannah, Nel, etc.) is motherhood. The men in the novel are often less closely connected with their families than are their wives—sometimes, they abandon their families altogether. Although many of the mothers in the novel leave their hometown in Ohio for long periods of time (even Eva Peace, perhaps the most devoted mother in the book, leaves for eighteen months), they’re likely to come back to take care of their children, and often after they take one leave of absence, they never take another one again. As a result of the heightened presence of mothers in the lives of their children, the bond between a mother and child—and particularly a mother and her daughter—is exceptionally strong.
Another important kind of feminine bond in Sula, arguably even more important than motherhood, is friendship—the paramount example being the close friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright. And yet there’s always an implicit problem in the friendships between women and other women. Too often, women—certainly the women of the Bottom—are taught that they must find a husband, or else always be “incomplete.” We can see this dynamic at work when Sula and Nel, only twelve years old, go off to find “beautiful boys”—an episode of their lives that ultimately drives them apart and spoils their friendship. Years later, Sula, convinced that she must find love and understanding through sex, sleeps with Nel’s husband, Jude Green, destroying Nel’s marriage and ending their friendship for good. When women are convinced that finding a man is their ultimate purpose in life, they will consider their friendships with other women to be only of secondary importance—and as a result, female friendships face the danger of being torn apart by competition for “beautiful boys.”
In a famous essay, the author Virginia Woolf praised Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night for being the first work of Western literature in which two women are friends with one another, and don’t compete for a man’s attention. It’s worth thinking about how rare friendships between women are in literature—more often than not, women’s relationships are defined by a common goal: a husband. In Sula, Morrison shows how the relationships between women hold families and entire communities together. And yet many female friendships are ruined because society teaches women that their purpose in life is to compete for a husband and make a new family.
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Quotes in Sula
He was a seaman (or rather a lakeman, for he was a ship's cook on one of the Great Lakes lines), in port only three days out of every sixteen. He took his bride to his home in Medallion and put her in a lovely house with a brick porch and real lace curtains at the window. His long absences were quite bearable for Helene Wright, especially when, after some nine years of marriage, her daughter was born. Her daughter was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life.
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.
He opened his eyes and saw what he imagined was the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him. Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought. Everything is going to be all right, it said. Knowing that it was so he closed his eyes and sank back into the bright hole of sleep. Eva stepped back from the bed and let the crutches rest under her arms. She rolled a bit of newspaper into a tight stick about six inches long, lit it and threw it onto the bed where the kerosene-soaked Plum lay in snug delight. Quickly, as the whoosh of flames engulfed him, she shut the door and made her slow and painful journey back to the top of the house.
“There wasn't space for him in my womb. And he was crawlin' back. Being helpless and thinking baby thoughts and dreaming baby dreams and messing up his pants again and smiling all the time. I had room enough in my heart, but not in my womb, not no more. I birthed him once. I couldn't do it again. He was growed, a big old thing. Godhavemercy, I couldn't birth him twice.”
She was not only a little drunk, she was weary and had been for weeks. Her only child's wedding—the culmination of all she had been, thought or done in this world—had dragged from her energy and stamina even she did not know she possessed. Her house had to be thoroughly cleaned, chickens had to be plucked, cakes and pies made, and for weeks she, her friends and her daughter had been sewing. Now it was all happening and it took only a little cane juice to snap the cords of fatigue and damn the white curtains that she had pinned on the stretcher only the morning before.
"But Jude," she would say, "you knew me. All those days and years, Jude, you knew me. My ways and my hands and how my stomach folded and how we tried to get Mickey to nurse and how about that time when the landlord said... but you said... and I cried, Jude. You knew me and had listened to the things I said in the night, and heard me in the bathroom and laughed at my raggedy girdle and I laughed too because I knew you too, Jude. So how could you leave me when you knew me?"
"The real hell of Hell is that it is forever." Sula said that. She said doing anything forever and ever was hell. Nel didn't understand it then, but now in the bathroom, trying to feel, she thought, "If I could be sure that I could stay here in this small white room with the dirty tile and water gurgling in the pipes and my head on the cool rim of this bathtub and never have to go out the door, I would be happy. If I could be certain that I never had to get up and flush the toilet, go in the kitchen, watch my children grow up and die, see my food chewed on my plate... Sula was wrong. Hell ain't things lasting forever. Hell is change."
I know what every colored woman in this country is doing."
"Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I'm going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world."
"Really? What have you got to show for it?"
"Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me."
"Lonely, ain't it?"
"Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely."
She was not breathing because she didn't have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead. Sula felt her face smiling. "Well, I'll be damned," she thought, "it didn't even hurt. Wait'll I tell Nel."
What did old Eva mean by “you watched?” How could she help seeing it? She was right there. But Eva didn't say, “see,” she said “watched.”
"I did not watch it. I just saw it." But it was there anyway, as it had always been, the old feeling and the old question. The good feeling she had had when Chicken's hands slipped. She hadn't wondered about that in years. "Why didn't I feel bad when it happened? How come it felt so good to see him fall?"
"All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude." And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. "We was girls together," she said as though explaining something. "O Lord, Sula," she cried, "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl." It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.