'Sula': a Satire on Binary Thinking.
by Rita A. Bergenholtz
Attempts to define Toni Morrison's novel Sula are as numerous as they
are diverse. The text has been read as a "black woman's epic," a study
of "female friendship," an "antiwar novel," a "fable," an exploration
of the "feminine psyche," and "a prime postmodernist text."! If one
were to single out one particular interpretation and argue that it were
somehow superior, somehow right while the others were wrong, that
person would fall into the trap of binary thinking which is also what
Morrison's text is "about." Deborah E. McDowell explains further:
The narrative [Sula] insistently blurs and confuses . . . binary
oppositions. It glories in paradox and ambiguity beginning with the
prologue that describes the setting, the Bottom, situated spatially in
the top. We enter a new world here, 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.
In my own attempt to describe
Sula, I will expand upon McDowell's thesis and argue that the novel may
also be read as an extended satire on binary (reductive, cliched)
thinking. Because satire is a notoriously imprecise term, a
clarification of its usage in this essay is appropriate.
The traditional definition of satire as a didactic art form was
articulated by Horace in the first century B.C., restated and amplified
by Dryden at the close of the seventeenth century, and upheld by
several prominent theorists in the first half of the twentieth
century.(2) In fact, as recently as 1985 Linda Hutcheon argued that
parody should not be confused with satire, "which is extra-mural
(social, moral) in its ameliorative aim to hold up to ridicule the
vices and follies of mankind, with an eye to their correction" (43).
Dryden's "Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire"
(1693) has largely been responsible for this view of satire. As Dustin
Griffin explains, "Our reigning notion of satire as a moral art and as
a carefully constructed and unified contrast between vice and virtue
finds its fullest and most influential presentation in Dryden's essay"
(15). According to Dryden, "Satire is a kind of Poetry . . . invented
for the purging of our Minds; in which Humane Vices, Ignorance, and
Errors, and all things besides . . . are severely Reprehended" (77).
This definition highlights two related points which deserve attention.
First, Dryden's theory of satire as correction and reformation clearly
fails to describe his own satiric practice; and, second, it is intended
to describe only formal verse (or Roman) satire and not Menippean (or
first point, Edgar Johnson aptly notes that "it is hard to detect any
reformatory zeal in Mac Flecknoe and the booby-trap denouement of its
coronation scene" (4). The same may be said about the satires of
Horace, who argues that his goal is to laugh men out of their follies-
thus drawing attention to the moral aspect of his satire- but, as
Griffin notes, "Satire, as Horace practices it, is considerably more
diverse than laughter at folly" (8). In fact, contrary to what the
satirist may claim in defense of his or her work, the satirist's
primary aim has generally been to upset our conventional literary and
moral expectations- not to validate them. Moreover, as John R. Clark
argues, rather than attacking folly and vice, "Satiric plots regularly
dramatize the triumph of folly or vice" (51). We need only recall the
end of Gulliver's Travels- where Gulliver converses with his horses- or
the conclusion of Pope's "Epilogue to the Satires: Dialogue I"- where
Vice triumphs with great pageantry- to recognize the validity of this
Furthermore, it is
significant that Dryden's theory is intended to describe only formal
verse satire (as practiced by Horace, Juvenal, and Persius), and not
Menippean satire. Like Quintillian before him and many theorists after
him, Dryden draws a clear distinction between the two satiric
traditions- privileging the Roman tradition of verse satire established
by Lucilius (second century B.C.) and disregarding the older, more
complex Menippean tradition, named after its founder Menippus of Gadara
(third century B.C.). In the twentieth century, such prominent
theorists as Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism, 1957) and Mikhail
Bakhtin (Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 1929) have attempted to
rectify this imbalance. However, Bakhtin's theory- which reverses the
traditional hierarchy and privileges "dialogic" Menippean satire
instead- also maintains a distinction between satiric traditions.
Building upon Bakhtin's theory, Frank Palmeri's Satire in Narrative
(1990) likewise favors narrative satire:
. . . verse satire does function conservatively to enforce an
established cultural code by ridiculing deviations from it. However,
narrative satire parodies both the official voice of established
beliefs and the discourse of its opponents. In doing so, it
interrogates any claims to a systematic understanding of the world.
Narrative satire is . . . potentially more subversive. (6)
In Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (1994), Dustin Griffin develops a
more comprehensive approach to the two major traditions of satire,
privileging neither. Indeed, Griffin suggests that "to read Menippean
works alongside those of Horace, Donne, or Pope is to see poetic
satire, even formal verse satire, in new light. The moral design is but
one of several elements. Neither tradition, in Bakhtin's terms, is
'monological'" (34). Furthermore, instead of viewing satire merely as a
rhetoric of persuasion, Griffin argues that "we may arrive at a fuller
understanding of the way satire works if we think of a rhetoric of
inquiry, a rhetoric of provocation, a rhetoric of display, a rhetoric
of play" (39). Satire as Griffin describes it may be found in either
verse or narrative; however, since the novel's "rise" in the eighteenth
century, this genre has proved to be the satirist's preferred form. As
numerous theorists and critics have now recognized, the satirist
attacks, indirectly, all kinds of unexamined and cliched thinking. In
short, the satirist's primary goal is not to "teach" us moral lessons
or to reform us, but to entertain us and give us food for thought.
This contemporary view of satire underscores one of Toni Morrison's
acknowledged goals as a writer. In an interview with Nellie McKay,
Morrison remarks, "I don't want to give my readers something to
swallow. I want to give them something to feel and think about . . ."
(421). Moreover, this broader view of satire aligns itself closely with
the poststructuralist project of inverting and then leveling
hierarchies, whether they be moral, philosophical, or linguistic. A
closer look at the "nigger joke" in the first chapter of Sula will
allow us to recognize how Morrison consistently frustrates any attempt
to think in strictly binary terms, impelling us to contrast the valley
with the Bottom, the Bottom with the suburbs (4). Opposition engenders
competition, hierarchy, and taxonomy. Morrison's view of this process
is clear from Sula's concluding sentence: "It was a fine cry- loud and
long- but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles
of sorrow" (174).
and undermines binary opposition with the agricultural imagery which
she evokes at the outset of Sula. The slave in Morrison's "nigger joke"
knows what bottom land is, but he is fooled by a "good white farmer"
who convinces him that the fertile bottom land is actually up in the
hills, which he describes as "'the bottom of heaven- the best land
there is'" (5). The credulous "nigger," therefore, appears to be the
butt (or "bottom") of the good white farmer's joke. But is he really?
If the Bottom's hilly terrain is unyielding, then why do the white
hunters wonder "in private if maybe the white farmer was right after
all. Maybe it was the bottom of heaven" (6)? And why do the white folks
later change their minds, move to the Bottom, and rename it the
"suburbs" (2)? Perhaps the knavish farmer is really the fool? In any
case, the joke does amuse, for the guileless slave believes- literally-
that heaven has a top and a bottom. This brief look at the "nigger
joke" which introduces Sula- and serves as an emblem for it- highlights
a number of binary oppositions that are interrogated throughout the
text: black/white, good/evil, tragic/comic, spiritual/material,
literal/metaphoric, real/fantastic, and free/enslaved.
Although the introductory joke hinges, in part, upon a black/white
opposition, white people remain peripheral figures in this text.
Apparently Morrison, like Sula, is not merely concerned with surface
differences like color. Plainly, Morrison wants us to understand how
reductive and destructive it is to affix antithetical labels such as
good and evil to entire races of people, although many of the
characters in the novel do just that. For instance, according to the
white bargeman who finds Chicken Little's body, black people are simply
"animals, fit for nothing but substitutes for mules, only mules didn't
kill each other the way niggers did" (63). Similarly, according to most
of the residents of the Bottom, the worst thing a black woman like Sula
can do is to sleep with a white man: "They insisted that all unions
between white men and black women be rape; for a black woman to be
willing was literally unthinkable. In that way, they regarded
integration with precisely the same venom that white people did" (113).
The trenchant irony is not just that both blacks and whites employ
binary thinking, but that black women attempt to look more like white
women (with all of their nose pulling and hair straightening) and black
men yearn to do the white man's work, while both white men and white
women, according to Sula, secretly lust after black men and their
legendary penises. The distinction between black and white is further
blurred by the marginal character Tar Baby, a man who may be white or
may just be an undefinable mixture of black and white.
Binary thinking operates on the notion that one term of an opposing
pair will be privileged. In the following excerpt from an interview,
Morrison suggests a weakness in binary perspectives which she explores
in Sula: "I was interested . . . in doing a very old, worn-out idea,
which was to do something with good and evil, but putting it in
different terms" ("Intimate" 215). Morrison continues: "I started out
by thinking that one can never really define good and evil. Sometimes
good looks like evil; sometimes evil looks like good- you never really
know what it is. It depends on what uses you put it to" (216). Eva, the
matriarch of the Peace family and a symbol of black folk wisdom,
presents a number of interpretive problems in this area. How, for
example, are we to respond to her abandonment of her children, her loss
of a limb, and her torching of Plum? Should we admire her
stoutheartedness and her ability to survive, or should we be horrified
by her actions? What about the deweys? Should we praise Eva's
generosity for housing these stray boys or censure her absent-minded
treatment of them? Joanne V. Gabbin offers one possible answer when she
remarks that Morrison "avoids the pitfalls of attributing all that is
good to the tradition. In Sula proverbial collective wisdom of the folk
is held up to Morrison's spotlight and collective ignorance often
appears" (256). Specifically, Eva follows the folk wisdom which urges a
mother to treat all her children the same. Consequently, the deweys are
"bludgeoned into insipid sameness by folk love and indifference"
grandmother, Sula Peace presents a problem for people who think in
binary terms, people who insist that a character be discreet,
consistent, and thus confinable. Should we admire Sula's courage, her
determination to be free and to "make herself" (92)? Or should we
loathe her for engaging in casual sex with her best friend's husband?
Our initial response to Sula's act of betrayal is to side with the
people of the Bottom and label Nel the "good" woman and Sula the "evil"
one.(4) After all, Nel behaves properly; she fits nicely "into the
scheme of things," into her society's hierarchical structure which has
a clear moral top and a definite moral bottom (15). Indeed, Nel
admirably performs all of the obligatory roles: dutiful friend,
respectful daughter, loyal wife, and nurturing mother. Later, she acts
the wronged wife and the forgiving Christian woman. In contrast, Sula
disregards social conventions, following only her own heart and
conscience. Sula doesn't care that the definition of a black woman is
one who makes other people. Sula doesn't care that the men she sleeps
with are married. And Sula especially doesn't care that a "good" woman,
like Nel, would never be on top of her man during sexual intercourse
but beneath him, not unlike the hem of his garments.
Traditional definitions of satire tend to reduce it to a form of
"romance" which, in its broadest sense, may include any narrative which
has a well-defined "good guy" who triumphs over a well-defined "bad
guy" in order to produce the expected resolution: a happy ending (which
is also the moral). Such absolutes, however, are uncommon in satiric
novels. In fact, Morrison clearly wants us to recognize that although
Nel and Sula appear to be quite different- one the epitome of goodness
and the other the embodiment of evil- they are also quite similar. That
is, if Sula is evil for watching Hannah dance in pain as flames melt
her lovely skin, then Nel is also evil for experiencing a sense of
pleasure and tranquility when Chicken Little disappears beneath the
water (170). The "Wright" approach to morality judges an action evil
only if it is witnessed by others. In contrast, Morrison suggests that
the distinction between good and evil is rarely so clear-cut as Helen
and Nel suppose; consequently, there is some good and some evil in both
Sula and in Nel. The most significant difference between the women
might be that Sula accepts the fuzziness of moral categories with her
usual good humor, whereas Nel refuses to look at the unacceptable
aspects of herself, aspects which confound her cliched thinking. In
fact, Sula's ability to laugh at herself may be her most redeeming
Like the "niggers" who
tell the "nigger joke" on themselves, Sula understands that in life ".
. . the laughter [i]s part of the pain" (4). So when Nel asks her if
she "'still expect[s] folks to love'" her after all "'the dirt [she]
did in this town,'" Sula's creative reply is painfully funny. Instead
of responding with a cliched remark like the townspeople will love her
"when hell freezes over," Sula imagines new ways of inverting the world
of the Bottom, new metaphors for describing what "never" feels like:
"Oh, they'll love me all right. It will take time, but they'll love me.
. . . After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all
the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the
black men fuck all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all
the black ones; when the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after
all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get
their mothers' trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma
Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have fucked
all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to
mount the hogs . . . then there'll be a little love left over for me."
The tone of this passage,
like the tone of the "nigger joke," may be described as tragicomic.
Indeed, tragicomedy has much in common with the Negro blues. As Ralph
Ellison explains, "The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details
and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching
consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by
consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-
comic lyricism" (78). In fact, the satirist has always been fond of
grotesque combinations which confound the ridiculous and the
terrifying, the fantastic and the real, the human and the bestial. In
an oft-quoted remark, Thomas Mann predicted, correctly, that the
grotesque would prove to be the dominant artistic style of the
twentieth century: "The striking feature of modern art is that . . . it
sees life as tragicomedy, with the result that the grotesque is its
most genuine style" (240-41).
Grotesque images are provocative, for they create "a clash between
incompatible reactions- laughter on the one hand and horror or disgust
on the other" (Thomson 2). Such imagery pervades Morrison's text. How
else could we characterize the image of Eva swinging and swooping
around her house on crutches (46), or the image of Hannah "bobbing like
a sprung jack-in-the-box" (76), or the three deweys, who play
chain-gang in the intolerable heat and who dance "a little jig around
the befuddled Shadrack" before they lead the people of the Bottom on a
macabre dance of death (159)? In fact, throughout Sula death is
repeatedly treated in a tragicomic manner. A salient example is Sula's
demise, which "was the best news folks up in the Bottom had had since
the promise of work at the tunnel." As the narrator informs us, some
people came to the funeral simply to verify Sula's death:
Others came to see that nothing went awry, that the shallow-minded and
small-hearted kept their meanness at bay, and that the entire event be
characterized by that abiding gentleness of spirit to which they
themselves had arrived by the simple determination not to let anything-
anything at all: not failed crops, not rednecks, lost jobs, sick
children, rotten potatoes, broken pipes, bug-ridden flour, third-class
coal, educated social workers, thieving insurance men, garlic-ridden
hunkies, corrupt Catholics, racist Protestants, cowardly Jews,
slaveholding Moslems, jack-leg nigger preachers, squeamish Chinamen,
cholera, dropsy or the Black Plague, let alone a strange woman- keep
them from their God. (150)
Although death permeates this novel, egregious lists like this one
provide a "sense of joy" ("Intimate" 225) which invigorates Morrison's
writing and animates Sula's thoughts, a sense that is absent from the
lives of most of the women up in the Bottom, especially "the church
women who frowned on any bodily expression of joy (except when the hand
of God commanded it)" (79).(5) Morrison's satire criticizes these
ostensibly good women who are preoccupied with appearing religious. In
truth, these women are more concerned that "their straightened hair
[will] beat them home" than they are about Sula (173). Moreover, from
their distorted perspective, nearly everything and everyone is an
obstacle on their righteous path to God. The end result is that they
diminish the spiritual element of life to the material, just as the
slave in the "nigger joke" reduces heaven to some hills overlooking
Medallion, Ohio. As Alvin B. Kernan explains, pseudo-religious people
often substitute "some objective thing for a subjective reality: a
pious expression . . . folded hands, and frequent references to the
Deity for true religion" (52).
This is a rather accurate description of Helene (or Helen) Wright, a
woman who grew up in a "somber house that held four Virgin Marys" (25),
a woman whose "dark eyes" are "arched in a perpetual query about other
people's manners. . . . It was Helene who never turned her head in
church when latecomers arrived; . . . Helene who introduced the giving
of banquets of welcome to returning Negro veterans" (18). In the
following monologue, Morrison exquisitely captures the essence of
Helene's superficial, automatic religion:
"Lord, I've never been so glad to see this place. But look at the dust.
Get the rags, Nel. Oh, never mind. Let's breathe awhile first. Lord, I
never thought I'd get back here safe and sound. Whoo. Well, it's over.
Good and over. Praise His name. Look at that. I told that old fool not
to deliver any milk and there's the can curdled to beat all. What gets
into people? I told him not to. Well, I got other things to worry
'bout. Got to get a fire started. I left it ready so I wouldn't have to
do nothin' but light it. Lord, it's cold. Don't just sit there, honey.
You could be pulling your nose . . ." (27-28)
The juxtaposition of religious terminology- "Praise His name"- with
dust, rags, curdled milk, and nose pulling tends to diminish the
sacred. (Or, to look at it another way, the comparison magnifies the
secular, thus transforming nose pulling into a kind of religious
point above, Palmeri explains that "the plot and rhetoric of narrative
satire cohere in accomplishing the same movement of lowering or
leveling." He continues:
satire reduces the spiritual and abstract to the same level as the
physical and material, concentrating for this purpose on the natural
functions of the body. . . . With this focus, narrative satire reduces
all that might be heroic and noble to a common level of physical
experience which it openly acknowledges, if it does not always joyously
Sula is a novel
which does indeed acknowledge all of the natural functions of the human
body, what Bernard McElroy refers to as "the four irreducibles of human
life . . . birth, food, sex, and death." In fact, McElroy suggests that
the "closest link" between such writers as Rabelais and Joyce may be
"their depiction of the grotesque body. . . . The celebration of
copulation, birth, devouring, and elimination that Bakhtin finds in
Rabelais is everywhere in Joyce, culminating in Molly's ruminations in
the final chapter" (71). Morrison belongs to this long satiric
tradition, which includes writers as diverse as Swift and Sterne in the
eighteenth century and Barth and Nabokov in the twentieth. Unlike
romance or tragedy, satire is a genre in which characters find the time
to eat and to secrete. By developing such scatological themes, the
satirist is able "to rivet the attention, to shock, and to move [her]
audience" (Clark 118).
satirist also entertains. Part of Sula's absurd humor resides in the
fact that the initial joke about the "bottom of heaven" is carried on
throughout the novel. That is to say, in nearly every chapter, a
"bottom"- or, if you prefer, an ass, rear-end, derriere, or buttocks-
makes a literal or metaphoric appearance. Such a preposterous number of
bottoms suggests that Morrison- a black woman- is able to laugh at one
of the physical features with which black people (especially black
women) have often been pejoratively associated. First there are a
number of literal bottoms to be observed. There is Nel's "wet buttocks"
being soaped by her mother in Cecile Sabat's house (27); poor Plum's
exposed buttocks in the frigid outhouse (34); Nel's and Sula's
"behinds" strolling down the street to Edna Finch's Mellow House- a
"view" which men both young and old watch "with interest" (49);
Hannah's "behind," which "she made men aware of" (42); and Sula's
rear-end "gliding, with just a hint of a strut, down the path toward
the road. . . . Even from the rear Nel could tell that it was Sula and
that she was smiling . . ." (85).
Even more significant is the way in which blacks and whites use the
"bottom" synecdochically to represent the whole person. For instance,
when Helene Wright boards the wrong car of a train, the white conductor
barks, "'We don't 'low no mistakes on this train. Now git your butt on
in there'" (21). The narrator employs similar imagery to describe Nel
and Sula as twelve-year-old girls: They were "wishbone thin and
easy-assed" (52). Furthermore, when Hannah inquires whether or not Eva
ever loved her, Eva replies," 'You settin' here with you healthy-ass
self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a
been two holes full of maggots if I hadn't'" (68). And when Sula
returns from her ten-year odyssey, Eva warns, "'. . . don't let your
mouth start nothing that your ass can't stand'" (92). One final bottom
deserves mention. As the narrator explains, ". . . 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 . . ." (4).
Like the "nigger joke," however, the identification of the self- here,
the black self- with the "bottom" or behind is both comic and tragic.
Focusing on the "bottom" instead of the whole person results in a
demeaning, fragmented perspective, a way of seeing people which may
degenerate into the white policeman's view that, if Tar Baby "didn't
like to live in shit, he should come down out of those hills, and live
like a decent white man" (133). This is not to say that there is
anything wrong with looking at or talking about "bottoms." The problem
arises, however, when one particular body part becomes a metaphor for a
whole person. Morrison seems to underscore this by populating her novel
with fragmented characters, characters like Nel, whose sexuality is
represented by "empty," "old thighs" (110-11); Shadrack, whose
monstrous hands are a metaphor for his inability to reach out and touch
other people (12); and the deweys, whose "magnificent teeth" signal
their animal rapacity (84).
Perhaps the most memorable fragmented character in Sula is the
one-legged matriarch, Eva Peace. Apparently she gives up a leg in order
to survive, in order that her children may survive. The sacrifice is,
of course, heroic. Survival, it seems, is quite expensive.
Nevertheless, Eva's tragedy recalls the cliche "it cost an arm and a
leg," which is, according to A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, a variant
of an earlier expression, "even at the cost of a leg" (159). The dark
humor encircling this absent limb becomes plain once we realize that
Eva's condition is a literalization of a metaphorical expression.
Palmeri explains that "the reduction of the spiritual to physical in
satiric narrative corresponds to the rhetorical reduction of metaphor
to literal meanings . . . [which] often operates on idioms and cliches
. . . [and] works to satirize hidebound characters . . . who live
within the confines of cliches and received ideas" (13). In fact, this
technique of reducing the metaphorical to the literal is a pervasive
source of ironic humor in numerous satiric works, from Jonathan Swift's
A Tale of a Tub to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of
Similarly, much of
Sula's dark humor results from this same strategy: Distorting the
responsibilities of motherhood, Eva murders her son because she fears
that he literally wants "'to crawl back in [her] womb'" (71), yet she
literally takes a free fall in an attempt to save her daughter (76);
exceeding the bounds of curiosity, Sula concludes that "'it's just as
well [Ajax] left. Soon I would have torn the flesh from his face just
to see if I was right about the gold . . .'" (136); parodying all of
the boy/men in the novel, the three deweys decide to remain literally
as children in body as well as in mind (38, 84); spoofing the Trojan
myth, Ajax (or A. Jacks) is (almost) literally a Greek "bearing gifts"
(125); mocking the conventions of marriage and the white world, Jude
literally abandons his tie (104); and undermining the dignity of Nel's
grief and bitterness, a gray ball literally forms "just to the right of
her, in the air, just out of view" (108).
This final example of Nel's gray ball is especially significant because
it exemplifies Tzvetan "Todorov's notion of the supernatural as
literalized trope" (McHale 137). We can believe- perhaps with some
difficulty- that Eva could ignite her own son or that the deweys could
stop growing; however, the idea of a gray bali's defying the laws of
gravity and following Nel for some twenty-eight years introduces us to
the realm of the fantastic. We no longer ask what the ball means, but
whether such a ball- and such a world-
is possible. Brian McHale explains that "the 'bottom,' the deep
structure of the fantastic, is . . . ontological rather than
epistemological. . . . The fantastic, in other words, involves a
face-to-face confrontation between the possible (the 'real') and the
impossible, the normal and the paranormal" (75). Moreover, Morrison's
use of the fantastic links her with such celebrated satirists as
Lucian, Rabelais, Swift, and Garcia Marquez. According to Bakhtin, "We
could not find a genre more free than the menippea in its invention and
use of the fantastic" (114). He continues: "We emphasize that the
fantastic here serves not for the positive embodiment of truth, but as
a mode for searching after truth, provoking it, and, most important,
testing it" (114).
strategy of literalizing language also reminds us that language is
conventional. As Catherine Belsey explains, language "comes into being
at the same time as society" (42). The members of a society implicitly
agree "to attach a specific signified to a specific signifier" (Belsey
41). Through time and habit, however, we tend to forget that language
is not "a simple process of naming preexisting objects and states but a
system through which we give meaning to the world" (McLaughlin 86). In
short, the nomenclator has the power. In many mythologies, God gives
the right to name to a privileged individual. In Sula Morrison bestows
this power on Eva. Karen Stein explains:
Eva takes on an important task which the Biblical Adam performed, that
of giving names. However, these labels hinder rather than promote the
development of the people she names. The nicknames she gives to
neighbors and to her real and adopted children become the ones they are
known by. When she calls each of three very different adopted children
Dewey the similar names create an identical fate for all of them, ("'I
Beginning with the
"nigger joke," Morrison reminds us that there is no proper meaning
inherent in words or names- just as there is no correct meaning for
Sula's birthmark (114) or for the plague of robins (89)- only meanings
we assign to people and events in our attempts to establish the limits-
the top and the bottom, so to speak- of reality. More so than Eva, the
"good white farmer" uses and abuses his power to name. Maliciously
inverting the truth, he calls the top of the valley the Bottom to
maintain control over the black slave as well as the fertile bottom
land. But if the "good white farmer" controls the language and the
people, then how are we to account for this most remarkable sentence
tucked up in the "nigger joke":
good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his
slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave
completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain.
Freedom was easy-
the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn't want to give up any
land. (5; emphasis mine)
"Freedom was easy . . ."? If there is a message in this novel, it seems
to me that it is precisely the opposite: Freedom is never easy.
However, Morrison is more concerned with posing questions than with
delivering messages. What, we might ask, does freedom really mean. Like
all of the black women up in the Bottom, Nel is free. Yet for
forty-three years she labors under the burden of assuming that she must
be the good girl and Sula the evil one. Is this freedom? Nel's husband
Jude is also free. Yet Jude wastes his adult life telling "whiney
tale[s]," mostly about how "a Negro man ha[s] a hard row to hoe in this
world" and other such comforting cliches (103). Is that freedom?
Morrison provides no answers; her goal, like that of many a satirist,
is to provoke thought. For only by frequently inquiring what it means
to be free, to be in love, to be human, to be black or white, to be
good or evil can we truly be alive.
1. See, respectively, Stein, "Toni" 146; Shannon 10; Reddy 30;
Christian 63; Banyiwa-Home 28; and Grant 94.
2. See, for example, Frye 223 and Mack 85.
3. In a similar vein, Philip Pinkus argues that satire is the "only
literary mode that faces the consequences of evil in this world without
the usual anaesthetics. In satire the dragon comes into his own" (31).
4. In a 1974 review of Sula, Smith emphasizes this response: "To me the
only case of true wickedness is Sula's casually sleeping with Nel's
husband, who then takes the opportunity to desert his wife and their
three children" (23).
Morrison's "sense of joy" in writing is nicely illustrated by her
playful punning with names. For instance, when Sula was thirteen she
threatened to give the deweys a much needed bath: "The deweys, who went
wild at the thought of water, were crying and thundering all over the
house like colts. 'We ain't got to, do we? Do we got to do what she
says?' "(74; emphasis mine).
6. See, for example, Quinlan on Swift's use of literalization and
Bergenholtz on Garcia Marquez.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans.
Caryl Emerson. 1984. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
Banyiwa-Home, Naana. "The Scary Face of the Self: An Analysis of the
Character of Sula in Toni Morrison's Sula." Sage 2 (1985): 28-31.
Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Routledge, 1988.
Bergenholtz, Rita A. "One Hundred Years of Solitude: The Finale."
International Fiction Review 20 (1993): 17-21.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black
Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.
Clark, John R. The Modern Satiric Grotesque and its Traditions.
Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1991.
Dryden, John. Poems 1693-1696. Vol. 4 of The Works of John Dryden. Ed.
A. B. Chambers and William Frost. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974.
Ellison, Ralph. "Richard Wright's Blues." 1945. Shadow and Act. 1953.
New York: Random, 1964. 77-94.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. 1957. Princeton: Princeton UP,
Gabbin, Joanne V. "A Laying on of Hands." Wild Women in the Whirlwind.
Ed. Joanne Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick: Rutgers
UP, 1990. 246-63.
Grant, Robert. "Absence into Presence: The Thematics of Memory and
'Missing' Subject in Toni Morrison's Sula." McKay 90-103.
Griffin, Dustin. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington: UP of
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century
Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.
Johnson, Edgar. A Treasury of Satire. New York: Simon, 1945.
Kernan, Alvin B. The Plot of Satire. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.
Mack, Maynard. "The Muse of Satire." Yale Review Autumn 1951: 80-92.
Mann, Thomas. "Conrad's 'Secret Agent.'" Past Masters and Other Papers.
Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1933. New York: Freeport, 1968. 231-47.
McDowell, Deborah E. "'The Self and the Other': Reading Toni Morrison's
Sula and the Black Female Text." McKay 77-90.
McEIroy, Bernard. Fiction of the Modern Grotesque. New York: St.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.
McKay, Nellie Y., ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Boston: Hall,
McLaughlin, Thomas. "Figurative Language." Critical Terms for Literary
Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1990. 80-90.
Morrison, Toni. "An Interview with Toni Morrison." With Nellie McKay.
Contemporary Literature 24 (1983): 413-29.
"'Intimate Things in Place': A Conversation with Toni Morrison." With
Robert B. Stepto. Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American
Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Stepto.
Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. 213-29.
-----. Sula. 1973. New York: Plume, 1982.
Palmeri, Frank. Satire in Narrative: Petronius, Swift, Gibbon,
Melville, and Pynchon. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, American and British,
from the Sixteenth Century to the Present. Ed. Paul Beale. New York:
Pinkus, Philip. "Satire and St. George." Queen's Quarterly 70 (1963):
Quinlan, Maurice. "Swift's Use of Literalization as a Rhetorical
Device." PMLA 82 (1967): 516-21.
Reddy, Maureen T. "The Tripled Plot and Center of Sula." Black American
Literature Forum 22 (1988): 29-45.
Shannon, Anna. "'We Was Girls Together': A Study of Toni Morrison's
Sula." Midwestern Miscellany 10 (1982): 9-22.
Smith, Barbara. "Beautiful, Needed, Mysterious." Rev. of Sula, by Toni
Morrison. 1974. McKay 21-24.
Stein, Karen F. "'I Didn't Even Know His Name': Names and Naming in
Toni Morrison's Sula." Names 28.3 (1980): 226-29.
-----. "Toni Morrison's Sula: A Black Womaan's Epic." Black American
Literature Forum 18 (1984): 146-50.
Thomson, Philip. The Grotesque. London: Methuen, 1972.
Rita A. Bergenholtz has recently completed a dissertation on
twentieth-century satire and holds a Ph.D. from the University of South
Florida. She has published articles on Swift, Conrad, Nabokov, and
Garcia Marquez. She teaches expositor/writing and literature at Florida
Tech in Melbourne, Florida.