Toni Morrison's '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. (80)

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 Varronian) satire.

Regarding the 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 statement.(3)

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).

Morrison employs 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" (Gabbin 257).

Like her 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 quality.

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." (145-46)

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 ceremony.)

Confirming Kernan's point above, Palmeri explains that "the plot and rhetoric of narrative satire cohere in accomplishing the same movement of lowering or leveling." He continues:

Narrative 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 celebrate.(10)

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).

The 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 Solitude.(6)

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).

The satiric 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 Didn't'" 227)

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":

A 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).

5. 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.

Works Cited

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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, 1990.

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-----. "'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.

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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.


Publication Information: Article Title: Toni Morrison's 'Sula': A Satire on Binary Thinking. Contributors: Rita A. Bergenholtz - author. Journal Title: African American Review. Volume: 30. Issue: 1. Publication Year: 1996. Page Number: 89+. COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review