In her novel called Sula, Toni Morrison challenges the reader’s perception of good and evil. The book narrates the story of a small black community in Ohio, which takes place after World War I. Sula and Nel are the main characters of the novel, and, by depicting their lives, the author describes racial and gender relationships in postwar segregated America of the twentieth century. This paper aims at exploring the differences between Sula and Nel and prove that, despite the distinctions, these girls have much in common.
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At first sight, Nel seems to be a positive character, and Sula appears as a negative one. However, the girls are “two parts of one consciousness,” meaning that their differences complement each other and could have made an integrated personality (Alfaqir 67). The analysis of these characters shows that they are quite similar, but their surroundings have led them to demonstrate different behaviors and attitudes to life.
Sula and Nel seem to have entirely different views on conformity with rules and societal norms. Sula was disobedient, nonconformist, and indecent, and it makes it difficult for readers to identify with her (Abbas 121). On the contrary, Nel lived a traditional life: she obeyed her mother, married, and raised her children, which makes her a positive character. This crucial difference in their behaviors stems from their childhood. Nel was raised in strict obedience, and her mother “drove her daughter’s imagination underground” (Morrison 25). Sula’s mother, on the other hand, neglected any rules in the community and liked to attract men’s attention, which influenced Sula’s young mind (Alfaqir 68).
However, both girls seemed to be discontent with their surroundings. Sula was more comfortable in Nel’s neat house where she could sit “for ten to twenty minutes at a time—still as dawn” (Morrison 34). Nel liked “Sula’s woolly house” more because Sula’s mother “never scolded or gave directions” (Morrison 34). Thus, deep inside, Sula wanted to be obedient like Nel, and Nel desired to be self-willed like Sula, but their surroundings forced them to become quite the opposite.
At first sight, Sula is cruel, and Nel is kind, but both of them possess evil. When Sula came back to her town after a ten-year absence, she was seen as a “devouring evil” (Morrison 9). It was mainly because she proclaimed the financial and sexual freedom of women, which was contrary to the established norms within the community (Morrison 8). Furthermore, she was considered cruel because, in childhood, she watched her mother burn alive without trying to help her (Abbas 120).
The fact that she betrayed Nel by sleeping with her husband also set people against Sula. However, Sula herself did not consider her affair with Nel’s husband to be wrongdoing because, in her worldview, sexual contacts meant nothing (Abbas 121). As for Nel, her nature also embodied evil; it can be seen in the episode when she realized that she enjoyed the moment of Chicken Little’s drowning (Morrison 152). Hence, Sula was considered evil because her worldview differed from that of society. Nel also could be evil but hid her cruelty deep inside because she had to conform to social norms.
Both Sula and Nel craved love and family, but their surroundings led them to different outcomes. Since Nel was raised in conformity to social norms, she followed the standard path of a woman, namely, married Jude Greene, gave birth to children, and became an obedient housewife. Sula’s upbringing was different, and, therefore, she did not follow that pattern. After the incident with Chicken Little and overhearing her mother’s conversation about mothering, she realized that people had little control over life, and human emotions were unstable and treacherous (Alfaqir 69). These experiences led her to reject the thought of having children: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself” (Morrison 85).
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Although Sula followed her mother’s steps by having sexual relationships with many men, she was ready to renounce her freedom and create a family with Ajax (Alfaqir 70). However, he left her, and Sula had nothing to do but return to her individualistic life (Alfaqir 73). Overall, both women had a chance to have a family, but while Nel used this opportunity, Sula missed it because she was obsessed with nonconformity.
To sum up, Nel and Sula can indeed be called two parts of one personality. Their behaviors and values are different, but it was their surroundings that shaped their characters. Their similarities are mostly seen in childhood when their personalities were under development. Sula could be calm and thoughtful, and Nel could be disobedient and willful, which is evident from their childish experiences at each other’s houses. Both of them had evil, but in Nel, this trait was restricted by social norms. Finally, both women could create a family in adulthood, but Sula’s worldview hindered her from becoming an obedient housewife. Thus, it may be assumed that the book shows how people with similar tempers may evolve differently depending on their environment.
Abbas, Ahmed Hashim. “New Issues of Women Characters in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula.” Journal of Basra Researches for Human Sciences, vol. 43, no. 1, 2018, pp. 113-124.
Alfaqir, Najd F. “Positive Liberty and Black Female Subjectivity in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” International Journal of Social Science Studies, vol. 6, no. 6, 2018, pp. 67-75.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Vintage International, 2004.