The protagonists of the novel Sula by Toni Morrison have chosen the opposite life paths and held different views. Sula lived in a family that did not follow traditional values and, in many ways, challenged social attitudes, while the Nel family pursued conventional and conformal principles. However, the girls were bound by strong friendship, which originated when they were children. Even after Nel’s husband abandoned her for an affair with Sula, she realized, many years after her friend’s death, that she had missed her much. This paper assumes that although Sula’s defiance of gender norms and traditional morality, and Nel’s obedience made them rather different, they had certain similarities that bound them together.
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Morality and Friendship
It should be noted that Nel is more characterized by following morality standards. Throughout her life, she has tried to be a good woman in the eyes of society and not violate established traditions. The accident with the neighbor’s boy, Chicken Little, is clearly out of this trend. After Sula accidentally let his hands out, and he drowned in the river, Nel told her friend that it was not her fault (Morrison 64). This situation was extremely painful for both friends, and at the funeral, they did not touch or look at each other. Morrison indicates that “there was a space, a separateness, between them” (65). However, they subsequently experienced this tragedy together and did not tell anyone about it, keeping this secret with them until the end of the novel.
Thus, Nel chose friendship even in this tragic and terrible situation despite conservative upbringing and notions of morality. According to Salami and Nedaee, “these two forces—that is, morality and friendship—remain the ultimate great incompatibles of Sula” (120). Such a dilemma was particularly difficult for Nel, who had to understand that concealing the truth about this accident was socially condemnable. Hence, this situation demonstrates that both girls at this stage of their lives were inclined to choose friendship, and this unites them.
Desire for Affection
The characters of the novel, each in their way, sought love and affection. In early childhood and adolescence, they were united by a warm devotion to each other. Even the tragic incident with the neighbor’s boy failed to quarrel and divorce them.
However, their paths later diverged, as each of the girls saw her life path. Nevertheless, the desire for affection remained with both of them, and they tried to realize it. Nel married Jude Greene, who was also young and had no serious intention of building a stable family (Morrison 64). Sula left Bottom for ten years, graduated from college, and had many affairs, as some people thought, even with white men (Morrison 105). Nevertheless, neither Nel’s marriage nor Sula’s free life, which disregarded all social attitudes and traditional stereotypes about women’s behavior, led them to sustainable affection.
Sula had many love relationships throughout her life but remained alone in the end. Researchers note that “the only emotional connection that Sula manages to establish in her life is the friendship with Nel” (Matas 96). Nel also failed to keep her marriage up, mainly because of her husband’s affair with Sula. However, they are both united by the desire to create a relationship of trust and intimacy, and in childhood, they established such a connection with each other.
The life paths of the two protagonists diverged because each of them was determined to realize themselves by their own beliefs and values. According to Matas, “the friendship between Sula and Nel” was “affected by their attitudes toward the traditional role for women” (96). It should be emphasized that their worldviews corresponded to one of the most basic needs of both characters – self-actualization. They both tried to find their place in a hostile world where there was still a lot of racism and sexism. Researchers note that Sula chose “to revel in her spirit of self-reliance,” and Nel was “morally conscious of the codes and conventions of social decorum” (121). In essence, these were just two different ways of self-actualization, chosen by the characters and causing their separation for ten years.
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An episode of the last conversation between two friends is a key point to understanding the significance of the need for self-actualization in their lives. Nel and Sula discuss the status of black women in society and summarize the events of their lives. Sula claims that despite her loneliness, her life experience belongs to her and is not imposed by anyone. Nel claims that Sula would have thought otherwise if she had a man who is “worth keeping,” but Sula outrages the need to spend her life “keeping a man” (Morrison 134). These arguments reflect how each of them observed their self-actualization – within a conventional family or free from social dogmas. It should be noted, however, that the desire to self-actualize was inherent in both of them, and it connected them even in the last dialogue, where they tried to explain themselves to each other.
The protagonists of the novel by Tony Morrison, Sula, and Nel, held opposite views on the position of women in society and made different life choices following these values. Nevertheless, despite these differences, they were united by the value of friendship, which they preferred to social morality, at least in adolescence. They were also bound by the desire for affection, which they realized in childhood in mutual friendship. Finally, they both felt the need for self-actualization, which, although it created many disagreements between them, also became the subject of their mutual interest to each other.
Matas, Gordan. “Aspects of Friendly Love in Toni Morrison’s the Bluest Eye and Sula.” Zbornik Radova Filozofskog Fakulteta u Splitu, vol. 9, 2016, pp. 91-102.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Knopf, 1974.
Salami, Ali, and Naeem Nedaee. “Toward an Affective Problematics: A Deleuze-Guattarian Reading of Morality and Friendship in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2017, pp. 113-131.