Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Toni Morrison’s Sula finds its center in the shared womanhood of its two protagonists, Nel and Sula. Two Black girls from the small town of Medallion who grow together to eventually diverge and become one again, Nel and Sula identify through and around each other in recognition of the fact that hegemonic channels of identification are closed to them on account of their sex and race. A work of the Black Women Writers Renaissance of the 1970s, Sula weaves a narrative of radical self-definition that exists through shared selfhood. This relationship immediately transcends any material or linear narrative, as “it was in dreams that the two girls had first met” (Morrison, 51). Thus begins a process of symbiotic self-construction, an evolution of creation and destruction that binds Nel and Sula together as one. Through a psychoanalytic framework, the two women emerge as complementary parts of a whole self; the repurposing of this white analytic structure shows the novel’s radical nonlinearity taking shape in the vision of a collective Black feminine psyche. There is an innate circularity to Sula, which adds to the novel’s revolutionary quality — the Black feminine process of self-naming is without beginning or end, circumventing the limits of hegemonic selfhood. In showing the formation of Nel and Sula’s common psyche, Morrison’s Sula redefines Black womanhood as a collective process rather than as an individual ending point.

When Morrison published Sula in 1973, Black women writers were finding channels of self-definition in the midst of the political momentum generated by the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. As Black women writers experienced both racism and misogyny, their work reflected a need to address the unique kind of oppressive structure that the intersection of their identities created. This need had its foundation in a status of social invisibility; as Barbara Smith describes the relative dearth of Black female voices in the literature of this era, “this literary silence is again intensified by the unavailability of an autonomous Black feminist movement through which we could fight our oppression and also begin to name ourselves” (25). Thus was the priority and driving force of the Black Women Writers Renaissance: to self-define, to construct a new tradition (Smith, 23). This collective effort necessitated a radical, even militant approach to form and content; redefinition rests on revolutionized ways of expression and, as Darlene Hine contests, “the liberation of black women depends on the success of the efforts to redefine her” (365). This revolutionary aspect often emerged in the representation of Black women as “whole” or as “selves” in opposition to violently generalizing stereotypes (McDowell, 238). In centering on the creation of wholeness and selfhood, there is an inherent circularity to these narratives that challenges the forced fragmentation caused by racialized and sexualized identity. Sula, in its focus on the Black feminine experience and refusal to submit to any hegemonic ordering of the self, both exemplify this ethos and complicate it.

Morrison drew upon the intersectional identity of Black women in America to critique the mainstream white feminism apparent in the Women’s Liberation Movement. In a 1971 New York Times article, Morrison writes of the Black woman: “She had nothing to fall back on: not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may very well have invented herself” (Morrison). Morrison’s idea of the Black feminine exists independently of social categorization. She invents herself not for others, but for her own survival — her identity is forged through the absence of societal validation. Morrison suggests that this is the key difference in the experiences of white and Black women, and further argues that mainstream feminism fails in ignoring this difference. In defining the Black feminine self in this way, Morrison shifts her scope from the individual to the collective, introducing a new conception of Black feminine identity that implies a fundamental interconnectedness, a necessary community. Morrison suggests that “Women’s Lib” is more a vessel for white fantasies than it is for real liberation, a venture decidedly uninterested in the nuances of intersectional identity and community. Her construction of the Black feminine self defies the clear categories that comprise white feminism; she argues that it is not the Black women who need to conform but the movement which must be liberated from white ideals. Sula counters the mainstream white feminist narrative in offering a depiction of this collective Black feminine self, an identity built through connection and fragmentation, unlimited in scope.

In creating and analyzing this interconnected vision of the Black feminine self, Morrison’s Sula suggests a psychoanalytic framework. However, using a psychoanalytic lens to examine Sula’s depiction of Black feminine identity poses the very question challenged by the goals of the Black Women Writers Renaissance: can true redefinition be achieved through existing white, patriarchal frameworks of analysis? It would seem that this analysis would inhibit revolutionary reframing, but Hortense Spillers presents a way to repurpose psychoanalytic thought to address and inform the particular intersections of Black identity with her term interior intersubjectivity:

The interior intersubjectivity, which I…designate as the locus at which self-interrogation takes place. It is not an arrival but a departure, not a goal but a process, and it conduces toward neither an answer nor a ‘cure,’ because it is not engendered in formulae and prescriptions. More precisely, its operations are torque-like to the extent that they throw certainty and dogma (the static, passive, monumental aim) into doubt…Persistently motivated in inwardness, in-flux, it is the ‘mine’ of social production that arises, in part, from interacting with others, yet it bears the imprint of a particularity (85).

Spillers’ emphasis on a fluctuating, nonlinear intersubjectivity that tends toward ambiguity rather than explicit formation evokes Nel and Sula’s conjoined selfhood, and later, Sula’s own self-identity. By framing this psychoanalytic structure as “not a goal but a process,” Spillers illustrates self-definition as the evolving result of self-interrogation. This process relies on the production of selfhood that emerges in interpersonal relations. Interior intersubjectivity, in the context of Morrison’s Sula, introduces an alternative use of psychoanalysis that aligns with the nonconforming, nonlinear narratives of Black feminist literature (Smith, 23). In taking this Western structure out of its hegemonic context, emptying it of its linear and explicit nature and filling it instead with the nuance and ambiguity inherent to this new Black feminist tradition, Spillers’ repurposed framework allows for a radical repositioning of the role of the self in a Black feminist schema.

Adhering to this concept of interior intersubjectivity, Sula and Nel find a definition within their shared connection, resulting in an entangled collective self. The two girls bond out of a shared need to assert personhood: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be” (Morrison, 52). To construct any identity that does not depend on the white and patriarchal hegemony is a revolutionary act that must exist outside of any known framework. Self-definition, for these young Black girls, is thus a process of creation — one without end, as Spillers suggests. The bond that this process forms refers back to the notion of wholeness that runs through Black feminine narratives in this literary movement; Nel and Sula become “whole” through each other. Smith describes this connection as “necessary,” an aspect of forming identity outside hegemonic ideals “that has always taken place between Black women for the sake of barest survival” (24). Nel and Sula find each other not by chance but by necessity, in order to exist. This relationship forms in the spiritual realm, as they first meet each other “in dreams” (Morrison, 51). As this bond begins before the girls ever meet, it also endures beyond death; after Sula dies, she speaks once more to say, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel” (Morrison, 149). This transcendental connection defines Nel and Sula’s friendship as a kind of infinite spiritual union, outside the dominion of any material categorization constructed by their surrounding society. In depicting this friendship, Morrison homes in on American transcendentalist ideas of the spiritual supremacy of self-reliance; Morrison depicts this self as collective through a Black feminist lens (Emerson, 16). Nel and Sula use their connection as a medium through which to transcend normative, material ways of self-definition—this depiction of friendship shows a Black feminine selfhood that relies on a communal idea of being.

Once Nel and Sula are adults, their lives become less enmeshed as they establish individual roles in their community; however, they continue to act within the facets of their shared psyche. Their respective modes of self-definition become more polarized, with Sula leading an experimental lifestyle that proves untenable to lasting interpersonal relationships and Nel settling into a passive conventional life. If Nel and Sula form one self, one ego that ties the narrative together, they align to embody the superego and the id, respectively. As such, the women order their world differently. Alisha Coleman explains that “as a superego Nel can only comprehend the world in terms of right and wrong, and as an id Sula only sees the world in terms of her wants and desires” (154). Apart, their partial existences become divisive as their individual lives become impossible to reconcile. Nel’s dedication to her family shows her adherence to the accepted moral binary, as she becomes “the hem” of her husband’s life, “the tuck and fold that hid his raveling edges; a someone sweet, industrious and loyal to shore him up” (Morrison, 83). This existence does not suggest a strong sense of identity outside of her marriage and family unit. Instead, Nel rejects any further self-exploration in order to perform the feminine role expected of her. Acting as the conscience, Nel follows the expectations of her community, finding a selfhood outside of her relationship with Sula that depends on defining the happiness of her husband and establishing her identity through tending to his.

On the other hand, Sula’s unmoored, spontaneous wandering results in no clear sense of self, either:

As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as to give pleasure, hers was an experimental life—ever since her mother’s remarks sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle. The first experience taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either. She had no center, no speck around which to grow (Morrison, 119).

For Sula, once the whole that she and Nel created begins to separate, there is no other channel for growth besides utter disorder. Her actions refer to no individual self, no ethical or moral framework, just an undefined expanse, an appetite for experience guided by nothing. While Nel grounds her individuality in her family, Sula attempts to define herself through untethered experimentation, finding perhaps not a self “to count on,” but a way of being that evades external modes of definition. Both women, then, experience the desolation of their splintered selfhood; Nel abandons her own identity to forge a family, while Sula throws herself into the chaos of constant and unforgiving self-interrogation.

The eventual fragmentation of Nel and Sula’s shared psyche takes root in the drowning of Chicken Little, an incident that lays bare the extremes of each girl’s identity. For Sula, who accidentally tosses the toddler into the water, this event was an exorcism; she emerges with “no self to count on.” Nel, the witness, first categorizes the peace Chicken Little’s death brings her as maturity yet later realizes her guilt in the act of being a passive, even entertained bystander: “Just as the water closed peacefully over the turbulence of Chicken Little’s body, so had contentment washed over her enjoyment” (Morrison, 170). This serenity in the face of culpability suggests that Nel left any guilt for the accident to rest on Sula, her id, her alter ego (Banyiwa-Horne, 30). At Chicken Little’s funeral, “there was a space, a separateness, between them” (Morrison, 64). In absolving herself of any moral responsibility, Nel avoids the guilt that Sula shoulders but also loses a core part of herself — this new separateness leaves her with a spiritual solitude that she then attempts to remedy by conforming to accepted values.

As a result of the space caused by the trauma of Chicken Little’s drowning, Sula loses the guiding force of Nel’s conscience. As the standalone id to Nel’s superego, Sula realizes that “there was only her own mood and whim, and if that was all there was, she decided to turn the naked hand toward it, discover it and let others become as intimate with their own selves as she was” (Morrison, 121). Her guilt compels her not to indulge in penance but to investigate the deep recesses of herself, resulting in a process of autonomy that informs the selves of the people surrounding her as well. This introspective self-discovery is one of creation –– Sula forms herself around only her own instincts, not any existing social frame or category. The partial psyche that results is, then, completely of Sula’s own.

Sula’s identity, without Nel’s guiding conscience, relies on a process of interior intersubjectivity that the people around her perceive as a danger. Outcast from Medallion’s society for her rejection of social norms and disregard of sexual decorum, Sula realizes that “alive was what they, and now Nel, did not want to be. Too dangerous” (Morrison, 120). While Sula had once relied on Nel to survive, she finds another way by refusing to adhere to her society—she organizes her life around the self-interrogation that leads to her social banishment. This “dangerous” nonconformity is gendered. No man could fill the wholeness of the union she had shared with Nel, as “she had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be—for a woman” (Morrison, 121). A “comrade,” for Sula, is not simply a friend but a channel to the construction of a whole feminine self. This collective identity creates a clear alternative to identification through any male figure or patriarchal order. Sula’s wording brings her realization into a political dimension; as a comrade is usually a fellow member of an organization (particularly used in reference to fellow communists or socialists), Sula recognizes her search for a collective self as a Black woman as an inherently political mission. Sula understands the radical nature of her search for a “friend” rather than a “lover,” as well as the politicization of her very selfhood as a Black woman. Because of her existence as a Black woman, her method of self-definition, her interior intersubjectivity, must center around the formation of a shared self.

Outside of the self she formed with Nel, Sula has only her id. While Nel is able to follow convention and form a life of her own, Sula relies on experimentation without boundaries, which evidently renders her a sort of spiritual vagabond, or what the rest of the town sees as an evil woman. Sula thus operates outside of any materialist strata and struggles to find a comrade in this mission –– after Nel visits her when she is sick, Sula meditates on her old friend, saying “she will walk on down that road, her back so straight in that old green coat, the strap of her handbag pushed back all the way to the elbow, thinking how much I have cost her and never remember the days when we were two throats and one eye and we had no price” (Morrison, 147). Sula recognizes that Nel orders her life under a priced conception of morality while she has continued to exist outside any structure of transaction. In addition to reflecting the subconscious desires and urges of Nel and of her community, Sula offers an alternate framework for value. In fact, by entirely removing the notion of value from her worldview, she becomes a “cost” to others—she has no comrade in this objective. Smith further links this radical selfhood to the formation of the Black feminine self: “Self-definition is a dangerous activity for any woman to engage in, especially a Black one, and it expectedly earns Sula pariah status in Medallion” (24). The community of Medallion’s reaction to Sula’s difference offers another register of intersubjectivity: “Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another” (Morrison, 117). Like Nel, the inhabitants of Medallion can push their guilt onto Sula, who runs contrary to the moral rules they have established. In doing so, they focus on their own moral performativity, becoming “better” members of the community in reaction to Sula’s contribution of a viable alter ego. The self-defining Black feminine psyche is radical, political, dangerous, and unlimited to the individual; Sula shapes the behavior of her community through her own self-creating process.

As such, Sula’s identity embodies the process of psychological formation that is interior intersubjectivity—her own being is defined through a connecting, unfinished system of interaction. Stuart Hall postulates that “identity” is a process without end or beginning:

Identity means, or connotes, the process of identification…But something we have learnt from the whole discussion of identification, in feminism and psychoanalysis, is the degree to which that structure of identification is always constructed through ambivalence. Always constructed through splitting. Splitting between that which one is, and that which is the other (47-48).

Hall’s explication of the process of identification draws upon the fragmented, nuanced psychoanalytic construction of the self that Spillers defines. This “splitting” is evident in Nel and Sula’s diverging paths. When Nel questions what Sula has to show for the way she lived her life, Sula states, “Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me… My lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you” (Morrison, 143). Sula rejects what she perceives as Nel’s pre-packaged loneliness, or identity in general, preferring the solitude she has created by and for herself. Sula evokes a language of possession over herself, suggesting that Nel belongs to “somebody else.” However, when clarifying her own way of being, Sula must also address Nel’s to create a comprehensive definition. Even when the two women do not form a unified whole, they continue to base their process of identification on the other. Morrison illustrates a shared Black feminine identity that relies not on a utopian collective vision—perhaps it begins there, when Nel and Sula had “two throats and one eye and no price”—but acknowledges the inevitable splitting that occurs through the natural formation of identification. Splitting is a collective process. In Black women’s literature, this sort of fragmentation becomes a mode of self-definition. The only way to address this split whole and thus seize control of self-identity is to acknowledge its ambiguous existence. Nel, in the aftermath of discovering Jude and Sula’s affair, refuses to accept the existence of the self she is left with, in the absence of her husband and friend:

The mud shifted, the leaves stirred, the smell of overripe green things enveloped her…There was something just to the right of her, in the air, just out of view…A ball of muddy strings, but without weight, fluffy but terrible in its malevolence. She knew she could not look, so she closed her eyes and crept past it out of the bathroom, shutting the door behind her (Morrison, 109).

As Nel reacts to the dissipation of her marriage, this nondescript gray ball begins to plague her; there is something unacknowledged that she refuses to admit or even perceive. She clocks this vague form as dangerous, horrifying in its passive, unknown nature. This persistent entity is, in fact, her neglected self, couched in an ambiguity that seems terrifying to Nel—there is danger in self-recognition as well as in self-definition. Nel only finds peace from this haunting figure when she accepts Sula as her true alter ego, after attending her funeral: “‘Sula?’ she whispered, gazing at the tops of the trees. ‘Sula?’ Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of over-ripe green things. A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze” (Morrison, 174). Nel’s realization occurs with a splitting, as the ball of fur that plagued her gently breaks apart. Sula is there with her as she always had been, a part of the same shared being, even in death. Nel’s call to Sula holds a sort of conjuring power, her self being made whole again as she accepts her friend’s omnipresence in her psyche, which had once seemed terrifying and unknown. Nel’s acceptance of her collective identity induces her acceptance of herself; there is liberating power in this acknowledgment.

As Nel finally lets herself face the whole truth of her selfhood, she understands that Sula was her true comrade in this world, in being and in belonging:

“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 (Morrison, 174).

It is this recognition of their shared girlhood and later womanhood in which Nel and Sula become one. “Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl” becomes a mantra, a spiral of simultaneously split and whole identification, a lament as well as a declaration. In her grief, Nel finally frees herself of her alignment with conventional modes of identification — through Sula, she finds self-definition, even after her death. This process of autonomy, through her relationship with Sula, proves to be more enduring and constant than any other self-naming avenue available to Nel. Morrison establishes a connection between the two that transcends the limitations of time, place, and normative life in general; this complete selfhood occurs not in one individual but in a communal understanding and acknowledgment of the other.

Morrison’s Sula depicts the revolutionary process of self-definition in a mode that relates solely to the lives and interpersonal relationships of Black women. Through showing the formation of a collective autonomy between Nel and Sula, the novel demonstrates the underlying constant thread of necessary connection and solidarity in a world built to exclude the Black feminine identity. Using psychoanalysis to illustrate the creation of this shared existence clarifies this identification but doesn’t quite define it, as the transcendental nature of the two women’s connection defies worldly explanations and hierarchical forms of identification. It is in the pregnant space separating individuals where the Black feminine self is collectively formed; it is in this space where Sula resides.

Works Cited

  • Coleman, Alisha. “One and One Make One: A Metacritical and Psychoanalytic Reading of Friendship in Toni Morrison’s ‘Sula.’” CLA Journal 37, no. 2 (December 1993), pp.145-155.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance (1841).” The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1987.
  • Hall, Stuart. 1997. “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities” in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Ed. Anthony D. King, 41-68. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Hine, Darlene Clark. “To Be Gifted, Female, and Black.” Southwest Review 67, no. 4 (Autumn 1982), pp. 357-369.
  • McDowell, Deborah. “‘The Changing Same’: Generational Connections and Black Woman Novelists.” New Literary History 18, no. 2 (Winter 1987), pp. 281-302.
    Morrison, Toni. Sula. Penguin Group, 1973.
  • Morrison, Toni. “What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib.” The New York Times,
    August 22, 1971.
  • Smith, Barbara. “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.” The Radical Teacher, no. 7 (March 1978), pp.20-27.
  • Spillers, Hortense. “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race.” Critical Inquiry 22 (Summer 1996).

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