Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sula: Women of the Same Tree

The Bottom, the setting of Toni Morrison’s Sula, is economically a homogeneous community. Mostly all of its inhabitants are of the working class and struggling to get by in a town that is situated ironically ABOVE a wealthier community. Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels state in their work “The German Ideology”, “only in so far as they lived within the conditions of existence of their class- a relationship in which they participated not as individuals but as members of a class.” A Marxist critic would point out the way the Bottom community is seen as a very tight-knight family. The Bottom residents live within their means and do not try to be more than what they are. Most of them are of the working class (while some are basically starving) and while the wealthier community has the upper hand, this does not stop them from participating as members of a class working together. For example, when the wealthier community tries to take over the land the Bottom community comes together to stop this, instead of striving for individual gain.
Another aspect of the text that a Marxist critic would notice are the societal and gender roles passed down through the generations of specifically the female characters in Sula. For example, Nel and Sula become best friends at a very young age while coming from families that are polar opposites. Nel’s family is middle class and conventional. Her mother (Helene) performs the duties of a caretaker and wife. A Marxist critic would say that Helene will pass on this role to Nel as it was passed down from her mother. Nel will not surpass this typical gender role or be anything more than a mother and wife. Helene inherited her rigid persona and expected gender role from her grandmother and later passes it down to Nel. Nel also goes on to live a very conventional life, while Sula lives a life of freedom and breaking social conventions. Sula comes from a low socioeconomic class that begins with Sula’s grandmother (Eva). Eva's husband abandoned her and although a good mother the town knows her daughter Hannah as “easy and loose”. She goes with many men, which is something we see later in the book happen to Sula. A Marxist critic would note that Eva’s behavior established what kind of individuals the Peace women would become. Eva may have taught her daughter how to survive but not how to become something more than a caretaker or a member of the working class. Growing up in a very loose and unstable home, a Marxist critic would not expect Sula (like her mother) to become anything more than a struggling black working-class woman.
In the introduction of the textbook Modern Literary Theory, the authors write that Marx and Engels were not the first to “invent the idea that human beings may only realize their full selfhood and freedom through a community”, but they popularized the idea. Sula’s wild lifestyle and readiness to break social norms later becomes the talk of the town. However, it is this “evil” lifestyle that helps improve the lives of the other residents of the Bottom. Her evilness makes them want to be better people, which samples Marx and Engel’s idea. Without a community (and the strange individuals within it), we are not able to achieve freedom or "selfhood". Ironically when Sula dies, so does the harmony of the community. Overall, Sula is very reminiscent of the piece “Girl” that we discussed in class. Characters like Nel, Sula, and the character from “Girl” are not expected by Marxist critics to be anything more than their parents and grandparents were.

1 comment:

  1. A great deal of potential here, and remember it for your final project in the class--I can see how you would be able to 'read' this book through several of our critical lenses. A bit too much here on gender issues, though, I think, without enough drawn from the Marx to explain why a Marxist critic would 'notice the societal and gender roles passed down through the generations of specifically the female characters in Sula.' Why would they notice this, what would it do for them, and based on what evidence (quotations) from the Marxists can you make this claim? This isn't to suggest that the argument can't be made, but that you might need a bit more of the theoretical framework to make it.