The Topic of Motherhood in "Sula" By Toni Morrison

Everyone’s life is shaped by the personal relationships that they have with others, especially the relationship people have with their mother. Mothers are supposed to be caring, loving and supportive. However, these characteristics are questioned in Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel, Sula, which is set in the mid 1900s and describes the lives of the women in two households in what is called ‘The Bottom’. Mothers play an important part in children’s lives: shaping how they view the world and setting up values in their child. As seen in the oppressed community in the novel, the relationship between a parent and his/her child - especially the bond between a mother and her daughter - is very strong, due to the profound presence of mothers in the children’s lives, in stark comparison to the lack of a fatherly figure in the family which is explored throughout the book making clear that the fathers are much less connected to their children. In Sula, the complex thematic topic of motherhood is explored through the mother characters: Hannah and Helene, whose influence on their children is drastically different.

Eva Peace, Sula’s grandmother, is at first shown to be a loving mother, however she often turns to drastic measures to ensure the safety of her children. “I had room enough in my heart, but not in my womb, not no more. I birthed him once. I couldn't do it again.” (Morrison 71) In these lines, Eva explains Hannah why she killed her favorite son: Plum. As a mother, Eva felt a strange instinct to treat him like a child again, and in a way, to ‘give birth’ to him again, which in other words means that the mother wants his son to be re-born, free from addiction. And yet, of course, Eva cannot do this, so instead, she burned him to death. The image of the womb relates to the future mother and child relationships too as the mother’s womb is supposed to be a place of safety. Eva is clearly a loving mother, however, she’s too overbearing in her relationship with Plum - her emotional connection with Plum is so intense that she can’t bear the slightest tragedies in his life, let alone the tragedy of his heroine addiction and depression. By murdering her son, Eva is also killing a huge part of herself, and she never recovers from this and is left emotionally and mentally unstable setting up an unhealthy relationship with her daughter. They were also separated for 18 months which severely influenced the bond between a mother and daughter, to an extent that Hannah even ask, “Mama, did you ever love us?”. Simply the fact that she asks this question, shows that she feels that she was never loved by her mother even in the innocence of childhood emphasising just how disconnected Hannah is from her mother, and for her to feel loved, she needs personal attention from Eva. This is not the only questions Hannah raises, she also questions her mother about the killing of Plum, to which Eva responds by saying that she did it in an attempt to secure their survival and that she could no longer bear watching her son deteriorate: “I just thought of a way he could die like a man not all scrunched up inside my womb” (Morrison 72). Surprisingly Hannah does not respond to this reasoning which underlines once again the distance between the two. Moreover, this assertion complexes the plot further because here Eva is acknowledging that Plum is a man however before she wanted to keep him as a child. The failed communication, the lack of motherly love, and the mental state of Eva influence Hannah’s perception which results in Hannah not knowing how to mother her own child.

Despite the many differences between the Wright and the Peace family, the mother-daughter relationship between Helene and Nel Wright is similar to the bond between the mother and the daughter in the Peace family. Helene rejects her daughter’s appearance by saying that she did not inherit “the great beauty that was hers” (Morrison 18) which creates a prominent separation between them and reveals a lack of love which is heightened further by the preconception of mothers usually complementing their daughters’ looks. “She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way”. Here we get our first insight into the mind of Nel Wright, the troubled daughter of Helene Wright. On the train, Nel watches as Helene is accosted by a white man, who bullies her. Helene tries her best to cooperate with the man, and smiles deferentially at him - but then she faces the clear contempt of the black men on the train. Even as a young girl, Nel feels a strange mixture of pity and contempt for her mother - Nel swears to herself that she’ll never allow men to treat her that way. The passage is also important because it establishes an antagonistic relationship between men and women, in and out of the black community. The trip to New Orleans is a turning point for Nel as well as for the plot of the novel as the culmination of her mother’s humiliation by the white conductor the black men, as well as the increasingly emotional separation from her mother and grandmother, encourages her to become a new person: “I’m not their daughter … I’m me” (Morrison 28). The quote suggests that coming of age - here represented by Nel’s promise to herself - consists of the moment in which someone becomes aware of sexism. This brings to light one of the key differences between Nel and Sula Nel is motivated to becoming an independent person even after Nel seeing her mother fail in many ways. However, like opposite ends of magnets, these differences draw Nel and Sula closer together because they provide each other the sisterly love that they never experienced at home from their mothers.

In Sula, through the portrayal of the different mother and daughter relationships including, Eva and Hannah Peace, Sula and Hannah Peace, and Helene and Nel Wright, readers come to terms that mothers and their children have very different relationships which shows that everybody is influenced by people differently and each person determines how they react to their circumstances.  

16 August 2021
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