Many works of contemporary American fiction involve one individual’s search for identity in a stifling and unsympathetic world. In “Sula,” Toni Morrison gives us two such individuals. In Nel and Sula, Morrison creates two individual female characters that at first are separate, grows together, and then is separated once more. Although never physically reconciled, Nel’s self discovery at the end of the novel permits the achievement of an almost impossible quest – the conjunction of two selves.
Morrison says she created Sula as “a woman who could be used as a classic type of evil force” and that she “wanted Nel to be a warm, conventional woman.” She says “there was a little bit of both in each of these women… if they had been one woman… they would have been a rather marvelous person. But each one lacked something the other had.” Morrison, thus, creates two completely different women yet allows them to merge into one. The sustainment of the two selves as one proves difficult and Morrison allows them to pursue different paths. But the two women’s separate journeys and individual searches for their own selves leads to nothing but despair and Sula’s death. Nel’s realization that they were only truly individuals when they were joined as one allows them to merge once again.
Morrison portrays Sula and Nel as binary opposites at the beginning of the novel. In our first view of Nel she is as conventional and conforming as a young lady can be: Under Helene’s hand the girl became obedient and polite. Her mother calmed any enthusiasms that Nel showed until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground. (p.18) In this passage Nel is merely an extension of her mother with no autonomy of her own. Helene’s hand is the iron fist of authority from under which Nel cannot release herself. Morrison makes it clear here that Nel is a calm and unimaginative girl who conforms completely to her mother’s strict orders. Sula, on the other hand, comes from a totally different background. She is her own person as she has “none of her mother’s slackness” (p.29) and, unlike the “oppressive neatness”(p.29) of Nel’s house, lives in a woolly house, where a pot of something was always cooking on the stove; where the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions; where all sorts of people dropped in; where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink, and where a one-legged grandmother named Eva handed you goobers from deep inside her pockets or read you a dream. (p.29)
Where Nel is confined, Sula is free. Where Nel has been raised to be an extension of her mother, Sula has surprisingly few ties to hers. Nel’s imagination has been so restricted that the messiness of Sula’s house along with its strange inhabitants and many visitors must seem like an absolute dream world. Similarly, the tidiness of Nel’s house compared with the disorderliness of her own allows Sula to “sit still as dawn.” (p.29) Morrison makes it clear in these instances that “each one lacked something the other had.” That “something” is neither small nor insignificant. It is the fundamental make-up of each girl’s character. Morrison deliberately portrays Nel and Sula in this manner to illustrate emphatically how entirely different they originally are. They are so different, in fact, that they are two facets of the same being – Nel conventional and orderly; and Sula unconventional and unsettled. The comfort each feels in the other’s home demonstrates their initial and subconscious desire to merge into one being. Morrison intimates, in these instances, that the two facets cannot thrive individually and hints that they will soon become one. This merger takes place most dramatically with Sula’s accidental murder of Chicken Little. Looking back on this incident Nel recalls that: All these years she had been secretly proud of her calm, controlled behavior when Sula was uncontrollable, her compassion for Sula’s frightened and shamed eyes. Now it seemed that what she had thought was maturity, serenity and compassion was only the tranquillity that follows a joyful stimulation. Just as the water closed peacefully over the turbulence of Chicken Little’s body, so had contentment washed over her enjoyment. (p.170) This passage reveals that the original binary opposite characters a…..re no longer very different. During this incident Nel, the former calm and orderly girl, has as little control over her emotions as Sula usually has. And it is Sula, the supposed “type of evil force” and figure of disorderliness, who has the presence of mind to run after Shadrack. Nel realizes that “maturity, serenity, and compassion,” all qualities forced upon her by her mother, were not the emotions she felt at that moment at all. Nel was as wild and excited as Sula was. The water closing over Chicken Little’s body represents the subtle merging of Nel and Sula. The turbulence each girl felt in their lives as opposite individuals is washed over peacefully by the contentment of being one. Nel’s conscience here reveals the guilt she feels over this incident years later. Just because she did not throw Chicken Little into the river does not mean she is not at fault because, as Eva points out, “You watched.” The lines of good and evil merge here as both girls are at fault for the accident. As the lines of good and evil merge, so do the individual selves of Sula and Nel. After this incident, Nel, in the presence of Sula, can now affirm the individuality her mother had tried to suppress. And Nel, to Sula, becomes the “closest thing to both an other and a self.” (p.119) They each grow so alike that they have “difficulty distinguishing one’s thought from the other’s.” (p.83) For Nel, “talking to Sula had always been like having a conversation with herself.” (p.95)
This close-knit relationship breaks down, however, when Nel elects to recreate a similar relationship with a man instead of maintaining this one with Sula. Instead of Nel and Sula being joined to create one person, Nel and Jude “together would make one Jude.” (p.83) Both Nel and Sula’s conjoined personalities return to what they once were – individual. Both individual personalities, thus, become more assertive because Nel felt she needed to be “needed by someone who saw her singly.” (p.84) After the separation, Nel becomes sexually repressed, her life becomes drab, and she struggles harder to be the conventional woman she once was as a child. Nel “settles for a safe, unimaginative life and thrives on community approval, the prize she wins through unremitting efforts to win respectability.” On the other hand, Sula becomes unsettled, disordered, and adventurous when Nel’s imposition of orderliness and restraint is no longer apparent. Without Nel, Morrison makes clear, Sula no longer has a complete self: She was completely free of ambition, with no affection for money, property or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments – no ego. For that reason she felt no compulsion to verify herself – be consistent with herself. (p.119) Sula then has frequent sex, becomes a pariah, and craves “for the other half of her equation.” (p.121) Without each other, both women are incomplete souls. Morrison demonstrates through these relationships with men that sexual relationships destroy the combined relationship of Nel and Sula and fragments their individual identity where friendship creates a whole person out of the two parts. Nel and Sula lose their common identity when men come along and their closeness can only be revived if they can recover their common identity.
Nel and Sula gain a bond which no married couple can ever achieve in this novel – one that creates one person out of two individual selves. The loss of this bond leaves each woman completely fragmented and leads to SulaOs death. NelOs recognizes this fact at the end of the novel: “All the time, all the 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.” (p.174)
Nel and Sula were not just girls together at the same time; they were girls together as one. Nel explains this to herself in this passage because it is what she never understood before. Nel misses the oneness she felt with Sula, not the relationship she never could recreate with Jude. Nel’s recognition of this lost bond reunites the two women on a spiritual level and reconciles their lost self. The repetition and conjunction of the word “girl” allows Nel and Sula to become what they once were – one girl.