"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle," wrote Lewis Carroll in his famous novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, implying that the self is a complex entity and that identity is a mysterious conundrum difficult to unravel. The puzzling theme of identity and self-discovery is one prominent in literature around the world, specifically in American literature. This theme overrides in many of Toni Morrison's works, including Sula. Although she does not declare identity as one of the basic themes she uses, "if one takes all of her writing into account... it becomes apparent that even though she doesn't specify it as such, her grand theme is actually that of self-discovery, or its close variation, the issue of self-definition" (Carmean 15). In her novel Sula, Morrison uses an identity theme to show that identity is not a definite thing but rather a notion that is fluid, always being shaped and molded by life; she does this through the character of Sula.
Although numerous relationships and occurrences in Sula's life contribute to her self and aid Sula in her quest for identity, the character ultimately lacks true identity; instead, her self develops only as the perception of others. Sula's childhood contributes greatly to her identity and concept of herself. Many negative events in her childhood cause Sula to become self-centered and undirected. As a child, Sula is neglected by her mother, Hannah, and allowed to develop and grow with little care or supervision. It is "no wonder [Sula becomes] as self-centered as [her] adult example" (Carmean 43).
One summer day, Sula overhears her mother say, .".. I love Sula. I just don't like her" (57). This event shapes Sula's identity, causing her to become independent, and she learns that she can count on no one. Another event, the death of Chicken Little, which is an accident but nonetheless Sula's fault, causes Sula to realize that she can't even count on herself; when she held responsibility for Chicken Little's life in her hands, she let him go, causing him to fall to the river and drown. The narrator accurately sums up these two events: "The first experience [Hannah's denial of liking her] taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second [Sula's accidental 'murder' of Chicken Little] that there was no self to count on either" (118-19).
Sula's relationship with the character Nel also plays an important role in shaping her identity. Morrison created the characters of Sula and Nel to be a whole; she describes the two as "unshaped, formless things" who "found relief in each other's personality" (53). Patrick Bjork reveals, "The healthy Sula-Nel has what each lacks alone" (Bjork 68). This lack plays a role in defining Sula. Morrison later writes that Sula "clung to Nel as the closet thing to both an other and a self, only to discover that she and Nel were not one and the same thing" (119). Sula used Nel to fill a void in her personality, but, when Nel's personality changes and she moves on to marry Jude, Sula discovers that Nel could never fill her gap and she must make her own identity.
By portraying Sula as only half a person and "characterizing her as the second self of her more conventional best friend, Morrison denies Sula the originality she seeks" (Smith 726). Phillip page explains that a consequence of a person's attempt to find meaning in a relationship is that they have difficulties in maintaining workable self-concepts. Their identities become entangled with their pursuits for fulfilling relationships with another, and their identities suffer (Page 69-70). This notion holds true in Sula because, as Sula engages in her relationship with Nel, she loses grip on her own identity, confusing it with Nel's, and ultimately her identity suffers. These events in Sula's past cause her to strive to create her own identity. In other words, as Phillip Page writes, "Neither aided by the usual models for self-development nor checked by the usual restraints, and finding that she can neither find an identity in the other nor form her own (either in conjunction with or separate from that other), she [Sula] drifts into the attempt to make herself" (Page 73).
After discovering that she has "no center, no speck around which to grow" Sula sets out to create her own identity (119). Having no self to count on, Sula "seeks an alternative self" (Bjork 72) that is, as the narrator says, .".. completely free of ambition, with no affection for... attention or compliments- no ego. For that reason she [feels] no compulsion to verify herself, be consistent with herself" (119).
Declaring that she wants to "make [her]self" (92), Sula sets out to "create for herself an identity that exists beyond community and social expectations" (Smith 723). She uses her life as a medium, exploring her thoughts and emotions; she feels no obligation to please anyone else unless it makes her happy. One way Sula attempts to find her identity is through sexual acts. Carmean writes, "The sexual act becomes for Sula an act of self exploration and affirmation" (Carmean 39). The narrator writes that Sula "went to bed with men as frequently as she could," taking pleasure in the act and not feeling guilty (122). It is through sex that Sula can explore her identity and become intimate with herself.
After sex, Sula enters that "post-coital privateness in which she met herself, welcomed herself, and joined herself in matchless harmony" (123). This act emphasizes that sex isn't a way of sharing intimacy with a partner, but rather a way for Sula to become closer to herself. Patrick Bjork gives further explanation on this topic when he writes, "Sula is not interested in love, sexual gratification, or even simple human contact, she wishes instead, as she does with all of her exploratory gestures, to visibly demonstrate the community's certitude and conformity and, as a result, create her own form" (Bjork 77). The birthmark above Sula's eye serves as another contributor to her identity. The mark, which is interpreted differently depending on the viewer's perspective, "acts as a metaphor for her figurative 'selves,' her multiple identity" (McDowell 81). Some interpretations create positive identities for Sula.
These include Nel's interpretation that the mark is a rose, which is a sign of beauty and love, and Shadrack's interpretation of "the tadpole-over-the-eye" (157). The tadpole image positively "reinforces the notion of self as perpetually in process" (McDowell 81). Others perceive that mark as evil and threatening, creating negative identities or perceptions or Sula. For instance, Nel's children see it as "scary black thing" (97-98); the townspeople view it as "Hannah's ashes" (114); and Jude sees it as a threatening "copperhead" (103). These negative reactions help make Sula a legend in her community. Harris writes, "The mark becomes as distinguishing as any of those, such as blue or red eyes, limps, or warts...
." (Harris 70). Ironically, all of Sula's attempts at an egoless, guiltless life lead her not to identity but instead to solitude and isolation. Sula never discovers herself or finds a focus; she becomes "an artist with no art form" (121). Morrison emphasizes the fact that, "for all her refreshing bravado she is an 'unfinished' woman" (Grant 98-99).
She never achieves completeness in her being. Even when she dies, Sula welcomes the "sleep of water" signifying through water that even as she dies, she is simultaneously being reborn. While Sula's identity is always changing and never completed, she helps to define the identities of others within her community. Nel expresses, "Sula never completed; she simply helped others define themselves" (95). Grant explains that communities "define and 'identify' themselves against each other" and that Sula, by presenting herself in the manner she did, aided the community in defining themselves (Grant 99). By presenting Sula the way she does, Toni Morrison depicts to the reader that identity is not a definite characteristic easily defined, but rather an complicated, unfinished entity that changes throughout life.
She suggests that people are not made up of one unified personality or self, but, instead, have many different identities and aspects to their characters. People, like Morrison's characters, have many meanings and are always changing. Morrison teaches use that "our metaphors of self cannot then rest in stasis, but will glory in difference and overflow into everything that belongs to us" (McDowell 88). Bjork, Patrick B. The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Self and Place Within the Community. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.
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90-103. Harris, Trudger. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. McDowell, Deborah E. "'The Self and the Other': Reading Toni Morrison's Sula and the Black Female Text." Critical Essays on Toni Morrison.
Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: G. K, Hall, 1998. 77-90.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume, 1973. Page, Phillip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels.
Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995. Smith, Valerie. "The Quest for and Discovery of Identity in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon." The Southern Review 21. 3 (1985): 721-732.