Motherhood in Sula

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Toni Morrison’s Sula revolves around the relationship of her two main characters, Sula and Nel. The childhood friends grow apart with age. Although it is indicated that their friendship is the most important relationship they participate in, they eventually betray each other and lead dishonest lives. Throughout the novel, we see their constantly deteriorating relationship as a result of absence of a family life. Sula is a novel about the influence family may have on the make up of someone’s personality. In particular, the novel examines the effect parents can have on their children and the conscious effort the main characters make to be unlike their mothers.

Nel’s maternal grandmother was a prostitute in New Orleans and so her daughter Helene (Nel’s mother) does everything in her power to lead a life that opposes the path her mother took. She holds everyone to the highest standard, sees everyone as the best they can be, and expects everyone else to see her the same way. Those who fall short of these expectations are subject to judgment, in her mind. Helene plays a significant role in the early parts of the novel—she is an important figure in Medallion, described as “an impressive woman,” who “won all social battles with presence.” (18) In this first description of Helene, Morrison quickly falls into an epic catalogue, repeating the first words of each short part of a long sentence again and again (“Helene who…”). This repetition allows the reader to understand the influence Helene has on the town; we see why she is respected. Unlike her mother in everyway, she is well known for the good she has done. She has an esteemed presence. Morrison emphasizes the details of her success to highlight how different she has made her life from her mother’s. There is an episode in the early parts of the novel, however, that keeps everything we learn about Helene in perspective. She is a well-respected woman within the Bottom, but on the train trip she takes with Nel, we see...
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