In the first five chapters of Sula, Toni Morrison conveys the hardships of living in the Bottom through her characters’ struggle to survive and the tough decisions they have to make for the better of themselves. Within the time period the novel takes place, survival isn’t a foreign concept, especially to the Blacks who live at the “Bottom” of society and are harshly judged by racism and sexism. Oppressive and prevalent racial discrimination not only limits the characters’ opportunities outside the world of Bottom, but also keeps them off balance with all their relationships. Under this depressing setting of racial and social inferiority, conflicts constantly haunt the Black characters. As a result, they usually have to resort to survival instincts, which expose their vulnerabilities and often force them to make painfully difficult decision and changes.
Helene and Nel’s train experience is an exemplary instance of Blacks trying to please authoritative Whites and suffer from their vulnerable social and racial position. From the very beginning, Helene is aware that she and Nel will have “some embarrassment” with the white conductor. Therefore, she speaks with “eagerness to please and an apology for living”, hopefully trying to ease the problem. (Pg.20) Her mentality was never to negotiate for justice. Instead it was simply begging for permission to pass through to the next compartment. Having noticed “all the old vulnerabilities”, (Pg. 20) the conductor is somehow assured by Helene’s submissiveness and crudely asks them to “git your butt” out of the compartment. (Pg. 21) Then the most shocking moment occurs, which is only a smile on Helene’s face but truly reflects her acceptance of the shame and her indifference to the injustice. She “smiles coquettishly” and ignores the black soldiers’ indignation toward her unresponsive attitude. This moment portrays her conventionality crumbles in front of racism; it also fails to protect her from harm outside the Bottom. But...
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