Feminism and the Significance of Female Friendships

A Review of Sula by Toni Morrison

Format: Paperback

Publisher: Plume Books

Published: 1973

Genre: Literary Fiction

Setting: USA

Rating: 4 Stars


This rich and moving novel traces the lives of two black heroines from their close-knit childhood in a small Ohio town, through their sharply divergent paths of womanhood, to their ultimate confrontation and reconciliation.
Nel Wright has chosen to stay in the place where she was born, to marry, raise a family, and become a pillar of the black community. Sula Peace has rejected the life Nel has embraced, escaping to college, and submerging herself in city life. When she returns to her roots, it is as a rebel and a wanton seductress. Eventually, both women must face the consequences of their choices. Together, they create an unforgettable portrait of what it means and costs to be a black woman in America.

My Thoughts….

Some of the strongest and most intimate relationships a woman will ever have in her lifetime are those with fellow women. Women make deep connections with each other. We offer each other companionship and solace, we cushion each other against patriarchy and socially oppressive environments, we genuinely care for each other, we are vulnerable and we unburden ourselves and it is truly, a beautiful thing. I think it’s a shame that men, most men, never get to experience such deep connections with other human beings.

I thought deeply about my female friendships and what they mean to me; those that have stood the test of time and those I’ve lost along the way as I was reading Sula by Toni Morrision – a story of a strong female friendship between Sula and Nel, formed and nurtured in childhood but tested and obliterated in adulthood due to betrayal, personal incongruities and the expectations placed upon women by a patriarchal society.

Despite being raised in polar opposite homes, so strong was Sula and Nel’s friendship that they adopted each other’s mannerisms, one could hardly tell them apart. Nel was raised in an orderly home where social constructs and conventions were observed. She was expected to get married, have children and be grounded in motherhood and marriage, and as a small town girl, she conformed. Sula was on the contrary raised in disorder by a Matriarch grandmother who was the embodiment or good and evil (she burnt one of her own children and jumped out of the first floor window to try save the other), and a mother who was detached and ‘loose’. It is these differences that drew them to each other as they seemed to balance each other out in their search for identity. Paradoxically, in adulthood, these differences drive them farther and farther apart.

“Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be”.

When Sula overhears her mother say to her friends (of Sula) that she loved her as you would love your child, but did not like her, it dawns on her that you can only truly live for yourself – not your children, your husband, your parents or society and its expectations - and this becomes a turning point. She leaves their small town to return after 10 years of College and exploring the world – changed, more worldly and with complete disdain for social conventions. In fact, she challenges the very fibre that held their small community of Bottom together and is considered evil personified.

Sula and Nel’s relationship, which had drifted over the years of her absence faces even bigger challenges when Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband and out of guilt, he abandons Nel and their children. Sula is unmoved and unrepentant. She is self-indulgent and only concerned with her own emotions, her own feelings, pleasures and pain. That she caused her best friend so much pain does not concern her and even on her deathbed, she still maintains the same callous, egoistic attitude. Nel on the other hand is held together by her marriage and when that falls apart, she turns to her children. Her existence was centred on her role as a wife and mother. She considered herself morally superior to Sula and even when she visited Sula on her deathbed, it is not because of a genuine concern for her friend, but because she wanted to maintain that moral superiority by extending a hand to ‘her enemy’.

“She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be – for a woman".

Sula and Nel’s relationship in adulthood lacked self-scrutiny and empathy. They were unwilling to compromise, to accept and be tolerant of each other and I doing so, they were never able to re-establish their once closeness.

Looking at this friendship got me thinking about my own friendships and the significance we place on our female friendships as women. Do we draw strength from them and are they drivers of our personal growth and development? What actions or inactions have we taken/ not taken that have prevented our childhood friendships from maturing and growing with us? And do we have friends we wish we’d done more to keep?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

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