Cultural Analysis: Toni Morrison’s Sula

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For a literary criticism class last semester, I wrote a paper focusing on a cultural analysis of Toni Morrison's classic novel Sula. What I found most intriguing while writing my paper and studying criticisms written about the novel was Morrison's innovative creativity in exploring cultural ideologies within African-American communities. 

Morrison presented new ways for understanding not only morality, but a sense of self. She presented an intriguing examination of good and evil beyond the binary oppositions associated to the Western concept of these moral alignments. As I wrote in the introduction of my paper:
However, the most striking of these explored Afro-American cultural ideologies is the concept of what is good and what is evil. In the characters of Sula Peace and Nel Wright, Morrison examines a branch of morality and a sense of the self that challenges the established order of Western practices imposed on African-Americans in the early 1900s. In Morrison’s novel Sula, the titular character and her childhood comrade Nel provide a look at the necessity of good and evil in relation to the idea of the self, underscoring a more humanized and a less institutionalized concept of morality.
I theorized Morrison was presenting the idea humans need good and evil to be our complete selves and to be fully human. It is a yin and yang concept prominent in Eastern and African philosophies and ethics. However, it is also a philosophy contrasting the Western idea where good and evil are treated as separate ideologies and one must win out over the other instead of co-existing in harmony. 

Morrison's novel suggests a philosophy where good and evil serve as a sort of cosmic balance. This makes the journey of self-discovery and the commitment to one's choices a limitless but heavy freedom. I can't say Morrison is completely against Western concepts of morality and ethics, but she does bring into question their stifling nature. 

In the case of a woman's sexual liberty, the character Sula's decision to engage in casual sex without concern for her male companion's ego sees her become condemned as evil among her townspeople. Yet, Sula feels self-fulfilled by her choice to partake in such activities. 

There is a clear indication an environment dominated by a more Western morality of binary opposition, where tradition is good and unconventional is evil, leaves little room for flexibility or actual choice. Life's more pertinent choices are clearly laid out and to veer from these choices leads to one becoming ostracized

But are preordained choices necessarily the best choices? Or even universal ones? Can every choice be made without consideration of other options? These are questions Sula asks through the choices and consequences of its characters' actions. 

Traditional and unconventional, good and evil, Morrison implicates a necessary co-existence of both to provide a system of checks and balances. The novel provides a number of examples where good can produce evil and evil can produce good if one sense of morality or ethics exists without the other.

What are your thoughts on morality and ethics? Do good and evil require a necessary co-existence? Or are they natural binary oppositions? Sound off in the comments section below!

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