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 that her religious and respectful nature does not protect her from racism. When treated with disrespect by a racist train conductor, Helene smiles “like a street pup. (21) Her attempt to appease the train conductor confirms his superiority and spurs a sense of anger in the black soldiers that observe the event. This occurrence on the train establishes a sense of place for Morrison’s readers. We see Helene in a new light. She is respected and loved in her town, but to those who do not know her, she is simply a black middle class woman—one of a demographic that in 1920 (and to this day) receives the least respect. After Morrison provides a full understanding of Helene, we meet the woman who has inadvertently shaped her life and clearly, Nel’s mother wants nothing more than to return to the Bottom.
Helene plays a minor role in the novel as a whole (she quickly disappears after the beginning). In understanding her character, though, a more complete understanding of Nel can be accomplished. Just like her mother, Nel wishes to be nothing like her mother. Many times during her childhood, we see her attempts to differentiate herself from her mother. Perhaps it is a simple case of the grass is always greener, but Nel’s perception of Sula’s home is indicative of her attempts to become different. Nel loves the unkempt nature of the house.
She loves the noise and the people and even the lack of attention that Eva gives to Sula. Although she will grow to live a life that is full of order, as a child, she looks for opportunities to remove herself from that world. Sula is a quintessential example of this escape. She realizes this desire to be different upon her return from the trip. She doesn’t want to be anyone’s child; she develops a sense of “me-ness,” and likens her mother’s true personality to “custard pudding,” feeble and afraid to challenge societal structure. 29; 28) Most important of all the changes the train trip provides, though, is Nel’s newfound “strength to cultivate a friend in spite of her mother. ” (29) This strength opens the door for Sula to change her life. Nel and Sula’s relationship is a complex one, which allows for the novel to become incredibly in depth and driven by interesting characters. Sula’s relationships with her mother and grandmother are opposite of Nel’s relationship with her mother. This is, perhaps, why their personalities differ so much once they reach adulthood. Both become their mothers.
Her mother and grandmother, who obviously favor her brother, essentially ignore Sula. Hannah, her mother, is a very sexual woman who enjoys the company of many men in town to the disapproval of Sula. Because of her mother’s actions, Sula views her with an indifferent and callous sense of hostility. Still, Sula reacts in a negative way when hears her mother say, “‘I just don’t like her’” in reference to her daughter. (57) The difference between loving someone and liking someone is made clear here. It develops the idea of a mother’s ambivalent love.
When a child is aggravating, it can be frustrating to love them. But for Hannah, she simply does not like the person Sula is becoming. This realization, for Sula, removes her from her childhood. She sees the idea of love in a new light—it can be an overwhelming feeling that commands responsibility and irritation. With this comment, we see Sula as an adult for the first time, exposed to the negative side of human emotion for the first time. Sula’s relationship with her mother comes to a harrowing climax when Hannah is set on flames and Sula stands and watches.
She is not shocked, we later learn, but intrigued. This says much about Sula as a person, but it also is interesting concerning her dynamic with her mother. She acts as her mother would have in this situation; she is cold and disconnected, and cares little about the person in need. Sula’s reaction to the fire is strikingly similar to the way her mother brought her up. Perhaps all of the disregard Hannah showed towards Sula came back in her death. Sula, with no feeling of love or like for her mother, simply watched her die.
Hannah’s words about Sula before she died, that she did not like her, freed Sula, in a way. Because Hannah did not like Sula, Sula felt no need to love Hannah. The connection was lost. Interestingly, at her mother’s death, we see Sula become comparable to her mother for the first time. Sula eventually becomes more and more like her mother, with no emotional connections to anyone. Almost with no regard for the person she cares for most in the world, she sleeps with Nel’s husband. She doesn’t know the real name of the person she participates in her only romantic relationship with.
Disconnected and completely unemotional, Sula as the adult she becomes is first seen at her mother’s death. Nel and Sula, much like many people in the world, are defined by their mothers. Any attempt they made throughout the novel to push themselves further from what their mothers were proved futile. Helene’s over-bearing motherhood and incredible need for order resulted in Nel acting out slightly in adolescence but eventually becoming as stable and constant and respectable as her mother.
Hannah’s lack of attention towards Sula and constant promiscuity led to Sula acting in the same way, with no love toward the people who cared most about her. Their mothers differ on an incredible number of features and perhaps this is one reason why Nel and Sula’s relationship goes from sister-like to betrayal and hatred. Morrison makes it clear in this novel that we are what our mothers make us, whether we make a conscious effort to do so, like Nel, or if we are so affected by the ways in which they act that we simply have no choice but to fall into their past routines, like Sula.