dis/lit

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Meg’s Major Paper

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During and after the modernist period, female writing often produced what is called a “gendered space” (also known as “matria” and “wombspace” and will be used interchangeably in this paper). This space literally and figuratively existed as a communal place for women to inspire and assert themselves against the oppressive features of the male society and the submissive roles that it wanted to place them in. In Toni Morrison’s Sula, only Nel and Sula form a wombspace through their mental bond, their “me-ness.” Without that gendered space, the women easily become disempowered, choosing to fight each other for men rather than band together.  However, although there are women who can benefit from the idea of a gendered space; disabled characters such as Shadrack would also benefit from the idea of a community space for empowerment—one where the characters can bond through any “otherness,” rather than just gender. Through an analysis of the empowered and disempowered characters in Sula, one may establish the efficacy of the womb-space for both feminist and disability studies. Through its insistence on agency and dependence on community and support, the space then becomes an empowering device that enables the individual to assert his/her identity.

Gendered space is any space where a woman may retreat from a system designed to exploit and undermine the feminine. Here, an individual may seek her identity, looking to define it against society (without society’s pressures) and safely enabling her to be “other” without being judged for it. It is regenerative and restorative, a completely nurturing place. Further, this space may be mental or physical. The “wombspace,” or “matria,” as the “gendered space” is also often called, is centered on community, as opposed to the paternal structure of society, which, based on dominance and submission, is hierarchal. Thus, the feminine space is based more on support.

The support and identity assertion of the space is also a concept that should work within Disability Studies. Like the domestic female, the disabled individual has been continually cast into the same roles. In one role, they are infantilized; they are made to be the Tiny Tims of the world. Their only purpose, in effect, is to produce sympathy. But with that, they are also cast as fairly useless; they need a savior, some kind of redeeming, rich Uncle Scrooge figure to help them onto their crutches and out of the grave. Alternatively, there is the other side of disempowerment, which enforces that the individual’s need be overly normal.

Thus, this idea of a space where the individual can exist and assert one’s identity against the ableist society is a positive one. There needs to be a space where the disabled person can display exactly what he/she wants displayed about disability without the filter of the ableist lens cast by editing or popular belief. This will not only illuminate and educate; there is something cathartic about having your voice heard against the myriad of others, particularly when it has blended in for so long. At the same time, the metaphorical presence of this space enables one to realize one’s own identity in relation to disability within the sphere, which may have been previously subdued or erased by the push of an ableist community insistent on normalcy.

In Sula, none of the women save for Sula and Nel function within the wombspace, which is manifested through the mental bond that they share. Both women connect through their sense of otherness, be it the limitations of their sex or “the slant of life that made it possible to stretch it to its limits” (120) (i.e. the otherness in the way that they view things). After Nel’s incident with the train conductor, she has a new-found self-awareness, one that is like “a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear” (28). This sense of “me-ness” and power is instantly juxtaposed with Nel’s meeting of Sula. This suggests that this self-awareness is ominous; with the coming of Sula, so too comes Nel’s power.  The gendered space also empowers both women’s personalities throughout the text. The two women are like opposite sides of coin; where Nel is supposedly consistent and lacking aggression, Sula is fluid. However, the shared space of their friendship (which no one permeates at first, not even their mothers) seems to promote and empower what their personalities lack. For example, Sula, who is supposedly inconsistent and fluid in her actions, mutilates her finger in order to defend Nel from a gang of boys (54). This act refocuses the girls from emphasis on the deformities of the body to an emphasis on their mental capabilities. Its act makes Nel immediately banish her clothespin, an implication that Nel’s imperfections must be reformed (through painful means). Instead, Nel begins to prefer Sula’s freer, more independent ways. Because Sula values the bond that she and Nel share, Sula also ignores the deformity that cutting off her finger may cause. In order to protect their closeness, she enables herself to completely disregard her body and commit an act that may mark her as an other. Sula’s return at the middle of the novel also shows potency. Sula’s physical presence (and assumed reassertion of the bond and space) has a regenerative, restoring effect on Nel. Even Nel’s “body [is] not immune to the magic. . .It was like getting the use of an eye back, having a cataract removed” (95). Again, the two women are relying and drawing power from one source. It allows Nel to draw back and reflect on her girlhood, empowering her to view her body as young and useful. She begins to have sex again with her husband.

It is also useful to look at the disempowerment of women within the text; that is, when looking comparatively at the women who do utilize such a space, one can visualize the effects of the gendered space. For instance, although Eva is often seen as the “powerful mother” figure, masterful in her manipulation and empowered through her matriarchy, there is nevertheless something lacking about her impressive figure. Eva lacks any kind of close relationships (as all women seem to do in Sula). Although the citizens of the Bottom supposedly glorify her leg, “unless Eva herself introduced the subject, no one ever spoke of the disability” (30). Immediately there is something about Eva’s disability that takes away from her. Despite being perpetually in view, it is not a subject talked about. This is something Eva bitterly recounts when Boyboy revisits her. He is like “everyone else” (36), avoiding reference to her disability. This suggests that there is no intimacy for Eva. The citizens of the Bottom create her leg as a show, something freakish to marvel at, but not something to commiserate with. Eva is not someone to get close to or love. Because of this, Eva’s arrogant, larger-than-life persona seems to be more of a physical performance as well, suggesting some sort of inadequacy about her person because of her disability (rather than the empowering effect that her machinations and overbearing nature should create). There are no strengthening inner relationships for her to rely on.

Sula, too, is alternatingly seen as both an empowered and disempowered figure. Although she is not physically disabled, her birthmark functions as “formal particularity, disability’s other manifestation (Garland-Thomson 119). It is constantly seen as both a good and bad image by the various citizens of the Bottom. It is a snake, a rose, or “Hannah’s ashes marking her” (Morrison 74)—as open to interpretation as Sula herself is, and like Eva’s leg, a show to the town. The Bottom reads Sula through her birthmark, it being her most striking feature ( Nel’s children immediately hone in on the “scary black thing over her eye” (97-98), as does Jude); the citizens then immediately read and interpret her through her actions, judging her peculiarity as a boundary for themselves, whether in looks or in actions. Sula then reinterprets this through the physical as well. Rather than fostering community, she reaches out with her non-normative body, letting actions do more of her speaking.

Nel furthers the image of the body as something to be judged later in novel, believing it too is a peculiarity which the younger, more beautiful girls and men judge her for. She, too, is stuck in the physical realm—in the places that society has judged that women should be in. When Jude leaves her, Nel can not find her role in society other than what society deems is the normal way to live. She contemplates the idea of bringing intimacy into her life again (after the removal of Sula and Jude), but can not focus on anything other than her body. Because they have rejected it, she too rejects her body, believing it to be “empty” and “old” (111); it is not wanted by her husband, so it is not wanted by any man and is therefore not useful. Nel’s body can not perform what she believes is the normal course for it. Therefore, if she can not pass in society through the role of the desired wife, she will take the role of the mother, whose aged malformations can at least be forgiven in lieu of its hard work.

The empowering and disempowering effects are not just for women; they can also be traced within males as well. Because of this, the space again should not be merely for women to connect on a gender sphere. Rather, the individuals should unite over any sense of otherness—gender, body, or mental—and form a community (which to them, in a sense, makes them the normative since they are their community).  Like the disempowered women in the beginning, with Shadrack, there is an immediate focus on his physical and social otherness. When he is in the hospital after his injury, what comforts him is the “neat balance” (8) of his food. Shadrack also perpetually focuses on his hands, believing them to be monstrous; the narrative mentions them several times. By drawing Shadrack’s attention to the physical realm, the reader’s attention is drawn to the physical as well. Instead of Shadrack’s food and hands, however, we dwell on his matted hair and grotesque appearance, as well as the lewd way he acts in society. Furthermore, these are a result of his mental illness. This connection makes us as wary of Shadrack as the rest of the Bottom is, effectively isolating him from the rest of the community. Because the community fears and isolates him, they also seek to define him. Once they are able to understand “the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him….into the scheme of things” (15). However, it is only the nature of his disease and the bounds to which they can ignore it that the people pay attention.

Shadrack’s need for a community is also manifested in Sula. She is his only visitor, and therefore remains fixated in his mind. Thus, he retains the belt that Sula leaves behind. Shadrack remarks that “it was pleasant living with that sign of a visitor, his only one” (157). Sula’s belt becomes his only source of community; it is the representation of the ideals and understanding that he needs to share. This sense of community is furthered in the doubling that goes on within the novel. Sula and Shadrack mirror one another. He sees her as a friend because she has the “mark of the fish he loved” (156), interpreting her birthmark not as freakish but a mark of his peers. When he answers, “Always” (62), Shadrack seeks to do the same things that the gender sphere would do; he works to comfort Sula, to share his experiences and reach out to her. Unlike communication between other characters in the novel, which is often unreliable, this speech is effective. Sula realizes that “he answered a question she had not asked” (63). There is an almost silent exchange of communication between them, one that only the two of them, both of whom are afraid of death and its changes, can do. The isolation that both of them experience because of this also necessitates Shadrack’s need to reach out to Sula. In this short span, they form their own disability space, supporting and reasserting their own power (through stability) and constancy in the world. This space is not altogether different from the female wombspace; however, rather than connecting on their otherness through being subjugated and female, Shadrack and Sula relate on terms of otherness in the bodily sense, reassuring each other that they are not singular in their otherness.

Throughout Sula, the men and women both experience a sense of disempowerment, whether they are made to feel as other with their bodies, or they are pigeonholed into a pre-determined role so that society can ignore them. However, with textual representation such as the matria, a strong sense of empowerment and identity can still be experienced by both reader and author.

Written by Meg

November 22nd, 2010 at 11:27 am

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