The Four Women of the Apocalypse: Addie and Cora, Sula and Nel and the Collapse of the Mythic Female
K. Ruth Seaber, Southeast Missouri State University
Day and night are mingled in our gazes . . .
If we divide light from night, we give up the lightness
of our mixture . . . We put ourselves into watertight
compartments, break ourselves up into parts, cut ourselves
in two. . .we are always one and the other, at the same time.
Even in today’s liberated society, both the definition of a woman’s role and the seeking out of an identity within that role emanate from a dualistic construct. Within the parameters of a patriarchal society, women have traditionally been relegated to one of two roles that of wife and mother, or that of the “dangerously free” female. This metanarrative has obtained mythical proportions, especially in the South. Within this paradigm, women are imprisoned in one of two cells and are unable to function as rounded, diverse human beings. William Faulkner, in his novel As I Lay Dying, depicts the God-fearing Cora in opposition to Addie, the transgressor against the totally virtuous woman myth. Similarly, in Sula, Toni Morrison’s Nel symbolizes the good woman while Sula personifies her evil counterpart. By using Nel and Cora as foils for Sula and Addie, respectively, both Morrison and Faulkner accentuate the binary opposition evident and inherent in patriarchy’s Mythic Woman. Moreover, they suggest that the acceptance of forced choice between either role within this myth transcends racial issues and ultimately results in the female’s loss of Self.
The Mythic Female
To examine the bifurcation of femininity which is presented in As I Lay Dying and Sula, one must first understand the metanarrative of patriarchy which produces the Mythic Female. Inherent in Western society is a male dominance, whereby marriage is viewed in a “capitalistic nature” with “man as owner/boss, woman as worker/producer, and children as product” (Kincaid 489). In perhaps more palatable words, matrimony is usually arranged so that men serve as heads of household while women serve as homemakers and nurturers of children. Although these roles have undergone various changes in recent years, two facets of this role remain intact: women bear children and men must depend upon women to produce their progeny.
Because of this essential, biological invention, women retain a power which men attempt, through societal constructs and usually successfully, to subvert. That is, if they are to have any control over the reproductive process, men must somehow subvert the power advantage females possess as the givers and nurturers of life. Female sexuality, then, becomes their target. G. L. Mortimer reiterates this very notion when he explains that “woman’s sexuality is what makes her threatening” (150). In other words, female sexuality contains within it the essence of feminine power and it is therefore the biggest threat to the male social order. The logic is simple. Women have the power to give life. Women have the edict to nurture that life once it is created. Consequently, when a man has sex with a woman, he gives her the opportunity to assert her power.
To remedy this imbalance of power, patriarchal societies construct narratives which box women into one of two categories. First, women may become mothers. However, they are accepted as mothers only if they are “good” and pure, and only if they practice motherhood within the confines of marriage. Jill Bergman explains this aspect of the metanarrative as it played out in the post-Civil War era:
[. . .] the ideal of pure motherhood functioned as a stark contrast to the “sexual anarchy and license” exercised on the plantation. Motherhood, in both the North and the South, became linked, paradoxically, with chastity and served as a means of containing and denying female sexuality. The attempt to suppress birth control information, then, complements the more insidious and less overt effort to contain and suppress female sexuality, properly channeling it only to procreation. [. . .] When Sanger was tried for violating the law which forbade circulating information on birth control, the judge responded by “emphatically denying that a woman has the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.” By ensuring that sexual expression carried the threat of pregnancy, the dominant social order could theoretically keep female sexuality contained. (399-400, italics mine)
Under the patriarchal system, then, women are not permitted to fully enjoy sex because lurking underneath the covers is the possibility of a baby. Now motherhood becomes not an icon of female power, but a threat, a type of ammunition which allows men to usurp the balance of power within marriage and society. Faulkner understands and depicts the magnitude of this threat to women in As I Lay Dying. When Addie divulges to Anse her lack of desire to have any more children, Anse responds, “Nonsense, you and me aint nigh done chapping yet, with just two” (173). The Bundren marriage, like most in the patriarchal grand recits, succumbs to male dominance. Anse asserts his sexual desires and reproductive power over Addie. Addie has no choice but to play her assigned role.
The second role available to women in the master narrative of the patriarchy is that of the evil seductress. If women dare to enjoy sex outside marriage, they are labeled promiscuous and they pay the price for their sexuality by becoming social outcasts. Toni Morrison depicts the plight of such a woman in Sula. When the gossips in the Bottom proclaim that Sula sleeps with white men, the people of the town “imagined the scene, each according to his own predilections Sula underneath some white man and it filled them with choking disgust. There was nothing lower she could do, nothing filthier” (113). Although Morrison suggests that the reactions of the townsfolk are condemning because Sula sleeps with white men, she also implies, with the superlative “filthier,” that Sula’s promiscuity itself is the original source of that condemnation.
So, whether they play the role of the “sexless” mother or the evil seductress, women lose their sexual identities, or at least their ability to freely pursue sexual gratification, in a patriarchal system. And their loss results in men’s’ victory as men gain mastery over the entire act of procreation by obtaining power over the reproductive lives of women. Consequently, the split personality of the Mythic Female is created. Philip M. Weinstein clarifies this notion, telling us that women
Typically [. . .] either have forsaken legitimacy in order to express desire or have condemned their desire and with it their maternal resources in order to honor legitimacy. Both trajectories keep them imprisoned within patriarchal narratives of womanhood (the intoxicating woman the male has intercourse with but cannot control and does not marry, on the one hand, or the repressed woman who keeps intact his line of descent and denatures herself in the process, on the other). (27-8)
Women, then, may choose to become either the dutiful wife and mother, or the wanton woman.
Addie and Cora; Sula and Nel
The difficulty, of course, with such a narrative is that life consists of more than two choices. Many women desire numerous roles and adventures in life. One such woman is Faulkner’s Addie Bundren. As a female living in the 1920s, Addie has few options for economic survival. She may live out her days as a spinster school teacher, a role and a job which she despises, or she may marry. Thus, Addie chooses a marriage with Anse, but this is not a choice Addie is enthused about. Kincaid tells us that Faulkner “knew that Addie had held out as long as she could before marrying Anse and that both choices she had to marry or not to marry were bad ones” (584). Indeed, when Addie surveys her potential mate, she sees a scroungey man who looks “like a tall bird hunched in the cold weather” and who needs a haircut. However, Addie’s eyes also spy an escape from her current conditions and a flight to a more economically viable lifestyle. As the two strike up a conversation, Addie purposefully centers the topic of finances around the issue of matrimony, saying to Anse, “They tell me you’ve got a house and a good farm. And you live there alone, doing for yourself, do you? [. . .] A new house [. . .] Are you going to get married?” (171). Obviously, Addie’s desire to marry is not carved out of a romantic notion, but out of sheer economic need. Addie latches onto Anse as her ticket out of poverty and her fare away from her role as teacher.
Unfortunately, Addie’s ticket out of her desperate world delivers her into another world in which the rules of behavior are just as displeasing and confining as those of her former life. Addie suffers the plight of women who do not fit comfortably into the mold of good wife and mother. Paula Gallant Eckard expounds upon the reasons for discontent among some of the young women of the rural South, explaining that “marriage and motherhood were not always welcome events in a young woman’s life” (121). And Addie is one of these women for whom the good wife/mother narrative is unwelcome. She cherishes her “aloneness” and views husband and children as intrusions upon her life. In her narrative which details the events surrounding the early days of her marriage, Addie tells us exactly how she feels about marriage and motherhood:
So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible
and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no
good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was
born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word
for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word
for it or not. [. . .] I knew that it had been, not that my aloneness had to be violated
over and over each day, but that it had never been violated until Cash came. Not even by Anse in the nights. (171-2)
Clearly, Addie does not feel fulfilled in the role of mother. Upon the birth of her first child, Addie knows that “living was terrible.” Furthermore, she feels that the act of sex “violated” her only after pregnancy. Prior to becoming pregnant, Addie does not feel “violated [. . .] even by Anse in the nights,” which suggests that she may have enjoyed the sexual relationship with her husband, or at least she may have accepted it as the due course of matrimony. Only after the consequences of sexual union occur (i. e. motherhood) does Addie feel the full force of the negative impact the patriarchal narrative strews her way. Only then does Addie awaken to find her life forever changed because what little power she has over her life is trumped by Anse’s “right” to her body and her reproductive choices. She discovers that “Man is SELF, and woman, other” (McDowell 151).
Unlike Addie, however, Cora embraces the role patriarchy thrusts upon her. “Cora,” according to Paul Melebeck, “lives in a world of strong religious beliefs. She preaches all the time using what Addie calls ‘high, dead words,’ like motherhood, honesty, pride, etc., but she is wrong in her judgment most of the time” (451). In fact, even though Cora admits that “every woman” has a “hard life,” she does not find contempt for nor relinquish the role of the good wife/mother. Instead, she cherishes it. She is so thoroughly sold on the metanarrative, she tells Addie, “God gave you children to comfort your hard human lot and for a token of His own suffering and love, for in love you conceived and bore them” (166). Cora cannot fathom options for women outside the scheme of wifedom and motherhood, not even for her best friend Addie who sees motherhood as a “duty” and marriage as a life born not of love, but of “economic dependence and servitude” (Blaine 435). Cora cannot understand that Addie remains unbearably miserable in these prescribed roles.
Faulkner’s depiction of Cora as a foil to the protagonist Addie accentuates the either/or choices of women in the grand recits of patriarchy. Blaine explains Cora’s role in the novel as one in which “we see normative behaviors for women and mothers represented, unappealing as these may be.” Furthermore, “Addie’s presumed refusal to bend to the will of her society,” is “reflected in Cora Tull’s sanctimonious disapproval” (430). In other words, by having Cora serve as a contrast to Addie, Faulkner suggests the limiting nature of society’s Mythic Female. For instance, Addie pounces on Cora’s platitudes, saying that her own life does not exemplify the glory of love and mothering, but instead is “an acknowledgment and expiation of my sin” (167). The more Cora insists that the Mythic Female is the only role worthy of women, the more Addie punctuates her denial of that role. Finally calling Addie’s words “sacrilege,” Cora highlights what happens to the woman who “refus[es] to behave according to societal norms” (Blaine 430). She is blamed, ridiculed, and punished.
Similarly, the interaction of Sula and Nel in Toni Morrison’s Sula demonstrates the impact of the Mythic Female on women’s rights to self-determination. Sula, like Addie, finds life as a wife/mother unappealing. Unlike Addie, however, Sula learns to navigate in the world outside the “confinement” of “a system of child-bearing,” outside “a system in which her meaning is significantly determined by the patriarchal heritage” (Nielsen 39). Morrison herself calls Sula “dangerously female,” and Maggie Galehouse describes Sula’s life as “one woman’s rejection of every available social script” (339-40). “Extracting choice from choicelessness,” Sula does not marry (Basu 90). She travels alone, attends college, and lives as a single woman with no children. Moreover, as a member of the Peace family, Sula “enjoy[s] maleness, for its own sake” (41). Sula simply revels in the company of men and in the freedom of her own life.
Nel, on the other hand, acts as a contrast to Sula. Marrying shortly after her high school years, Nel becomes a conventional wife and mother of three children. In this role, “Nel becomes for readers just what she becomes for the Bottom a reliable, likable, accessible woman” (Galehouse 344). Comparable to Faulkner’s Cora, Nel exudes the role of good wife/mother and fits neatly into the metanarrative of patriarchy. In addition, Nel’s hospitality and charity, like Cora’s baking and home grown religiosity, give her a “knowledge and experience [that are] local, parochial,” and have “no frame of reference outside her hometown” (Galehouse 344). This naiveté, in part, ultimately drives Nel to condemn Sula for her carefree, unconventional, and as Nel would probably say, careless, lifestyle.
But, any tension within the camaraderie between Nel and Sula is a long time coming. The two experience a childhood friendship that consists of both tragedy and joy. They also move through puberty and adolescence together, each drawing from the relationship what she lacks in herself alone. Sula somehow seems to draw from Nel’s well of order, “neatness,” and stability while Nel
“preferred Sula’s woolly house, where a pot of something was cooking on the stove; where the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions; where all sorts of people dropped in; where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink, wand where a one-legged grandmother named Eva handed you goobers from deep inside her pockets or read you a dream.” (29)
Thus, Sula and Nel begin to find in each other a complement through which they subconsciously attempt to merge the split identity of the Mythic Woman.
It is not until Nel marries Jude that these companion parts of Sula’s and Nel’s personalities recede for the long term. Upon her wedding day, Nel gains a husband and loses her best friend at least she loses the physical proximity of that friend. Although no wedge appears to exist in the relationship, Sula leaves Nel’s wedding and does not return to the Bottom for ten years. During the ten-year hiatus, Sula becomes more “wild” while Nel becomes more settled and domesticated. In other words, Sula leads the life of the “dangerously free woman” and Nel carries on as the good wife/mother.
However, when they are finally reunited, Nel discovers that something has been missing in her life because now, in Sula’s presence, she feels “clever, gentle, and a little raunchy” (95). Moreover, having Sula around makes Nel “laugh,” and “see old things with new eyes.” Nel reconnects not only with her old friend, but also with her Self, freeing up the submerged aspects of her own personality. For example, “Nel’s love for Jude, which over the years had spun a steady gray web around her heart, became a bright and easy affection, a playfulness that was reflected in their lovemaking” (95). When Nel regains even a portion of her Self, she is free to enjoy sex with her husband because she abandons the notion that the sex act is her wifely duty. Nel begins to chip away at the dualistic mold of the Mythic Female.
Despite the strides Nel and Sula make in severing their bonds to the Mythic Female, the community of the Bottom remains devoted to the metanarrative. J. Brooks Bouson elaborates on this notion, explaining that because of “Sula’s shamelessly experimental life, she becomes the demonized Other to the Bottom Community” (68). The citizens of the Bottom mercilessly condemn Sula as an evil seductress and simultaneously condone Nel as a good wife/mother. In doing so, they achieve two aims. First, they place Sula and Nel within their construct of the Mythic Female, albeit on either end of the binary opposition. Second, they confirm their own roles as a community of individuals within the patriarchal master narrative. Again, Bouson explains: “When Teapot’s negligent mother thinks that Sula has pushed her son down the stairs, she changes into a model parent by immersing herself in the maternal role, and when Sula sleeps with and then discards the husbands of the Bottom women, the women reactively cherish their men” (68). In other words, by labeling Sula the evil seductress, the people of the Bottom deepen their commitment to the idea of the Mythic Female. They further define themselves as part of this narrative by aligning themselves with the good role they project onto Nel. Thus, the Mythic Female is perpetuated.
However, on a personal, individual level, (i.e. the petit recits) Sula and Nel dispense with the Mythic Female script. Morrison depicts Sula as an independent woman who seldom lets the labels others place on her affect her decisions regarding how she will lead her life. Conventional Nel, however, allows these labels to decide the composition of her lifestyle. It is only after Sula has died, estranged from Nel but for a fleeting visit because Sula and Nel’s husband Jude were caught transgressing the marital vow of fidelity, that Nel realizes what is missing in her life. She weeps over Sula’s grave:
“Sula?” she whispered, gazing at the tops of trees. “Sula?”
Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green things.
A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze.
“All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss
pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,”
she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl,
Nel fights grief in the years following her broken relationships with Sula and Jude. During her sojourn through bereavement, Nel believes she misses her husband and wifedom. Unable to play the role of the Mythic Female, Nel feels lost. However, after Sula’s death, Nel becomes acutely aware that her loss was not Jude, nor the role of the good wife/mother, nor even just her friendship with Sula. Rather, Nel’s loss encompasses something much more complex than marriage, or role playing, or friendship. Because Nel and Sula had not an ordinary relationship, but a revolutionary one, Nel and Sula rewrite their personal narratives rounding out their personalities, pushing them beyond the confines of a dualistic mode of operation. Despite what the community has to say about them, Nel and Sula find their Selves. And thus, through the death of her best friend, Nel rediscovers the Self which she lost long ago. And, she discovers that while alive, her friend Sula had shared with her the greatest gift of all Sula’s Self.
Through their pairs of characters, Addie and Cora and Sula and Nel, Faulkner and Morrison use similar techniques to convey similar meanings. Just as Faulkner’s Addie and Cora suggest the dualistic nature of the Mythic Female, Morrison’s Sula and Nel evoke the same understanding of the “evil woman” and the good wife/mother. Furthermore, whereas Addie’s death and Sula’s death are often interpreted as punishment for their rebellion against societal norms, another valid interpretation can be derived, at least in the case of Sula’s death. Sula, unlike Addie, “moves beyond” the narrow definitions of the metanarrative, “avoiding the false choices they imply and dictate” (McDowell 152). Perhaps in her era, Addie was revolutionary simply because she is depicted as a woman who struggles against the confinement of her “choiceless choice” and the resulting loss of her Self. But Faulkner stops a good distance from allowing Addie success. Addie’s life is never more than bitterness and secret revenge over her lot in life. Sula, on the other hand, takes the truly revolutionary step by not only questioning the narrative of the Mythic Female, but also by openly transgressing that narrative and writing her own story. Sula herself best describes this accomplishment when she answers Nel’s question regarding whether her life choices have made her lonely: “Yes. But my lonely is mine” (143). Sula grabs the reins of her life, and happily usurps the prescribed narrative by living life her own way. By doing so, Sula guides the metanarrative closer to real change and viable choices for women. Thus, Morrison, through her characterization of the complementary pair of Sula and Nel, suggests that women do not have to live the stories others write for them; they do not have to “play dead while on earth” (Kincaid 583) or kill “the maternal in the woman so that her Self might live” (Demetrakopoulos 57). Instead, they must do as Sula and Nel did they must kill the Mythic Female so that the female Self might live.
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