Good and Evil in Toni Morrison's "Sula"

Term Paper, 2007

32 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1 Introduction

2 The definition of good and evil in African ethics
2.1 The understanding of goodness and sin in African culture
2.2 The condition of the individual in African culture
2.3 The esteem of the family and its members
2.4 Sexual morality
2.4.1 Conclusion and meaning for the novel

3 Scenes – whose actions are good and whose are evil ?
3.1 Eva burns Plum to death
3.2 Sula and Nel kill Chicken Little
3.3 Sula watches her mother burn herself
3.3.1 sub-item: fire and water – evil versus good?

4 Characters – are they good or evil ?
4.1 Sula Peace
4.1.1 Sula’s body
4.1.2 Sula’s return
4.2 Nel Wright

5 African and Western view of Sula

6 Conclusion

1 Introduction

Today’s life makes us more than ever aware of bad things happening in our world. Each day, people struggle to decide whether they encounter a good situation or character. This distinction between good and evil is present in (almost) every culture. “The good” is defined as something positive whereas “the evil” is connected to negativity and has the connotation of being insufficient. However, the distinction may vary in different cultures. While western cultures define someone or something as simply only good or evil some cultures such as the African do not. From the western point of view they have a highly complicated system of how to define something as good or evil. More precisely, they do not distinguish at all. According to African culture one cannot simply be good or evil. In their opinion, everyone has good and bad sides. This makes it rather difficult for Western people to fully understand African culture. This is mainly the case when it comes to literature and to its interpretation from an African point of view. Europeans, for example, would try to define who the good character is and who its counterpart. This tactic misleads the western reader throughout the whole story and might lead him to a totally wrong decision about the author’s intention as well as to a wrong understanding of the given piece of literature.

This term paper deals with the novel Sula by Toni Morrison. Since the novel is written by an African-American writer it contains the different association of good and evil mentioned above. In addition, Sula deals with typical African-American folklore and through this blurs the lines between good and evil. Therefore, this paper will at first explain how good and evil are understood in African-American culture. The main part is an analysis of different scenes and characters in Sula. It will show how good and evil are treated in Sula, in consideration of the given examples in the first part. In the end, a conclusion will concentrate on the different views and possible interpretations of Sula and other main characters, from a Western and African-American point of view.

2 The definition of good and evil in African ethics

African countries are well-known far and wide for their hospitality. They welcome new members as much as they welcome their own children. None of them would ever ask him- or herself whether the “new person in town” is a good or rather bad coeval. But this does not mean that the African culture makes no distinction between good and evil. The way to define such a thing is slightly, sometimes highly, different from our Western definitions. The roots for the distinction lie in the original belief of hundreds of generations which lived on the African continent. They formed their belief with the help of the community and therefore most definitions are related to the question whether the action is good or bad for the community and for oneself.

The community is helpful and important when it comes to decisions for one’s life.1

Nonetheless, everyone is an individual on his or her own. Therefore, all members of the same group try to function as both: as an individual and as a participant in the community’s every day life. Within this community life they act according to various ethic rules which no one can always follow but since they are a community they help each other as good as they can.

2.1 The understanding of goodness and sin in African culture

African culture does not know any form of ownership. Everything they own belongs to the community which underlines that, “…von Natur aus kommen alle nackt auf die Welt.”2 This is a completely good thing because it guarantees that anyone within the community is worth as much as everyone else. It would be a pure sin to wish for goods which do not serve the community.

Besides all good thoughts and attempts to act good for the community, African communities are also aware of evil inside their community. This does not mean a single evil thought is considered to make someone evil or committing a sin. An example for an evil thought as it is meant here is a lie. It is not a sin to lie to

someone, “solange das Individuum etwa nach dem Nutzenkalkül handelt oder sich auf andere schlaue Weise aus einer unangenehmen Affäre zieht.”3In the novel, the narrator sounds rather proud telling us that Sula, “had lied only once in her life – to Nel about the reason for putting Eva out, and she could lie to her only because she cared about her.”4 But an evil thought is something which e.g. the Gikuyu of Kenya describe with the saying „es gibt keinen Unterschied zwischen einem Dieb und einem Begehrenden.“5 The idea on its own is enough to say someone acts evil. The explanation is easy: if you wish for something you do not own you have to restrain you inner evil so that you do not want it any longer. The inner conflict is where the evil starts or dies. Also Sula seems to have noticed this, because the narrator goes on, “when she had come back home, social conversation was impossible for her because she could not lie.”6 Proverbs, like the ones mentioned above7, shall help the individual to learn self-control, “Selbstbeherrschung sowohl in Bezug auf sein Inneres als auch hinsichtlich des Äußeren“.8

Proverbs are one of the main instruments to teach people good behaviour. Moreover, they relate some organs to good or evil characteristics. The proverb “Das Innere deines Mundes ist schmutzig” does of course not mean “brush your teeth”. It means that the words in someone’s mouth were not “digested” and hurt the heart so much that they simply come out of the mouth.9 Out of this, one can come to the logic conclusion that the heart is something pure and good. In both cultures, Western and African, the heart is the goodness of anyone or more precisely the heart “owns” the goodness. Furthermore, the heart makes the decision whether someone is good or

evil in terms of morality as well as action.10 Other important body parts are the senses, especially the sense of sight11. The eyes reflect one’s inner feelings; sometimes also described as the mirror of the soul. The body is therefore an important object when it comes to the decision whether someone is good or evil.12

2.2 The condition of the individual in African culture

The African communities functions because of cooperation and therefore creates a living condition under the principle of “Ich bin, weil wir sind und seit wir sind, bin ich auch.”13

In contrast to most western cultures, where anyone is an individual by its own, Africans understand their existing only as being a part of their community. “Die Individuen leben nämlich nur aufgrund ihrer Eingebundenheit in die Gemeinschaft.”14 This does not automatically mean that one cannot be one’s own individual and live according to one’s own belief. It rather implicates that anyone is essential for the group, “und daß er ausdrücken soll, daß er die gesamte Gemeinschaft mit in den Blick nimmt.”15 One example, with which Morrison exaggerates this are the “deweys”: “They spoke with one voice, thought with one mind, and maintained an annoying privacy.”16 Nevertheless, the community seems not to know about this feature or at least is not aware of it because, “...stouthearted, surly, and wholly unpredictable, the deweys remained a mystery not only all of their lives in Medallion but after as well.”17

2.3 The esteem of the family and its members

As mentioned above, the individual is part of the community. Moreover, everyone takes part in family life. There, wife and husband live together in

“Zweiheit” and as soon as children are born all together function as a “Dreiheit” and out of this, “…entspringt eine Dreiheit Mann-Frau-Kind, die zur vollen Gemeinschaft führt.”18 Women are the most respected individuals since they give birth to children and are therefore worth to be treated better especially when they are pregnant. On the other hand, the husband is of the same value within a marriage but in times of pregnancy he has to care for his wife a lot more intensively.19

It is taken for granted that the relationships described above work within a marriage20 : “Die Ehe ist eine Lebensaufgabe, zu der alle aufgerufen sind.”21 In addition, African marriages are celebrated to show that Africans know about their place within the community. With the celebration, both partners commemorate their descendants. Through this they show their knowledge of how important family members are for their (partners’) existence.

2.4 Sexual morality

Besides the fact that cosexual relationships are not tolerated within African communities, African culture knows, like Western culture, about the taboo of incest. But, their belief in it has different roots. While Western people justify their dislike with a reference to nature, arguing it is unnatural to love a blood relative. Africans see incest as a violation against the community. If two relatives have sexual intercourse they are accused of not taking part in the community. Both Africans would be then considered as egoists, since they both live on their own and show no interest in getting to know other members of their community. This does not imply that people have a highly open sexual life. It is quite the contrary. Sex is something extremely intimate and can only happen where there are two loving persons who belong together. Nobody is allowed to interrupt this intimate relationship. Therefore prostitution is not possible in the African culture according to their ethic



1 Bujo Bénézet: Wider den Universalanspruch westlicher Moral. Grundlagen afrikanischer Ethik. Freiburg: Herder, 2000. He holds the „Lehrstuhl für spezielle Moraltheologie und Sozialethik“ at the University of Freiburg. As author of lots of publications he concentrates on describing African culture and explaining African ethic.

2 ibid. p. 23. Bénézet argues at this point according to Saint Ambrose. (337-397BC; Catholic bishop of Milan).

3 Bénézet, Wider den Universalanspruch westlicher Moral, 2000. p. 167. Bénézet cites D. Nothomb, Un humanisme. p. 240ff. This book was not available and will not be important again in this term paper and it therefore not cited in the bibliography.

4 Sula, p. 121.

5 Bénézet, Wider den Universalanspruch westlicher Moral, 2000. p. 170. See also chapter 4.1., the character of Sula.

6 Sula, p. 121.

7 Other proverbs would be: „Einer, der keine Ziege besitzt, hat auch kein Verlangen nach Fleisch“ or „Beherrsche dich, laß dich nicht durch dein Herzenbegehren irreführen“. Bénézet, Wider den Universalanspruch westlicher Moral, 2000p. 170.

8 ibid.

9 Bénézet, Wider den Universalanspruch westlicher Moral, 2000. p. 171.

10 ibid. Bénézet also talks about the liver and other organs in his book Die ethische Dimension, p. 63-66. Since proverbs are not the main part of this paper the given example shall here function as a major example for all others.

11 To what extend this is important for the description of the characters in Sula, see chapter 4.

12 See also chapter 4.1., the character of Sula.

13 Bénézet, Wider den Universalanspruch westlicher Moral, 2000. p. 20.

14 ibid. p. 17.

15 ibid. p. 20. Bénézet speaks about the „Solidaritätsprinzip“ as an essential principle to live for.

16 Sula, p. 39.

17 ibid.

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Good and Evil in Toni Morrison's "Sula"
University of Koblenz-Landau
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Good, Evil, Toni, Morrison, Sula
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Babette Lippmann (Author), 2007, Good and Evil in Toni Morrison's "Sula", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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