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  • A Blessing and a Burden:The Relation to the Past in Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved
  • Deborah Guth (bio)

Among the many issues that inhabit Toni Morrison's fiction, one of the most absorbing is the multifaceted and often problematic relationship of the present to the past. Whether she explores a love-affair or a girlhood friendship, generational rupture or the meaning of freedom—whether she uses the model of communal story-telling to shape her work, reactivates a traditional myth or explores the dynamics of memory—the impact of the past remains a central issue, wending its way through theme and form. Clearly, for Morrison, the questions: "Who am I?" and "Where are we going?" are inseparable from "Where do we come from?", and the two sides—the search for self-definition and an understanding of what the past is about—interact constantly throughout her work. "The reclamation of the history of black people in this country is paramount in its importance. . . . You have to stake out [your part of the work] and identify those who have preceded you," she says, but also adds that "resummoning them, acknowledging them is just one step in that process of reclamation" ("Interview," Davis 143).

Significantly, her purpose is never simply to recapture the texture of a world gone by, to document its details or recreate an idealized [End Page 575] portrait for purpose of nostalgia. Rather, the impetus of her work is to explore and dramatize the complex interaction between a present in search of itself and a past that appears sometimes as nurturing cultural foundation, sometimes as a restrictive tradition to be fought off, and sometimes—in Beloved for example—as a frightening nightmare that imposes itself between the present and a future of freedom and renewal. Morrison is aware of "both the burdens and the blessings of the past" ("An Interview," McKay 413); in light of this, I examine in this essay three different constructions of this relationship and three aspects of the problem—rejection, reclamation and the dynamics of the remembering imagination—in order to clarify the ramifications and cultural implications of her thought.

Sula has often been seen as a Bildungsroman which traces the development of the title character, her relationship with her childhood friend Nel and their very different lives within the community of Medallion.1 The ostensible relation of present to past in this novel is one of rejection as Sula attempts to define for herself a new identity in contradistinction to the values of the community. Framed by Shadrack's tragic madness and shot through with death, Sula's path may thus be seen as an attempt to free herself from the traditions—and the suffering—of her community and to define a new mode of black womanhood.2 However, significant patterns of repetition implicitly connecting Sula's life to that of her grandmother, Eva Peace, provide an alternative interpretive prism and suggest that the rejected ancestor, for all her destructiveness and tyranny, is in fact the freest, most integrated character, and a model which the text itself imposes in order to challenge the more "modern" definition of selfhood that Sula is trying to live out.

Sula herself is a complex figure, a "moral and psychological enigma" (Grant 92) that the narrative is careful to maintain.3 Presented in the first part of the novel mainly through sporadic scenes of violence, her growth reflects a process of inner disengagement, a gradual decentering from the role of active participant to that of passive observer, and from there to conscious self-exclusion. This process can be traced from the episode where she actively faces down Nel's tormentors by lopping off her own finger; through Chicken Little's drowning, where she is both initiator, swinging him around, and then helpless onlooker as his body flies out over the water; to the day when she stands by, watching with passive complicity, as her mother burns to death; and culminating when, at her best friend's wedding, she refuses even the implicit involvement of the observer, turns her back and leaves Medallion. [End Page 576]

Her return after a ten-year absence marks no symbolic reintegration into the...


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pp. 575-596
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