Love Till Permanence Do Us Part
How Toni Morrison uses satire to condemn marriage in her novel, Sula, particularly by revealing the behavior of men who claim to love certain female characters but squirm at permanent commitment.
Falling madly in love with the so-called “hottest man in town,” will a woman love him superficially like the other bachelorettes? Or will she peel off every layer of his “perfect” skin, only to discover that his chiseled, Greek god appearance is only a mask covering his true immaturity? Much of Toni Morrison’s novel, Sula, criticizes marriage. In particular, the author condemns how marriage reveals the duality of young men; they present themselves as gentlemen who go the extra mile to love their wives “till death do [them] part,” but abandon them when they discover the reality of the union’s permanent commitment. A reader, by unpacking the different ways the author uses satire to get across this message, better understands the behavior of men who claim to love certain female characters but squirm at permanent commitment.
The author, for instance, caricatures BoyBoy as the absent, Black husband to emphasize his duality; however, he is not always the toxic individual Eva despises later in their five-year marriage. Persuading his ex-wife, a native Virginian, to move to Medallion, Ohio with him because of his new job, the loving, hard working carpenter commits himself to creating a better life with her in 1921. The raging alcoholic, rather than helping her raise their three children, womanizes, abuses his family, and eventually leaves his wife behind for good: “it was hating him that kept [Eva] alive and happy” (37). In the early 1900s, women were expected to be subservient to their husbands by staying at home with the children; very rarely did the domestics leave the house, because society regarded them as inferior to men. Even with the emergence of females claiming their independence in the 1920s, men like Eva’s toxic husband continued asserting dominance over their lovers.
The name BoyBoy (one not ordinarily given to adult males) signifies his childish view of marriage. In other words, he believes one spouse puts immense, unhealthy pressure on him/herself to maintain order and love in the household, while the other spouse travels to escape responsibility without being held accountable for his/her wrongful actions. The patriarch, tired of having Hannah’s mother be tied to his identity as a Black man, also uses his vices to boost his underlying self-consciousness; after all, his job as a carpenter never prevents him from being the target of his white employer’s racism. If Toni Morrison were to create a caricature of a loyal, Black husband, it would give the illusion that marriages in Medallion, Ohio had incredible staying power. Designing BoyBoy as a disloyal caricature of Black husbands, conversely, reinforces the transience of marriage due to two-faced men fleeing from commitment, leaving women like Eva high and dry.
The American novelist uses irony to demonstrate Ajax’s duality as eye candy and a manchild in the book. Readers are first introduced to him in 1922 when he calls Sula and Nel pig meat, leading them to think he is creepy. However, in 1939, women fight over him, because they worship the thirty-eight year old’s attractiveness. “[Sula] was perhaps the only other woman he knew whose life was her own…” (127) illustrates the relief he feels to show his vulnerability to a fellow, rebellious member of the Black community, misplaced by his generosity and childlike fascination with airplanes. Alas, no amount of milk bottles he gives the titular character, or sex he has in the pantry with her, could ever stop the mama’s boy from leaving for Dayton, Ohio in lieu of entering a committed relationship. A mama’s boy describes a man’s unhealthy codependence on his mother to meet his basic and emotional needs. This conflicts with the premise of marriage: to be complementary with your spouse while at the same time coming into your own as an independent adult. While Toni Morrison provides no information about the extent of Ajax’s mother governing his life, nonetheless he unconsciously fears resentment if a decision he makes comes between his undying devotion for her.
Sula further infantilizes her jobless lover by always putting his needs before her own, the way that making sure growing children have enough food, clothing, and shelter is always uppermost in a mother’s mind: “I will water your soil, keep it rich and moist. But…how much loam will I need to keep my water still” (131)? Not only does this instinct make Nel’s best friend dominate her lover to some degree, but once again, what holds her back is her ability to suppress his true desire for independence. Some women cringe at the idea of dating a mama’s boy; they expect their partner to be self-sufficient. The author, using irony to contrast his puerility with his veneer of external beauty, makes Ajax emerge as yet another absent male unable to deliver on his promise of loving a woman through thick and thin.
Women often become infatuated by attractive men, only to be disillusioned with the boy hidden behind the manly, beautiful countenance. Toni Morrison is wise to use satire to criticize marriage in Sula because it sheds light on the tendency of immature men to desert women when they discover married life requires serious dedication. Such is the case with BoyBoy and Ajax, who express interest in temporary romances. This is not to say that both characters are obligated to enter serious relationships with Eva and Sula, respectively, if they do not feel emotionally mature enough. However, in retrospect they could be transparent about wanting to casually date their lovers, rather than disappearing without a trace or hiding their emotions to seem tougher than they really are. Maybe then the matriarch and titular character would not have lost the music in their lives.
Thank you for reading,
Originally written for my AP English Literature & Composition class on October 25, 2021.