What's Love Got to Do with It?

Ramifications of Dependent Love in Toni Morrison's Novels

Heather Yancy

            Toni Morrison's novels have been praised for their rich and artistic expression of black women in America. Within The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison favors strong female characters who are self-reliant and through her development of those characters comments on how society punishes those who depend on others for a sense of fulfillment. While love is a recurring theme Morrison's expression of that theme varies from couple to couple. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison uses love as a destructive force that both harms and sustains Pauline and Cholly's relationship. Similarly, Morrison's second novel, Sula, continues to illustrate the ramifications of codependent relationships. In both The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison uses deficient love to comment on how society punishes dependent women.

            In order to understand Morrison's derision of female dependency, the reader must first examine what causes the characters to be dependent. American psychologist, Abraham Maslow is noted for his contributions to the study of human behavior and for his conceptualization of the hierarchy of human needs. Consequently, according to Malsow's psychological theory there are two types of love:

One type which he referred to as D-love [deficiency love], is an essentially selfish need to give and receive affection from others. People experience this need strongly when they are lonely. In contrast, he also described B-love (being love), which is a more unselfish desire for what is best for the loved one. People manifest B-love when they love and accept a person's failings and foibles rather than trying to change them. (Krapp)

In Maslow's deficiency love paradigm, individuals who seek others in order to experience fulfillment are in essence seeking to satisfy baser needs such as a sense of belonging or a feeling of being wanted. On the other hand, individuals whose baser needs have already been fulfilled and have experienced self-actualization are more inclined to love their partners for who they are regardless of what they can provide. Essentially, these individuals are already complete within themselves and consequently are not seeking others to complete them.

            Following Maslow's description, the insatiable craving to be needed experienced by Morrison's protagonist Nel corresponds to the deficiency love paradigm. Nel, as a victim of deficiency love, has an intense desire to be needed by an individual and as a result, seeks individuals who can satisfy this desire. Nel's longing is fulfilled at first by her mother, Helene, who needs someone to care for while her husband is away: 'Her daughter was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life' (Sula 18). Helene needs someone on whom she can expend her energy and vast amounts of free time lavishing with attention. By allowing Helene to dote on her, Nel in turn fulfills her own desire to be needed. While it may have been possible for Nel to achieve self-actualization and develop autonomy once her baser needs were met, Helene prevents Nel from attaining this goal and stunts her personal growth. By determining how Nel behaves and whom she befriends, Helene effectively squelches any sign of independence in Nel and sets her daughter on a dangerous path of self-denial and subordination.

Consequently, when Nel meets Jude and recognizes a deep, burning need within him, she immediately accepts the burden of fulfilling that need. Nel's desire to appease the man she loves is born out of her own primal desire to be needed. Spurred by his inability to gain employment from the white contractors, Jude's obsession to prove himself manifests in his relationship with Nel. As Morrison indicates, '[Jude's] determination to take on a man's role [by any means makes] him press Nel about settling down' (Sula 82). Jude's feelings of inadequacy permeate his consciousness and demand subsequent satisfaction. At the same time, Nel is driven by an intense desire to be needed by someone. Nel's acquiescence to Jude's marriage proposal appeases both his need to establish his masculinity and adulthood as well as her longing to be needed by an individual. According to the narrator, '[Jude] wanted someone to care about his hurt, to care very deeply' (Sula 82). By comforting and caring for Jude, Nel is also able to fulfill her own desire to be needed.

Morrison further portrays Nel's dependence on Jude by making her entirely subservient to him. Instead of forming a relationship of equals, Jude's feelings, opinions, and decisions take precedence, while Nel comforts, upholds, and acquiesces to his every command. Morrison consigns Nel through her own proclivity to the role of the passive individual and designates Jude to maintain the dominant position in the relationship. Nel's willingness to place Jude's desires above her own sets the tone for their relationship and provides Jude with the power to become the superior individual. As a result, '[the] two of them together'make one Jude' (Sula 83). Through this distinctively descriptive statement, Morrison conveys that Nel no longer exists as a separate entity and that she has, in fact, been consumed by her desire to fulfill the parameters of her deficient love.

In addition, Morrison indicates society's derision for Nel's conditional state by subsequently removing the object of Nel's desire. Through Jude's infidelity, Morrison forces Nel to become self-reliant. This is clear when the narrator states, 'Because Jude's leaving was so complete the full responsibility of the household was Nel's' (Sula 138).  Without Jude to depend on and provide for her, Nel is obligated to rise to the occasion by becoming the breadwinner and coping with the strain of being a single parent. David Middleton in the 2000 edition of Toni Morrison's Fiction: Contemporary Criticism states, 'When she discovers her husband Jude's infidelity with her best friend, Sula, Nel for the first time is forced to define a self apart from Sula [and Jude]' (167). By removing Jude, Morrison comments on how society punishes Nel for her dependent nature and offers her a chance to develop into a person complete within herself and not reliant on others. Nel, however, squanders the opportunity for self-actualization and turns to her community to fulfill her desire to be needed. As Terry Otten in The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison states, 'unwilling to run the risk of a fall, Nel knows 'how to behave as the wronged wife', wrapping the drapery of her innocence about her life the other women'' (40). Consequently, Morrison continually denies Nel even the prospect of love: 'It didn't take long, after Jude left, for her to see what the future would be. She had looked at her children and knew in her heart that that would be all. That they would be all the she would ever know of love' (Sula 165). Until Nel overcomes her pathology of deficient love and her dependent nature, Nel must live a life without love.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison also weaves the theme of love through the narrative, but this time focuses on a more volatile kind of love experienced by the protagonist's mother, Pauline Breedlove. A childhood accident permanently damages Pauline's foot and makes her an outcast within her family and community. As a result, Pauline 'never felt at home anywhere, or that she belonged anyplace' (Bluest 111).  According to Maslow's deficiency love paradigm, Pauline lacks the baser need of inclusion. Her infirmity prevents her from being granted the familiarity of a nickname and robs her of her fundamental sense of belonging. As a result, Pauline searches for someone who can make her feel complete and included. It is in this state that Pauline meets Cholly and is immediately captivated by his relaxed manner and careful acknowledgement of her injury: 'Instead of ignoring her infirmity, pretending it was not there, [Cholly makes] it seem like something special and endearing' (Bluest 116).  Until Cholly comes into her life, Pauline feels different from everyone else and separated by her injury. With Cholly by her side and under the guise of her deficiency love, Pauline feels whole for the first time in her life.

After moving to Lorain, Ohio, Pauline and Cholly's relationship takes a drastic turn. Pauline quickly becomes disenchanted with their life in the city as she struggles to fit in within the new community. Pauline feels separate and unworthy as her attempts to gain acceptance inevitably fail and '[i]n her loneliness, she turned to her husband for reassurance' (Bluest 117).  As her need to belong increases, Pauline turns to Cholly for acceptance and support and is met with derision. Cholly resents Pauline's complete dependence on him and begins to pull away from her when she needs him most. As a result, the parameters of Pauline's deficient love remain unfulfilled. Over time, as the distance between the couple grows and Pauline's needs continue to go unmet, the couple develops a perverse need to hate each other.

            Morrison shows how society punishes Pauline for her dependence on Cholly and turns her love into a bitter and angry force. Instead of finding peaceful companionship, Pauline and Cholly seek to harm each other through direct physical or verbal attacks: 'Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove [fight] each other with a darkly brutal formalism that [is] paralleled only by their love making. Tacitly the [have] agreed not to kill each other' (Bluest 43). As her dissatisfaction grows and her needs remain unfulfilled, Pauline berates Cholly for his intoxication and lazy temperament; effectively goading him into fighting with her. According to the narrator, 'The tiny undistinguished days that Mrs. Breedlove [lives are] identified, grouped, and classed by these quarrels. They [give] substance to the minutes and hours otherwise dim and unrecalled' (Bluest 41). Of the few constant things in this world, Pauline knows that Cholly will behave today as he had before, she knows that she will hate him for it, and she will never leave him because he still makes her feel whole.

            While Morrison denotes society's derision for female dependency, she also indicates society's need for strong women who are self-reliant. J. Hillis Miller's article 'Literature and a Woman's Right to Choose Not to Marry' examines female marital status within literature as a determinate factor in the woman's prospective future. According to Miller: an unmarried woman 'is a wild card, without a fixed value, unpredictable' (45). Morrison presents two such wild cards in Hannah and Sula Peace, the mother-daughter duo of Sula, who 'loved maleness for its own sake' (41). After her husband's death, Hannah moves into her mother's house and takes multiple lovers. While plentiful, Hannah's amorous activities are not in pursuit of someone to fulfill her. She is not looking for a new husband or a man to act as a father to Sula; she is merely giving and getting some affection from any man who catches her eye. Trudier Harris observes in Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison that '[in] any world but the one Morrison has created, Hannah Peace would be considered a slut' (75). In Bottom, however, Hannah's behavior is thought of with only mild disapproval. The women do not harbor any ill will toward Hannah and at times even feel complimented that she chose their husbands. As Morrison indicates, Hannah does not act out of maliciousness or a desire to ruin someone's marriage; she simply 'refused to live without the attentions of a man'' (42). Hannah's desire for affection should not be misread as indicative of a weak and dependent personality. She makes no demands of the men she takes to her bed. There are no accusations, ultimatums, or requests for marriage. Hannah does not seek to change anyone or look for someone to complete her; she merely acknowledges her desire to meet her physical needs. According to Morrison, 'Hannah rubbed no edges, made no demands, mad e the man feel as though he were complete and wonderful just as he was'he didn't need fixing'and so he relaxed and swooned in the Hannah-light that shone on him simply because he was' (43).

            Even though 'Hannah exasperated the women in town,' as Morrison describes, she does not allow their feelings to define her sense of self (Sula 44). Hannah continues taking lovers as she sees fit regardless of whether or not the other women in town approve of her actions. She does not feel guilt or remorse after sleeping with someone's husband, nor does she feel resentment when the man returns to his wife. Morrison favors Hannah's independent nature and defined sense of self by allowing her to find a place within the community. As Harris indicates, 'Although [Hannah] has few women friends, she does not appear lonely or isolated' (76).  The community's ultimate acceptance of Hannah can be seen in the sympathetic manner in which the town responds to her death. After being badly burned in a yard fire, Hannah lies amidst her friends and neighbors awaiting the ambulance. In the middle of the horrible scene, Morrison describes how 'someone covered her legs with a shirt. A woman unwrapped her head rag and placed it on Hannah's shoulder' (Sula 76). After Hannah died from the injuries she sustained, Morrison illustrates how 'the women who washed the body and dressed it for death wept for her burned hair and wrinkled breasts as though they themselves had been her lovers' (Sula 77). The sensitivity with which the women handle Hannah's body strongly indicates their acceptance of her within their community. Furthermore, the deep remorse the women feel regarding Hannah's death suggests that Hannah was not merely an accepted member of the community, but that the women thought of her as one of their own.

            Sula, on the other hand is never accepted into the community and remains, as Harris describes, 'the epitome of independence' (72). She makes no demands and recognizes that fulfillment must come from within the individual, instead of being sought in others. In her deathbed statement to Nel, Sula voices her commitment to herself: 'I sure did live in this world'I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me' (Sula 143). With this statement, Sula tries to make Nel understand that they are vastly different women. While Nel searches for a sense of fulfillment through her mother's attachment, Jude's need to prove himself, and the community's sympathy for a wronged wife, Sula looks only to herself. She does not conform to the community's standard of womanhood and refuses to accept the town's social mores. Sula lives to fulfill her desires by her own rules, whether this includes attending a church dinner sans underwear or sleeping with multiple married men. As Jan Furman in her book Toni Morrison's Fiction indicates, 'Sula will have none of Nel's limitations' (26). Sula will not restrict her true nature or warp her desires in order to appease someone, as does Nel, nor will she commit herself to someone incapable of being her equal. 

            Fiercely independent, Sula has only had one semi-serious relationship in her adult life, and as Furman suggests 'only once has she come close to subsuming herself to some other, named Ajax' (26). When Sula takes Ajax as her lover she encounters an intense desire to claim him as her own. Morrison describes Sula's reaction to Ajax in the statement: 'Sula began to discover what possession was' (Sula 131). During the course of their relationship, Sula is increasingly drawn to Ajax to the point where she values and anticipates his company more than any other lover to date. Before Ajax, Sula is not concerned with the dust and disorder of her home, but as her relationship with Ajax progresses so does her desire to adapt standards of female domesticity. As Furman indicates, 'Giving into a nesting instinct that is new for her, she is on the verge of making his life her own' (26).  Sula's attempt to claim Ajax and simultaneously devote herself to him echo Nel's dependent nature and her desire to please Jude. As a result, Morrison shows how society punishes Sula for adopting a dependent attitude by allowing Ajax to depart after he 'detect[s] the scent of the nest' (Sula 133).

            Unlike Nel's prolonged despair over losing Jude, Sula accepts Ajax's loss and quickly returns to her original state. She does not pine for her lost love or search for someone to blame in order to be adopted and cared for by the community, as does Nel. After losing Ajax, Sula mourns briefly and then returns to her original self-indulgent state. Furman acknowledges that 'Ajax and Sula had come together, not as fractional individuals in need of the other to be complete, but as whole people'' (28). This is reminiscent of Maslow's Deficiency love/Being-love theory. As a result, when Sula and Ajax part as lovers they continue as separate and complete individuals. Nel, unable to understand Sula's motivations and lack of despair, questions her decision to exist as an independent woman:

            'Lonely ain't it?'

'Yes, but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely' (Sula143).

With her response Sula tries to explain to Nel that any loneliness she feels is a result of decisions she made and not a consequence of someone else's decisions. Therefore, any loneliness, hurt feelings, anger, etc. that she may feel are innately hers as opposed to emotional obligations foisted upon her by some individual. As Furman surmises, 'Sula's me-ness remains intact; she has not betrayed herself as Nel has and any loneliness she feels is a price she is willing to pay for freedom' (26).

            Pleased by Sula's refusal to submit to the confines of female domesticity, Morrison holds Sula as a model to the community as a direct example of female independence. During Sula's lifetime, however, the community is unable to accept the prospect of female agency and as a result Sula becomes an outcast. The women resent Sula for both sleeping with their husbands and casting them away once she was through with them. The men take offense to being discarded like old toys and despise Sula for willingly sleeping with white men. Sula remains unfazed by the social unrest brewing in her town. According to Morrison, 'Sula acknowledged none of their attempts at counter-conjure or their gossip and seemed to need the services of nobody' (Sula 113). She does not alter her behavior or try to appease the community by repressing her desires. Sula remains a steadfast example of an alternative lifestyle based on independence. The community, however, unable to accept the alternative, labels Sula an outsider and begins to despise her. In their desire to hate Sula, the men and women of the town begin to draw closer and heighten their attempts to conform to the community's social mores.

As Morrison describes, '[once] the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes, and in general band together against the devil in their midst' (Sula 118).  Unable to accept Morrison's call for independence during Sula's lifetime, the town engages in strict adherence to socially accepted standards of femininity. After Sula's death, however, the community begins to break apart and disintegrate into their former roles. Husbands and wives drift apart, disobedient children are punished more severely, and the community as a whole collapses into general dissension after Sula's death. The community's unwillingness to accept Sula's representation of female agency and independence unwittingly allowed for the acceptance of Sula as a catalyst for another type of social change. Marriage became closer, children were cherished, and an overall sense of pride and purpose was established within the community as a response to Sula's unacceptable behavior, proving Morrison and Sula's statement correct: 'Oh, they'll love me all right. It will take time, but they'll love me' (145).

While it can be said that Morrison punishes Cholly and Jude for their dependent nature by denying them satisfactory relationships as well, Morrison is harsher with her own sex. At the novels' conclusions, both men have abandoned their families and there is no speculation concerning their whereabouts. It is possible that Cholly and Jude have simply moved on and are relatively content and fulfilled in their new lives. On the other hand, Morrison continues to punish Pauline and Nel for their weakness. Morrison forces Pauline to continue to live on the edge of the community with the added burden of a mentally ill daughter and the stigma of incest, and she consigns Nel to a lifetime of solitude.

            While Toni Morrison's novels have been recognized for their expression of black women in America, they also illustrate how Morrison uses love to punish female characters who depend on others for a sense of fulfillment. In The Bluest Eye Morrison illustrates how deficient love can develop into a bitter, hazardous form of love. Morrison continues this theme in Sula and describes the pitfalls of deficient love and the dangers of being too dependent upon another person. In both The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison turns love into a destructive force to illustrate the dangers of engaging in pathologically deficient love.


Works Cited

Furman, Jan. "Black Girlhood and Black Womanhood." Furman, Jan. Toni Morrison's Fiction. University of South Carolina Press, 1996. 26-29.

Harris, Trudier. "Sula." Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennesse Press, 1991. 72-79;110-113.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Middleton, David. Toni Morrison's Fiction: Contemporary Criticism. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 2000.

Miller, J. Hillis. Literature and a Woman's Right to Choose--Not to Marry.

Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume, 1973.

Morrison. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1970.

Otten, Terry. The Crime of Innocene in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. London: University of Missouri Press, 1989.

 Psychologists and Their Theories for Students. Ed. Kristine Krapp. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 303-324.