LOVE AND SURVIVAL IN SULA
Morrison introduces the story of Eva in Sula to complicate and defend love in the midst of sacrifice, survival and death. A single mother with three sick children, suffocated by poverty and her social immobilization, Eva’s acts of survival are founded in love even though her own children retrospectively find it insufficient. Morrison contradicts that fallacy of insufficient love through Eva’s actions, testifying to the physicality of love and its intimate intertwining with sacrifice and survival. This physically painful love does not exist in a vacuum, however: it is forced into being by systemic oppression for poverty and race, controlling how the oppressed can love one another and to what extent. Eva cannot afford the luxury to love in any way other than by providing basic needs for her own, and as the reader, we must understand this is not only sufficient, but more than enough. We must understand the darker side of love in the midst of trauma and death, appreciate the freely enslaved selflessness and tangible physicality of Eva’s love. Love does not need to be sentimental to be true, or happy to be real: within the darkness of oppression, survival is love.
Eva’s juxtaposition of her speech and her actions illuminates the complexity of love born out of systemic oppression. When asked by her daughter if she ever loved her children, Eva reckons she didn’t love the way her daughter Hannah expects, shames her daughter for talking about love in such a superficial and meaningless manner, and then tells her to take a look at her “healthy-ass self,” evidence Eva did love her (60). Getting more heated, Eva admonishes Hannah, “What you talkin’ ‘bout I did love you girl I stayed alive for you can’t you get that through your thick head?” (60). For Eva, the fact that she existed for her children is love enough. Morrison juxtaposes Hannah’s expectations with Eva’s interpretation—even while Eva first reckons she didn’t love her children as Hannah would imagine, her heated defense and physically-demanding sacrificial acts for her children expose that in the midst of trauma, she sacrifices everything to keep her babies alive. For Hannah, the love is tainted, commonplace, but for Eva, that love is everything she can give. When her baby boy Plum cries of indigestion and constipation, she uses the last bit of food she has, her last means to sustenance, to try to loosen his stool and keep him alive (71). This very intensely physical, intimate act still brings Eva trauma: Eva still shudders when she thinks of the frozen outhouse and the cries of her son as she inserted lard into his unyielding bottom. Eva cannot love in the way her daughter Hannah wants because she is preoccupied with keeping her children alive. In the hierarchy of needs, when basic desires cannot be easily filled, the filling of these desires—shelter, food, safety—then becomes the meaning of love.
And yet even in the midst of the strenuous sacrifice required just to love her children and keep them alive, when Eva cannot fill these basic desires, the best way she can love her children is through death. When her baby boy Plum returns from the war mentally distraught, she observes his pain, sees how he cannot bear the trauma of existence, of violence, of brokenness and regresses to act like a child. Eva remarks she knew that “he wanted to crawl back in her womb” and that she would have let him, if that is what he needed and that would keep him alive, except she knew he couldn’t and would only “suffocate” so she did the only thing she could and “let him die like a man” (71). Pouring kerosene on her son, she holds him close, tears running down her face, and sets him on fire. It is difficult to use language to eloquently express the pain she felt; it is inadequate, but Morrison does all she can to defend Eva so that the reader understands that murdering her son was the most loving act a mother could do. Love is embodied in the visceral violence of her son’s murder.
As responsible readers, we cannot come to any sort of conclusion about Eva without examining the larger surroundings orchestrating her actions. We cannot submerge them into a vacuum to judge them, because they are inextricably tied to the society in which she is bound. When we evaluate Eva’s actions in light of her oppression, we find that her sacrificial acts are the most significant, meaningful form of love she can give because the acts give of herself. White societal conventions champion a silly, superfluous love that poor black people do not have the luxury to afford; without agency to love freely and survive, survival then becomes love. Morrison remediates love through a different lens when we analyze it contextually: love is not a simple, superficial emotion but rather a multitude of vastly complex relationships intertwined with survival, sacrifice, and selflessness.