Evil, or at least each community’s perception of it, plays a key role in both Sula and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. In Sula it is Sula Peace that is the Bottom community’s poster girl for evil; in Oranges it is Jeanette that incurs the wrath of her church. Judgment and methods of punishment differ greatly in the two novels, but the reasons for each woman’s labelling as evil are not that dissimilar. Jeanette’s “unnatural passions” (105), or lesbianism, are what incite the church to take offense, and it is Sula’s rebellious behavior that causes her community to boycott any and all relations with her.
In both cases it is the woman’s unwillingness, or inability, to conform to the social standards that sets her apart and agitates the community. However, the way in which these differences are handled greatly differs between the novels. The magnitude of the cruelty and unforgivingness of the community’s judgment and punishment in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit exceeds that in Sula by far.
The inhabitants of Medallion’s Bottom punish Sula Peace in an unaggressive manner, whereas Jeanette is outright exorcised. The Bottom’s judgment of Sula as evil was widespread (in the community) and final.
The first signs that Sula was evil were shown the moment she arrived in town: she “stepped off the Cincinnati Flyer into the robin shit and began the long climb up into the Bottom” (90). Her arrival on the same day that birds were creating a mess everywhere is blatant foreshadowing of the mess she herself creates in the coming time of her stay in Medallion.
Morrison sums up the Bottom’s reasons for viewing Sula as the personification of evil: When word got out about Eva being put in Sunnydale, the people in the Bottom shook their heads and said Sula was a roach.
Later, when they saw how she took Jude, then ditched him for others, and heard how he bought a bus ticket to Detroit… they forgot all about Hannah’s easy ways (or their own) and said she was a bitch. Everybody remembered the plague of robins that announced her return, and the tale about her watching Hannah burn was stirred up again. (112) Soon after arriving in Medallion, Sula deems is necessary to place Eva in a nearby nursing home, though Eva is in no need whatsoever of being placed in such an institution-she is lucid and able to take care of herself. The Bottom is outraged at this decision.
How can Sula just waltz into town and put Eva up in a nursing home while keeping the house for herself? This move is unprecedented in the community, and does nothing to alleviate the Bottom’s view of Sula as evil. Furthermore, Sula’s promiscuous relations with men, both black and white, is the central problem the community has with her. It must be kept in mind, though, that Sula’s mother, Hannah, was equally loose, if not more so, and the Bottom did not despise her anywhere near as much as they do Sula. Why the dualism? As Marie Nigro writes, “Sula uses men much as her mother (now deceased) had done but with a different spirit.
Whereas Hannah had been sweet and without guile and had respected the ways of the community, Sula goes to bed with men as often as she can but then carelessly tosses them aside. ” It was a compliment when Hannah chose to sleep with another woman’s husband, but an insult when Sula did the same-she sees them as disposable and thus treats them that way. The wives are furious over this. It was the men, though, who “said she was guilty of the unforgivable thing-the thing for which there was no understanding, no excuse, no compassion… They said that Sula slept with white men” (112). This is the crystallizing factor in Sula’s evilness.
As word of this spreads around, regardless of its accuracy, the townspeople either ignore Sula altogether or dream up complicated plots to torture her. Mixing of races is the ultimate sin. The fact that many of the townspeople are products of mixed relationships and it is not nearly as troublesome when black men sleep with white women does not deter their hatred of Sula in the least. The Bottom’s judgment of Sula is also at times overly critical, as when she picks at food and does not exclaim over the excellence of the food. They conclude that she is “laughing at their God” (115).
Community judgment of Sula is complex and dualistic, as the previous examples depict. Further, the Bottom community’s passiveness towards Sula’s evilness can be explained by its view that “the purpose of evil was to survive it” (90). The people of the Bottom fully accept the presence of evil. In fact, as with the response to the sky blackening with pigeons, “they reacted to an oppressive oddity, or what they called the evil days, with an acceptance that bordered on welcome” (89). Thus, when it is final the Sula is evil and could do no good, the community does not lynch or do anything of the type to her.
They did not stone sinners because it was beneath them. So how is Sula really “punished” for being who she is? The ensuing silence she receives from the town leaves her lonely and deserted among her own people; she is alone. The community’s attitude towards Sula is highlighted after she dies. She is left in her home, in her bed, for several days after she dies. In fact, it is it the police who come and take her away, Nel being the one had calls them because she feels it is the right thing to do. People do, however, attend her funeral, but this is out of politeness and civility as well.
Contrary to what the townspeople initially believe, along with Sula’s death the punishment of the Bottom began. Hatred for Sula unites the community against her and moves it to care more about its members in retaliation to her ways. The women are better to their husbands and the mothers better to their children, and when Sula dies, all reason for remaining good dies as well. On the other hand, the judgment seen in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is more straight forward and concrete. Jeanette’s evangelical community in northern England is extremely religious, with set rules and guidelines.
Anything against doctrine is evil, including Jeanette’s “unnatural passion. ” Unlike Sula, Jeanette does not have her entire church community against her. Elsie, though now deceased, Miss Jewsbury, and some other members believe she is free of blame. Jeanette has been raised in a strictly religious environment, so religious that she suffers in school from other students and teachers criticizing her deep involvement in matters dealing with God. For example, the head of the school, Mrs. Vole, interrogates Jeanette, “You seem rather pre-occupied, shall we say, with God…. Your sampler, for instance, had a very disturbing motif….
Yes, your reading skills are quite unusual… ” (41). Jeanette’s stringent religious upbringing makes it all the more ironic, as well as horrifying, to the community and her mother specifically when she displays “unnatural passions. ” Jeanette tries to express her love for Melanie to her mother, “I explained how much I wanted to be with Melanie, that I could talk to her, that I needed that kind of friend” (102). Of course, Jeanette’s mother interprets this as more than just a friendship between her daughter and Melanie, correctly, even though Jeanette at the moment denies it.
Consequently, the next time at church, Jeanette and Melanie are called out on the their “unnatural passions. ” Melanie promises to give up the “sin” and is let off easy, staying with relatives in Halifax afterwards. However, Jeanette does not relent in her assertion that she loves Melanie and will never stop. This causes the pastor to send Jeanette home. She instead goes to Miss Jewsbury’s and spend the night there and has sex with her, and the next morning she returns to her home only to be locked up in the parlor as part of an exorcism! Tired and starving, Jeanette caves in and says she will repent for her sin.
After this she maintain a life free of “unnatural passions” until she meets Katy, whom she has a love affair with. Discovered, Jeanette will not repent this time and stands firmly planted in her position. In response to this, her church privileges are revoked, as are the rest of the females’ privileges in the church. Jeanette’s sinfulness is blamed on her having too much power; the notion that she is lesbian because that’s how she was born is unthinkable. Jeanette leaves the community entirely here, choosing to be herself than conform to the church’s rigid social standards.
Jeanette’s own mother cast her out. There is doubt of the mother’s own lack of sin: “… right at the bottom of the page was a yellowy picture of a pretty woman holding a cat. ‘Who’s that? ‘ I pointed out. ‘That? Oh just Eddy’s sister, I don’t know why I put it in there,’ and she turned the page. Next time we looked, it had gone” (36). The role that the woman played in the mother’s life is questionable, especially since Jeanette’s mother admits that her past was not sin-free and far from chaste. So who is she to judge Jeanette so harshly?
The community and mother’s judgment is firm and unwaivering. There is no gray area, only black and white: stay with the church and abide by it’s moral code, or leave. The second time around her “unnatural passions” are revealed, Jeanette choses to leave rather than be punished for being who she is. Also more straight forward than that in Sula, the punishment in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit of Jeanette it downright cruel. The first time Jeanette is asked to repent, she eventually does so, but not before being exorcised and starved.
Only a child at the time, she is not able to take control of the situation and is a victim of her mother’s fervent religiousness and devotion to the church and its doctrine. The second time Jeanette is caught, she is older, thus able to make decisions for herself. When she decides that, rather than repent again and accept her lowered position in the church, she’ll instead move away from the community, she is ostracized by her mother and other ardent church members.
Later when Jeanette works for a funeral parlour and services Elsie’s funeral, she is insolently spoken to: “The pastor motioned to the flock. We won’t stay to be mocked any longer. ‘ ‘Oh he’s a demon your daughter,’ wailed Mrs White, holding on to the pastor’s arm. ‘She’s no daughter of mine,’ snapped back my mother, head high, leading the way out” (157). The depth to which Jeanette is outcast from the community is incredible. Sula and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit have both similarities and differences between each other in the community judgment and punishment previously described. In both novels, the protagonist defies the accepted social norm. Jeanette is lesbian whereas Sula is rebellious and promiscuous, her own woman.
In Oranges, judgment is based on religion-on a given doctrine. It is definite and inflexible; gray areas do no exist, life is black or white. Jeanette cannot be a lesbian and member of the church at the same time. In Sula, the opposite is true. Judgment is based on the community’s social standards, and they are far from definite and quite flexible. The perfect example would be the comparison of Hannah and Sula’s sexual behavior. They are similar, but how they are received by the community is far from close. The Bottom is able to distinguish between certain qualities like Hannah’s care for men and Sula’s disposable attitude toward them.
This is what makes the gray area possible. As for punishment, the two novels do not differ tremendously in methods, but in severity. Both communities ostracized the person they identified as evil. In Sula, however, Sula Peace remained in the community and was not forced into exile. The cold shoulder and fantasies about torture were the most drastic responses from those around here. The church community of Oranges steps up the intensity of punishment. Exorcism and starvation are used to force Jeanette to repent her lesbianism, and she is later ostracized by the church when she refuses to give up her lifestyle.
The ostracization here, however, is magnified. Jeanette must move away from the community and her own mother refuses to acknowledge her status as Jeanette’s parent! The extent of the cruelty and unforgivingness of the community’s judgment and punishment in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is much greater than that in Sula. While the reasons for labelling each woman may be similar, they do not fit the social criteria for “normal,” methods of punishment differ in many respects. Both women are cut off from the rest of community, but the Bottom does not physically or mentally harm Sula, nor does it drive her out of town.
Jeanette’s church does just that to her. The community of Oranges has a more stringent set of rules to adhere to, where following them is not an option but a requirement in order to remain on the good side of the church. Sula’s Bottom community is flexible in it’s judgments and how the social rules are applied to every individual person; exceptions are allowed. Community judgment and punishment of those they see as evil in Sula and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit are certainly belonging to separate novels.