Defense Mechanisms in Sula by Toni Morrison

Updated on November 11, 2016

Sula: Psychoanalytic Analysis


Psychoanalytic criticism focuses on the unconscious part of the human mind. One aspect of this critical lens is defense mechanisms. According to Arthur Berger’s chapter, “Psychoanalytic Criticism,” “Defense mechanisms are the various techniques the ego employs to control instincts and ward off anxieties” (89). Several examples of defense mechanisms are seen in Toni Morrison’s novel, Sula, such as avoidance, reaction formation, and projection.


Berger describes the defense mechanism avoidance as “Refusal to become involved with subjects that are distressing . . .” (90). After Sula accidentally kills Chicken Little, she and Nel attend the funeral together. When Morrison describes the funeral scene she writes, “Nel and Sula did not touch hands or look at each other during the funeral. There was a space, a separateness, between them” (64). This is an example of avoidance. Sula and Nel are close friends and their friendship is described “as intense as it was sudden” (53). This “separateness” is uncommon for the two of them. It is clear that both are traumatized by their parts in the death of Chicken Little. Therefore, Nel avoids Sula, who was the only other person there with her at the time of the incident, and in the same way, Sula avoids Nel. Nel and Sula exercise avoidance in an attempt to escape the need to cope with their problems.

Reaction Formation

Early in the novel, Nel’s mother, Helene, and Nel go on a trip to visit Helene’s ill grandmother. When boarding the train, they get in the wrong car and are confronted by a conductor. Helene is struck with fear. “All the old vulnerabilities, all the old fears of being somehow flawed gathered in her stomach and made her hands tremble” (20). However, despite this fear, Helene smiles at the man. “For . . . no reason that anybody could understand . . . Helene smiled. Smiled dazzlingly and coquettishly at the salmon colored face of the conductor” (20). The reason for Helene’s smile can be determined through the use of the Psychoanalytic lens. In this scene, Helene is using a defense mechanism referred to as reaction formation. This defense mechanism is described by Berger: “This occurs when a pair of ambivalent attitudes generates problems, so one element is suppressed and kept unconscious by an overemphasis on the other” (90); however, it is generally accepted that reaction formation can simply consist of expressing the opposite of repressed or suppressed feelings. Helene suppresses many negative feelings about her past, shown when her vulnerabilities and fears are described as old. The conductor brings some of these past fears to the surface, and Helene responds with the opposite of how she truly feels, hence utilizing reaction formation.


For the majority of the novel Nel sees herself as the calm one and Sula as the more erratic one. Sula asks, “‘How you know . . . About who was good. How you know it was you? . . . Maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me’” (146). Sula is saying that Nel’s perception of her role in their friendship could be wrong. Near the end of the novel, Nel has an impactful moment of self-discovery. Morrison writes about Nel, “All these years she has been secretly proud of her calm, controlled behavior when Sula was uncontrollable . . . Now it seemed that what she had thought was maturity, serenity and compassion was only the tranquility that follows a joyful stimulation” (170). Nel realizes that when she contrasted Sula with her composure it was a result of contentment, not maturity. Deep down, Nel enjoys gruesome and otherwise traumatizing events, such as Chicken Little’s death. For most of the novel, Nel uses a defense mechanism known as projection to cope with these feelings. To quote Berger, projection is “An attempt to deny some negative or hostile feeling in oneself be attributing it to someone else. Thus a person who hates someone will “project” that hatred onto another, perceiving that person as being the one who hates” (90). She does not confront these feelings until the end of the book, instead projecting them onto Sula, making Sula the “bad” one in Nel’s eyes. It is in this way that the defense mechanism projection is exemplified in Sula.


Defense mechanisms are a large part of the psychoanalytic lens, and in Toni Morrison’s Sula many examples can be found, including avoidance, reaction formation, and projection.

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