Did the women and men play their role or did the women the man's role and the men play the woman's role?
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Accompanying the overwhelming matriarchal structure of the homes, there is also an absence of fathers in the novel. Men like BoyBoy and Jude are introduced in the novel, but each of them eventually abandons his paternal role. Even Wiley who remains married to Helene throughout the novel is often at sea and not present to be a father to Nel.
The novel describes the various stresses and sacrifices of motherhood and offers varied examples of motherhood. Rochelle, Helene’s prostitute mother, is considered unfit to raise her, and she is instead raised by her grandmother, Cecile. Just as Cecile raises Helene in a disciplined and strict home, so too does Helene raise her own daughter, Nel, stifling her imagination and independence. Helene places her own worth in Nel’s upbringing and succeeds in manipulating Nel into a traditional marriage. Eva, a single mother, sacrifices greatly for her children. It is speculated that she sells her own leg for financial security. Eva tells her daughter that she never loved her, which affects Hannah’s relationship with her own daughter Sula. Sula is pained to hear her mother say that she did not like her, though she loved her.