Literary significance and criticism

Sula was integral to the formation of black feminist literary criticism. In 1977, black feminist literary critic Barbara Smith, in her essay "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," advanced a definition of black feminist literary criticism and (in)famously performed a lesbian reading of' Sula." [4] In her 1980 essay "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism," Black feminist literary critic Deborah McDowell responded to Smith's challenge by acknowledging the need for a black feminist criticism and calling for a firmer definition of black feminism. [5]

In her essay “Boundaries: Or Distant Relations and Close Kin,” Deborah McDowell draws on the critical practices of Hortense Spillers and Hazel Carby and reads Sula from a poststructuralist perspective, urging black women critics to “develop and practice […] critical approaches interactively, dialogically” instead of viewing “black female identity as unitary essence yielding an indigenous critical methodology.”[6] As she points out, the ambiguity of Sula as a character subverts traditional binary oppositions, and “transcends the boundaries of social and linguistic convention.”[7] The decentering and temporal deferral of the character that lends the novel its title similarly “denies the whole notion of character as static essence, replacing it with the idea of character as process.”[8] This “complex set of dynamics” forces the reader to “fill in the gaps” as well as to “bridge the gaps separating [them] from the text” and therefore makes them active participants in the meaning-making process.

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