The concept is common in African-American fiction. Toni Morrison’s Sula, a book about African-American parents and children, is a good example of how tough love can manifest itself. This can be confused with contempt, selfishness or carelessness. Tough love is characterized by the unspoken or acted concern for the child. Eva’s selflessness is evident in the cases of Hannah as well as Plum. The relationship between Eva’s children, and in particular Hannah, is a key example of tough-love, which is often misunderstood as a result of ‘the battle’.
Eva’s depiction of the African American struggle helps to understand the concept. Readers are shocked when Hannah asks Eva the childish “Mamma? Did you ever love me?” question. The edge of tough love comes from this reaction. Hannah, along with the reader, are shocked by Eva’s reaction. Morrison has created tension with this scene, starting when Eva commands the deweys “Scat!”. The command was followed by “stumbling and falling” as they left the room. Eva responds, but not before she makes sure that she understands the questions correctly. Not in the way you’re thinkingin’.” (67). Eva’s beginning of her explanation demonstrates Hannah’s apparent contempt by asking Hannah a similar question. Eva’s response suggests that Hannah’s question is a slap on the face. She uses vile language and short sentences to show that her goal is to’slap Hannah in the face.’ Eva has just given Hannah a scolding for her question. Things were bad. Niggers were dying as if they were flies. “Ain’t it?” (68). Eva wants Hannah to know that she’s out of her element by even asking the question about love. Eva continues to make the rhetorical claim “…Pearl is shittin’worms and i was supposed to be playing rang-around -the-rosie ?…Notime. There wasn’t any time. Not one. Just as soon as one day is done, another night follows. While you were all coughing, I was watching to make sure TB didn’t knock you out ….”. After hearing Eva’s disgusted response, Hannah decides that she wants to ask about Plum, who died at the mother’s hands. What was Plum killed for, Mamma?” Morrison has a clever way of narrating this scene. She takes the attention away from Eva, Hannah and the dialogue and puts it on the events around them. Eva finally replies after a while: “He give me a certain time.” It’s a long time. Looks like he wasn’t born for him. He’s come out. It’s hard to deal with ….” (71). She continues to describe how Plum, after becoming addicted, returned to his childlike state and wanted to “crawl into [her] womb”. Eva defends her actions with the statement, “I’ve got enough room in me, but I don’t have any more in my womb.” I birthed him once. I wouldn’t have done it again ….” (71). These last words show a type of tough love, as Eva is explaining her reason for giving up her child’s life to ensure his peace. Eva’s killing of Plum was to prevent him from further self-destruction and save his soul. Even though she didn’t want to deal her addiction, Eva made the ultimate choice by killing her son. Morrison’s portrayal of Plum was romanticized, and it also represented the theme “tough love”. Eva’s decision to burn Plum’s body before holding him represents her struggle to choose between a life filled with suffering or one that brings peace. Eva chose the second option, demonstrating that she is willing to go to extremes for love.
Eva’s tough love is shown again in this chapter after she has a long talk with Hannah. She jumps off a second-story window to try and save her daughter, even if it means losing a leg. The action of Eva’s jump from the second story window to save her daughter’s life, with one leg and all, clearly dispels any contemptuous feelings that were arising in their earlier discussion. Eva sacrifices once again her own livelihood for the sake of her child. This goes to prove that Eva will do anything, even if she had a bad experience with Hannah during a time when she was angry and in tension, to save her children. Morrison takes special care to remind Eva and the reader that the blood from Eva’s facial cuts had filled her eyes, so she was unable to see. Instead, she could only detect the familiar smell of roasted flesh. Both children die by being burnt, a tragic irony that shows Eva’s love for her children and ability to accept the fact that each child must be let go.
Sula is full of tough love. It is expressed by either an act that is tough, like Eva sacrifices her son, and/or loving, like Eva jumping from the window to Hannah’s body, which was on fire. Though contempt and selfishness are often factors, they do not determine the motivation behind tough words or actions. These are the only ways to show love in difficult times. Eva’s’struggle’ as an African American mother is what reveals tough love.