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[188] Sula – Toni Morrison

sula1“…they felt the ease and comfort of old friends. Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.” [52]

After emancipation, stands in the hills above the valley town of Medallion, Ohio, is a neighborhood called the Bottom populated by blacks. The rich whites hoodwink them into believing that being up on the hills they are closer to heaven. The blacks can only take small consolation in the fact that everyday they could literally look down on the white folks in the valley.

Growing up together in the Bottom of Medallion are Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who find a safe harbor in each other’s company. In 1922, they are both twelve years old. Nel’s mother obeys the imperative to conform by settling into an unremarkable middle class life. She tries to force that same repressive order to Nel, who resolves to build herself according to her own rules and to find strength within herself. Ironically, Helene, who is light-skinned, cannot escape racism. All the old vulnerabilities and fears that define her race still clutch her.

“While Helene looked about the tiny stationhouse for a door that said COLORED WOMEN, the other woman stalked off to a field of high grass on the far side of the track.” [24]

The order and boundary of Helene’s conservative, religious middle class respectability with which she raises Nel does not prepare her to cope with challenges in her marriage and friendship. Sula grows up in a household built on an unconventional family structure. Her widowed mother, Hannah, exasperates other women in town with her promiscuity. They treat Hannah like a hazard because she will sleep with anyone that takes her fancy.

“Hannah simply refused to live without the attentions of a man, and after Rukus’ death had a steady sequence of lovers, mostly the husbands of her friends and neighbors. Her flirting was sweet, low, and guileless. Without ever a pat of the hair, a rush to change clothes or a quick application of paint, with no gesture whatsoever, she rippled with sex.” [42]

It’s loneliness that finds them together. One calmed by a mother who drives all her imagination underground, the other wedged to a house of throbbing disorder, the girls find relief in the each other’s personality. Their close-knit friendship drastically changes when Sula rejects the life Nel has embraced, escaping to college, and returning to her roots as a rebel and a wanton seductress. Her capricious and impudent behavior (wearing no underwear to church, sleeping with white men), which defies all social and moral rules, frightens the already suspicious community. In order to contain and justify their fear, they label her evil. The plague of robins is a sign of evil’s arrival. She confronts her grandmother Eva of burning her own son to death. She commits the old woman into a nursing home. She has an affair with Nel’s husband, Jude.

“They insisted that all unions between white men and black women be rape; for a black woman to be willing was literally unthinkable. In that way, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did.” [112]

Considering Eva and Hannah’s unconventional life, it’s odd that Eva criticizes Sula for being unmarried and independent. Because her disregard for moral values nearly destroys Nel, it’s easy to accept the town’s need to define Sula as evil, as their decision to place all blame for the failure of Nel’s marriage on her is facile. That the community has always revered Nel Wright as a role model for a woman has justified its overlooking her weak sense of self and concentrating antagonism on Sula. That she has gone to bed with men as frequently as she could almost live up to the town’s expectation of her being a slut. But in framing its hatred as disgust for her careless ways, the town has overlooked that her mother has not liked her as a child. She has been stripped of all sense of ego and ambition, finding neither people nor self to count on.

“She had clung to Nel as the closest thing to both an other and a self, only to discover that she and Nel were not one and the same thing. She had no thought at all of causing Nel Pain when she bedded down with Jude.” [119]

Marriage has apparently changed the way they have shared the affection of other people. Having lived in a house with women who thought all men available, and selected from among them with a care only for their fantasies, Sula is ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she feels close to. Her loneliness as she says, belongs to her, for it’s in her skin.

“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.” [143]

If Nel keeps her emotions at bay, Sula is driven by mood and whim. She has been looking all along for someone who is both a comrade and a lover. But her incessant affairs have only merged into one large personality defined by perfunctory romance, not love. If loneliness assumes the absence of other people, the solitude she has found in that desperate terrain has never admitted the possibility of other people. Sula’s demise allures to the community’s “outwit and triumph” over vileness. That Eva has outlived her granddaughter reinforces the underlying theme of love’s ambiguous power. Unable to watch her son plummet further into heroin addiction, Eva kills him. The ambivalance of a mother’s love is reminiscent of Sethe’s choosing death for her baby over slavery in Beloved. Eva likewise has chosen death over the slavery of an addiction out of love. Her love engenders frustration and pain that Sula tries so hard to avoid in her search for love.

The novel also explores notions of good and evil through the friendship of two childhood friends who have witness the accidental death of a little boy. Nel admits to herself that she had blamed his death entirely on Sula and set herself up as the “good” half of the relationship. In this regard, Sula is a novel about ambiguity. It questions and examines the terms “good” and “evil,” often demonstrating that the two often resemble one another. 174 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

22 Responses

  1. I loved this novel the first time I read it many years ago (probably ’86). That final scene with the river slayed me.

  2. Your reviews are always so thoughtful and deep. Thank you for writing these eloquent posts!!

  3. Bravo! I find this book more challenging to read than Beloved, in terms of the themes not being clearly stated. The ambiguity factor does reinforce the gray area between good and evil. It’s structurally simpler than Beloved, but the meaning it asserts is very deep.

  4. I think it’s time for me to read a Toni Morrison. I have a copy of Beloved, which I picked up at my university’s annual used book sale, but it’s been riding around in the trunk of my car for almost a year. Maybe over Spring Break I’ll look through it.

  5. I’ve somehow gotten through life without reading Morrison, but you are doing a fine job of convincing me to get my butt in gear! You really do such a wonderful job on your posts. You can tell how much effort and passion you put into them!

  6. You know I love Toni Morrison, and this is one of my favorites. One of the best arguments I ever had in a college class centered on Eva’s actions with Plum and whether they were merciful or malicious. (I think they were merciful, for the record.) It deepened my appreciation for this great writer, and I love the ambiguity and the challenge of understanding Morrison’s writing in all its many layers. You have to work to get there, but it is SO worth it.

    And with a line like “We was girls together,” this book is practically perfect.

  7. Having just read my first Morrison not to long ago, I’m looking forward to gradually discovering her other works. Sula sounds like it’s a really interesting read, so I’m definitely going to put this one on my list of books to read (along with A Mercy, and Beloved).

    Also, I highly recommend Song of Solomon. It’s so rich and complex. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it.

  8. Matt.. you know how much I love Morrison.. and Sula is definitely one of my favourites. I’m so glad you liked it. 🙂

  9. What a wonderful review! I read Sula, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved in college, but that was awhile ago now. I’m thinking I should re-read. Morrison is a great writer, and her works always give you something to ponder.

    –Anna

  10. ted:
    I find the novel very moving, even more so than Beloved. That Sula has betrayed her friend Nel and that Nel has always regarded herself a better person really touch me.

  11. Staci:
    Thanks Staci. Sula has been one of the most touching novels I have read for a while. Many scenes still stay with me—the drowning of the boy, Sula’s being ostracized by the town, and her confrontation with her best friend Nel.

  12. John:
    I totally agree with you. Beloved is ambiguous and dream-like on the literary level, but Sula is more obscure in the theme.

  13. Meg89:
    I highly recommend both Beloved and Sula. Now I’ve got Song of Solomon waiting on my night-stand. 🙂

  14. Sandy:
    I want to be putting extra effort on books that really affect me. Morrison has touched me in both the style of the writing and the themes of love, loss, memory that she has passionately advocated.

  15. Rebecca:
    The scene of Sethe killing baby Beloved immediately flooded into my mind when Eva splashed kerosene onto Plum in bed. Twisted love, selfless and selfish love again appear in Morrison’s other works. I like how once I have persevered in reading her writing closely, the ambiguity will turn into a huge reward in terms of the great insights she aims to convey.

  16. Steph:
    You know I really enjoy and respect your literature reviews. Having read your insightful review on Song of Solomon urges me to read the book sooner than I have planned. In the same regard, I urge you to read Sula. 🙂

  17. claire:
    Now I’ve got Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye on my night-stand. 🙂

  18. Anna:
    Toni Morrison’s works are meant for many re-readings. They belong to the class of books that will afford new meanings upon every reading. So nuanced and layered.

  19. i love sula. matter of fact, it is my favourite book rom Morrsion. i love her protrayal of Sula’s open and unapologetic nature of her sexuality. she is simply too much of an enigma. therefore i feel that the people of the Bottom should be appreciative o her presence rather that label her and see as the personifiation of all evil because she brought about their freedom from patriarchal dominance. her presence thereore becomes a blessing to the community in disguise rather than a curse.

  20. […] literature by African American writers. Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Another Country, Sula, And This Too Shall Pass and Like Trees, Walking were read. On to the highlights of some of the […]

  21. I love this book. It contains some very powerful images: the scene at the river, and of course, the ending, among others.

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