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[801] Sula – Toni Morrison


“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.” (118)

Sula is compelling story about a black girl, mentally ahead of her time and of the social convention, who strives to achieve freedom and individualism. She is another pariah. She grows up in a household pulsing with larger-than-life people and activity, presided over by her tyrannical and probably sorcerous grandmother, Miss Eva. Left with three children after her husband left her, Miss Eva threw under a train, with one leg cut off, and collected insurance money. Sula’s gentle mother, Hannah, is devoted almost entirely to the practice and pleasure of sensuality. As the story unfolds, it is obvious that Sula, determined to flee the Bottom, is a fusion of the two. She is haughty but has a mind of her own.

Like Sula, Nel Wright is the only daughter of a distant mother, Helene, who is in perpetual query of everyone’s propriety. Sula and Nel have the immediate intimacy of friends who seem to have known each other all their lives, because “each had discovered years before they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden them they set about something else to be.” (52) Vivacity and closeness of their friendship over the year withers and the women are split into opposites. Nel becomes the conformer, assimilating to the conventions and values of black community and in large a male-dominant society. Sula, returning from the city after ten years, is the dangerous outsider whose amorality (like art with a form) poses a threat to the community. She is a living mockery, a sinister force, a sex-hungry, man-stealing figure of darkness and betrayal. She is frowned upon on and coined the evil—who is to be survived and overcome. Having dread to smash the taboos that are her neighbors’ poor guarantees of simply surviving, she is scorned, despised, and abandoned by the people she grew out of—even after she was dead. In short, she is shunned by her people, punished for her rebellion against traditions.

Morrison does not only make you question the small town morality, but something deeper, about the meager choices available to black women outside their own society’s approval. Sula is the quintessential outsider who has gone on a real trip. She risks individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet radically uniform and socially static community. She is strange but compelling. She doesn’t feel obliged to please anyone—not even her best friend. She is an outlaw not because of her outrageous behavior, partly out of vengeance and partly rebellion, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive. The end is heartbreaking and very moving, as Nel realizes she is no different from her friend, whom she misses.

173 pp. Vintage UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Sula


Pamuk’s My Name is Red is too dense to read all in one sitting, so I set it aside for Sula. In Morrison’s Sula, women experience adversities generated from the idea that women should project a certain image in society and maintain a specific role in the home. Most commonly, masculinity is defined by aggression and dominance, whereas femininity is portrayed as emblematic of passivity and submission. The need for women to be submissive in a male-dominated society causes many women to suffer from a lack of individuality and self-expression. Sula and Eva suffer from the victimization of patriarchy, even though the victimization may sometimes be self-inflicted. Morrison portrays the strength perseverance, and determination that reside in women.

[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]