Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford, has written over a dozen different fiction novels and over a half-dozen non-fiction novels in her lifetime, most notably: Beloved, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and the book on which this review focuses, Sula. While Morrison focuses on the experience of the African-American community in general, the Nobel Committee noted that her novels “give life to an essential aspect of American reality.” ("The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993", 2014) Morrison herself was raised in an integrated neighborhood and school in Ohio, and did not become fully aware of racism until her teens. However, her writing is vivid with symbolism, most often addressing both racism, still very prevalent in American reality, and the role of women - particularly black women - in society. While one could find many topics within Sula on which to base a sustained discussion, including the two aforementioned issues, for the purpose of this review, I will attempt to examine what the author herself sought to understand:
• What is friendship between women when unmediated by men?
• What choices are available to black women outside their own society’s approval?
• What are risks of individualism in a determinedly individualistic yet racially uniform and socially static community?
While these topics may seem better suited to individual analysis, in the case of Sula Peace and Nel Wright, the main characters of this book, one finds that these three questions must be examined and dissected side-by-side if one is to understand the whole picture presented within the pages of Sula.
In an ironic twist of fate, the black community of Medallion, Ohio lives physically above their white counterparts in a hill community called the “Bottom,” yet they remain decidedly under the boot of white oppression — all because of a “nigger joke” that a white farmer played on his black slave. Sula Peace and Nel Wright are born into this community in the 1920s— not only under the oppression of the white man, but also under the oppression of their families; their own people. Neither Nel, the daughter of an upright, repressed housewife, nor Sula, the daughter of a free-spirited woman who exudes sex appeal, both without fathers, are not strangers to a loneliness. Nel resists her mother’s demands to be prim and proper, while Sula is essentially abandoned by her mother out of sheer carelessness. The former dreams of herself as a princess waiting on a prince, while the latter dreams of the thrills of a fast life. When the girls meet in school, each from different backgrounds, they “find in each other what each lacks in herself.” (Nigro, 727) Realizing that they are neither white nor male, and that freedom is not their lot to pursue, they develop a sudden and intense friendship.
Left to their own devices by mothers who pander to men in different ways, and a com-munity that largely ignores them, the girls set out together to “create something else to be.” (Morrison, 52) In the summer of their twelfth year, both girls are beginning to discover their sexuality and finding new ways to amuse themselves. Walking past the grown men who loiter and catcall from the storefront sidewalks both embarrasses and thrills them. One hot, heady day, full of restlessness and boredom, Sula accidentally causes the drowning death of a young boy. In the midst of Sula’s panic and guilt, Nel, always the level-headed one, comforts her and tells her it is not her fault. Their steady reliance on each other for affirmation of self makes the catcalls of leering men and even such a traumatizing event easier to endure.
As the girls get older, the text hints that big changes are afoot. Sula begins to act out, which the townspeople assume is just her “nature,” and there’s a restlessness in the air of the community. When Hannah dies in a horrific accident, Sula’s grandmother, Eva, remembers seeing Sula on the porch of their home, looking on as her own mother burnt to death, “not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”
Meanwhile, Nel becomes acquainted with Jude Greene, a local boy with a fire in his belly to do proper “white man’s” work. When he discovers that the town hired white men to build a new road, his indignation and “determination to take on a man’s role” cause him to pressure Nel into marrying him. Nel, who had never considered marriage seriously before, is touched by Jude’s rage; she wants to take care him. Until this point, Sula has been Nel’s sounding-board; her permission to sparkle. With Jude, Nel feels needed; she feels “seen,” for the first time in her life.
The truth is, however, Jude sees only himself – a leader, the head of a household, a whole man – in Nel’s eyes. Unbeknownst to her, Nel is on her way to being doubly oppressed, not just as a black woman, but by marrying Jude, who, as Maureen Reddy points out, “sees the only escape from oppression as residing in the oppression of another.” (Reddy, 35) Nevertheless, their eventual marriage is met with great celebration. Nel has followed the natural order of things, much to the relief of her mother. Sula shows great enthusiasm for the match, too, but the night of the wedding, she leaves the Bottom, not to be seen again for 10 years.
When Sula returns to the Bottom, it is in a flurry of indignation and carelessness. She has gone to Nashville for college and toured various big cities around America, only to find the same people and the same stories. Dressed elegantly, mimicking the popular styles of the well-to-do whites, she immediately elicits the suspicion of the community. Their dislike of Sula only increases when she unceremoniously places Eva, her own grandmother, in an “old folks” home and takes up residence in her house. The only person happy that Sula has returned, other than the men she is casually sleeping with, is Nel.
In Sula’s presence, Nel feels brighter, more defined, and at ease. Even though Sula is represented as the independent woman who has gone off to college and seen the world, she has returned to the Bottom because she wants to be mothered. Just as before and just as with Jude, Nel quickly fills that void in Sula’s life, and helps her make decisions when she seems incapable of making them herself – such as what to do with her finances, and how to take care of Eva. Sula can tell Nel has changed, though. When everyone else demanded conformity from her, Nel was always her only steady companion. Now, Nel has questions in her eyes and in her mouth that Sula can’t answer. Now, Nel is a respected community member. Now, Nel is a mother. Now, Nel has Jude.
Soon after Sula’s return to the Bottom, the unthinkable happens. Following the example of his Biblical namesake, Jude betrays Nel. She catches him and Sula “on all fours naked, not touching except their lips” in her own bedroom. (Morrison, 105) No words are spoken, no explanation given. Jude leaves, returning only for his clothes — but he leaves his tie. Bergenholtz believes this is symbolizes a “mocking [of] the conventions of marriage and the white world.” (Bergenholtz, 96) Perhaps it is a symbol of the bond of marriage that has been discarded. Left alone with only her grief but unable to fully express it, Nel waits for “the oldest cry […] a deeply personal cry for [her] own pain,” but it never comes. (Morrison, 108) Even after Sula’s incomprehensible betrayal, Nel finds that she wishes she could talk to her, to find comfort in her.
After Sula’s betrayal, the people of Medallion completely turn against her. Even the men with whom she had affairs begin spreading vicious rumors about her; rumors that she had slept with white men — the ultimate crime. “There was nothing lower she could do, nothing filthier.” (Morrison, 113) When questionable events occur in her presence, such as a boy falling down and hurting himself, and a man choking to death, the community believes her to be a witch. This severe reaction towards Sula is an example of how society tends to demonize those they don’t understand, or who do not subscribe to societal norms. While Sula’s mother had also been an easy woman, her desire for the men she slept with and a complete lack of demands placed her on the margins of society, but still in the realm of acceptance. Sula, on the other hand, simply uses and discards men, bruising their egos and offending their wives.
Sula, now completely uninhibited, lives out her days “exploring her own thoughts and emotions,” without a care as to whether she is liked or accepted. For Sula, Nel was “the closest thing to both an other and a self,” and is the reason she returned to Medallion after traveling the country. (Morrison, 119) The two had always shared everything: their thoughts, their adventures, even their men, which is why Sula doesn’t understand Nel’s anger and hurt about Jude. Reddy believes this is because Sula’s deepest desire was always to be Nel, and this wish is what drives her “into her sexual experimentation with Jude.” (Reddy, 37)
But Nel has become like the rest of the women in Medallion — not jealous, but “afraid of losing their jobs.” (Morrison, 119) As the community observes Sula’s activity, she is perceived as arrogant and self-indulgent: two characteristics in a woman that the community simply cannot grasp. Reddy posits that Sula’s real crime is “her complete disregard of her womanly responsibilities, as defined by her community.” (Reddy, 39) An interesting shift in public consciousness occurs after Sula's philandering, however: wives begin to coddle their husbands more, and mothers begin to pay special attention to their families and children. It is as if Sula’s complete disregard for the community and its unspoken standards is what binds them closer together, at least for a time.
When a local man, Ajax, appears on Sula’s doorstep one day with gifts, she is skeptical but intrigued. They begin to spend time together, and each come to admire the other’s independence and efficiency. Ajax treats Sula as an equal - he doesn’t coddle her or protect her. When Sula makes a special effort with her appearance and cleans her home, Ajax detects “the scent of the nest” and is disappointed. He leaves Sula with nothing and no tangible evidence that he had been there at all - until she discovers his driver’s license and learns that she didn’t even know his real name. This turn of events almost seems almost karmatic. Sula has been used and neglected, just as she has done with so many men over the years. In typical Sula fashion, however, she believes his departure is just as well, because she would have destroyed him with her curiosity — and the community wouldn’t have understood that, either.
Years later, Sula is sick and dying, and Nel goes to see her old friend one last time. Their conversation picks up as if they had never been apart. When Sula remarks that she has truly lived, that she has done it all, Nel asks her what she has to show for her wild ways and the path of destruction she has left behind her over the years, Sula declares that she has herself; her own mind. She may be lonely, but her loneliness is of her own making. All throughout this novel, the reader witnesses Sula’s fiery resistance to conforming to the community’s accepted morals and values. Is her unconformity simply because she is a wicked person? And if she is a wicked person, does that make Nel the “good” person?
Morrison herself argues that “one can never really define good and evil. Sometimes good looks like evil; sometimes evil looks like good — you never really know what it is.” (Morrison & Taylor-Guthrie, 14) In Sula, Nel is portrayed as someone of the community, who abides by their unspoken rules. Sula, on the other hand, is a rebel. She knows the rules of the community and ignores them. Barbara Smith, a scholar-activist, observes that Sula “refuses to settle for the “colored woman’s” lot of marriage, child-raising, labor and pain,” (Jones, Eubanks, & Smith, 108) and thus is rejected by the community.
Unable to stomach Sula’s haughty attitude any longer, Nel asks her why she betrayed her with Jude when Nel had always been so good to her. Sula replies that being good to someone and being mean to someone are equally risky — “you don’t get nothing for it.” (Morrison, 144) I believe Sula meant that if you are good to someone in the hopes that you receive equivalent treatment from them you may end up disappointed — and after all, one should be good to others because one is good, and not because one wants something in return. Nel does not understand Sula; doesn’t understand her lack of remorse or regret. She leaves, not knowing it will be the last time she sees Sula alive.
After Sula’s death, Nel goes to visit her grave. There, Nel reflects on her childhood with Sula, and realizes that this whole time she has been grieving not for Jude, but for Sula — more precisely, she grieves for herself and for the girl and woman she wanted to be. As children, they had always thought with the same mind but they chose different paths. Karen Carmean argues that Nel experiences a “painful comprehension that much of what she has believed has led her away from herself instead of leading her to the truth.” (Carmean, 69) Indeed, while Carmean’s argument holds weight, one could argue that the story of Sula is not about two separate people — Sula and Nel — but about one person whose internal nature wars with the external world and its expectations and demands.
The overwhelming motif in Sula is that of the woman — the black woman — particularly in regard to her relationships with men, her relationships with other women, and her relationship to the community within which she lives. When Sula and Nel were younger, their experiences with men, with other women (namely their mothers), and with their community drew them together. It wasn’t until Sula’s mother died and Nel was singled out by Jude that their friendship began to disintegrate. When Sula returned to the Bottom to find that Nel had fully taken on the role of wife and mother, and had been fully integrated into the community, she felt adrift. Her feelings of isolation only deepened when she refused to conform not only to the community’s unspoken rules of marriage and motherhood, but also to the community’s racist views that a black woman does not belong in the white man’s world. Sula’s refusal to confirm and her subsequent self-destruction are attributed in the text to a lack of a creative outlet — “an artist with no art form.” (Morrison, 97)
Additional motifs to be found in Sula, which are just as important when considered as a whole, are the inverted world order and the use of the fire and water elements. Within the town of Medallion, although the Bottom is located above the valley, the black community that lives there is considered socially and economically below the white men and women who live in the valley. Ironically, by the end of Sula, the white community realizes the value of the hills and, with golf courses and hilltop mansions, begins to push the black community down and out to the valley. Another example of inverted world order is how Sula’s return to the Bottom and her wild behavior inspires the community to band together, and for the women around her to strive to be better mothers and wives. Then, when Sula dies, everyone reverts to their former behavior of neglect and carelessness.
Water and fire, especially in association with death, appear frequently throughout the text of Sula. These reoccurrence of these elements are not simply coincidence — they represent the creation and destruction of the Bottom, of Sula and Nel, and of the greater community of Medallion. For example, Sula and Nel witness the death of a local boy by drowning. Sula’s Uncle Plum dies when her grandmother, Eva, sets him on fire after discovering that he has been doing drugs to escape the horrors of World War I. Sula’s mother, Hannah, also dies when her dress catches on fire. Local war veteran, Shadrack (again, a Biblical reference to three Jewish men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace and emerged unscathed), unwittingly leads over a dozen of his community members to a watery grave when they destroy the New River Road tunnel. When Sula is dying, she feels as if she is “burning up.” Ironically, the old Gospel hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River,” is often sung at funerals in the Bottom.
While Sula is based solely on the experience of black women, any woman who reads this text can relate to the stories of Sula and Nel. Even now, 90 years after women were given voting rights, when the world has seen an increase in women in power, and when the Democratic Party of the United States elected a woman as their nominee for President, women are still expected to fulfill certain feminine, passive, nurturing and subordinate roles, both in the workplace and at home. If a woman subverts the role that has been foisted on to her by society, she is summarily dismissed, branded a whore, a bad wife, an unfit mother, and worse. In societies across the globe, women are still punished for speaking to someone from the opposite sex, for having any type of sexual relations before marriage, for dressing “provocatively,” and so on. Women in the United States are still affected by unequal pay and treatment in the workplace. While much has changed since the time in which Sul and Nel lived, there is still too much that remains the same.
However, no matter how much a woman might relate to the story of Sula, it would be unfair to say that the experiences of, say, a Caucasian or Hispanic woman, are similar to that of a black woman. Women in general experience the sting of misogyny, but black women also experience the sting of anti-black racism. In Sula, Nel’s mother, Helene, straightens her hair with a hot iron and makes her put a clothespin on her flat nose in an effort to make it appear more sculpted and sleek. In the television commercials of today, black models are often featured with long, smooth, sleek hair and with hairstyles that are popularized by other races and cultures. Black pop stars often highlight or dye their hair blonde. There are even “fairness” creams for those with dark skin. Black women are told, everywhere they go, that they are not beautiful or desirable just as they are; they must be sleeker, blonder, and fairer.
Prejudice from within a black woman’s own community also cannot be escaped. Just as in Sula, when the people of the Bottom vilified Sula for allegedly sleeping with white men, so are black women vilified for trying to “act white,” or for being friendly or romantic with people from other races. They are accused of abandoning their race, of being ashamed of who they are, of “not being black enough.” In fact, the way black women are portrayed or how they portray themselves in pop culture often gives black women in society an image that is grossly unfair and stereotyped. The black woman is often portrayed to be loud, brash, and sassy, dressed colorfully, speaking in slang and colloquial terms, and most common of all, angry. When a black woman does not fit a mold that has been created for her, by society and/or by her own community, she is disparaged, cast out, and vilified.
In closing, Sula paints a picture for the reader of both a female friendship and a female life, fraught with the pressures of society, motherhood, matrimony, and prejudice. Friendship between women becomes complicated when jealousy rears its ugly head. Approval from society becomes harder to attain the less conforming one is to society's rules and standards. Choices are indeed available to black women, and to women in general, outside their own society’s approval — but often at the price of close and comforting fellowship with others. Those who refuse to be controlled and who take risks are often misunderstood, even by those closest to them.
Finally, as we learn from Sula’s story, and as Morrison herself believes, being a free, independent woman, black or white, is ultimately about responsibility, and about choosing the responsibilities one wants to have. Nel conformed to society's expectations, and while she was accepted, she was not free. Sula rebelled, and while she “sure did live in the world, she died alone and lonely. If one can find a balance between the two, one may eventually become truly free.