Sula

by Toni Morrison

Hardcover, 1973

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York, Knopf; [distributed by Random House] 1974 [c1973]

Description

A Black woman returns to her Ohio hometown after a long absence and becomes an evil presence, until her death affects the residents.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dchaikin
30. Sula by Toni Morrison (1973, 181 pages, read July 3-8)

How to capture this?

Morrison’s second novel leaves a mark. It reminds me of a side story by Pat Conroy in his memoir My Reading Life. As a young author he had a chance to meet Toni Morrison, but she refused to sign a book or talk with him apparently because he was white and male. Conroy obviously never forgave her. Before Sula I hadn’t been able to see that person behind Morrison’s writing (although there are strong hints in Guitar and his carefully reasoned murders in Song of Solomon). There is a complex but palpable anger underneath Sula. In a 2004 forward to the novel Morrison wrote about [Sula] that she "rooted the narrative in a landscape already tainted by the fact that it existed" - and this is an underlying point in the novel, the hurt and limitations of being black in the US.

The short novel parallels the lives of Nel Wright, a good girl raised in a good home, and her childhood best friend Sula Peace, who grew up in more wild circumstances too complex to describe here. Both grew up in an impoverished segregated black community in the hills outside a white valley Ohio town in roughly the 1930’s (??). In Sula the reader is confronted. A complicated character, she searches for her own freedom in a variety of forms, breaking many societal norms, and crossing over into some gut-wrenching crimes...crimes that don’t seem to bother her. The reader is left to wonder what do with our mixed feelings of admiration and disturbance, and Morrison offers no easy answers.

This is a terrific read that can stir up some conflicting emotions deep down in the reader.
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LibraryThing member MaryAnn12
I think Toni Morrison is America's greatest living author. Perhaps she is the greatest living woman author. Surely she is in the top three. Although "Sula" isn't my favorite Morrison work, I think it is one of Morrison's most complicated and one of her richest. Those who read Morrison must remember she is a classicist and approach her as such. Not to do so only creates needless problems for the reader and Morrison can be difficult to read, though always enjoyable and always superb.
On it's surface, "Sula" is the story of two black women who remain lifelong friends despite their obvious differences and the different way in which each pursues her life. Set in an Ohio community called, The Bottom, "Sula" follows these two women, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, from childhood to marriage to old age to death.

Nel is the conformist in this oddly matched pair. She marries and raises a family in the place of her birth. Outwardly, at least, she seems to need no more than husband and children and community to make her happy. She adapts. Sula, on the other hand, is a far different story.

Sula is a woman who feels the need to escape, to break free of whatever binds her. And, if her breaking free involves pain...for herself or for others, then so be it. She moves from The Bottom, goes to college and becomes the epitome of everything that Nel is not...in short, Sula becomes a waton seductress. For Sula, hell is stability; for Nel, hell is change.

Is either woman happy with her choices in life? No, not entirely, and we do find echoes of Nel in Sula and echoes of Sula in Nel. Though it's not obvious at first glance, the women are really two sides of the same coin. One came up "heads," the other, "tails." Both women are, however, black Americans and both are proud to be black Americans. It is how they express their heritage, and their love for each other, that differs.

Morrison is a masterful writer and her handling of the character of Sula is miraculous. We could have so easily come to hate this wanton women, we could have so easily come to have seen her as the stereotypical seductress, the temptress, the tramp. Yet Morrison manages, somehow, to endow Sula with a humanity and a beauty that shines through all her artifice and pain.

For me, "Sula" is a book about choices and the problems of living with those choices. It is about loving someone who chooses a very different path in life than we do and what is needed to keep that love alive...or even if it can be kept alive. Sula and Nel are both beautiful characters and both are vibrantly alive. Both want desperately to hold onto their love for each other, but fate and circumstances make it increasingly difficult. The story of Sula's and Nel's growth from child to adult to old age is the thread that ties the other stories in this book into one seamless whole.

Although "Sula" could be seen as an allegory or metaphor for the rediscovery of the core self of black America, I feel the characters, themselves are too rich, to fully-drawn, to alive, to call this book an allegory. Perhaps on some level, it is, but Morrison is a writer of literature, not genre fiction.

All of Toni Morrison's books are masterpieces and all can be read on many levels. "Sula" is no exception. It is a difficult book but one that is both beautiful and tragic and worth every second any reader spends with it. I really can't recommend "Sula," or any other Morrison book, highly enough.

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LibraryThing member sacredstacks
After an appreciable introduction to the history of the Midwestern town of Medallion, and a meager glimpse into its incorporated area, we are transported to the central setting of this story – the Bottom. We are immediately intrigued by the unsettling appearance of Shadrack; and watch with pity as, at age 21, World War II vomits him back into this Ohio town’s ghetto, the Bottom, with a physical deformity and post-traumatic stress disorder. Or in the vernacular of the day – “shell-shocked.” His presence of mind and survival skills become apparent when, in a hospital room, he wants to see his face but doesn’t have access to a mirror. Holding a blanket behind his head as a backdrop, he renders the water in a toilet bowl dark enough to reflect his image. Upon his return to civilian life, he takes it upon himself to institute the annual celebration of “National Suicide Day” every January 3. The townspeople are not influenced, however; and, though amused by his antics each year on that day, ignore his efforts to promote it.

Early on, Morrison captures the reader with imagery such as, “Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the first sleep of his new life. A sleep deeper than the hospital drugs; deeper than the pits of plums, steadier than the condor’s wing; more tranquil than the curve of eggs.” I found these comparisons to be quite thought-provoking and a demonstration of the author's word-smithing.

Before we meet the protagonists, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, both age 12 in 1922, we are introduced to Eva Peace and her three children: Hannah (Sula’s mother), Eva whom she calls Pearl, and Ralph whom she calls Plum. Sula comes from a family of women who love all men. “It was manlove that Eva bequeathed to her daughters. . . The Peace women simply loved maleness, for its own sake.”

Beneath her crude exterior, Eva, with her one “magnificent” leg, is dedicated to providing for her children by running a boarding house. While she doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of their meager provisions, she shields them from other concerns; and entertains them with various versions of the story behind her missing leg. Realizing they may never know the truth, the children put it out of their minds and get on with life in the Bottom. To get what she wants, Eva comes up with the most ridiculous ideas she can; and people just choose not to argue with her. This trait skips a generation and resurfaces in Sula -- with unimagined boldness and audacity.

The unspoken dreams the girls share far outweigh the differences in their upbringing; and are enough to substantiate the development of their thick-and-thin sisterhood. Nel, an only child, was brought up in her mother’s incredibly orderly house. Sula, also an only child, was "wedged into a disorderly household constantly awry with things, people, voices and the slamming of doors." In one instance, more than likely influenced by tales of the degree to which Eva will protect those she loves, Sula resorts to self-mutilation to get Nel and herself out of a jam. This over-the-top “strategy” was one of many that Sula employed to get what she wanted.

The towns’ eyes are on Sula; and she seems indifferent to the influence she has over it. At the outset, I feared for Nel’s wellbeing due to Sula’s strong personality. However, Nel comes from “good stock” and demonstrates the ability to think for herself and take responsibility for her own actions. So what lies beneath Sula’s nonchalance about this power? Fast-forward to adulthood. Nel: “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don’t.” Sula: “You repeating yourself. . . . You say I’m a woman and colored. Ain’t that the same as being a man?” In another heated discussion, Nel tries to get Sula to acknowledge that she’s lonely. True to her form, Sula shoots back with, “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.” As usual, Nel’s level-headedness allows her to sidestep the shield Sula continuously erects and continue to reason with her. This is a true friendship.

The chronological setting is 1919 through 1965. Morrison skillfully weaves this 46-year tale into 174 pages. A very good read. (1982, 174 pages, $13.00)
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LibraryThing member billmcn
The thing I like about Toni Morrison is the nasty little core of unsentimentality that lies at the heart of her work. Violence and misfortune arrive abruptly and without fanfare. The protagonist of Sula is deeply sympathetic and noble even though she does things that—both in and out of the context of the story—are unconscionable. This doesn't compromise the novel's moral seriousness, but it does put it at an interesting kilter.… (more)
LibraryThing member aalsgaard
Only from evaluating the depths of your heart are you able to find out your true countenance. It is reflected through your actions and words, the little inflections of your face and soul in your speech. In Sula by Toni Morrison, two girls are drawn together through a connection of spirit; however, they soon find that the personal needs of the soul can overpower even the best of friendships.
While obviously about the relationship between two girls, so much more goes on within Sula: the novel also follows the narrative of Eve and Hannah who are separate accounts in their own right. As characters with familiar relations to the girls, Eve and Hannah’s personal lives explain and enhance the relationship between Nel and Sula. They also help to define the girl’s individualism as adults. Without the knowledge gained from the perspective of other towns member’s in the bottom, part of the novel would loose meaning. For instance, after Sula has died, the Bottom starts to fall apart because the town had lost the “evilness” that had kept them bound together. With out the explanatory point of views from the town’s members, Sula’s influence on the town would be lost on the reader.
On the other hand, Nel’s and Sula’s relationship creates a story in itself. I enjoyed reading how two people growing up in similar circumstances can be changed by such small things. Nel yearned for social acceptance which eventually shaped the rest of her life, while Sula defied all social expectations, choosing to do as she wished. Morrison reveals how experiences can change you; when the girls interact after being apart for ten years, Sula has sex with Nel’s husband and is hurt when Nel reacts negatively to the situation: “She had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude. They had always shared the affection of other people…” (119). In the ten years Sula had been gone, Nel had changed into someone Sula couldn’t recognize.
Personally, the message of the novel is its best aspect—the world survives because of the outliers, the people who strive to be different. They push society together and add excitement to their lives. Without Sula, the social deifier, the bonds that held The Bottom together collapsed.
While I enjoyed the message of the novel, my absolute favorite scene is at the end when Nel comes to terms with Sula and everything she represents—everything Nel could have had. What makes this scene so perfect is in relation to Nel’s break up with Jude; Nel finds herself unable to morn loosing him. After Sula’s death, Nel realizes she shouldn’t have been morning Jude, but rather her lost relationship with Sula: “All that time, all that time I thought I was missing Jude” (174). It is this personal growth which the whole book had been striving for and it is pulled off with aplomb.
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LibraryThing member vdunn
I haven't read all of Toni Morrison's books, but I have read several, and this was, by far, the best. She honed the prose to a razor sharp edge that cut you to the core. You felt the characters' breath on your face as they lifted out of the book and into your mind and heart.
LibraryThing member kylekatz
1973. Spoiler Alert. Sula is a book about an African-American community in Ohio called the Bottom from WWI to 1965. It follows the lives of Sula Peace and her friend Nel Wright Greene. Sula is a genuine free-spirit and much misunderstood in the Bottom. She doesn't go to church and she sleeps with a lot of men, but only casually. She simply doesn't accept the conventions and social customs of her community. Nel eventually marries and Sula goes away for ten years and then comes back. Whatever happened while she was away didn't change Sula and she sleeps with Nel's husband. This destroys their friendship, but Sula doesn't seem to understand why exactly. She thinks Nel has become too conventional. It is something like Sula has an artistic temperament, but no medium for her art except her imagination which no one can understand. So people think she's weird. Toni Morrison's beautiful writing make the story so much more than this bare description can contain. And there is a constant discourse about race. White people are only seen as unwelcome outsiders who occasionally cause problems for a person or hire them. They are never good, but they are capable of being neutral or evil. They are usually irrelevant unless they're making trouble. It is cool to read a story that centralizes black experience. i think I could think about Sula for a long time and discover more and more layers of complexity. I like the notion that the problem is that she's an artistic genius in a place and time where no space exists for her to develop her creativity in a healthy way. So she lives her life creatively. There are other possible interpretations though. She seems to border on psychotic at times, having possibly no conscience or no empathy for others. Perhaps being a narcissist. Possibly she's traumatized from accidentally drowning a boy when she was young. I did wonder whether she set her own mother on fire too. I think I'll need to read it again to see whether I missed anything the first time around.… (more)
LibraryThing member ahgonzales
Excellent book. Morrison's writing style is incredibly rich without feeling indulgent. Her characters are complex and the environments/communities she creates in this book are very complete. It's easy to get enveloped in her writing. This book was moving.
LibraryThing member KendraRenee
Morrison's style is soo unique, and yet curiously easy to read. I loved this story of Sula and Nel, two girlfriends, losing each other over a man, though the ending was just heartbreaking.
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
This reads something like an extended fable, beautifully written and full of meaning. Here, Morrison has packed up all of the color of her longer novels into a tight tale about a small town and its inhabitants, centered around two girls. The book is full of both beauty and horror, but comes across throughout as true to itself. While it isn't my favorite of Morrison's works, it s highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
A beautiful written book, like all of Toni Morrison's work, but for some reason this one did not quite connect with me.
LibraryThing member Berly
This story spans 40 some odd years and the friendship between two black girls growing up in the Bottom, which ironically is the uplands of of Ohio. Toni Morrison's prose is deep, dark and hauntingly beautiful, as always. Despite the spare story (172 pages) and not feeling particularly drawn to either main character, I still think this one will remain with me for a long time. I love/hate it. Take a peek:

"Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people's skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear round eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat's curve." (p.122)

Wow! Can this woman write. But so darkly beautiful.
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LibraryThing member mysteena
I chose this book because I heard an interview with the author on NPR and thought she sounded like someone I'd enjoy reading. She is an excellent author. Her writing style is dark, beatiful and unique. I consider myself a pretty capable reader, but many of her metaphors were lost on me. They just seemed to go on and and on, twisting and deeping into something that I could no longer follow or recognize. That made the book less enjoyable for me. This story is about two friends, growing up an all black town in depression-era Ohio. The civil war is only half a century past and blacks have no civil rights as of yet. These two girls, one with parents who smother her and one with parents who ignore her, find in each other the only friend they've ever had. The story follows them into adulthood and explores the idea of friendship and what sorts of trials it can endure.… (more)
LibraryThing member snash
I loved the writing, the scenes and characters created, a lush world to immerse oneself in. It felt like I missed a good deal of the depth of meaning so ended feeling frustrated with myself for not "getting" all of it.
LibraryThing member alwright1
There's lots of good stuff in here about friendship and self-ness and expectations of womanhood and race. And it's all too chewy for me to wrap up in a nice little Goodreads review bow the morning after finishing. I really enjoyed the foreward. I almost took more quotes from that than the book, even though the book was, of course, wonderfully written and rich. If you desire instantly likeable characters, you might be disappointed, but the longer I spent with them the more sympathetic I have become. I was amazed at how full this incredibly slim volume was.… (more)
LibraryThing member amydross
Interesting use of the surreal/grotesque to illuminate genuine human experience.
LibraryThing member aliciamay
This is the story of Nel and Sula, friends growing up poor and black in 1920s Ohio, and keeping some awful secrets. Sula runs away as a teenager and then returns just as abruptly ten years later. Nel has married, has a few children and is an upstanding member of the community. Sula becomes a pariah and in this role unites the rest of the women in loathing her. I think this was the only part of the story that was interesting to me.

So I didn’t realize that Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize winner. Huh. What am I missing? Sure the writing is beautiful, but I found the characters weak and under formed. There were lots of side stories I didn’t feel added anything to the novel and in fact detracted from the development of the two main characters and left their personalities, their motives, and their relationships flat for me. This was pretty much the same complaint I had with The Bluest Eye, well that and the superfluous perversion, so I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read any more of Morrison’s writing.
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LibraryThing member byebyelibrary
One of Morrison's signature and most haunting works read by the author. Morrison is an extraordinary reader and is the exception to the rule that writers should not do their own audiobooks. Her voice is clipped and her tone understated, except when it explodes with the action. This recording is a masterful rendition of a masterpiece. What else do you need to know?… (more)
LibraryThing member wendyrey
A small in size but not in content novella. The interlocking life stories of two complex women and their families. Love , life, death , betrayal , friendship and loneliness. Some very strange but believable characters who sometimes do the most unpleasant and oddest things. Set in the midwest of the USA in a poor black township over twenty one years. Oddly my edition ( UK 1980) has a strange mixture of Commonwealth spelling and American vocabulary and idioms using colour but purse for handbag, a bit disconcerting at times.
Fantastic book.
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LibraryThing member mysteena
I chose this book because I heard an interview with the author on NPR and thought she sounded like someone I'd enjoy reading. She is an excellent author. Her writing style is dark, beatiful and unique. I consider myself a pretty capable reader, but many of her metaphors were lost on me. They just seemed to go on and and on, twisting and deeping into something that I could no longer follow or recognize. That made the book less enjoyable for me. This story is about two friends, growing up an all black town in depression-era Ohio. The civil war is only half a century past and blacks have no civil rights as of yet. These two girls, one with parents who smother her and one with parents who ignore her, find in each other the only friend they've ever had. The story follows them into adulthood and explores the idea of friendship and what sorts of trials it can endure.… (more)
LibraryThing member LovingLit
Wow, this lady can write! Some of her sentences I had to read again in some sort of double take, as if I couldn't really believe how wonderful they were the first time. But reading them again just reinforced it. Some of it was too wonderful though, and it went right over my head. In this case, I just took the feeling from the words, which was also there loud and clear.

Sula, is I suppose, an anti hero. She is suspiciously confident and challenging for a woman of her time. She makes some surprising decisions and leaves us wondering about her character. Her best and lifelong friend is Nel, and they go through a lot together in their early 20thC rural town.

In this novel, I liked the writing more than the plot. And because you cant have a great book without both, I was left feeling a tiny bit disappointed. Even so I was left with a lovely feeling that I now know something that I didn't know. So that makes it very well worth the effort.
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LibraryThing member brakketh
Quite enjoyed this one. Read it at the recommendation of my sister. Found the stories interesting in their examination of the multiple viewpoints, I am aware there is much more analysis possible of this book.
LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
Sula and Nel are an unlikely pair of friends living in a flagging black community in early twentieth century Ohio; they were still young but already world-weary when they discovered that "because 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." And so they do, serving as foils for consideration of identity formation by means of assimilation or independence. Nel plays by the rules - she gets married, establishes a home, and gets along with her neighbors. But Sula is an enigma, albeit not one anyone wants to solve. She is the neighborhood witch, essentially - so at odds with the communal identification of quietude and subsistence that they can only demonize her.

And in so doing, they better define the community, its boundaries and its collective character. Sula's insistence that "I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself" may characterize her as selfish in their eyes, but she thereby serves as a foil for her neighbors to work out their own ethic. In her own intimidating, anti-social way, Sula is prophetic. In a community marginalized and nearly completely suppressed by the growing white population living in the valley below them, Sula's voice is the only one which insists on being heard. This is simultaneously unlikable and undeniably valuable - a reflection upon the reception of unfortunately too many insistent minority voices belittled as angry and uncompromising.
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LibraryThing member sparemethecensor
This is a stunning book that packs so much into its short pages. Morrison's writing is exquisite and the relationship between Nel and Sula is such a revealing and true rendering.
LibraryThing member June_Clark
High school and collage are students should give this book a chance.

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