At the heart of Sula is a bond between to women, a friendship whose intensity first sustains, then injuries. Sula and Nel are both black, both smart, and both poor. Through their girlhood years, they share everything. All this changes when Sula gets out of the Bottom, the hilltop neighborhood where there hides a fierce resentment at the invisible line that cannot be overstepped.
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)
Morrison sets up the contrast between two matriarchal clans, on the one hand the Wrights, driven by the need for respectability and by Helene Wright's shame about her southern mixed-race background, and on the other the Peaces, anarchistic women who see themselves as having nothing to lose and no reason to keep to anyone else's rules. Nel Wright and Sula Peace become friends across this social divide as small children, and maintain the warm, close friendship through a number of grotesque incidents right into adulthood, until they are finally forced to recognise the depth of the ethical gap between them when Sula does something she sees as trivial and Nel as fundamental.
Morrison steers away here from the kind of stylistic flourishes that got her into trouble with critics in The bluest eye, but she goes for narrative excesses instead: there are magic-realist elements where the external world is reacting in strange ways to the actions of the characters, and many of the darker human incidents in the plot have a non-realistic, fairy-tale flavour to them, especially the climactic scene where the inhabitants of the township are led Pied-Piper style to their collective doom. She seems to be flexing her muscles and telling the critics: "Just because I'm an African-American woman, that doesn't mean I've got to restrict myself to writing social-realistic political fiction." But there's also perhaps a sense that the situation of black people in America is something that isn't adequately to be described within the confines of realistic fiction: we need this element of fairy-tale to make sense of the recent past and start to understand how it continues to affect our relations in the present.
The general tone of this book strongly conveys the desperation and poverty Black Americans endure as the result of racism without ever talking about racism. Every moment, every episode hinges on the impoverished, second class citizen status of the character, yet the story is universal, the characters are not stereotypes but instead are typical of characters existing anywhere in the world. Sula and her friend Nel represent two very different types of people, those that are crushed by their circumstances and others who stand above them even as they continue to be marginalized.
The storyline begins with a scene from WW I and proceeds through the next several years tracing the lives of the protagonists, of their relationship with each other and with others, and of their ultimate movement in vastly different directions.
This is a powerful read eliciting empathy and compassion from any thoughtful reader.
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.
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.
I’m on a quest to read all of Toni’s books, so I was gonna to read this sooner of later, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. “Sula” is a little different than all of Toni’s other books, since it focused more around a friendship between two young girls, and how it changes over a period of 40 years.
I loved watching the story start out talking about the beginning of Medallion, the town in which all the characters live, and continues its story as the town grows, has its heyday and eventually crumbles. By the end, you almost feel you live there.
The first half seems to go nowhere for a while, but its just setting up the second half, which fills you with nostalgia. Why this was picked as an “Oprah Book Club Book”, I do not know, since I’m sure there were probably more thought provoking books out when this was published, but nevertheless, it’s still lovely to read.
And as always, Toni’s writing is beautiful, and there were actually two passages around the end where I had to get up, grab a pencil and a post it and mark those pages for their wonderful quotes. I never put post its in my books, but the writing in this novel just forced me to.
It’s a very quick read, but filled with the delicious writing you would expect.
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.
"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.
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.
The story is beautifully narrated by the author. Listening to it definitely makes it feel like a fable or one of those stories passed down generation to generation. There are many parts that looking back on them, don’t quite make sense or seem disconnected, but the narration flows beautifully and it feels like a story that should be told aloud. Interesting themes in this book relating to good vs evil, or how society associates conventional with good and unconventional as evil.