Critical Analysis for Sula by Toni Morrison
NOTE: I'm new to this kind of writing. I haven't read much critical essays/analyses in my existence. This is the first time that I penned a critical analysis for a book, and a critically-acclaimed book at that time for that matter, so please bear with me. It was a task for my English class and I just felt like sharing it to the world even if I'm not sure if it's going to be accepted in a nice way or not. Here it goes anyway...
THESIS STATEMENT: The characters of this book clearly show the readers that what you see is not ALWAYS what you get.
“I mean maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me.”
That was a line spoken by Sula to her best friend, Nel, before she let death whisk her away.
Sula is the second novel of the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison penned in 1973 which revolves mostly on the lives of Sula Peace and her best friend, Nel Wright, as they thread their way through this crazy little thing called life.
“It is funny how blacks are being called the colorful people when it is a fact that black is the absence of color and white is the combination of all colors.” — Unknown author
The story clearly reeks of racism even at the opening sentences when the author stated how the black farmer got hold of his freedom and that piece of eroded valley land—the Bottom—in the town of Medallion, Ohio, when beforehand his white master promised him both his freedom and a piece of the bottom land in exchange of doing some difficult chores for the latter. Furthermore, gender inequality is another major issue that the readers won’t be able to miss as they read the adventures of Sula, Nel, and all other interesting people living in the Bottom.
Before I delve more on Sula and Nel’s lives, let me just talk more about the individuals around them who have added t to what those two have become in the later years of their existence.
Shadrack is who the people from the Bottom call their “local madman”. According to the book, he was a young veteran, hardly twenty, of the World War I and came back home in 1917, looking “handsome but ravaged” that even the most fastidious people in the town sometimes caught themselves dreaming of what he must have been like a few years back before he went off to war (Sula, 1973).
“It had to do with making a place for fear as a way of controlling it. He knew the smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both.”— Sula (see chapter 1919)
Although he never shared his traumatic experiences when he was still in the battlefield in France to any soul in Medallion, those occurrences made him want to give other people the chance to time their death and not be shocked when that happens. So in the year 1920, he delegated the third day of January as the National Suicide Day and even if the natives did not react well at this and the cowbells that he rings every year for that occasion, later on it became like a normal thing to constitute in their conversations.
“Easily, quietly, Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio.”—Sula (see Chapter 1919)
Shadrack, despite the fact that he was not the protagonist in the story and that he was not talked about much, played a vital role in the earlier years of the lives of Sula and Nel, for those two assumed that he saw them with Chicken Little, the young black boy who drowned when Sula accidentally lost her grip on him and he landed on the water and never came back up, and that he would let others know that they were part of the kid’s death. Well, Sula could not be blamed if she thought that way because even if Shadrack’s stance was relaxed, he kept on saying “Always” even when he was not asked yet by the girl.
“He nodded his head as though answering a question, and said, in a pleasant conversational tone, a tone of cooled butter, “Always.”—Shadrack
Nevertheless, however people may speak about him as an unhinged man, he was the only person who showed respect to Sula after she got back to the Bottom and all the bad things she did became known to the public by curtseying to her.
“His visitor, his company, his guest, his social life, his woman, his daughter, his friend— they all hung there on a nail near his bed.”
The line above speaks about how he thought of Sula even if she was not aware of this. Just like Nel’s reason for marrying Jude Greene, Shadrack also liked the idea of once again having somebody to count on him.
If you’ll only look at the closing stages of the book, you will see there that there was just this one time in Shadrack’s life (after Sula’s death) that he paraded for his National Suicide Day almost like just out of obligation, and that’s when many people joined him and ended up to the tunnel they were not allowed to build and wreaked havoc there and, as expected, many died. This only shows that even if people take his antics for granted and constantly call him a madman, unconsciously, they agree to his belief, too, that death should not be unexpected.
“Having forgotten his song and his rope, he just stood there high up on the bank ringing, ringing his bell.”
Ironically, the way he stood over the mess they made and lifeless bodies after the tunnel collapsed made him look superior over those people who some time ago talked poorly about him.
As to how was described in the book, Chicken Little is “A little boy in too big knickers was coming up from the lower bank of the river”. His actual appearance in the story was just short-lived but his death kept on coming back in the minds of Sula and Nel even in the later years of their existence for they know that they shouldn’t have reserved that knowledge from everyone.
It was so sad that this kid suffered from racial discrimination even after his death when his corpse was delivered to their community 3 days after his demise, almost unidentifiable at that time, only because the white bargeman who saw him in the river did not even bother to send the little boy’s dead body to his family immediately or to enclose his body in a decent cloth for the reason that he was just a “nigger boy”.
“He shook his head in disgust at the kind of parents who would drown their own children. When, he wondered, will those people ever be anything but animals, fit for nothing but substitutes for mules, only mules didn’t kill each other the way niggers did. He dumped Chicken Little into a burlap sack and tossed him next to some egg crates and boxes of wool cloth.” —Sula (see Chapter 1922)
Chicken Little’s death in a way had a positive effect in the disposition of the people in his community for it made them all realize that when time comes that you feel like everything’s just too much to handle, there’s still the “Sweet Jesus” who can give you a hand, waiting patiently for you to see that He’s not a part of those stories that started with “once upon a time”, rather, He’s been there all those times.
“And when they thought of all that life and death locked into that little closed coffin they danced and screamed, not to protest God’s will but to acknowledge it and confirm once more their conviction that the only way to avoid the Hand of God is to get in it.” —Sula (see Chapter 1922)
Sula’s mother, Hannah, is the eldest of the three children of Eva Peace. Her husband, Rekus, died when Sula was only three years old and from then on they both lived in her mother’s humble but crowded abode. Since then, “with her extraordinary beauty and funky elegance of manner”, she made every man who has seen her swoon towards her instead of the other way around.
From what’s written in the book, the way Hannah seemed not to mind if people gossip about her illicit affairs or not, or if she’ll ever get married again, she exudes of both confidence and independence. However, there was also a line in the book that says “…but sleeping with someone implied for her a measure of trust and a definite commitment” makes me want to believe that underneath that calm, easygoing façade of hers is a woman who’s scared to be left alone again by her loved one so she chose to only sleep around, no strings attached. (see Chapter 1921)
And while Hannah’s manner of sleeping around with different wedded men is not something acceptable in the society even in this millennium, she is still quite remarkable because despite of the word-bashing that she often gets from the town women “who resented Hannah’s generosity”, she still gets what she wants at the end of the day for those women were just pure talk and no further action.
“What she wanted, after Rekus died, and what she succeeded in having more often than not, was some touching every day.” —Sula (see Chapter 1921)
Hannah may be fond of having men to flirt with, but this is not the case when it comes with Sula. As a mother, she admits that she loves her own daughter but, according to her, it does not necessarily mean that she likes her. This depressing fact shattered the kid’s young heart and became etched on her mind that when Hannah got literally burned to death from a yard fire that she started, Sula was “standing on the back porch just looking”.
Helene Wright is the type of woman that we can call as banal. Regardless of the fact that she was a daughter of a “Creole whore” and was born in Sundown House in New Orleans, she grew up under her grandmother’s guidance and, as stated in the novel, was “raised under the dolesome eyes of a multicolored Virgin Mary, counseling her to be constantly on guard for any sign of her mother’s wild blood.”(See Chapter 1920)
It was quite evident that she married Wiley Wright, a distant cousin, not because of love but because it was what’s expected to both of them for there was a line in the book that says that “his enchantment with the pretty Helene became a marriage proposal—under the pressure of both women”, pertaining to Wiley’s liking towards the lady but definitely not love. (See Chapter 1920)
Her marriage most likely became a rite of passage for her to go far away from her mother’s shadow and so when she resided in Medallion she made an effort to live an almost perfect life with her husband and their daughter, Nel, whom she shielded from the harshness of life, and be someone who’s always on top of everyone else.
“A woman who won all social battles with presence and a conviction of the legitimacy of her authority. Since there was no Catholic church in Medallion then, she joined the most conservative black church. And held sway. It was Helene who never turned her head in church when latecomers arrived; Helene who established the practice of seasonal altar flowers; Helene who introduced the giving of banquets of welcome to returning Negro veterans.” —Sula (see Chapter 1920)
She felt torn when a letter saying that her beloved grandmother’s dying came for she doesn’t want to go but she also couldn’t bring herself to pay no attention to the “silent plea of the woman who had rescued her”, so off she went with her daughter. (See Chapter 1920)
“So soon. So soon. She hadn’t even begun the trip back. Back to her grandmother’s house in the city where the red shutters glowed, and already she had been called “gal.” All the old vulnerabilities, all the old fears of being somehow flawed gathered in her stomach and made her hands tremble. She had heard only that one word; it dangled above her wide-brimmed hat, which had slipped, in her exertion, from its carefully leveled placement and was now tilted in a bit of a jaunt over her eye.”
The paragraph above pretty much sums up why she was quite glad that her daughter “had not inherited the great beauty that was hers”. She may have experienced being regarded so lowly in her childhood that she didn’t want her Nel to have the same awful incident in her life later on.
The way she bowed down to the white conductor when a simple apology was more than enough for entering the coach for the white people solidifies my conviction that she’s the go-with-the-flow –than-defy-gravity type of woman because it’s much easier that way. Racism was very profound at that time and she progresses as if white people are actually better than black people and she’s cozy with it.
What she was not aware of was how that action of hers greatly affected her daughter’s way of thinking, the same daughter that she taught to be “obedient and polite”, for Nel, from that moment on, wanted to make sure to her self that no man would ever look at her the way those soldiers in the train looked at her mother, with disgust.
“The two black soldiers, who had been watching the scene with what appeared to be indifference, now looked stricken. Behind Nel was the bright and blazing light of her mother’s smile; before her the midnight eyes of the soldiers. She saw the muscles of their faces tighten, a movement under the skin from blood to marble. No change in the expression of the eyes, but a hard wetness that veiled them as they looked at the stretch of her mother’s foolish smile.”
Eva Peace was described in the book as a one-legged woman “who sat in a wagon on the third floor directing the lives of her children, friends, strays, and a constant stream of boarders”.
“Her dresses were mid-calf so that her one glamorous leg was always in view as well as the long fall of space below her left thigh.”
Not a soul knew how her leg got cut off and she neither confirmed nor denied all the rumors about it but one thing’s for sure: she was proud of it and the reason why she came back in Medallion sporting just one leg, whatever it is. Nonetheless, her disability did not keep the people in the Bottom, especially the men, from giving her so much reverence and respecting her opinions.
“They all had the impression that they were looking up at her, up into the open distances of her eyes, up into the soft black of her nostrils and up at the crest of her chin.”
For all the hardships that she went through after her husband abandoned the family when their kids were still small, she truly deserved all the good things that the people in the town had done for her. It was also apparent that they were seemed to be drawn to her and they all like the power that she had over them.
Her independence and her liking for the attention of men were to some extent inherited by her eldest daughter, Hannah, and her granddaughter, Sula, though those two’s manner around the male populace did not really please the citizens of the Bottom. As the saying goes, “no one beats the original”.
“How is anybody going to tell them apart?” Hannah asked her.
“What you need to tell them apart for? They’s all deweys.”—Eva Peace
Eva lives by her own rules and principles. Some may say that how she handles things was wayward although no one ever tried to dare her decisions. She never for a second doubted that Tar Baby, another tenant of hers that sings in the church every Wednesday, was among the white people although everybody else around her insists otherwise. When she adopted three young boys in 1921, it was as if she gave herself the right to throw all those kids’ identities before she took them in and started called them all “Dewey”, without any sign of distinction between one another. Hannah tried to argue with her but to no avail. Soon after, astoundingly, despite the age gaps, no one can really tell the three Deweys apart and when the eldest Dewey was at the right age for school and did not want to go without the other two, Eva decided to send them all together for she reasoned out that no one knew how old the kids were when they came and neither the teacher. And again, Eva’s predicament was proven to be true.
“She too thought she would have no problem distinguishing among them, because they looked nothing alike, but like everyone else before her, she gradually found that she could not tell one from the other. The deweys would not allow it. They got all mixed up in her head, and finally she could not literally believe her eyes. They spoke with one voice, thought with one mind, and maintained an annoying privacy. Stouthearted, surly, and wholly unpredictable, the deweys remained a mystery not only during all of their lives in Medallion but after as well”.
But just like any old lady in the town, Eva has a strong hold to premonitions. She believed that the red wedding dress that Hannah dreamed about the night before she died were signs that someone was going to die and that someone turned out to be Hannah. And, according to her, wedding meant death when seen in a dream and red doomed fire. She also believed that the robins flocking at the Bottom and Sula’s return years after leaving away from their town meant that something bad was about to come their way.
Aside from the unexplainable wonder that Eva Peace had done to the deweys, another thing that made her different from the “normal” mothers is how she chose to burn her own son, Plum, while he’s asleep than let his life be wasted by his addiction and how she desperately tried to save Hannah from being consumed by the yard fir to the extent that she jumped from her bedroom window and ended up almost bleeding to death herself. Her way of showing her love for her children can be viewed as twisted by many but surely no one could condemn her for this for we all know that no mother would like to see her kid suffer and Eva Peace believes that she’s doing it out of untainted love for Hannah and Plum.
“I done everything I could to make him leave me and go on and live an be a man but he wouldn’t and I had to keep him out so I just thought of a way he could die like a man not all scrunched up inside my womb, but like a man.”—Eva Peace
“Under Helene’s hand the girl became obedient and polite. Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.”
This is how Nel Wright was brought up by her mother: polite and obedient. Helene taught her to always go by the rules, to do everything that can please everybody. However, their trip to New Orleans and the time when she met she grandmother, Rochelle, served as an eye-opener for her to see that she just wanted to be herself, not Nel, not the perfect daughter that her mother wanted her to be. And she started practicing her pristine “me-ness” by making friends with Sula whom her mother disagreed to at first because of Hannah Peace’s social reputation but later on, when Sula “seemed to have none of the mother’s slackness”, Helene gave in. Since then, Sula and Nel became inseparable and became their own version of the Deweys.
“Nel was the color of wet sandpaper—just dark enough to escape the blows of the pitch-black truebloods and the contempt of old women who worried about such things as bad blood mixtures and knew that the origins of a mule and a mulatto were one and the same.”
You see, discrimination did not only zero in on the white-versus-black conflict at that time. The passage above could be weighty evidence that there was also prejudice among the blacks themselves. How it was said that if her skin became any lighter she would have to defend herself from other people, the same people who were supposed to accept her because she came from their race, it was heart-deflating. Luckily, Nel did not experience being shunned by those people for she was dark enough for their liking.
“Because each had discovered years before that they are neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.”— Sula (see chapter 1922)
Being young girls in 1922 must have been bothersome for Sula and Nel because they were not white and, well, definitely not boys. But I would like to presume that it must have been harder for Nel because she did not have the boldness that Sula showed off even at their almost-teenage years. There was this one incident in the novel that Sula had to defend her from the four white boys who liked to pick on black children. Again, racism found its merry way to the lives of the main characters.
Several years after Chicken Little’s death, the way Nel’s mother honed her into a fine young lady so she could be chosen as a bride of someone highly regarded in the community in fact paid off when Jude Greene, the handsome tenor of the Mt. Zion’s Men’s Quartet, coaxed her into marrying him.
What’s not surprising is that, just like Helene, Nel married Jude not because she loved him but as she “liked the feeling of being needed” by him. This act also adds up to the last line written above as “creating something else to be” for the reason that Nel lived in the lifetime that women were only asked to follow and not to lead, and maybe since college was not an option for her because that would give her “freedom and triumph”, she might as well make the most of her married life.
“I thought the reason they are not looking up is because they are not doing that. So it’s all right. I am just standing here. They are not doing that. I am just standing here and seeing it, but they are not really doing it. But then they did look up.”— Nel Greene
Sula’s returning to the Bottom brought her immense joy that everything she does now was full of life, only to feel her self sinking into grief when she saw her husband cheating with Sula in their own bed. Denial struck her first when she saw the two people she loved most aside from her children naked, doing the unthinkable and most unacceptable, before she felt utmost hate towards Jude and Sula.
“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.”— Nel
This dialogue of Nel resonates that she believes that men have all the right to do whatever they wanted and women have their limit. Her words again showed that she thinks conventionally, that women could not get through with life without the help of men.
On another note, we may think now of Nel as a martyr or as someone who just goes with tradition, but let us also look at the fact that she stayed friends with Sula not just because of the sense of “me-ness” that it brought her but also because she liked the freedom that felt whenever she’s at Eva’s crowded house and how she could just do anything that pleases her, without her mother telling her what’s accepted by the society and what’s not. Likewise, there was also a streak of meanness in her that showed when she bullied Chicken Little when they saw him by the river and she just let Sula be solely consumed by the guilt carried by the death of Chicken Little. She only accepted that fact after she talked to a very confused and very old Eva Peace who, even in her delirious-like state, could still talk with sense.
“You. Sula. What’s the difference? You was there. You watched, didn’t you? Me, I never would’ve watched.”—Eva Peace (See Chapter 1965)
“Sula was a heavy brown with large quiet eyes, one of which featured a birthmark that spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose. It gave her otherwise plain face a broken excitement and blue-blade threat like the keloid scar of the razored man who sometimes played checkers with her grandmother. The birthmark was to grow darker as the years passed, but now it was the same shade as her gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain.” (See Chapter 1922)
This was how the author described Sula Mae Peace, the namesake of the book title, who came from a family where the women have power over men. Sula flouted banality that was the trend then for the women by going to college and being as free as a bird, just like her elders.
She presented her aptitude to live by her own rules just like her mother and grandmother when there was that time that four Irish boys kept on harassing Nel after school so they had to take the long way back home and Sula sort of got tired with it that when those white boys showed up, she revealed a paring knife and bravely slashed off the tip of her finger to show them what she’s capable of doing if triggered.
Sula raised her eyes to them. Her voice was quiet. “If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?”
Conversely, Hannah’s self-indulgence made a great impact on Sula’s life when growing up and seeing her mother having “fun” with men made her conclude that “sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable”. (See Chapter 1921)
“Marriage, apparently, had changed all that, but having had no intimate knowledge of marriage, having lived in a house with women who thought all men available, and selected from among them with a care only for their tastes, she was ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she felt close to.”
The town people, even Nel, may call her evil but her way with things can be linked to the time that she spent in Eva’s house back then. Because her father died she she was still almost a baby and her mother never re-married again and just flirted with guys, she had the notion that sleeping around with different men was plainly normal.
The distance and the years that they spent apart from each other weighed down on Sula and Nel to a great extent. According to her in Chapter 1939 from the book, she did not thought of inflicting pain to Nel when she slept with Jude because she did that with the idea that “all men are available” and the possessiveness that her best friend sported was foreign to her.
“At twenty-nine she knew it would be no other way for her, but she had not counted on the footsteps on the porch, and the beautiful black face that stared at her through the blue-glass window. Ajax.”
Before she shooed Eva off to the white church which is parallel to the nursing homes that we have nowadays, she asked Sula when she would ever get married but Sula talked back that she never would because just like them, she didn’t need a man. A couple of years after that conversation, she started seeing Albert Jacks, or Ajax to everyone, and liked how he talked to her, as if men and women were equivalent, and he valued her outlook in life. However, Ajax’s coming in her life and the kindness that he brought with him when he approached her softened her and taught her what “possessiveness” meant. She grew fond of the thought of possessing something, or someone by a manner of speaking, that she practically scared Ajax away from her because like her, Ajax did not like commitment. (See Chapter 1939)
“Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.”
Even on her deathbed, the arrogance that she inherited from Eva was still noticeable when she answered to Nel, the person she least expected to visit her, that same talk. For her, any loneliness that she felt was self-inflicted and she didn’t have to blame anybody for it. This characteristic showed that she was somehow the modern type of woman among the classics.
The last thought she had aside from having to tell Nel that dying was not painful was that word that Shadrack uttered and they misinterpreted it: Always. It was ironic that even before she gave in to her pain she thought of what Shadrack had said and tried to remember who told her that when she basically ran away from him for the fear that he would tip the police off about their involvement to Chicken Little’s death.
The passage I quoted somewhere in this paper about Sula and Nel being forbidden of freedom and triumph for they were neither white nor male, if given much thought, now weighed less than the idea that the black men in this story like Jude, Tar Baby and Ajax were not able to work at any job they want even if they were more than capable just because of their color.
The good thing that emerged from all the evil speculations that the Bottom people reserved for Sula was that the mothers became more dutiful to their family and the young cherished the elders all the more. Nonetheless, after Sula’s death, everything came back to usual for tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made.
And what most people lost was gained by Shadrack for after Sula’s demise his drinking habit became less frequent that, according to him, he could sometimes fall asleep without drinking. His problem though was that he changed so much that at this point of his life he was capable of feeling lonely. (See Chapter 1941)
Also, Nel’s love for Sula overpowered the hate that she’s been trying to conjure toward her all those years but to no avail because she just realized that she missed Sula more than she missed her now estranged husband.
Having read the book and thinking of how things changed for the people at the Bottom, I couldn’t help but relish on the idea that every twist and turn in a person’s life just like that of Sula has a reason and a basis, and if you, as a spectator like the Bottom people, could not bother yourself into researching how someone had ended up like that then don’t talk or act at all. Be open-minded.
“Why be racist when we all bleed the same color? Why judge when we haven't even got to really know each other? Discrimination does nothing but set us back. The world is more colorful when it's not only white and black.”—Anonymous