Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
Set in Medallion, Ohio, mostly between the world wars, Sula is a novel more about the black community living there than about any single character. As children, Nel and Sula come from different households, with Nel’s being far stricter, orderly, and proper to Sula’s chaotic, freewheeling boarding home run by her one-legged grandmother, Eva. In spite of these differences, they are best friends and together keep the secret of Sula’s involvement in the accidental drowning of a boy named Chicken Little (60). As they get older, though, they drift apart, especially following the death of Sula’s mother, Hannah, in a fire (75-8). After finishing school, Nel gets married, and Sula leaves town to attend college. Ten year later they are reunited when Sula returns to Bottom, self-assured but directionless. Sula is dismissive of all community conventions, alienating almost everyone, including Nel after Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband, and he abandons everyone (104-6). Eventually, Sula becomes ill and, defiant to the last, claims the town will miss having her to hate once she’s gone (145-6). When she dies, Sula remains ostracized, as her funeral is attended mostly by a few white people, but her prediction proves true, as the community cohesion in Bottom disintegrates in part because they no longer have Sula as a common point of contempt. Decades later, a nostalgic and slightly bitter Nel is shocked when the ancient Eva admits she knew that Nel and Sula were involved with Chicken’s drowning (168). In a moment of intense introspection, Nel discovers that the emptiness she’s felt for years is not because she misses her husband but because she misses Sula, her one true friend and the only other person who understood her.
It is nearly fifty pages before Sula is present in any meaningful way, so the title is a bit misleading. The story is really more about the people of African-American neighborhood of Bottom in Medallion, Ohio. The cast of characters is in greater focus overall as the audience is given significant stories and background on characters like Eva, Hannah, and Helene. The first chapter even focuses on the World War One veteran Shadrack, how he suffers from an extreme case of what contemporary readers will call PTSD, and his attempt to create National Suicide Day. All of this is done to let the reader know that the community will be the focus of the story with Nel and Sula eventually becoming different lenses through which to view it.
Morrison’s prose is sharp and lively with a precision that informs as it keeps the book moving despite the lack of a central plotline. For instance the audience learns “Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground,” and readers are told that, “like any artist with no art form, [Sula] became dangerous” (18, 121). Even in background stories, the author is economical, so the story doesn’t slacken. Morrison also doesn’t shy away from topics like sex, death, and self-mutilation, which may make some readers uneasy, but it is an uneasiness mirrored by the community of Bottom and their reaction to Sula’s lack of concern for their taboos. The language Morrison uses and the stories she provides show how some characters upset social conventions while other characters can have their disruptions accounted for, such as when the audience learns of Shadrack that, “once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things” (15).
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Plague of Robins, Murder of Crows
As with some of Morrison’s other works, Sula flirts with magic-realism and the supernatural. There are mysteries surrounding the loss of Eva’s leg, the dreams and signs that precede Hannah’s death, the cloud of robins that comes to Bottom with Sula, the vast knowledge of the “evil conjure woman,” Sula’s out-of-body experience, and the destructive collapse of the unfinished tunnel (31, 70-4, 89, 126, 149, 161-2). The strangeness and wonder of these happenings compliments the small, mundane qualities of the characters and their lives, with only Sula existing outside their standard boundaries and being chastised for it. Notice, for instance, how many of the extraordinary events in the previous catalogue are connected directly or indirectly with Sula.
The real tension of the novel comes from this friction between the community of Bottom and Sula’s desire to live free of such constraints. She believes if she is not living on her own terms, then she isn’t really living at all, and her terms aren’t necessarily those of the community. The people of Bottom only want to be safe in their small lives without the risk of failure, and Sula pities them and her old friend when thinking, “Alive was what they, and now Nel, did not want to be. Too dangerous. Now Nel belonged to the town and all of its ways. She’d given herself over to them, and the flick of their tongues would drive her back into her little dry corner” (120). For daring to live differently, Sula must suffer loneliness.
Overall, Sula is a strong work that examines the way characters thrive or don’t in a particular community that is making the most of its difficult circumstances. Some readers may be put off by a lack of central plot, but the development of the themes and characters along with the richness of the writing should be more than enough to keep audiences engaged and thinking.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Vintage International, 2004.
© 2017 Seth Tomko