Toni Morrison's 1973 novel SULA is the story of the lives of two black women as they evolve from childhood friends to adulthood and eventually death; a story of resistance and conformity in response to circumstances and the choices we make. This review will examine the artistry, method, and ideas presented in Morrison's book, including the views of two critics Sara Blackburn and Fath Davis.Credit: Original photo from Angela Radulescu modified by Entheta.
Toni Morrison was born "Chloe Anthony Wofford" in Lorain, Ohio (Gates & McKay, 2094). She describes herself as growing up without a real understanding of the plight of blacks before and even somewhat during her own time. Her knowledge and understanding were a result of travels and studies she made to gain that appreciation. Her parents were migrants from the South and this southern heritage was a major influence on her work (Gates & McKay, 2095). Morrison attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., at which time she changed her name to Toni (Gates & McKay, 2095). It should also be noted that Toni Morrison is the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The setting of this story is in a Midwestern black community called "The Bottom" located near Medallion, Ohio. Ohio is a standard in her books because of her birth in Ohio and its connection to the Underground Railroad. She believes that Ohio represents "an escape from stereotyped black settings . . . being neither plantation nor ghetto" (Gates & McKay, 2095). Morrison has said that, "one reason she wrote the novel is that friendship between women is special, different, and has never been depicted as the major focus of a novel before SULA" (Gates & McKay, 2096).
The story is primarily told from the position of a traditional narrator; yet, it still allows the characters themselves to step forward and change the perspective of the reader. Morrison guides the reader through the events and lives of the people of The Bottom as if you were watching the drama unfold in front of you. She breaks the story's flow at various points shifting the story, the characters, and the perspective with little warning. Within a chapter the characters will come to the forefront to speak their own parts; then, as a scene ends, the perspective changes to the author's narration of description, interpretation of the emotions, thoughts, or rationale expressed and displayed by the characters. Additionally, Morrison uses many symbols to delineate the self and support her theme.
Early in this book, the characters, Helene and Nel travel by train from The Bottom to New Orleans modeling Morrison's own pursuit of knowledge and experience. The experiences of this train trip represent many social problems encountered by the African American populace of the early 1900's. Helene describes the reactions and her feelings as she enters the "WHITES-ONLY" car of the train, and the looks and attitudes of the people, as she makes her way back to the "COLORED-ONLY" car. Even the black folk Helene encounters look at her with a glare and a grimace because her skin is not as dark as theirs and has a copper hue as a result of her Cajun roots.
Characters Morrison establishes well are Shadrack, Helene, Hannah, Sula, Nel, and Eva. Shadrack, Eva, Helene, and Hannah are supporting key characters shaping how Sula and Nel view the world and themselves. As a child, Nel's mother often told her, "Don't just sit there, honey. You could be pulling your nose" (Morrison, 28). "Don't you want a nice nose when you grow up" (Morrison, 55)? The idea was being impressed on Nel that a beautiful nose was a long straight nose. Even for Nel's mother, Helene, skin tone was a concern as she (Helene) guarded her skin from view by other black folks on the train, so that they did not question her or draw too much attention to herself (Helene's mother was white and her father black). Eva is always looked up too and presented as a woman of strong will, independence, and as a mysterious matriarch. Helene is the wholesome mother, and, yet, still somewhat naive to the world. Hannah plays up the issue of sex and where it fits in Sula's and Nel's lives. Shadrack is the mirror of isolation and innocence. Shadrack is developed in more detail than most of Morrison's male characters. Shadrack's experiences and the impact of those experiences on his mind, personality, and ultimately his behaviors are explored early on in this story. Shadrack eventually is isolated from the town due to his inability to cope with the negative events of the war he experienced. For these characters, a lot of attention is placed on appearances, body, sexual relations, emotions and their purposes; all issues playing into the perceptions of the characters and the community.
As for Sula herself, Morrison presents her isolation from the town after her return from the "big city." This isolation was not due to negative experiences that twisted Sula's mind as in the case of Shadrack. Sula's isolation was a result of her attitude, behavior, and rebellion against conforming to the town's norms. Sula represented to the towns-people something to openly despise and fear because she knew things they didn't, and she behaved in ways they couldn't accept; while Nel's isolation was internalized and self-imposed as a result of her husband leaving her; and as presented by Morrison, this was Nel's consequence of her own conformity to the town norms. Morrison also interjects superstition into this story by presenting a flock of robins invading the town on the day Sula returns to Medallion and The Bottom. Most of the people of the town remembered a time when a flock of crows invaded the town and blackened the sky. They considered this a sign of evil; therefore, Sula was linked to this event as being the evil in town.
In Morrison's story, the treatment of women, men, and children seems establish stereotype differences between men and women. Men are generally portrayed as lacking in trust, integrity, principles, strength of character, and morals. Examples of these portrayals are: Eva's husband left her early in their marriage, leaving her (Eva) to fend for herself; Nel's husband left her for Sula; and a string of suitors that pursued Hanna for her sexual attentions. Plum and Tar Baby were described as alcoholics and the young boys Eva took into her home were always shown as mischievous and troublesome. Morrison's definition of integrity may be the act of being true to yourself and your beliefs above all things. Despite Nel's or the towns' feelings toward her, Sula shows no remorse for sleeping with her best and only friend's (Nel's) husband. Sula says what she feels and believes without regard to the feelings of others. She does this, not out of malice, but for truth to her own desires. Nel never shows real anger or hatred for Sula after this betrayal, only confusion and the feelings of loss of both her husband and her friend (Sula). At Sula's death, Nel comes to realize that it was her friendship and feelings toward Sula that were the most important to her.
New York Times
Sara Blackburn, writing for the New York Times, states, "Morrison hasn't endowed her people with life beyond their place and function in the novel, and we can't imagine their surviving outside the tiny community where they carry on their separate lives." The setting and characters are convincing and intriguing, yet "the novel seems somehow frozen." The story is written in concise, precise language. "Reading it, in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness, its refusal to bring over into the world outside its provincial setting (Blackburn. 3)." Blackburn finds SULA's qualities limiting in its "long-range impact" and not sustaining the intensity during a first reading. It requires a second reading to grasp some of the subtle meanings Morrison interjects in the stories within stories. Blackburn compares Morrison's fiction and non-fiction works, and is somewhat critical of Morrison. She (Blackburn) finds Morrison's novels written with "strength and skill in confronting current realities," while Morrison's non-fiction is written in "stinging immediacy." Blackburn's frustration with Morrison is that she (Morrison) does not combine these qualities within a single work.
SULA Audio Book
As read by the author.
The Harvard Advocate Review
Followed by some final words.
Credit: Graphic created by cory stophlet, 2014Fath Davis writing for The Harvard Advocate stated that, "There is nothing particularly striking about the black citizens of Medallion, Ohio where SULA is set. Despite the mundane boundaries of their lives, Toni Morrison illuminates the complexity of their attitudes towards life. Having reached a quiet and extensive understanding of their situation, they can endure life's calamities and not burn up prematurely, the martyrs of some terrible desperation." According to Davis, Morrison "never allows us to become indifferent to these people. She knows them and we know them too" (Davis, 62-62). These are the people in our neighborhoods, families, communities, and churches (Davis, 62-62). Davis finds these characters of Bottom jumping up from the pages as "vital and strong," because Morrison has taken great care to accomplish that effect. The personalities are "molded by the quality and duration of their pain" (Davis, 62-62). Davis states that Sula and Nel are portrayed with "an amazing delicacy and lightness of touch." There are no singular glaring messages, just the necessary information to understand what motivates and initiates their actions. Davis finds the language simple and potent.
"It is both tight and quiet, not over luscious with flowery phrases (Davis, 62-62). Morrison's spare quality of "writing blends softly with the languid and familiar tone of the dialogue. A beautiful and haunting atmosphere emerges out of the wreck of these folks' lives, a quality that is absolutely convincing and precise” (Davis, 62-62). In contrast to Blackburn, Davis believes these characters are not limited to their time and space, "but reach out to us and take in our pain also." For Davis, it is this capacity which distinguishes Toni Morrison's work: "She can write so that it rings true to us. She draws in SULA a vision of pain that lives in our eyes too" (Davis, 61-62).
A Final Word
The book SULA is an easy yet contemplative read regarding the relationship between Nel Wright, Sula Peace, and their relationship to the community; "The Bottom; and that community's view of who a woman should be" (Gates & McKay, 2096). In interviews with the author, Morrison stressed that "the qualities of Nel, the traditional nurturing woman, and Sula, the New World adventurous woman, are characteristics that African American women have long combined - and that they have a necessity to be both the ship and the harbor" (Gates & McKay, 2096). SULA is a concisely written novel of how we view ourselves, our community, and the battle between resistance and conformity in response to circumstances and the choices we make.
In any case, this book is definitely worth reading; enjoy!
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