Sula (Morrison)

Toni Morrison, 1973
Knopf Doubleday
174 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400033430

Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio.

Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret. It endures even after Nel has grown up to be a pillar of the black community and Sula has become a pariah. But their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal—or does it end? Terrifying, comic, ribald and tragic, Sula is a work that overflows with life. (From the publisher.)

Author  Bio 
Aka—Chloe Anthony Wofford
Birth—February 18, 1931
Where—Lorain, Ohio, USA
Education—B.A., Howard University; M.A.,  Cornell,
Awards—Nobel Prize, 1993, National Book Critics' Circle
  Award, 1977; Pulitzer Prize, 1988.
Currently—lives in Princeton, NJ and New York, NY

With her incredible string of lyrical, imaginative, and adventurous modern classics Toni Morrison lays claim to being one of America's best novelists. Race issues are at the heart of many of Morrison's most enduring novels, from the ways that white concepts of beauty affect a girl's self image in The Bluest Eye to themes of segregation in Sulu and slavery in her signature work Beloved. Through it all, Morrison relates her tales with lyrical eloquence and spellbinding mystery.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Morrison's unique approach to writing stems from a childhood spent steeped in folklore and mythology. Her family reveled in sharing these often tales, and their commingling of the fantastic and the natural would become a key element in her work when she began penning original tales of her own.

The other majorly influential factor in her writing was the racism she experienced firsthand in, as Jet magazine described it, the "mixed and sometimes hostile neighborhood" of Lorain, Ohio. When Morrison was only a toddler, her home was set afire by racists while her family was still inside of it. During times such as these, she found strength in her father, who instilled in her a great sense of dignity. This pride in her cultural background would heavily influence her debut novel.

In The Bluest Eye, an eleven-year old black girl named Pecola prays every night for blue eyes, seeing them as the epitome of feminine beauty. She believes these eyes, symbolizing commonly held white concepts of attractiveness, would put an end to her familial woes, an end to her father's excessive drinking and her brother's meandering. They would give her self-esteem and purpose. The Bluest Eye is the first of Toni Morrison's cries for racial pride and it is an auspicious debut told with an eerie poeticism.

Morrison next tackled segregation in Sulu, which chronicles the friendship between two women who, much like the author, grew up in a small, segregated village in Ohio. Song of Solomon followed. Arguably her first bona fide classic and certainly her most lyrical work, Song of Solomon breathed with the mythology of Morrison's youth, a veritable modern folktale pivoting on an eccentric whimsically named Milkman Dead who spends his life trying to fly. This is one of Morrison's most breathtaking, most accomplished and fully dimensional novels, a story of powerful convictions told in an unmistakably original manner.

In Song of Solomon, Morrison created a distinct world where the supernatural commingles comfortably with the mundane, a setting that would reappear in her masterpiece, Beloved. Beloved is a ghost story quite unlike any other, a tale of guilt and love and the horrendous legacy of slavery. Taking place not long after the end of the Civil War, Beloved finds Sethe, a former slave, being haunted by the daughter she murdered to save the child from being sold into slavery. It is a gut wrenching story that is buoyed by its fantastical plot device and the sheer beauty of Morrison's prose.

Beloved so moved Morrison's literary peers that forty-eight of them signed an open letter published in the New York Times demanding she be recognizing for this major effort. Subsequently, the book won her a Pulitzer Prize. A year after publishing her next novel Jazz in 1992, she would become the very first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Towards the end of the century, Morrison's work became increasingly eclectic. She not only published another finely crafted, incendiary novel in Paradise, which systematically tracks the genesis of an act of mob violence, but she also published her first children's book The Big Box. In 2003, she published Love, her first novel in five years, a complex meditation on family and the way one man fuels the obsessions of several women. The following year she assembled a collection of photographs of school children taken during the era of segregation. What makes Remember: The Journey to School Integration so particularly haunting is that Morrison chose to compose dialogue imagining what the subjects of each photo may have been thinking. In 2008, Morrison published A Mercy.

That imagination, that willingness to take chances, to examine history through a fresh perspective, is such an integral part of Morrison's craft. She is as vital as any contemporary artist, and her stories may focus on the black American experience, but the eloquence, imaginativeness, and meaningfulness of her writing leaps high over any racial boundaries.

• Chloe Anthony Wofford chose to publish her first novel under the name Toni Morrison because she believed that Toni was easier to pronounce than Chloe. Morrison later regretted assuming the nom de plume.

• In 1986, the first production of Morrison's sole play Dreaming Emmett was staged. The play was based on the story of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered by racists in 1955.

• Morrison's prestigious status is not limited to her revered novels or her multitude of awards. She also holds a chair at Princeton University. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
Morrison's novel is...vital and rich.... Her extravagantly beautiful, doomed characters are locked in a world where hope for the future is a foreign commodity, yet they are enormously, achingly alive. And this book about them—and about how their beauty is drained back and frozen—is a howl of love and rage, playful and funny as well as hard and bitter.... Toni Morrison is someone who really knows how to clank a sentence...and her dialogue is so compressed and life-like that it sizzles. Morrison's skill at characterization is such that, by the end, it's as if an enormous but too severely framed landscape has been unrolled and inhabited by people who seem almost mythologically strong and familiar...they have a heroic quality, and it's hard to believe we haven't known them forever.
Sara Blackburn - New York Times

Sula and Nel grow up through this novel in a small town called The Bottom, in Medallion, Ohio and in doing so got through different issues, situations, and strains, because of race, socioeconomic status, traditions, sexual orientation and intercourse. Through these issues human emotions are shown and just how different people can think.

Nel Wright is an example of the black bourgeoisie, structured in traditional roles and conventional life, and Sula lives in stucturelessness and her mother and grandmother are viewed eccentric and loose. The girls come from opposites, but come together, in which is like two halves making a whole.

Sula’s breakthrough about life occurs when she over hears her mother say that she doesn’t like Sula although she loves her. The reader learns that a mother will always love a child but doesn’t have to like them showing the difference between liking and loving. This also shows the novels exploration of human emotions. After hearing this Sula is changed forever, realizing you can only live for yourself.

The girls grow into adulthood. Nel stayed in their hometown and went into a conventional life that she grew up in; she got married, had kids, and was a housewife. Sula left for 10 years, went to college and traveled the country having affairs with many men.

The two reunite after Sula’s return to The Bottom. She caused trouble for the whole town, by being a threat to their convention and traditional ways of life. Woman changed and became more understanding of their husbands, working hard to keep them home so that they don’t fall into Sula’s bed. They treated children better and each other better. Sula’s return although some viewed as almost evil, brought good fortune to The Bottom, because the people change for the better.

Sula then commits the ultimate betrayal to Nel. It is through this betrayal and Sula’s demise that it is shown that Sula is not good or evil, she is merely indifferent to all. The events of her life leading up to her death such as her mothers comment has left Sula with any way of understanding human emotion or ability to have emotions. Without Sula the town then falls apart without the influence of her "evil" helping them to be better.

This novel causes the reader to look at "good" and "evil" and see that the good can be evil and the evil can be good. In the end Nel realizes that in some ways she is like Sula and that their relationship was even more important then the betrayal that had occurred in the Novel.
Daniel Dawkins - African-American Fiction

(Audio version.) Hearing an author read her own work creates a special ambiance. To hear Morrison read a short, unabridged novel published 24 years ago, to hear in her voice how much she still values the writing, well, who could ask for more? The only drawback is that Morrison, while very much in tune with her characters, often lets her voice drop to a whisper, making these tapes difficult to listen to while driving and almost impossible on a highway with the window open. On the page, Sula is one of her more clearly defined novels—the friendship and later hatred that envelopes the lives of two black women from "the bottom"—but the imagistic nature of the writing means listeners may have to replay passages if they want to follow the action. A small price to pay for a masterpiece. —Rochelle Ratner, formerly with Soho Weekly News, NYC
Library Journal

Told from the points of view of many characters, Sula provides a multifaceted portrait of a community and, within it, a friendship. Morrison confronts superstition, the role of women in black society, the ravages of war, legacy, and the gray areas of morality and perception that don't make any of the preceding easy to define. Students studying this work might want to concentrate on characterization (Sula's mother Hannah and her grandmother Eva are as complex as Sula and Nel) and the rhythm of Morrison's prose, especially in the first-person sections. Morrison has proven through her body of work that she is one of America's premier novelists, a writer who can portray multiple levels of even the simplest plot. Since she has written so few novels (eight at this writing), readers should easily be able to familiarize themselves with all her books. For those who have not read Morrison, I recommend starting with this book or Song of Solomon since the others are either more demanding or, in the case of The Bluest Eye, not as complex.
Debbie Lee Wesselman -

The novel...explores notions of good and evil through the friendship of two childhood friends who have witness the accidental death of a little boy. Nel admits to herself that she had blamed his death entirely on Sula and set herself up as the “good” half of the relationship. In this regard, Sula is a novel about ambiguity. It questions and examines the terms “good” and “evil,” often demonstrating that the two often resemble one another.
Moleskine Book Reviews -

Discussion Questions 
1. What is the significance of the quote at the start of the book, "Nobody knew my rose of the world but me.... I had too much glory. They don't want glory like that in nobody's heart." (The Rose Tattoo) How does this set the stage for the novel.

2. The novel begins by telling the reader that the Bottom, the neighborhood above Medallion, will soon be gone, replaced by the Medallion City Golf Course. How does knowing that the Bottom will soon be gone influence the rest of the novel? How does this description imply that things are not what they appear to be on the surface?

3. What are some possible reasons Eva's decision to go downstairs and light the fire, "the smoke of which was in her hair for years"? How does this make you feel about her character? Was this an act of sacrifice or selfishness? Can Eva be described as "good" or "bad"?

4. Eva gave her children to a neighbor and returned 18 months later, minus one leg. What is the possible symbolic significance of Eva's missing leg? How does it tie into the theme of deceptive appearances in the novel?

5. Sula contains some adult language and themes. Is this book appropriate for high school students? Are African Americans portrayed in a positive or negative light in the book? What about the portrayal of white people?

6. The novel takes place over the course of 45 years. How do relations between the races change over the course of the novel? How are the inhabitants of the Bottom and Medallion changed by what's going on in the world around them?

7. One reviewer commented that Sula is "a complex story of friendship and disappointment, death and sex, desperation and vulnerability" (Gayle Sims, Knight-Ridder Newspaper). How would you characterize the novel?

8. Sula and Nel become friends and later seem to be each other's alter egos. How does Nel's decision to marry inform Sula's life? How does Sula's leaving influence Nel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)


Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020