WHO BY FIRE: ‘SULA’ BY TONI MORRISON
‘Sula’ is Toni Morrison’s second novel; it appeared in 1973, but TM states in the foreword that she wrote the book in 1969, while living in Queens and commuting to Manhattan, and raising two children as a single mother (Morrison was divorced in 1964). She recalls “The things we traded! … Daring especially because in the late sixties, with so many dead, detained, or silenced, there could be no turning back simply because there was no “back” back there. Cut adrift, so to speak, we found it possible to think up things, try things, explore.” She writes that she “began to think about what that kind of license would have been like for us black women forty years earlier.”
‘Sula’ is set mainly in the interwar years, with a final chapter set in 1965, in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The black neighborhood is located in the hills and is ironically known as “the Bottom.” On the edge of the town and bordering an unnamed river, a never-completed tunnel project hangs like an unkept promise over the story.
A ten-year gap divides the book into two equal parts. The story follows the lives of two girls, Sula Peace and Nel Wright (both born about 1910) as they grow up together. In addition to the principal characters – Nel and Sula, Sula’s mother Hannah, and her grandmother Eva – there’s also Shadrack, the shell-shocked Great War veteran who opens the story and who is, improbably, one of the few characters left alive at its end. Other characters include a light-skinned man known as Tar Baby (who is not connected with the later TM novel of the same name) and three boys who live as foster sons to Eva and are known collectively as “the deweys” (with a small d).
The plot of ‘Sula’ is dominated by three deaths and a betrayal. First, Eva’s youngest child Ralph (“Plum”) returns from the war with disturbing habits and a drug addiction; Eva ends his troubles by visiting him in his sleep with a can of kerosene. Thirty pages later, Hannah, Eva’s eldest child, catches fire and Eva tries desperately – and in vain – to save her. (“Eva mused over the perfection of the judgment against her.”) In between the two burnings, Nel and Sula witness the drowning death of the boy Chicken Little – under circumstances that will remain a source of contention for the characters throughout the book.
Nel and Sula’s friendship anchors the first half of the book; its dissolution, the second. The attraction Sula holds for Nel is in her wildness. On her only trip out of Medallion – a train ride with her mother to visit family in New Orleans – Nel sees her mother Helene smiling deferentially to an arrogant white conductor on the jim crow train; then, observing the contempt in the eyes of black men seated nearby, she resolves never to emulate her mother, and “to make sure no man ever looked at her that way.” Nel also feels Helene’s insecurity over Nel’s dark skin and African features (a theme TM will address more directly in ‘God Help the Child’) and Helene’s anxiety over own mother Rochelle, who is identified as “a Creole whore” and introduced fleetingly on pp. 25 – 27. “I don’t talk Creole,” Helene clarifies for Nel, “and neither do you.” Helene is determined to raise her own daughter properly.
It’s in this atmosphere that Nel meets Sula, and immediately prefers
Sula’s woolly house, where a pot of something was always cooking on the stove; where the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions; where all sorts of people dropped in; where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink, and where a one-legged grandmother named Eva handed you goobers from deep inside her pockets or read you a dream.
Eva’s one-leggedness is the source of much speculation, but the rumor has it that she “stuck it under a train” to collect a handsome liability payment. A penchant for self-mutilation seems to run in the family, as Sula later confronts a gang of bullies menacing herself and Nel, and slices off her own fingertip, saying, “If I can do that to myself, what do you suppose I’ll do to you?” So Sula cements her own reputation with Nel as a certified badass.
They remain intimate friends, sharing confidences and the guilty secret of Chicken Little’s drowning, all the way up to Nel’s marriage in 1927 to Jude Greene. Jude is a 20-year-old man eager for the responsibilities of manhood. Like many of the black men of Medallion, he dreams of being offered the chance to do dignified labor building the tunnel under the river to join Medallion to the neigboring town. He never gets that tunnel job – the work remains whites-only – but he does marry Nel, and Sula leaves town for ten years. When Sula returns, it is to catch up on old times with Nel – and then to wreck her marriage.
Eventually Nell, desperate for closure, visits the ailing Sula in hopes of a reconciliation, but finds none. (Years later – apparently a glutton for punishment – she will visit the aged Eva with the same purpose and the same result.) Sula dies alone and friendless, in her final moments dreading the impending permanence of death – and acknowledging the truth of a horrifying suspicion Eva had had about her.
For Sula, hell is permanence; for Nell, hell is change. (See p. 108.) And this may be the secret behind the mysterious word spoken by Shacrack to Sula on the bank of the river, where the water has closed over Chicken Little, as Shadrack recollects many years later:
… so she wouldn’t have to be afraid of change – the falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood, and the exposure of bone underneath. He had said “always” to convince her, assure her, of permanancy.
It worked, for when he said it her face lit up and the hurt did leave. She ran then, carrying his knowledge … (p. 157)
A short time after Sula’s death (which Shadrack intuitively senses) the people of Medallion form “a pied piper’s band behind Shadrack” and giddily march to the river to take revenge on the unfinished tunnel that has mocked them for years. The tunnel has the last laugh, and a long list of characters meet their demise under water and mud on page 162.
The final chapter jumps ahead in time by 24 years, to 1965 when integration and gentrification have had their effects on Medallion and Bottom. Nel pays a visit to elderly Eva at her quarters in the Sunnydale home. After taking a moment to collect her wits, Eva promptly accuses Nel of having drowned Chicken Little all those years ago – leading Nel to the epiphany, “Eva was mean.” (No kidding? The kerosene would have been my first clue, but that’s just me.) Later, Nel visits Sula’s grave, and, after passing Shadrack on her way out of the cemetery, calls Sula’s name.
If the character of Sula was intended to be a sympathetic figure, I was unable to find her so. She has precious few qualities that I found likeable or even redeeming. She strikes me as a narcissist or a sociopath, and like many such people she has an almost supernatural ability to gain the trust of whoever she depends on for emotional sustenance – in this case, Nel, who is the perfect codependent. If at the end of the book Nel finds herself missing Sula more than her husband of ten years and the father of her three children, perhaps it’s an indication of Sula’s hold over her.
‘Sula’ is not my favorite Toni Morrison novel and I’m not going to tell you that it is. I found it depressing, tedious, and morally incoherent. But I am going to tell you that I was glad I took the time to read ‘Sula’, in which we can see some of the themes of TM’s later work.
Problem mothers, a Morrison trademark, first appear in earnest here. Veterans will appear again and again, most notably in ‘Home’. Skin color – as distinct from “race” – crops up throughout ‘Sula’, from Nel’s anxiety over her own “custard” mother (and her fascination with the “sooty” Hannah), to her concern over the “blows of the pitch-black truebloods” (p. 52), to the ambiguous racial identity of Tar Baby and the deweys. There is a detailed examination of the evil of racism and its pernicious effects on the human psyche, but there’s also a critique of some of the cliquish aspects of black society – for example the description of miscegenation anxiety among the black townsfolk on p. 113. (“In fact, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did.”)
The theme of accountability – What did you know and when did you know it? What did you do about it? Who did you tell? – is central in ‘Sula’, as it will be again in ‘Tar Baby’ and ‘Beloved’. Most conspicuously, though, there are no saints in this book. In ‘The Bluest Eye’, the character of Pecola was wholly innocent, wholly helpless, and wholly victim – the first and perhaps the last such protagonist in Toni Morrison’s novels. Here, TM seems determined to turn the “flawed protagonist” dial up to 12, perhaps over-compensating for the innocence of Pecola.
But the title character comes across for me as manipulative, lacking empathy, and wholly self-centered. If Sula learned her relaxed sexual habits from her mother (p. 44), fair enough. But Hannah also understood the unwritten codes by which a certain level of infidelity could be tolerated in the society of Medallion. Sula, on the other hand, remained so indifferent and oblivious to other people that she never absorbed those rules, or even suspected their existence. No doubt it’s true that “she had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude” – because she never took the trouble to educate herself about what kinds of behavior might cause pain to others, even the one woman she ostensibly cared about.
Sula’s attachment to Nel is that of a misfit child, who believes she sees in a playmate a kindred spirit, a loner like herself; but when the playmate shows signs of “fitting in” with the larger society, the misfit feels threatened and fears losing the playmate to the big bad world. “Now Nel was one of them. … Now Nel belonged to the town and all its ways. She had given herself over to them …” (p. 120). In Sula’s mind, it is Nel who has betrayed her.
The latter part of the book is weighed down by a great deal of exposition by and about the characters of Nel and Sula. I think it has a defensive feel, as if the characters – and their creator – are trying to justify themselves.
In the foreword, Toni Morrison explains that Eva, Hannah, Nel, and Sula represent different visions of freedom:
The sexual freedom of Hannah [Peace] was my entrance into the story …. Against her fairly modest claims to personal liberty are placed conventional and anarchic ones: Eva’s physical sacrifice for economic freedom; Nel’s accommodation to the protection marriage promises; Sula’s resistance to either sacrifice or accommodation.
Then perhaps there is something to be said for convention and accommodation. To an independently-minded young person such as Nel (and perhaps her creator), the anarchic, nonconformist atmosphere of Eva’s household seems exotic and appealing, when set against the conformity and hypocrisy of the community.
But I find something cold and mercenary in Eva’s character. When Hannah asks Eva if she ever loved her children, Eva responds indignantly and calls her a “heifer” and a “snake-eyed ungrateful hussy”. It’s undeniable that Eva made material sacrifices for her children – at least until she incinerated Plum – but I don’t think that’s the same thing.
(In her tortured justification for killing Plum, Eva claims that she feared Plum was going to sexually molest her. But there’s no evidence in the text that these encounters ever took place outside of Eva’s imagination – “when I closed my eyes I’d see him” – and it’s possible the oedipal feelings were entirely on Eva’s part. Perhaps her own arousal and guilt caused her such discomfort that she saw no solution but to eliminate the source of those feelings; cf. Frank Money and the Korean girl in ‘Home’. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Still, it is Sula (“although she does nothing as horrendous as what Eva does” – foreword, p. xiii) who presented the direct threat to the community of Medallion. It is not surprising that they responded as people everywhere do, putting aside their lesser concerns and grudges, and uniting in the face of the threat. The author presents this as evidence of the myopia and small-mindedness of the townspeople, but I think it’s just human nature. And at the end of the book, it was with these people – not with Sula or even Nel, but with the people of Medallion, all the minor and unnamed characters who wander in and out of the story – that my sympathies finally lay.
Where youth sees “hypocrisy”, maturity often sees pragmatism. Where youth sees the “unconventional”, maturity may see the dysfunctional. I think Toni Morrison succeded in conveying a great truth in ‘Sula’, but perhaps not the one she intended. “Outlaw women are fascinating,” Morrison writes in the foreword, but the consequences of irresponsible acts are painful and exceedingly dull. If there is a moral insight to be gained from reading ‘Sula’, it is the danger of romanticizing the ‘rebel’ – both in literature and in life.