Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye”(1970), was acclaimed as the work of an important talent, written- as John Leonard said in The New York Times- in a prose “so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry”. It was actually necessary to expose this comment, that finally leads us to our topic today, Morrison’s second novel, “Sula” and the fact that “Sula” has the same power, the same beauty.
The action is taking place in the Bottom. The Bottom is the mostly black community in Ohio, situated in the hills above the mostly white, wealthier community of Medallion. First became a community when a master gave it to his former slave. This ‘gift’ was in fact a trick: the master gave the former slave a poor stretch of hilly land, convincing the slave the land was worthwhile by claiming that because it was hilly, it was closer to haven. The trick, though, led to the growth of a vibrant community. Now the community faces a new threat: wealthy whites have taken a liking to the land, and would like to destroy much of the town in order to build a golf course. The demolition of Bottom’s old shacks to make room for a pristine golf course seems like an improvement. However, Morrison states the Bottom was once a vibrant community filled with laughing voices and a parade of unique, interesting people. The building of the golf course is in fact the displacement of this vibrant community, it is an example of homogeneity encroaching upon what was once unique.
At its center- a friendship between two women, a friendship whose intensity first sustains, then injures. Sula and Nel- both black, both smart, both poor, raised in a small Ohio town- meet when they are twelve, wishbone thin and dreaming of princes. Through their girlhood years they share everything- perceptions, judgements, yearnings, secrets, even crime- until Sula gets out, out of the Bottom, the hilltop neighborhood where beneath the sporting life of the men hanging around the place in head rags and soft felt hats, there hides a fierce resentment at failed crops, lost jobs, thieving insurance men, bug-ridden flour…at the invisible line that cannot be overstepped. Sula leaps it and roams the cities of America for ten years. Then she returns to the town, to her friend. But Nel is a wife now, settled with her man and her three children. She belongs. She accommodates to the Bottom, where you avoid the hand of God by getting in it, by staying upright helping out at church supper, asking after folks- where you deal with evil by surviving it. Not Sula. As willing to feel pain as to give pain, she can never accommodate. Nel cannot understand her anymore, and the others never did. Sula scares them. Mention her now, and they recall that she put her grandmother in an old folk’s home (the old lady who let a train take her leg for the insurance)… that a child drowned in the river years ago…that there was a plague of robins when she first returned.
In clear, dark, resonant language, Toni Morrison brilliantly evokes not only a bond between two lives, but the harsh, loveless, ultimately mad world in which that bond is destroyed, the world of the Bottom and its people, through fourty years, up to the time of their bewildered realization that even more than they feared Sula, their pariah, they needed her. In this context of paradox, we must point out that the novel has a general theme, the feminist theme and the fact that most of the women characters take on masculine roles (Sula being the main example for the power of her personality), and its most important theme of good vs. evil. This theme affects everyone in the book, especially Nel and Sula. Most readers would consider Nel the ‘good’ girl, and Sula would be labelled as the ‘bad’ girl. However towards the end of Sula’s life, she presents Nel with an idea that maybe she was the ‘good’ one all along, and Nell was the ‘bad’ girl. Whatever considered, together, the girls seem to form two halves of a whole.
The paradox mentioned earlier is related to the view of the black community upon all the facts and the characters. The black community has a very important role in the novel, representing the context that characterizes the persons involved and, through its point of view, makes an excellent self- description. It must be remembered and explained the mentality of that time characterized by a deep racism and a great power of unwillingness.
The Bottom is a superstitious community. They cannot accept Sula for what she is, a rebellion, and they put her in contrast with Nel, a settled person. It’s worth mentioning here some features of each girl, as to point out the exact way of thinking. Nel’s household is bound by the social standards that define the conventional meaning of ‘family’: static, repressive, in order, well-kept, in agree with the community, while Sula’s house is built on unconventional family structure: multi-generational run by women, vibrant, active, subject to constant change, huge and rambling. The houses symbolize the differing potential for growth and change in the girls’ families.
The theme of good vs. evil applies here, Sula being the truly evil. The black community rallies to defend itself against Sula. She has done the unthinkable: she has put her grandmother, Eva Peace, in a nursing home- for this, she is labelled ‘roach’. In addition, she has had some type of sexual encounter with her best friend’s husband and then moved on to other lovers – for this transgression, she is labelled ‘bitch’. Everyone remembers the plague of filthy robins associated with Sula’s returning to the Bottom (‘In spite of their fear, they reacted to an oppressive oddity, or what they called evil days, with an acceptance that bordered on welcome. Such evil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it’), and they resurrect the old anecdote about Sula’s passively watching her mother burn to death; they decide once and for all that Sula’s birthmark is really Hannah’s ashes. But the most heinous of her crimes is that she has slept with white men. The strong damnation of such an indictment is derived from the racism under which the entire community has suffered. Sula’s alleged interracial affairs are perceived as an affront to all of the black people living in the Bottom. Sula’s every move becomes suspect, and even random occurrences of bad luck are attributed to her. Her apparent defiance of physical and moral laws galvanizes the black community against her. Sula is unnatural: she doesn’t age, has lost no teeth, never bruises, refuses to wear underwear at church suppers, has never been sick, and doesn’t belch when she drinks beer. When she bewitches Shadrack into tipping his imaginary hat to her, the community is convinced that Sula is both devil and evil personified. Fully aware that she is the town’s pariah, Sula does as she pleases, when she pleases.
Ironically, the community’s labeling of Sula as evil actually improves their own lives. Her presence in the community gives them the impetus to live harmoniously with one another. Teapot’s mother was once a negligent parent, but she begins to care for her son as a result of her hatred for Sula. Sula’s presence gives the residents of the Bottom a stronger sense of collective identity and strength. Her affairs with white men give them a stronger sense of outrage against the interracial relationships, which actually are exploitative. Therefore, Sula’s presence also gives them a stronger sense of racial identity. Although the community regards her as an evil person, her return to the Bottom is actually far more than it appears to be. It is actually a blessing in disguise. What seems like a chaotic disruption in the social fabric is in fact an ordering and focusing influence.
But the people see things differently. Sula dies. She reflects on her life without regret. She feels that she has milked all the experiences she can out of life. She is also happy that she is unique in her way of being, of thinking, of acting, and she knows she has left something good after her. But the community views Sula’s death as a positive event(‘The death of Sula Peace was the best news folks up in the Bottom had had since the promise of work at the tunnel’).
However, events are again not what they at first seem. Besides the natural misfortunes of weather and the social misfortune of racism, the community has lost the binding influence of Sula’s presence. The community’s moral resolve and harmony dissolve in the absence of the woman who, in breaking social conventions, motivated others to uphold them. The final chapter closes the circular narrative of “Sula”. Nel reflects on the ambiguous blessings of ‘social progress’: the former residents of the Bottom now have more civil rights, and they have been wealthier in the years following the war. On the surface, this seems like a positive thing. However, they have also lost something: the disintegration of the collective social identity that began with Sula’s death has only grown worse; the community, which once defined the Bottom, has been replaced by a town in which the people live in relative isolation from one another(‘Then Medallion turned silver. It seemed sudden, but actually there had been days and days of no snow- just frost- when, late one afternoon, a rain fell and froze.’[…] ‘…but up in the Bottom black folks suffered heavily in their thin houses and thinner clothes.’[…] ‘Hard on the heels of the general relief that Sula’s death brought a restless irritability took hold’[..] ‘Now that Sula was dead and done with, they returned to a steeping resentment of the burdens of old people’[…] ‘In the meantime the Bottom had collapsed.’[…] ‘The black people, for all their new look, seemed awfully anxious to get to the valley, or leave town, and abandon the hills to whoever was interested. It was sad because the Bottom had been a real place. These young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn- and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn’t been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren’t any place left, just separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones and less and less dropping by.’).
Maybe that all these facts wouldn’t have happened, and the people would have understood better the newness if Nel and Sula had formed a single person. Separately, each of them is excessive in her way and they cannot live separately.
In essence, they represent two halves of the same equation; and, as such, neither can be worse than the other.
The famous New York Times said once about “Sula”: “Extravagantly beautiful…Enormously, achingly alive…A howl of love and rage, playful and funny as well as hard and bitter”.
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