Published in 1973, Toni Morrison’s second novel Sula is a short but incredibly rich story about friendship and community, and about the ways that fear and hatred can bring people together and tear them apart. Morrison’s characters can be enticing and alluring, powerful and defiant in the face of poverty, prejudice, disappointment, and death. The title character Sula is a rebel amongst her community in Medallion, Ohio. As a black woman in the 1920s and ’30s, she refused to be confined by the limits society would place on her, and as a result, she rocked her relationship with childhood friend Nel and with the other families who resided in “the Bottom.”
One of the central characters of the novel is the community known as “the Bottom.” We know that the Bottom is situated high in the hills, where the land is hard to farm, and is populated by blacks; the whites live in the valley, close to the river. The residents of the Bottom can act as a collective but they include a number of distinct characters whose actions cause both conscious and unconscious community reaction. Among the residents of the Bottom is a WWI veteran, shellshocked by his experience of war. Shadrack is a loner whose eccentricities initially frighten his neighbors, but
Once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things.
So when Shadrack institutes National Suicide Day and parades through the Bottom every January with a hangman’s rope and cowbell, telling residents that this is their one day to kill, they come to just accept it. Another unusual resident is Eva Peace, Sula’s one-legged grandmother who takes in borders and adopts three boys, naming each one Dewey. Sula’s mother Hannah is a sensual and kind woman who loves men, loves being touched, and meets a horrifying end.
Making things and people fit in, having them become part of some order, is the way of the community, and Nel’s parents are expert at this. Nel is “… obedient and polite. Any enthusiasms Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.” Nel’s mother’s act of subservience on a train trip to New Orleans causes other blacks on the train to look upon her with disgust, a look Nel is determined never to have directed at her. Young Nel, looking at herself in a mirror, tells herself, “‘I’m me. Me.’ Each time she said the word me there was a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear.” Nel and Sula meet as children and make an immediate connection, as if they are one person, of one mind.
Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.
Sula is the one who seems to succeed at this — “creating something else to be.” When the girls finish school, Nel marries while Sula leaves Medallion for a decade. When she returns in 1937, nature seems to send an evil omen in advance. A plague of robins swarms Medallion, leaving shit and dead bird bodies all around. The residents’ response to this bizarre occurrence is to accept it and let it run its course.
The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide — it was beneath them.
Nel is initially happy to see her old friend, but Sula quickly wins the hatred of her grandmother and neighbors. Eva wants Sula to get married and have children, but Sula cries, “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.” She has her grandmother committed to a nursing home and sleeps around. Given her late mother’s history, this wouldn’t have been shocking to the community, but Sula is rumored to have slept with white men (unforgivable), and while
Hannah had been a nuisance … she was complimenting the women, in a way, by wanting their husbands. Sula was trying them out and discarding them ….
Sula’s sin was dissatisfaction with what others found suitable and acceptable — not just men but life in general. The community cannot make sense of her and so she becomes a sort of scapegoat that unifies them.
Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another…. and in general band together against the devil in their midst.
Sula and Nel have a falling out as well, and in their final meeting, Sula defiantly declares her right to personal independence once again:
[Sula] I sure did live in this world.
[Nel] Really? What have you got to show for it?
[S] Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.
[N] Lonely, ain’t it?
[S] Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.
Sula did it her way. Even if her actions weren’t necessarily admirable, her spirit sure is. Nel’s final scene of the novel and her revelation are heartbreakingly beautiful, a testimony to strong, loving, lifelong bonds between women.