Summary of the Novel
Sula is a multi-faceted novel. It is, first of all, a story of the friendship of two black women (Sula and Nel) over a period of almost 45 years. The friendship, which begins in about 1921, continues through high school and even until Nel’s marriage to Jude. It is almost ten years after Nel’s marriage before Sula returns to the small town of Medallion, Ohio; she brings home tales of college and travels. When Nel meets Sula again, their friendship commences as if nothing had ever happened. Nel, however, interrupts Sula and Jude as they are having sex. Jude and Sula leave town together, but Sula soon returns alone. Nel has no contact with Sula for three more years. Nel goes to Sula when she finds out that Sula is dying. Sula tells Nel that if Nel had truly loved her, Nel would have forgiven her. Nel still does not forgive and continues to ask why Sula behaved as she did. It is only after Sula's death and burial that Nel realizes that it has been Sula—not Jude—whom Nel has missed through the years. Sula is also the story of a neighborhood. The Bottom (actually the hilly land which is supposed to be the bottom of Heaven) with its black residents and the valley with its white residents are marked contrasts. Neither group of inhabitants seems content. The valley residents eventually take over much of the Bottom. The tight-knit neighborhood of the Bottom changes into a community where the people seek little connection with one another. The Bottom residents themselves destroy the uncompleted tunnel, a link to future employment and travel opportunities. Sula traces family histories from grandparents, parents, Nel and Sula themselves, and Nel’s family. Interwoven with their lives are Shadrack, who suffers with a psychic injury from the war, the adopted deweys, and the Jackson and Suggs families. Sula is a tragedy which unfolds in nonchronological order. Sula’s mother burns to death in her sight, her uncle burns at the hand of his mother (Sula’s grandmother), and Sula dies alone at a young age. Shadrack’s life is never the same after World War I. Nel spends her adult years as a single mother rearing three children and mourning the loss of a husband—and later a friend. Eva engages in self-mutilation and loses a leg to draw insurance money, sets fire to her own son, sees her daughter burn to death, and, at last, must reside in an old age home at the hand of her granddaughter. Jude loses his wife and three children when he has sex with his wife’s best friend. The community residents, who had been close, separate themselves from one another; they eventually destroy the tunnel—their link to the New Road and to promised employment opportunities. Many people die in the destruction. Hate, sarcasm, loss of life, and lack of identity bring unhappiness to an area which is supposed to be the Bottom of Heaven. Marvin, in Library Journal of 1973, calls Sula "an evocation of a whole black community during a span of over 40 years." Morrison, he says, describes this "re-creation of the black experience in America with both artistry and authenticity." In the New York Times Book Review, Blackburn describes the novel as "frozen" and "stylized." She calls it an "icy version" of Morrison’s first novel and a book with characters who are "achingly alive." Prescott in Newsweek of 1974 calls Sula an "exemplary fable...arranged in a pattern that cannot be anticipated until the author is done with her surprises." Prescott comments on the "surprising scope and depth" of Sula; Blackburn calls it a "howl of love and rage."
Estimated Reading Time
The average silent reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute, according to Lambert. Because each page has about 300 words on it, an average student would take about one minute to read each page. The reading time for the 174-page book would be about three hours. One must, however, allow extra time for interpretation. This means that the total reading time for Sula will probably be about four hours. Reading the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach.
The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-mill town. Her name at birth was Chloe Anthony Wofford, and she was one of four children born to George and Ramah Wofford.
The Wofford family was not well-off financially. At one point, when George and Ramah could not pay their $4.00 rent, the landlord set fire to the house—with Chloe, her older sister, and her parents still inside. No one was injured. Her parents frequently shared the story in an amusing—not a tragic—way; Chloe said the incident helped give her a sense of humor.
Chloe's father came from Georgia. He left that state because of the racial evils he witnessed there. These atrocities were, to him, sufficient reason for hating all whites. George was a pessimist and believed that no hope was imminent for African-Americans. Chloe's mother, on the other hand, was more optimistic. She believed that individuals in society could better their lots.
Chloe's family life had many influences. One such influence was superstition, which figured prominently into the belief system and activities of the family. For instance, Chloe's maternal grandmother kept a dream book with symbols. She used these symbols for playing the numbers. Chloe's father loved to delight the children with scary ghost stories, which also reflected superstition.
A second important influence on Chloe's family was a respect for its heritage. George Wofford skillfully wove the stories of family into oral history which the children clamored to hear again and again.
Music was a rich, third influence on Chloe's family. Chloe's mother was an excellent singer and often entertained her family with song. Chloe's grandfather, John Solomon Willis, was a violinist in his early life and added to her love of music. It is no wonder that young Chloe set a goal for herself: she would express herself through music by becoming a dancer.
Chloe attended public school in Lorain. She was a gifted child. In her first-grade class Chloe was the only child in her ethnic group and the only student who could read. Many of the older boys in the public school were bullies. Chloe sometimes suffered from their racial slurs and physical abuse.
Chloe shared in chores at home from an early age, assisted in the care of her grandparents whenever she was needed, did above-average school work, and worked for other families from the time she was 12. Although her employers could be cruel to her, her father reminded her that she did not live there. Her father told her to do the work and come on home; Chloe learned not to let others determine her feelings about herself.
Chloe attended high school in Lorain. She studied hard, was a member of the honor society, worked outside the home, and still found time to read the great novels of Russia, France, England, and America. Chloe graduated from Lorain High School in 1949.
Chloe was admitted to Howard University in Washington, DC. Chloe's parents recognized the intelligence of their daughter and wanted to help her succeed. Her father worked three jobs simultaneously to help pay her way; her mother took a job as a restroom attendant.
At Howard, Chloe's classmates recognized Chloe as an actress. She traveled with the Howard University Players and visited the South for the first time with this traveling group. Drama became important to her.
Chloe majored in literature. During her college years, she changed her name to Toni. In 1953 she received a B.A. in English, and in 1955 she earned an M.A. from Cornell. Her thesis topic was Suicide in Faulkner and Woolf.
Toni accepted a teaching position at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. She went back to Howard as an instructor in English and the humanities; there, she assumed many duties, teaching general composition and literature classes while serving as faculty adviser to the English Club. Toni lectured on prominent black rights activists, such as Stokeley Carmichael and Claude Brown while she was at Howard. Brown brought her an 800-page manuscript to critique; this manuscript became Manchild in the Promised Land, a novel hailed as a modern classic.
Toni joined a group of writers and poets with monthly meetings. At every session they each shared something they had written. When Toni used up all her high school writings, she wrote a story of a little black girl wishing for blue eyes. She took the idea from an emotional, real-life event. This was the beginning of her first novel and her life as a writer.
Toni met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architecture student, in 1957. In 1964 she left her job at Howard. She and Harold went to Europe with their young son, Ford. While in Europe, Harold and Toni separated. Toni was pregnant with their second child.
With Ford, Toni returned to family and friends in Lorain. After her second child, Slade, was born, Toni moved to Syracuse to become an editor for I. W. Singer Publishing House, a subsidiary of Random House.
Within two years Toni moved from textbook editor to trade editor. By 1967 she was Senior Editor at Random House in New York City, where she encouraged the publication of many new writers—particularly those writing about the black culture. She edited an autobiography by Angela Davis and another by Muhammad Ali.
After working all day and spending time with her boys every evening, Toni sat down alone each night to work on her own book about the little girl who wanted blue eyes. The Bluest Eye (1970) was Toni's first novel. Her second novel was Sula (1973). Morrison found that when her children were growing up, it was easier to write in the family room with them around; she learned to tune out noise as she wrote.
In 1974, Random House published The Black Book, a collection of African-American culture, life, history, and narratives. Although her name did not appear as the creator, Morrison was the driving force behind publication of the book. During her research for The Black Book, she found the story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who tried to kill her children so that they would not lose their freedom. This story became the basis of her much later novel Beloved (1987).
Morrison began teaching creative writing and African-American studies at Yale. Her novel Song of Solomon (1977) received the National Book Critics Circle Award and also the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Because her books were becoming best sellers, she was able to buy a three-story home for her family. Morrison's Tar Baby appeared in print in 1981, and as a result of her recognition, she became the cover story for Newsweek.
Morrison was always working. She took a position as Associate Professor at SUNY Purchase and Bard College in New York. In 1984 she resigned her job at Random House and became the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at State University of New York at Albany. She wrote her first play while she was there.
On April 1, 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Morrison made it clear to her public that how she was ranked did not change her life. She was not writing for accolades or wealth. She wrote to satisfy herself first. Her popularity grew as more and more readers discovered her writings.
In 1992, her book Jazz appeared in print. In the same year, her collection of essays, titled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, was published. Morrison found time to edit and contribute to another book of essays, Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality.
Other honors followed. In October of 1993 Toni won the Nobel Prize for literature. She traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, in December to receive the coveted award. Reporters and the general public received her acceptance speech with acclaim.
Only a few days after her return from Sweden, a Christmas fire destroyed Morrison's Hudson River home. Over 100 firefighters fought the blaze to no avail. Morrison lost much memorabilia in the fire.
She was acquiring new treasures, however. In 1995 she attended the dedication of the Toni Morrison Reading Room in the Lorain Public Library, and she received a Matrix Award and the title Doctor of Humane Letters from Howard University.
But Morrison's work is not done yet. Her literature, like her life, continues to enrich the lives of readers everywhere.
Sula is set in Medallion, Ohio. This small town with its close relationships among the neighbors essentially has two segments: the valley where the whites live and the Bottom where the blacks reside. Because Medallion figures prominently into the plot and because the geographic location and the physical features described in Sula are unique to Ohio, the setting is integral to—not a backdrop to—the action. The hills and the valley serve to clarify the conflicts and to illuminate the characters; these two features are a literal—not a figurative—part of the text.
The first date in the chapter titles is 1919, and the last date is 1965. However, Sula is nonchronological; the chapters do not progress sequentially as the reader might expect. In her writing Morrison predicts a time after the 1965 date and takes the reader to the time of slavery—much before 1919. Her depiction of a socially and racially divided town helps the reader to understand life in a small town in an earlier era.
Master List of Characters
Sula Peace—a little girl who grows into a woman in the Bottom; the best friend of Nel; granddaughter of Eva; daughter of Hannah.
Inhabitants of the Bottom—black people who live in the hills and are dissatisfied with their lots.
Inhabitants of the valley—white people who live in the valley.
Slave owner—man who gives his slave a chore with the promise of freedom and a parcel of land upon successful completion; talks the slave into taking hill land instead of fertile valley; says that the hill land is the bottom of Heaven.
Slave—performs the chores given to him and accepts the Bottom parcel of land.
Shadrack—a young man with a psychic war injury from World War I; founder of National Suicide Day.
Male nurse—the balding man who treats Shadrack in the hospital.
Reverend Deal—a minister of the Bottom who accepts National Suicide Day.
Cecile—great aunt to Wiley Wright and grandmother to Helene; took Helene from the Sundown House and reared her in New Orleans.
Helene Sabat—daughter of a Creole prostitute; born behind the red shutters of Sundown House.
Wiley Wright—nephew of Cecile; resided in Medallion, Ohio; married Helene Sabat when she was 16; a seaman in port only three days out of every 16; served as cook aboard the ship.
Nel—the daughter of Helene and Wiley Wright after their ninth year of marriage.
Henri Martin—New Orleans resident who writes to Helene to tell her of her grandmother's illness.
Porter—the colored man who points Helene and Nel to the coach.
Conductor—the white man who calls Helene "gal" and who questions Helene's and Nel's presence in the white section of the coach.
Black woman and her four children—passengers who boarded in Tuscaloosa; the woman shows Helene and Nel the field that is used for a restroom.
Rochelle—Helene's mother and Nel's grandmother.
Hannah—Sula's mother; Eva's oldest child.
BoyBoy—Eva's husband and Sula's grandfather.
Pearl—Eva's daughter; real name is Eva; younger than Hannah; aunt of Sula; married at 14 and moved to Flint, Michigan.
Plum—Eva's son; real name is Ralph.
Suggs family—gave food to Eva and her children; gave castor oil to Eva when Plum was constipated; poured water on Hannah when fire consumed her.
Mr. and Mrs. Jackson—gave milk to Eva and her children.
Eva's adopted children—all three named Dewey; one with red hair and freckles, one perhaps half-Mexican, one deeply black; no individuality of mind.
Rekus—husband of Hannah; father of Sula; died when Sula was three.
Tar Baby—along with the deweys, first to follow Shadrack; came in 1920; had some—or all—white blood; mountain boy; alcoholic.
Mrs. Reed—teacher; gave all three deweys the last name of King and the same age.
Buckland Reed—husband of the teacher, Mrs. Reed; takes numbers from the residents of the Bottom; makes a comment about Eva's leg being worth $10,000.
Ajax—21-year-old man with sinister beauty; a frequenter of the pool halls; calls Sula "Pig meat" when he sees her; Sula's lover.
Chicken Little—a little boy whom Sula swings around; drowns when he slips from Sula's hands and goes into the lake.
Patsy and Valentine—Hannah's two friends who are visiting with her the day Chicken Little drowned.
Four white, Irish boys—newly arrived residents of the Bottom; taunted the girls.
Bargeman—the one who found Chicken Little's body.
Iceman—delivers ice to the homes.
Willy Fields—orderly who saved Eva from bleeding to death and received her curse for doing so the rest of her life.
Jude Greene—tenor in Mt. Zion's Men Quartet; 20-year-old bridegroom of Nel Wright; waiter at Hotel Medallion; leaves with Sula.
John L. and Shirley—a couple Sula and Nel remember from their youth.
Laura—the helper who had been living with Eva, Sula, the deweys, and Tar Baby.
Mrs. Rayford—the next-door neighbor to Nel and Jude.
Teapot—five-year-old son of Betty.
Betty—often called Teapot's Mama because mothering was her major failure in life; reforms and becomes a good mother for a while; relapses.
Mr. Finley—was sucking on a chicken bone when he saw Sula and choked.
Dessie—Big Daughter Elk; saw Shadrack tip his imaginary hat to Sula and developed a sty on her eye afterward.
Ivy and Cora—Dessie's friends.
Ajax's mother—the only thing Ajax had ever loved besides airplanes.
Nathan—the school-age child who checks on Sula and runs errands for her periodically; discovers her lifeless body.
Mr. Hodges—man who hires Shadrack to rake leaves; Shadrack becomes aware of Sula's death when he sees her on a table at Hodges' home.
L.P., Paul Freeman and his brother Jake, Mrs. Scott's twins—examples of the beautiful boys of 1921.
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sula traces people’s lives in “the Bottom,” a neighborhood in Medallion, Ohio, begun as “a nigger joke.” When a white farmer had promised a slave rich bottomland in exchange for his labor, the slave was given “hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds,” and where the white people in the next century longed to live, far from the farms and factories of the valley. Readers follow the lives of the community’s central figures for half a century. The prologue states that the people of the Bottom have three concerns: “what Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about, and what they themselves were all...
(The entire section is 976 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Bottom, the black community of Medallion, Ohio, originated in the time of slavery. Through trickery, an enslaved black man had accepted a portion of higher land from his master in exchange for completing “some very difficult chores.” The black man had been told by his master that the land was nearer heaven and of better quality, but it was actually less desirable and subject to erosion.
In 1919, Shadrack, an African American World War I veteran and Medallion resident, is recuperating in a military hospital; he is suffering from psychological trauma. After his discharge from the hospital, he is arrested by the police but eventually released. Following the new year in 1920, Shadrack, carrying a cowbell and a...
(The entire section is 911 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sula is a novel about the growth, development, and destruction of a person, a friendship, and a community. At the beginning of the novel, the hill on which the black community of Medallion, Ohio, lived (called “the Bottom,” because the white farmer who gave it to a freed slave in return for services told him it was the bottom of heaven) has been deserted. The narrative as a whole sets out to tell why; along the way, one meets a striking variety of characters set against a harsh world.
Sula Peace’s grandmother, Eva Peace, is one of the most remarkable characters in the novel. Left by her husband with three children to care for, she drops the children off with a neighbor and leaves town, to return a year...
(The entire section is 1044 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Introduction: Summary and Analysis
Sula Peace: a little girl who grows into a woman in the Bottom
Inhabitants of the Bottom: black people who live in the hills and are dissatisfied with their lots
Inhabitants of the valley: white people who live in the valley
Slave owner: man who gives his slave a chore with the promise of both freedom and a parcel of land upon successful completion; talks the slave into taking hill land instead; says that the hill land is the bottom of Heaven
Slave: performs the chores given to him and accepts the Bottom parcel of land
The Medallion City Golf Course and the suburbs were replacing beeches, blossoming pear trees with children...
(The entire section is 1283 words.)
Chapter 1: 1919 Summary and Analysis
Shadrack: a young man with a psychic war injury from World War I; founder of National Suicide Day
Male nurse: the balding man who treats Shadrack in the hospital
Reverend Deal: a minister of the Bottom who accepts National Suicide Day
Every January 3rd after 1920, Shadrack celebrated National Suicide Day. For many years, he was the only one to celebrate. The events of 1917 resulted in his establishment of the holiday.
During World War I, Shadrack, who was barely 20, and his comrades met the enemy on a French field in December of 1917. After seeing his friend killed, Shadrack awoke in a hospital. Even though Shadrack was still...
(The entire section is 920 words.)
Chapter 2: 1920 Summary and Analysis
Cecile: great aunt to Wiley Wright and grandmother to Helene; took Helene from the Sundown House and reared her in New Orleans
Helene Sabat: daughter of a Creole prostitute; born behind the red shutters of Sundown House
Wiley Wright: nephew of Cecile; resided in Medallion, Ohio; married Helene Sabat, when she was 16; a seaman in port only three days out of every 16; served as cook aboard the ship
Nel: the daughter of Helene and Wiley after their ninth year of marriage
Henri Martin: New Orleans resident who writes to Helene to tell her of her grandmother’s illness
Porter: the colored man who points Helene and Nel to the coach
(The entire section is 934 words.)
Chapter 3: 1921 Summary and Analysis
BoyBoy: Eva’s husband and Sula’s grandfather
Pearl: Eva’s daughter; real name is Eva; younger than Hannah; aunt of Sula; married at 14 and moved to Flint, Michigan
Plum: Eva’s son; real name is Ralph
Suggs family: gave food to Eva and her children; gave castor oil to Eva when Plum was constipated; poured water on Hannah when fire consumed her
Mr. and Mrs. Jackson: gave milk to Eva and her children
Eva’s adopted children: all three named dewey; one with red hair and freckles, one half-Mexican, one deeply black; no individuality of mind
Rekus: husband of Hannah; father of Sula; died when Sula was three
(The entire section is 2004 words.)
Chapter 4: 1922 Summary and Analysis
Ajax: 21-year-old man with sinister beauty; a frequenter of the pool halls; calls Sula “Pig meat” when he sees her; Sula’s lover
Chicken Little: a little boy whom Sula swings around; drowns when he slips from Sula’s hands and goes into the lake
Patsy and Valentine: Hannah’s two friends who are visiting with her the day Chicken Little drowned
Four white, Irish boys: newly arrived residents of the Bottom; taunted the girls
Bargeman: the one who found Chicken Little’s body
The men in the community of the Bottom had a frequent haunt to watch girls and women pass. They squatted on Carpenter’s Road, the four blocks of...
(The entire section is 1739 words.)
Chapter 5: 1923 Summary and Analysis
Iceman: delivers ice to the homes
Willy Fields: orderly who saved Eva from bleeding to death and received her curse for doing so the rest of her life
In this chapter, the second strange thing happens; Hannah brought a peck of Kentucky Wonders into Eva’s room and asked if Eva ever loved her children.
Eva reprimanded her daughter for wondering and reminded Hannah that there was no playing in 1895. Eva began to reflect on an earlier time. She remembered her husband leaving her, Plum’s constipation, and the three beets which were all she had when her husband left. Eva remarked that Hannah would have been dead if Eva had not loved her.
(The entire section is 1386 words.)
Chapter 6: 1927 Summary and Analysis
Jude Greene: tenor in Mt. Zion’s Men Quartet; 20-year-old bridegroom of Nel Wright; waiter at Hotel Medallion; leaves with Sula
Helene Wright was tired but happy in preparing for her only daughter’s wedding. Not many people in Medallion had church weddings with receptions. Such weddings were expensive; couples married at the court house or “took up” with each other. The Wrights mailed no invitations; everyone just came. Those who could afford a gift brought it; those who could not afford a gift could come without one.
Jude Greene, the bridegroom, had wanted to work on the New Road. His job as waiter at the Hotel Medallion was not what he wanted to do...
(The entire section is 885 words.)
Chapter 7: 1937 Summary and Analysis
John L. and Shirley: a couple Sula and Nel remember from their youth
Laura: the helper who had been living with Eva, Sula, the deweys, and Tar Baby
Mrs. Rayford: the next-door neighbor to Nel and Jude
Accompanied by a plague of robins, Sula returned to the Bottom ten years after the wedding of Nel and Jude. The people of the Bottom did nothing to rid themselves of the plague. Their attitude was that one must learn to withstand evil.
Eva reprimanded Sula for staying away for ten years and suggested that Sula had only contacted her when she needed something. The argument escalated and Sula stated that Eva put her leg under a train to...
(The entire section is 1764 words.)
Chapter 8: 1939 Summary and Analysis
Teapot: five-year-old son of Betty
Betty: often called Teapot’s Mama because mothering was her major failure in life; reforms and becomes a good mother for a while; relapses
Mr. Finley: was sucking on a chicken bone when he saw Sula and choked
Dessie: Big Daughter Elk; saw Shadrack tip his imaginary hat to Sula and developed a sty on her eye afterward
Ivy and Cora: Dessie’s friends
Ajax’s mother: the only thing Ajax had ever loved besides airplanes
The people of the Bottom talked about Sula. They were angry with her for taking Eva to Sunnydale and for leaving with Jude. Sula soon ditched Jude and he went...
(The entire section is 2600 words.)
Chapter 9: 1940 Summary and Analysis
Nathan: the school-age child who checks on Sula and who runs errands for her periodically; discovers her lifeless body.
After three years, Nel was at last going to meet with Sula face-to-face. She would say that she had heard Sula was sick and would ask if there was anything she could do for her. She practiced her words and would try to insert no inflection into the statements. Yet there would be resentment and shame in her heart when she spoke. She thought of the black rose that Jude had kissed and of her own almost selfish love of her children. For these children Nel had cleaned houses and worked as a chambermaid in the same hotel where Jude had once worked.
(The entire section is 2563 words.)
Chapter 10: 1941 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Hodges: man who hires Shadrack to rake leaves; Shadrack becomes aware of Sula’s death when he sees her on a table at Hodges’ home
L.P., Paul Freeman and his brother Jake, Mrs. Scott’s twins: examples of the beautiful boys of 1921
The “best news” that the Bottom had had since the tunnel work was the death of Sula. Some came to the funeral to see a witch buried; others came to observe the burial of Sula. Some came to see that nothing inappropriate happened at the funeral; these people wanted to make sure that a gentleness of spirit abided at the last rites. Because Sula was dead or after Sula was dead, most believed a brighter future lay ahead....
(The entire section is 1867 words.)
Chapter 11: 1965 Summary and Analysis
Things seemed better in 1965. The colored people were beginning to find work in the stores; one was even teaching in the local school.
Nel remarked that many things were better in the past. The young men of the day reminded Nel of the deweys. It was becoming more difficult for Nel to recognize many of the people in the town.
Medallion seemed to build a home for the elderly every time it built a road. It appeared the community needed more rooms for the elderly. The population was not necessarily living longer; the families were just placing their elderly in the homes sooner. It seemed easy for the white families to place their older people in the homes, but generally the black families...
(The entire section is 1838 words.)