The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Toni Morrison has said of Sula and Nel that “the two of them together could have made a wonderful single human being.” They need and love each other, though neither recognizes that fact until it is too late. As little girls, the two are polar opposites. Sula is headstrong, independent, and courageous; Nel is quiet, obedient, and thoughtful. Together they are wildly happy—proud when Ajax and his friends in front of the ice cream parlor utter the words “pig meat” in their direction, excited when discovering their woman’s bodies for the first time under the trees by the river, and curiously joyful as Sula lets go of Chicken Little’s hands as he flies out over and into the water, to become “something newly missing.” He is a secret that closes the gap opened up between the girls at his funeral: “They held hands and knew that only the coffin would lie in the earth; the bubbly laughter and the press of fingers would stay aboveground forever.”
Nel and Sula grow into very different women. Nel represents women who choose selflessness, devoting their lives to bolstering their insecure husbands and rearing children. Nel becomes what Sula calls “one of them. . . . Now Nel belonged to the town and all its ways.” Sula, on the other hand, chooses herself. She has been to college, lived in various cities, and been with many men, only to return home as a stranger.
Nel appears to be the good woman and Sula the evil. A plague of...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sula Peace, the protagonist. Sula is different from the other women of the town of Medallion, as willing to feel pain and pleasure as she is to give them. Having lost her best friend, Nel, she looks in vain for friendship in men. After leaving Medallion to go to college and to travel, she returns as a pariah and is blamed for all the town’s misfortunes. She fuels the town’s hatred of her by sleeping with married men and with white men. Contrary to the beliefs of the townspeople, who believe that a brighter day will dawn after she dies, her death is followed by a severe ice storm and the catastrophic cave-in of the tunnel.
Nel Wright, Sula’s best friend. Reared in an oppressive household, she decides to be her own person, not her mother’s daughter. Nel marries the handsome Jude Greene because she wants to be needed. She blames Sula when he leaves her, because Sula seduced Jude. Unlike Sula, she fears change, so much so that she refuses to buy a car. Long after her marriage ends, Nel realizes that she has been mourning for Sula, not for Jude.
Eva Peace, the physically disabled matriarch of the Peace family, Sula’s grandmother. She is so preoccupied with her hatred of her womanizing husband and with keeping herself and her family alive that she is unable to show much love to her children. When her husband leaves her, she leaves her children with a...
(The entire section is 859 words.)
The title character haunts most of the novel with her unusual brand of moral ambiguity. In the book's early scenes, Sula represents the inherent strength in women as she shows Nel how to stand up for herself in a world that little values the personal contributions of a black woman. Sula's strength of character endures as she leaves the Bottom and, in the space of one of Sula's many time-jumps, becomes the only person in town to acquire a college education. Though thus endowed with a marker of upward mobility, Sula is too self-absorbed to push for better things for either her family or her town. Therefore, while she is the vehicle for Morrison's explorations of the destructive force of self-involvement, Sula also remains a pinnacle of strength and personality. Curiously, she is as much to be admired as derided.
Sula's friend Nel is the novel's only unambiguously good character. She is a model of consistency. When abandoned by her husband, she, like many of the novel's other characters, manages to persevere. Nel thus functions as a stable center against which to measure the actions of Sula's other characters.
Like her friend Nel, Sula's mother functions in part as a sympathetic character with which to contrast the mostly-unlikable Sula. Eva is industrious, generous, and impossible to ignore. As a business owner, single mother, and civic institution, Eva is clearly an exception. Other characters seem bland in comparison to her...
(The entire section is 383 words.)
Although Eva is Sula's grandmother, she outlives her granddaughter, and is present during all the events of the novel. She leaves her mark on Sula, helping to shape her character.
Eva is abandoned by her husband while she is still a young mother, and, faced with the problem of supporting her family without resorting to charity, she leaves her children with a friend, saying she'll be gone overnight. She returns eighteen months later on crutches, with one leg missing, but then begins receiving a series of regular checks in the mail. Although she is mysterious about what happened to her leg, the other characters assume that she allowed a train to run over it and cut it off so that she could collect the insurance money. She doesn't let her lack of a leg interfere with her enjoyment of life, or her enjoyment of men; she is famed for her gentlemen callers—although she never makes love with them—and for the fact that her remaining leg, still shapely, is "stockinged and shod at all times." She lives in a huge, rambling house with many rooms and passageways, takes in boarders—some paying, some not—and spends most of her time high up in the house, watching over the assortment of people in it. These include three boys, all of whom she has named "Dewey."
Everyone in the community admires Eva, despite her nontraditional life. Sula is the one person who does not admire her, however, and when Eva jumps from the second story of the house in order to...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
Toni Morrison wrote in the Michigan Quarterly Review,
I always thought of Sula as quintessentially black, metaphysically black, if you will, which is not melanin and certainly not unquestioning fidelity to the tribe. She is new world black and new world woman extracting choice from choicelessness, responding intuitively to found things. Improvisational. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable. And dangerously female.
Sula, as Morrison notes, is a dark character, not simply because of the color of her skin, but in terms of her soul. She is a strange child, defiant and different from other children. Although this difference seems innate in her, it is exacerbated by two occurrences in her childhood: one when she overhears her mother saying she loves Sula, but doesn't like her, and another when she is inadvertently responsible for the death of a little boy called Chicken Little. As a result of these events, Sula feels unloved and burdened by guilt.
Sula's mother, Hannah, values her independence from others, and Sula follows in her footsteps. The two times that she has a relationship and violates her rule of separateness, she is devastated. She falls in love once, with Ajax, and becomes so obsessed with him that he's frightened away, leaving her miserable.
She also puts her grandmother, Eva, in a nursing home,...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
Shadrack is shell-shocked from his participation in World War I, and after being released from a veteran's hospital, is arrested by police who assume he's drunk, then released. He drinks to medicate his mental turmoil, and lives in a shack near the river. He is famous in the Bottom as the inventor of "National Suicide Day," which he celebrates every January 3rd, leading a parade through town that most people avoid. Despite this, the holiday becomes part of the town's consciousness, so that people will date events by whether they occurred after or before a particular Suicide Day.
The only person who ever enters Shadrack's cabin is Sula, who runs there to see if Shadrack has seen her accidentally throw Chicken Little into the river and drown him. Shadrack doesn't give her a chance to ask her question, and simply says "always," which Sula perceives as a threat. However, because she is the only person who has ever visited him, Shadrack views her as his friend for the rest of his life. She has no idea that her life has given a sense of love and meaning to Shadrack. After Sula dies, he loses interest in his invented holiday, "National Suicide Day," and has to force himself to go, but the townspeople, who are depressed from the sudden downward turn of events following Sula's death, eagerly join the parade. The ensuing mob heads toward a half-finished tunnel that is being built mostly by white people, and, filled with hatred for the whites, they begin destroying...
(The entire section is 290 words.)
An only child, Nel is brought up in a strict, quiet, orderly house, but she longs for excitement, variety, and adventure. She finds them in the company of Sula, her best friend. Although Nel has been brought up in a strict and orderly household—or because of her upbringing there—she hates the "oppressive neatness" of her mother's house and loves "Sula's woolly house," where something is always cooking on the stove, Sula's mother never scolds or tells her what to do, there's a constant chaos of people stopping in, and where one-legged Eva presides, handing out peanuts and telling her dreams.
The two of them are inseparable, each finding something in the other to fill a hole in her own life. Morrison writes that Nel's parents "had succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter she had." Only with Sula did that quality have free reign, but their friendship was so close, they themselves had difficulty distinguishing one's thoughts from the other's. They are also bound together at a young age by their shared knowledge of exactly how Chicken Little drowned.
Eva grows up to be a traditional, quiet, "good" woman; she has a big wedding, to her mother's delight, has three children, and plans to have a quiet, orderly life. This plan is destroyed when she finds her husband and Sula having an affair.
When Sula is dying, Nel visits her for the first time in three years, since Sula's affair with Jude. They are uneasy with...
(The entire section is 431 words.)
BoyBoy is Eva Peace's husband, who gives her three children, Hannah, Eva (called Pearl), and Ralph (who is called Plum), then disappears. During the time they are together, he is largely preoccupied with other women and drinking, and is rarely home. When he leaves, Eva has "$1.65, five eggs, three beets and no idea of what or how to feel." He returns three years later with a new woman, apparently having heard of Eva's new wealth and seemingly hoping for a handout, but Eva doesn't give him anything, and he disappears again.
Chicken Little is a small boy who comes to play with Sula and Nel at the river. Sula picks him up and swings him around, and accidentally throws him in the river, where he drowns. His body is found downstream by a white man, who is annoyed at having to deal with it, and after the bargeman, the sheriff, and a ferryman bicker over whose responsibility it is to return to the body to the child's family, it is finally taken to the embalmer four days later.
The Deweys are three little boys whom Eva takes in. Regardless of their original names, she calls them all "Dewey," last name "King," and they're collectively known as "The deweys." Although they look different from each other and come from different families, their individuality is gradually subsumed in their collective identity as "deweys," to the point where they never really grow up, and Morrison...
(The entire section is 1012 words.)