In Sula, the concept of class and its relation to sex and race occupies much of Morrison’s attention as she chronicles the development of Sula and Nel. A few fundamental concepts shape Morrison’s vision of the human condition—particularly, as critic Dorothy Lee points out, her preoccupation with how a community affects the individual’s achievement and retention of an acceptable self.
The African American citizens of “the Bottom” were victims of a cruel joke begun by the white farmer who gave the hilly land its ironic name by refusing to surrender to the slave the land that he deserved. Although African Americans work hard and serve their country in war, their rewards are few. Morrison’s presentation provides a bleak look at a community suffering from oppression and the denial of rewards or even acknowledgment. The men are limited to menial jobs that do not even give them the pleasure of muscle-fatiguing labor; they cannot work on the tunnel. The women are placed in the positions of mothers, wives, or whores; there is no in-between. Though victims, they all victimize one another, maintaining a status quo that they themselves did not set.
Sula Peace is a significant part of this community’s history. As her name suggests, she seeks inner peace, a personal wholeness that the restrictions of life deny her. These restrictions are largely a result of limited traditional roles designated for women and racial prejudice aimed at African Americans. Determined to face life truthfully, Sula rebels against nearly all tradition and endures the wrath and scorn of her community. She embodies much of the frustration and pain of her community members.
Nel and Sula represent conformity and rebellion, respectively, to their community’s expectations. Nel marries a man from “the Bottom” and performs her duties, including sex, as a mother and wife. After her husband’s infidelity with Sula, Nel describes her thighs—a metaphor for her sexuality and her self—as “empty and dead.” Jude leaves Nel, and without the role as wife condoned by society, Nel becomes unsure of her identity.
Sula chooses to stand outside society, to define herself as a revolt against it. Unlike Nel, she ignores traditional roles and society’s expectations: “She went to bed with men as frequently as possible.” Consequently, Sula functions as pariah for her community: “She was pariah, then, and knew it. Knew that they despised her and believed that they framed their hatred as disgust for the easy way she lay with men.” Sula’s promiscuous behavior makes her the chaos and evil against which the community must define and protect itself.
Helene Wright attempts to transcend the boundaries set by race by denying her New Orleans roots, cleaning incessantly, and wearing nice clothes. Shadrack tries to cope with his pain by dedicating a special day to it. Eva copes with her pain by inflicting pain on herself and others.
The lack of a happy ending, the deaths of many community members near the end of the work, and the lack of cohesion in the 1965 community as emphasized by the narrator in the final chapter all indicate the power that Morrison perceives in communal energy. She seems to imply that without the strength and support that a healthy community provides—that is, a community made up of strong, supportive, loving individuals who are not oppressed and subjugated by society—the development of people into productive, content, spiritually whole individuals is stifled or, at worst, impossible.