Toni Morrison is one of the most significant novelists of the postmodern period. Her novels have consistently explored the African American experience, using historical, social, and psychological themes to focus especially on the experiences of women. Morrison’s first novel was The Bluest Eye (1970), and her 1977 novel Song of Solomon led to a National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Her work as an editor at Random House led to the publication of The Black Book (1974). Beloved (1987) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1988, and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), a critical work, was a national best seller. In 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Morrison’s novels combine psychological realism, social critique, symbolism, and the mythopoetic, resulting in a style similar to Magical Realism. Although her works are not limited to social protest, Morrison is concerned with racial themes frequently encountered in African American literature. Her novels reflect the workings of communities, the dilemmas faced by these families, and the problems encountered in their relationships. She also has addressed historical issues such as nineteenth century slavery. Her fiction celebrates survival and defines black identity as multifaceted. Influenced by William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, she uses vernacular and poetic prose to create a stylistic balance between narrative perspective and dialogue.
In Sula, her second novel, Morrison creates an African American community in a fictional town that, like Lorain, Ohio, the author’s hometown, borders Lake Erie. Morrison’s concern for history and social context are evident in Sula. Her critique of nineteenth century slavery is strongly implied in the ironic naming of The Bottom. By using chronological sequences, Morrison suggests how the lives of her characters relate to broader societal transitions from World War I to the desegregation and urban renewal of the 1960’s. Economic disparity caused by segregation—an indirect cause of the failure of relationships—is one of the underlying central themes in the novel.
Sula, however, is not primarily concerned with the social conflict between the white and the African American communities of Medallion. The novel mostly concerns the way African American communities both include and exclude those members who have violated community mores or who have become dislocated in ways that cause them to live on the moral or social margins. The novel presents characters who each signify an adaptation to this community, a community divided by class.
Sula and Nel are reflections not only of sisterhood but also two African American families. The Wright and Peace households, one middle-class and nuclear, the other folk-centered and extended, are two reflections of the African American community. In tracing the relationship of Nel and Sula through adulthood, Morrison shows how sisterhood can be affected by the differing routes taken by African American women. Nel’s pursuit of the traditional ideal—marriage and family—contrasts with the sexually liberated path chosen by Sula. Sula, although of the folk culture, eventually moves beyond that culture when she leaves Medallion.
Other characters show problematic adjustments to sociohistorical conditions and family dislocation. Shadrack represents the returning African American World War I veteran whose National Suicide Day is an ironic comment on the life chances of African Americans in 1920. Shadrack, however, becomes an accepted eccentric character who, in many respects, defines the political direction of the community in protest and collective action. Eva Peace represents the folk tradition and the continuity of African American matriarchy, which seeks to protect and maintain a family faced with the absence of the father.
One of the most important themes is African American female sexuality. Hannah and Sula are both portrayed as sexually liberated. Because of Sula’s relationship with men, she is viewed as an outcast by the community. Despite her sexual freedom, she also searches for genuine love with Ajax. Also, the theme of desertion, a pattern in Morrison’s fiction, is developed in Sula. Eva is deserted by BoyBoy, Nel by Jude, and Sula by Ajax. Though injured by desertion, Morrison’s women survive and shape identities not dependent on relationships with men.
Morrison’s Magical Realism is formed by a variety of elements. Natural phenomena, such as the plague of robins and the ice storm, are used as parallels to the action. She employs folkloric elements in the portrayal of Ajax’s mother as a conjure woman and in the notion of Sula as bewitched. The significance of dreams, Eva’s claim of having been in communication with her dead son, Plum, and Nel’s attempt to communicate with Sula’s spirit, are other examples of the magical dimension of the novel.
The literary style of the novel is achieved through vernacular expression and symbolism. African American vernacular gives authentic voice to Eva, Nel, and Sula. The conversation between Sula and Nel, when Nel visits Sula on her deathbed, is a reconstruction of verbal devices used by African American women. The symbolism of fire is used when Eva burns Plum and when Hannah is mysteriously destroyed by fire. Shadrack’s name implies the biblical furnace and invulnerability to destruction by fire.
Sula confirmed Morrison’s reputation as a gifted writer destined for both national and international acclaim. The novel remains influential because Morrison provides a spectrum of African American women and challenges romanticized portrayals of relationships. Ultimately, Sula does not present sisterhood as an alternative to relationships between men and women but questions that which hinders emotional bonding.