Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
In Sula, Toni Morrison explores a community’s role in the individual’s search for wholeness. The story begins at the end, after the African American community known as “the Bottom” has been destroyed and replaced with a golf course. The narrator reveals the history of “the Bottom” forty years before it was destroyed, in chapters titled simply by the year of focus, beginning with 1919 and ending with 1965.
The community gained its name from a joke played on a slave by a white farmer. After promising his slave freedom and land upon the completion of some difficult chores, the farmer did not want to part with his choice land. So he told the slave that the hilly land—difficult to plant and plagued by high winds and sliding soil—was the bottom of heaven, the “best land there is.” Consequently, the slave accepted the land, and “the Bottom” is where Sula Peace and Nel Wright are born.
Nel, her mother Helene, and her father live in a home Nel considers to be oppressively neat. Carefully groomed by her mother, who is admired in the community for her beauty and grace, Nel prefers the disorder that she finds in Sula’s home, where “something was always cooking on the stove, . . . the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions” and “all sorts of people dropped in.” During her only trip outside Medallion, ten-year-old Nel meets Helene’s estranged mother and sees her own mother’s usual grace disturbed by...
(The entire section is 676 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Medallion. Imaginary Ohio town in which the main action of the novel is set. Morrison grew up in the small town of Lorain, Ohio. Bordered by Kentucky to the south but a Northern state in the Civil War with important Underground Railroad sites, Ohio functions in many of Morrison’s novels as a place of alternating prejudice and freedom for the black characters.
The fictional Medallion’s geography shows the distinctions between black and white characters: The white characters live in the fertile valley, protected from the harshest winds of winter, while the black characters inhabit the rocky, unproductive hillside where the poorly built houses cannot protect their residents from the elements. During a particularly difficult winter, when ice coats the ground and does not melt for days, the black residents lose their jobs in the valley because they cannot get down the steep hill in the ice.
By the end of the novel, the Bottom, the black neighborhood, is disappearing because the wealthy white people have decided the hillside on which it stands is desirable for a golf course and for luxury homes. The new development reflects the town’s power structure as did the earlier layout.
The Bottom. African American neighborhood in Medallion. Local legend holds that the neighborhood’s first settler was tricked by a white man into taking the rocky hillside land rather than the...
(The entire section is 612 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Morrison’s exploration of friendship between African American women makes Sula a major link between Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Furthermore, the friendship between Sula and Nel does not depend on or revolve around men. Morrison explores this friendship, its maturity and its eventual dissolution.
Nel and Sula’s relationship blossoms out of mutual admiration, for Sula appreciates the quiet orderliness of Nel’s home. In stark contrast, and in addition to Hannah’s sexual liaisons, the Peace home is characterized by Eva’s unpredictability. Sula’s grandmother has one leg, and the town rumor is that she either placed the other on a railroad track or sold it to a hospital. In either case, Eva provides food and shelter for her family. Yet Eva is not simply a provider; she is also a sacrificer. When her son, Plum, returns from the war in a questionable mental and physical condition, she burns him to death as he sleeps in his room.
Helene, Nel, Sula, Eva, and Hannah continually challenge stereotypes as the narrator reveals these women’s thoughts, fears, and concerns. Morrison’s depictions stress the fact that women cannot be limited to select roles; they are too wonderfully diverse. Not unlike Hurston, Walker, and a host of other female writers, Morrison gives voices to the many women who remained silent when required to choose between...
(The entire section is 331 words.)
The events in Sula span much of the twentieth century, during a time of great changes in civil rights for African Americans and other minority groups.
African Americans in World War I
When the events of the book open, in 1919, veterans like Shadrack and Plum are returning from service overseas. Like Shadrack and Plum, many of them were emotionally and physically scarred from the experience of war, but African-American veterans did not receive as much respect for their service as their white counterparts. In the book, Shadrack is discharged from the hospital because there's no more room, and when he hits the streets, whites assume he's drunk, and he's arrested and taken to jail. All he has to show for his service is "$217 in cash, a full suit of clothes and copies of very official-looking papers."
During the war, more than 350,000 African-American soldiers served in segregated units. When they returned, many began working for civil rights, reasoning that if they were considered good enough to fight and risk their lives for their country, they should be given full participation in society. Both African Americans and whites joined the newly formed NAACP to fight discrimination and segregation, but it would be many years before segregation laws would be overturned.
African Americans had only recently been given the right to vote in the United States. Although they had supposedly held this right for much longer,...
(The entire section is 676 words.)
Introduction: Questions and Answers
1. What was the name of the town near the Bottom?
2. Where was the town?
3. What grew on the Bottom before the spread of the town?
4. What were the names of the three businesses that the townspeople planned to destroy?
5. What does the word raze mean?
6. What were the two rewards the white slave owner promised the slave for completing the chores?
7. What was the name of the hilly land where the black people lived?
8. How did the hilly land get its name?
9. Who was the little girl introduced in the chapter who grew into a woman in the Bottom?
10. What did the white people below think about the hilly land?
1. The name of the town was Medallion.
2. The town was in a valley in Ohio.
3. Before the spread of the town, trees grew on the Bottom.
4. The names of the three businesses that the townspeople planned to destroy were Reba’s Grill, the Time and a Half Pool Hall, and Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology.
5. The word raze means to destroy or to level.
6. The two rewards the white slave owner promised the slave for completing the chores were freedom and a parcel of land.
7. The hilly land where the black people lived was the Bottom.
8. The hilly land got its name because the slave owner said that the land was the bottom of...
(The entire section is 256 words.)
Chapter 1: 1919 Questions and Answers
1. What event did Shadrack establish?
2. In what year did Shadrack receive his discharge from the hospital?
3. What did Shadrack feel the first time he encountered shellfire?
4. What were the two possible reasons that the hospital discharged Shadrack?
5. What were the charges the police listed for arresting Shadrack?
6. What road did Shadrack march down annually?
7. What two things did Shadrack carry on his trip down Carpenter’s Road?
8. In what year did Shadrack establish the national holiday?
9. What appeal did he give to the people of the Bottom each January 3rd?
10. What was the reasoning behind Shadrack’s establishment of National Suicide Day?
1. Shadrack established National Suicide Day.
2. Shadrack received his discharge from the hospital in 1919.
3. Shadrack felt only a tack in his shoe the first time he encountered shellfire.
4. The hospital discharged Shadrack because of his violence or another priority, such as the limited number of beds in the hospital.
5. The charges the police listed for arresting Shadrack were vagrancy and intoxication.
6. Shadrack marched down Carpenter’s Road annually.
7. Shadrack carried a hangman’s rope and a cow’s bell on his trip down Carpenter’s Road.
(The entire section is 234 words.)
Chapter 2: 1920 Questions and Answers
1. Where did Wiley Wright live?
2. Whom did Wiley Wright marry?
3. What was Wiley Wright’s daughter’s name?
4. In what city was Helene born?
5. Who was Helene’s mother?
6. In what house was Helene born?
7. How did Helene and Nel know that they were too late to see Cecile alive?
8. What was Helene’s reaction when the conductor spoke disparagingly to her?
9. Which of the discoveries that Nel made on her trip to New Orleans was most important?
10. Who was Nel’s friend?
1. Wiley Wright lived in Medallion, Ohio.
2. Wiley Wright married Helene.
3. Nel was Wiley Wright’s daughter.
4. Helene was born in New Orleans.
5. Helene’s mother was Rochelle.
6. Helene was born in Sundown House.
7. Helene and Nel knew that they were too late to see Cecile alive when they saw the black crepe wreath with the purple ribbon.
8. When the conductor spoke disparagingly to Helene, Helene smiled, and that brought her the contempt of the black men in the train car.
9. The most important discovery that Nel made on her trip to New Orleans was that she was herself, not her parents or anyone else.
10. Nel’s friend was Sula.
(The entire section is 195 words.)
Chapter 3: 1921 Questions and Answers
1. What was Sula’s relationship to Eva?
2. Who was Eva’s husband?
3. Name Eva’s three children.
4. How was Eva different when she returned to the Bottom?
5. How was Plum different when he returned to the Bottom?
6. What happened to Plum?
7. Who were the first people to join Shadrack?
8. Why did Hannah make love during the day?
9. What did Sula learn about making love from her mother?
10. What was Tar Baby’s bad habit?
1. Sula was Eva’s granddaughter.
2. Eva’s husband was BoyBoy.
3. Eva’s three children are Hannah, Plum (or Ralph), and Eva (or Pearl).
4. Eva was different when she returned to the Bottom because she was missing a leg.
5. Plum was different when he returned to the Bottom because he was a drug addict.
6. Plum’s mother, Eva, set him on fire.
7. The first people to join Shadrack were the three deweys and Tar Baby.
8. Hannah made love during the day because sleeping with someone was a commitment and an act of trust.
9. Sula learned from her mother that making love was pleasant, unremarkable, and a frequent occurrence.
10. Tar Baby’s bad habit was drinking wine.
(The entire section is 192 words.)
Chapter 4: 1922 Questions and Answers
1. What did Nel’s mother want Nel to do to make her nose attractive?
2. How did Sula convince the boys that she was not afraid of them and could take care of herself?
3. What disturbing thing did Sula hear her mother say?
4. How did Chicken Little die?
5. How long was it before the family of Chicken Little received his body?
6. Who found the body of Chicken Little?
7. What answer did Shadrack make to the unasked question?
8. What did Sula lose when Chicken Little died?
9. What does Morrison say happens to a handclasp?
10. What did Nel say about Sula’s part in the accident?
1. Nel’s mother wants Nel to sleep with a clothespin on her nose to make her nose more attractive.
2. Sula convinced the boys she was not afraid of them by showing them a knife and cutting off the tip of her own finger.
3. Sula heard her mother say she loved but did not like her daughter.
4. Chicken Little drowned when his body flew from Sula’s grasp while she was swinging him near the water.
5. It was three days before the family of Chicken Little received his body.
6. The bargeman found the body of Chicken Little.
7. Shadrack’s answer to the unasked question was, “Always.”
8. Sula lost her belt when Chicken Little died.
(The entire section is 238 words.)
Chapter 5: 1923 Questions and Answers
1. What was the first strange thing that happened?
2. What was the second strange thing that happened?
3. What are Kentucky Wonders?
4. In what year did Eva’s husband leave her?
5. What was the number that Eva and Hannah both knew from the dream book?
6. How did Mr. and Mrs. Suggs put out the fire on Hannah?
7. Who saved Eva’s life in the hospital?
8. Whom did Eva see not helping Hannah during the fire?
9. How long did Eva curse Willy?
10. What dream did Hannah have before the fire?
1. The first strange thing that happened was the wind.
2. The second strange thing that happened was when Hannah took the Kentucky Wonders and a bowl into her mother’s room.
3. Kentucky Wonders are a type of green bean or string bean.
4. Eva’s husband left her in 1895.
5. The number that Eva and Hannah both knew from the dream book was 522.
6. Mr. and Mrs. Suggs put out the fire on Hannah by throwing a tub of hot water—with tomatoes still in it—on the burning woman.
7. Willy Field was the orderly who saved Eva’s life in the hospital.
8. Eva saw Sula not helping Hannah during the fire.
9. Eva cursed Willy for 37 years for saving her.
10. Hannah dreamed of a wedding and a red wedding dress.
(The entire section is 216 words.)
Chapter 6: 1927 Questions and Answers
1. What was the social event that Helene Wright was preparing for at the beginning of “1927”?
2. Why did the Wright family not send invitations?
3. In which quartet did Jude Greene sing?
4. Where did Jude work?
5. What job did Jude want?
6. Why did Jude not achieve the job he desired?
7. Why were the old dancing with the young, the church women tapping their feet, and the boys dancing with their sisters?
8. How old was Jude at the wedding?
9. Who left the Bottom at the end of the wedding?
10. When would Sula return to the Bottom?
1. The social event that Helene Wright was preparing for
at the beginning of “1927” was the wedding of her only daughter, Nel.
2. The Wright family did not send invitations because everybody in the Bottom came.
3. Jude Greene sang tenor in the Mt. Zion Quartet.
4. Jude worked as a waiter at the Medallion Hotel.
5. Jude wanted a job as road builder.
6. Jude did not achieve the job he desired because of his color.
7. The old were dancing with the young, the church women were tapping their feet, and the boys were dancing with their sisters because of the spiked punch.
8. Jude was 20 years old at the wedding.
9. Sula left the Bottom at the end of the wedding.
(The entire section is 221 words.)
Chapter 7: 1937 Questions and Answers
1. How long did it take for Sula to return to the Bottom after Nel’s wedding?
2. What plague accompanied Sula?
3. Why did the people of the Bottom do nothing to rid themselves of the plague?
4. How did Sula get Eva out of the house?
5. What did Sula tell Nel that she had witnessed with Eva?
6. How did Nel feel about the return of Sula?
7. Why was Nel surprised that Sula had asked Laura to leave?
8. Where had Sula attended college?
9. Why did Sula tell Nel she had moved Eva into the home?
10. With whom did Jude leave?
1. It took Sula ten years to return to the Bottom after Nel’s wedding.
2. A plague of robins accompanied Sula into the Bottom.
3. The people of the Bottom did nothing to rid themselves of the plague because they believed that they had to learn to live with evil.
4. Sula got Eva out of the house by signing the papers and having the men come with their stretcher to transport Eva to Beechnut.
5. Sula told Nel that she had witnessed Eva burning Plum.
6. Nel greeted the return of Sula with joy and gladness.
7. Nel was surprised that Sula had asked Laura to leave because Laura was receiving no pay for her work.
8. Sula had attended college in Nashville.
9. Sula told Nel she had moved Eva into...
(The entire section is 245 words.)
Chapter 8: 1939 Questions and Answers
1. What does it mean when Ajax had the conviction that Sula would very soon “like all of her sisters before her, put to him the death-knell question ‘Where have you been?’”
2. Why was Betty angry with Sula?
3. What was Betty’s child’s name?
4. What had Dessie seen that upset her?
5. What was Ajax’s real name?
6. At his arrest, what were the charges against Tar Baby?
7. Why did Ajax leave Sula?
8. What did Mr. Finley do that angered Ajax?
9. What was the first gift that Ajax brought Sula?
10. What item did Sula find which helped her to know that Ajax was not a dream?
1. Ajax had the conviction that Sula would very soon “like all of her sisters before her, put to him the death-knell question ‘Where have you been?’” This meant that Sula would soon try to control or possess Ajax.
2. Betty was angry with Sula because she believed Sula pushed her son.
3. Betty’s child’s name was Teapot.
4. Dessie was upset because she saw Shadrack tip his imaginary hat to Sula.
5. Ajax’s real name was Albert Jacks.
6. The charges against Tar Baby at his arrest were those of drunkenness.
7. Ajax left Sula because he thought she would become bossy and try to control him.
8. Mr. Finley angered Ajax by beating his...
(The entire section is 255 words.)
Chapter 9: 1940 Questions and Answers
1. How long had it been since Nel had last seen Sula when the chapter “1940” begins?
2. Where did Nel find the money to care for her family?
3. At what address did Sula live?
4. What did Sula ask Nel to buy for her?
5. What two things did Nel find in Sula’s purse?
6. How did Nel feel about work?
7. How did Sula feel about work?
8. How did Sula say being mean to someone and loving someone were alike?
9. How did Sula say people would eventually feel about her?
10. What news did Sula want to share with Nel at the end of “1940”?
1. When the chapter “1940” begins, it had been three years since Nel had talked with Sula.
2. Nel found the money to care for her family by cleaning for others.
3. Sula lived at 7 Carpenter’s Road.
4. Sula asked Nel to buy a prescription for her.
5. Nel found a watch and a prescription in Sula’s purse.
6. Nel felt work did not hurt one.
7. Sula said she never would work.
8. Sula said being mean to someone and loving someone were alike because both were risky.
9. Sula said people would eventually love her.
10. Sula wanted to share with Nel the news that death did not hurt.
(The entire section is 204 words.)
Chapter 10: 1941 Questions and Answers
1. What was Sula’s last name?
2. What was the hymn sung at Sula’s funeral?
3. What were the two things under construction?
4. What did Shadrack see in the birthmark above Sula’s eye?
5. What did the purple-and-white belt symbolize for Shadrack?
6. How did Shadrack find out that Sula was dead?
7. Who was the first person to die at the tunnel?
8. How did most of the people react to Shadrack on this National Suicide Day?
9. How did the people begin to treat each other after the death of Sula?
10. How does the reader know that Shadrack was improving?
1. Sula’s last name was Peace.
2. The hymn sung at Sula’s funeral was “Shall We Gather at the River.”
3. The tunnel and the home for the aged were the two things under construction.
4. Shadrack saw a tadpole in the birthmark above Sula’s eye.
5. The purple-and-white belt symbolized a guest, a daughter, a woman, and a social life for Shadrack.
6. Shadrack found out that Sula was dead when he saw her on a table at Mr. Hodges’ home.
7. The first person to die at the tunnel was Dessie.
8. Most of the people laughed at Shadrack on this National Suicide Day.
9. The people begin to treat each other with no respect after the death of Sula.
(The entire section is 227 words.)
Chapter 11: 1965 Questions and Answers
1. Of whom did the young men of 1965 remind Nel?
2. Why were more homes for the elderly necessary in Medallion?
3. How many children did Nel have?
4. What was happening to land in the Bottom in 1965?
5. Nel persisted in doing an activity that most people in the Bottom did not do. What was this activity?
6. What did Eva imagine she was doing when Nel visited?
7. Whom did Eva call Nel at the end of the visit?
8. Whom did Nel meet on the way to the cemetery?
9. What was the song sung at the cemetery for Sula?
10. What food did Eva say that Nel had eaten?
1. Nel thought the young men of 1965 reminded her of the deweys.
2. More homes for the elderly were necessary because many families were placing their old persons in the homes sooner.
3. Nel had three children.
4. The whites were buying the land in the Bottom in 1965.
5. Nel persisted in walking, an activity that most people in the Bottom did not do.
6. Eva imagined she was ironing when Nel visited.
7. Eva called Nel by the name of Sula at the end of the visit.
8. Nel met Shadrack on her way to the cemetery.
9. The song sung at the cemetery for Sula was “Shall We Gather at the River.”
10. Eva said that Nel had eaten chop suey.
(The entire section is 219 words.)
Point of View
The novel is told from the point of view of a wise, omniscient narrator, who sees into all the characters' hearts and minds with tolerance and acceptance. The use of such a narrator is interesting; the characters are all given equal time, and no one, even Sula—for whom the book is named—is more major than anyone else. In addition, the use of varied points of view allows the reader to see all the sides of any event and understand the complexity of what really happened. In the book, horrendous events are depicted, but the narrator avoids making judgments about them; they are simply presented, and the reader sees various characters respond to them and is allowed to come to an independent determination of what these things mean and whether they are good or evil.
The author frequently uses dialect speech, bringing the characters to life and letting the reader hear them talk, in a very natural way. For example, in the following dialogue between Eva and Hannah, Hannah has just asked Eva if she loved her children and played with them when they were little, and Eva deflects the question by telling her about the hard times she went through:
"I'm talkin' 'bout 18 and 95 when I set in that house five days with you and Pearl and Plum and three beets, you snake-eyed ungrateful hussy. What would I look like leapin' 'round that little old room playin' with youngins with three...
(The entire section is 750 words.)
Morrison's greatest talents lie in her descriptive abilities. Her prose is extremely poetic, full of lush, vivid descriptions of the setting and characters. Even the opening sentences blend mundane historical detail with careful description:
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river... . One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley.
The descriptions of the towns' foliage is more than an effort toward botanical accuracy. Morrison's use of words simultaneously invokes an imagined vision and a sense of sadness at the neighborhood's loss. Throughout Sula, Morrison adeptly gives her language this double meaning.
Morrison's characters are as vividly drawn as her descriptions of the natural environment. Eva, Sula and the rest of the Peace family are entirely believable characters, as are the rest of the Bottom's residents. One technique that makes Morrison's characters seem more real is their moral ambiguity. The actors who perform the drama laid out in Sula's pages cannot be conveniently categorized as good or bad. Each character, like people who populate the real world, demonstrate the capacity for both benevolence and spite. Eva, for...
(The entire section is 256 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Sula is a fascinating study of black life in rural America during some of the nation's most trying moments. While appealing as a document focused on a particular time and racial group, Morrison's novel also expounds on universal themes concerning familial ties, love, jealousy, and ambition. Its characters are complex individuals, each capable of committing acts of unmatched devotion and extreme cruelty. There is not a sense of absolute morality in Morrison's created world. Instead, characters have relative merits and faults understandable only in the context of their entire lives.
Operating behind the individual dramas Morrison crafts is a national movement toward greater acceptance of African-Americans. Sadly, however, this acceptance moves far too slowly and never raises itself beyond the level of tokenism. Sula's denouement demonstrates the extent of African-American frustration at the white community's failure to adequately address the calls for equality of opportunity emanating from the nation's black neighborhoods. Spanning years from the 1920s to the early days of the Civil Rights movement, Sula tracks profound changes which struck the United States during the middle years of the twentieth century. Unlike a conventional history, however, Morrison's novel is intensely personal, highly dramatic, and profoundly moving.
1. Shadrack appears only momentarily in the main body of the novel. Only at the very beginning and in...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
As a historical novel, Sula's social concerns are particularly focused on the time and place in which the novel's action occurs. Spanning the months following the conclusion of the World War I to the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights movement, Sula is concerned primarily with the struggles against poverty and racism faced by the African-American inhabitants of a small Ohio town. Relegated to the curiously named "Bottom" neighborhood (which actually consists of the homes on hills surrounding the white district) Medallion's black inhabitants are both figuratively and literally separated from the prosperity and security enjoyed by their white counterparts.
Throughout the novel, the African-American residents of Medallion wait patiently for the opportunity to work on the road and tunnel which runs out of town. Until the end, however, the work remains available only to white residents. At one point there are hopes that the work will become integrated, but these are quickly dismissed:
For three years there were rumors that blacks would work it, and hope was high in spite of the fact that the River Road leading to the tunnel had encouraged similar hopes in 1927 but had ended up being built entirely by white labor—hillbillies and immigrants taking even the lowest jobs.
The exclusion of even highly educated and skilled black men from the work of the road explodes the notion that American...
(The entire section is 882 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1920s: More than 350,000 African-American soldiers, who serve in segregated units, return home from World War I.
Today: The United States armed forces include large numbers of African Americans, who serve in every capacity and are no longer segregated; some African Americans, such as General Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of State during the administration of George W. Bush, achieve the highest rank.
1920s: Overall, the unemployment rate is about 5.2%, but this figure is much higher for African Americans because of prejudice against them.
Today: Unemployment ranges between 5 and 6 percent and African Americans are integrated into all sectors of society, though they still experience a higher level of unemployment than whites.
1920s: "Jim Crow" laws, which were implemented in the late nineteenth century, segregate the South, mandating separate spheres of existence for African Americans and whites. Restaurants, stores, buses, hotels, transportation, housing, and other areas of life are rigidly separated, and African Americans who cross the barriers can be arrested and imprisoned.
Today: The widespread and growing civil rights movement brings increasing attention to the problems caused by discrimination and segregation. Although old laws restricting African Americans from voting and full participation in society were finally overturned in the 1960s, racism, bigotry, and...
(The entire section is 215 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Research the Jim Crow laws and describe how they affected every area of life for African Americans.
Find out about the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and discuss their effectiveness. What issues do you think still need to be addressed to ensure equality among different groups of people?
Research the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War I or World War II. Choose a particular soldier and write about his life before, during, and after the war.
How do you feel racism affects you? Write an essay about your experiences.
In the book, relationships between mothers and daughters are difficult and painful. Do you think this is the case for most mothers and daughters? Why or why not?
Choose a character from the book and write a story about his or her experiences during a period that is not covered in the book. For example, write about Sula's life during her ten years away from Medallion, or Shadrack's life during the war.
(The entire section is 163 words.)
Morrison's novel fits into a rather lengthy tradition of novels which simultaneously celebrate black identity and descry the inequities endured by men and women of African descent. As early as the Colonial Era, African-Americans were finding their voice. The most notable of these early authors was Phillis Wheatley. She published her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. These poems appear rather problematic to today's reader. In some poems, she celebrates her removal from her home continent, asserting that it was better to live as a Christian in slavery than as a free heathen. Obviously, such rhetoric only perpetuates the myth of cultural and moral superiority that legitimated the practice of slavery.
Roughly seventy-five years after the publication of Wheatley's works, America witnessed an explosion of writings by African-Americans. The slave narrative became a genre of literature unto itself even while it aided the cause of emancipation. Many of these narratives were told from a male perspective and therefore lack much of the thematic attention to familial bonds that makes up much of Sula. The most notable exception is Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Told in the first person and relating details of her bondage, escape, and life of freedom, this work parallels Sula in two ways. First, it dwells on the particular concerns of women under the oppressive systems of racism...
(The entire section is 425 words.)
Though Morrison does not continue her examination of the lives of the Bottom's residents in subsequent volumes, she does present similar characters in other novels with similar thematic and social concerns. From her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970) to Paradise (1998), Morrison has consistently focused on the lives of African-American women and their families.
The Bluest Eye, like Sula, takes place in Ohio. Morrison set her first novel in the middle of the twentieth century and placed at its center the eleven-year-old Pecola. This young girl struggles with her maturation, much like Sula and Nel. Furthermore, The Bluest Eye contains considerations of family conflict similar to those in Sula. Pecola's father, however, is not a benign, caring presence as Eva usually appears to be. Eventually, Pecola's father rapes her, demonstrating the upper limit of violence perpetrated against children by their overbearing parents.
This violence against children appears often in Morrison's fiction. In Beloved (1987), however, violence is not a sign of familial strife but of the potential for the maternal bond to assert itself in surprising ways. Set in the years which bookend the Civil War, the novel tells the story of a woman who escapes slavery but is tracked down by a band of slave hunters. When cornered by these men, she kills her baby and attempts to end her other children's lives. She commits the murder...
(The entire section is 364 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Morrison's Beloved (1987), written in an episodic, experimental style, examines the heritage of slavery.
Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), stars Pecola, who prays each night for blue eyes, hoping that if she gets them she will finally be noticed and loved.
Morrison's Jazz (1992) tells the story of a triangle of passion, jealousy, murder, and redemption.
In Song of Solomon (1977), Morrison tells the story of Macon Dead, an upper-middle-class African-American entrepreneur who tries to isolate his family from other African Americans in the neighborhood, and how this affects his son.
Tar Baby (1981), by Morrison, describes a love affair between an African-American model and a white man.
In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison discusses the significance of African Americans in American literature.
Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar (1989) intertwines the lives of many people from the United States, England, and Africa, and provides perspectives on the colonial African experience as well as the experiences of African Americans.
In The Color Purple (1982), Alice Walker describes an abused woman's struggle for empowerment.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bakerman, Jane S. “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” American Literature 52 (January, 1981): 541-563. Presents Morrison’s first three novels as accounts of female initiation. Maintains that they show female characters looking for love and self-worth but ultimately failing in their search.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Collection of scholarly essays on Morrison; includes analyses of the self/other dialectic and of the lack of peace in Sula.
Bryant, Cedric Gael. “The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison’s Sula. ” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter, 1990): 731-745. Maintains that in the worlds of Morrison’s novels, the community not only tolerates but also integrates individuals whom the larger world would deem insane or evil.
Christian, Barbara. “The Contemporary Fables of Toni Morrison.” In Black Women Novelists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Argues that Morrison’s first two novels “chronicle the search for beauty amidst the restrictions of life, both from within and without.” Her main characters in both novels search for meaning through connection with the greater world.
De Weever, Jacqueline. Mythmaking and Metaphor in...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bakerman, Jane S., Review of Sula, in American Literature, March 1980, pp. 87-100.
Blackburn, Sara, Review of Sula, in New York Times. December 20, 1972, p. 3.
Blackburn, Sara, "You Still Can't Go Home Again," in New York Times Book Review, December 30, 1973.
Carmean, Karen, Toni Morrison’s World of Fiction. Troy, New York: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1993.
Century, Douglas, Toni Morrison: Author. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
Davis, Faith, Review of Sula, in Harvard Advocate, Vol. 107, No. 4, 1974.
Gray, Paul, "Paradise Found," in Time, January 19, 1998.
Kramer, Barbara, Toni Morrison: Nobel Prize-Winning Author. Springfield, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 1996.
Lambert, Walter J. and Charles E. Lamb, Reading Instruction in the Content Areas. Chicago: Rand McNally Publishing Company, 1980.
Marvin, P. H., Review of Sula. Library Journal, August 1973, 98:2336.
Morrison, Toni, Sula. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.
Morrison, Toni, "The Salon Interview: Toni Morrison," in Salon, http://www.salon.com/(July 23, 2001).
-----------, "Unspeakable Things Spoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 28, Winter 1989, pp. 1-34.
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