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 Southern remnants of racist oppression. Nel and Helene must sit in the “colored only” car of the train, and because there were no “colored only” restrooms past Birmingham, they urinate in the woods when the train stops. Helene is pleased to return home. After Nel insists, Helene welcomes the young Sula into her home, in spite of Hannah Peace’s reputation for being “sooty.”
Sula and Nel’s development into adults follows some predictable and some unpredictable patterns. Nel becomes a carbon copy of her mother. She marries, has children, and bases her entire identity on the roles of mother and wife, an identity disrupted by her best friend. After attending college and traveling to some major American cities, Sula returns to Medallion, where she continues her mother’s legacy of promiscuity and has her mean-spirited grandmother placed, against her will, in a home for the elderly.
To Nel’s dismay, Sula has sex with Nel’s husband, Jude. Feeling betrayed by her husband and her best friend, Nel says that her life and her “thighs . . . [are] truly empty and dead.” After nearly three years of not speaking to each other, Nel visits Sula after hearing that she is sick. Nel leaves unsatisfied with Sula’s shallow reason for having sex with Jude. Sula dies of an unnamed illness at the age of thirty.
On January 3, 1941, the National Suicide Day after Sula’s death, Shadrack continues his tradition, although with less passion since he misses Sula. This year, many town members participate in his parade. They march gayly to “the white part of town,” distinguished by the tunnel excavation and beginnings of remodeling for the city. Angered by not being permitted to work on the renovations, many citizens of “the Bottom” crowd into the tunnel as an action of self-assertion and protest. Unfortunately, the tunnel collapses, killing an unspecified number of them (approximately twelve to fifteen).
By 1965, the hills of “the Bottom” are largely populated by whites, and the narrator laments the lack of cohesion among the African Americans who have moved to the valley. As the narrator notes, there were not as many spontaneous visits and everyone had his or her own television and telephone. After Nel visits Eva in the home for the elderly, Nel remembers calling the hospital, mortuary, and police after Sula’s body was found—eyes open and mouth open—in Eva’s bed. Only after Nel leaves the cemetery does she discover that all the pain and loneliness that she had been feeling was from missing having Sula in her life, not Jude.