Study Guide

Sula

by Toni Morrison

Sula Analysis

Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Sula Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Medallion

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

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 fertile valley land below. The neighborhood’s ironic name refers to the “bottom of heaven.” The residents are not consoled that they can “literally look down on the white folks.” The neighborhood eventually disappears as the homes of wealthy whites and a golf course are put in on the hillside. A tunnel built by white laborers offers a focus for the rage the Bottom’s residents feel at their economic and social privation. In their attempt to destroy it, many are killed when it collapses.

The residents of the Bottom interpret and pass judgment on events and actions of the novel’s characters. Morrison’s giving a communal voice to a place is reminiscent of a technique of William Faulkner, on whom Morrison wrote a master’s thesis. Like Faulkner, Morrison creates characters who seemingly could not exist in different settings.

Train

Train. After Helene’s grandmother dies in 1920, Helene and Nel travel to New Orleans on a train. Their ride provides a vivid picture of the unequal treatment that African Americans received in the Deep South during the days of rigid Jim Crow segregation. The train’s conductor is extremely nasty when Helene accidentally gets on the coach for white passengers. The train stations do not even have rest rooms for black passengers. Although Helene is disgusted by the way she is treated on the trip and by the cold welcome she receives from her mother, her ten-year-old daughter Nel finds the experience exciting. The new sense of self she develops from her journey makes her feel brave, so that she starts talking to Sula Peace, who will become her best friend.

Helene Wright’s home

Helene Wright’s home. House in which Nel grows up. Like its mistress, the house is orderly and attractive, to the point that Nel finds it oppressive. Sula, coming from a more chaotic household, loves to visit the house.

Eva Peace’s home

Eva Peace’s home. House in which Sula grows up, also inhabited by her grandmother Eva, mother Hannah, uncle Plum, three boys all named Dewey, and various others over time. The house was constructed in pieces and contains rooms and stairways in no particular arrangement, in contrast with the orderly Wright home. Nel prefers the Peace home to her own.

Sula Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 severely limited life options.

Although the possibilities for women in American society have expanded since the publication of Sula in 1973, the novel reminds its readers of a time that should be remembered. In the late 1960’s, the women’s liberation movement was in full force to combat sexual discrimination and gain legal, economic, vocational, educational, and social rights and opportunities for women that were equal to those of men. It is important to women, and clearly important to Morrison, that the history of this struggle and the stories of these women not be forgotten.

Sula Historical Context

The events in Sula span much of the twentieth century, during a time of great changes in civil rights for African Americans and other...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Sula Quizzes

Introduction: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Chapter 1: 1919 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Chapter 2: 1920 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
1. Wiley Wright lived in Medallion, Ohio.

2. Wiley Wright married Helene....

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Chapter 3: 1921 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
1. Sula was Eva’s granddaughter.

2. Eva’s husband was BoyBoy.

3. Eva’s three children are Hannah, Plum (or...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Chapter 4: 1922 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Chapter 5: 1923 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
1. The first strange thing that happened was the wind.

2. The...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Chapter 6: 1927 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
1. The social event that Helene...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Chapter 7: 1937 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
1. It took Sula ten years to return to the...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Chapter 8: 1939 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Chapter 9: 1940 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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”?

Answers
1. When the chapter “1940”...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Chapter 10: 1941 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
1. Sula’s...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Chapter 11: 1965 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
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?

Answers
1. Nel...

(The entire section is 219 words.)