Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sula is a novel about self-creation, about women, about men, and about a culture. The girls, Sula and Nel, realize early on that the world does not easily accommodate people such as them: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be.” They would be black women. That means something different to each of them. For Nel, it means becoming a wife and mother, sustaining the values of the community. For Sula, it means living an “experimental life,” rejecting commonly held values. Nel tells Sula, “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don’t.” Sula will not accept such limitations. When Nel demands to know what Sula has gained from her choices—having no husband and no children; her grandmother put away in a nursing home; her mother, father, and uncle dead; residents of the Bottom all despising her—Sula responds, “Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.” Nel, on the other hand, has loneliness, an empty space that Jude used to fill, and another one Sula formerly occupied. Sula’s self-knowledge and Nel’s connection to other people are both essential to human existence. Each woman, even if only...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
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Thematically, Sula might be best summarized as a domestic novel: it's primary thematic concern is with the dynamics of family life. More specifically, Morrison focuses on the bonds of motherhood and sisterhood. Though these bonds give characters great strength and fill their lives with fulfilling companionship, they also lead to heartache and strife in some circumstances. The case of Sula Peace demonstrates the duality inherent in any close relationship: when a tight bond is formed supreme trust is given, but this trust is often betrayed.
Though Sula has real sisters, it is her adoptive sister, Nel Wright, that Morrison casts in the lead role for a drama about the complex bonds of sisterhood. Nel, sheltered by her aristocratic mother, takes to the free spirited Sula quite quickly: "Their friendship was as intense as it was sudden. They found relief in each other's personality." Sula is attracted to Nel in part because her life has a sense of order and formality her own boarding house existence lacks. Thus, Morrison sets up this close friendship as a classic example of the attraction between opposites. The friendship thus fostered gives the two young girls multiple opportunities for learning about the joys and burdens of womanhood: "Joined in mutual admiration they watched each day as though it were a movie arranged for their amusement. The new theme they were now discovering was men." Of course, among the discoveries they make about men is their power over...
(The entire section is 952 words.)
Poverty and Hopelessness
Throughout the novel, the lives of the characters are shaped by poverty, as they have little or no money, unlike many of their white counterparts in the town. Although no one in the book is rich, the people of the Bottom are exceptionally poor. Eva has money only because she sacrificed her leg; others must make do as they can, with menial jobs or no jobs, because work for African Americans is limited by the racism of those who could hire them. When characters have dreams, like Jude, who dreams of doing a man's work on the road crew instead of spending a menial day as a waiter, they are crushed.
Existence in the Bottom is precarious at best, and is easily disrupted. Near the end of the book, people's hopes are raised by rumors that the new tunnel construction would use African-American laborers, and by the fact that an old people's home that was being renovated would be open to African Americans. However, these hopes are forgotten when a freezing rain kills all the late crops, kills chickens, splits jugs of cider, and makes the "thin houses and thinner clothes" of the Bottom people seem even thinner. Housebound, they make do with what they have, since deliveries have stopped and the good food is all being saved for white customers anyway. Thanksgiving that year is a meal of "tiny tough birds, heavy pork cakes, and pithy sweet potatoes." By spring all the children are sick and the adults are suffering from a variety of...
(The entire section is 1245 words.)