What is symbolic about fire and water in Sula?

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The symbols of fire and water in Sula primarily evoke death and destruction. In many cases, characters meet their tragic fates through the means of fire and water.

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Toni Morrison's 1973 novel Sula employs the elements of fire and water to symbolize death, destruction, and loss. The novel is a tragedy, and death recurs throughout, although both fire and water at times also represent rebirth.

Since ancient times, both fire and water have symbolized life and fertility in many world cultures and those symbols continue to permeate modern literature. Fire represents purification, warmth, light, love, strength, and freedom. Water represents healing, cleansing, devotion, and regeneration. However, fire can also burn and take life, water can also cause death, and both can destroy happiness.

Morrison's Sula is a story of good and evil set in The Bottom, a fictional black community in Ohio. The community is situated on a hill originally gifted to a former slave who had been told it was good land because it is high and therefore closer to heaven. What is unforeseen is the resultant vibrant community that springs up from the gift. As a consequence, wealthy whites residing in Medallion, the town below The Bottom, desire the land for their own use and wish to destroy the town. Morrison uses the symbols of fire and water as the conduits of death and destruction.

The protagonist of the novel is a young black girl named Sula, around whom evil appears to thrive to the point where even the residents of the black community develop a hatred and distrust of her. Morrison chronicles the instances of death surrounding Sula and frames them in symbolic references to fire and water.

For example, Plum, who is addicted to drugs dies in a fire set by Eva. Even the spoon he uses for his drug habit is blackened from “steady cooking.” The evil destruction by fire is obvious. Hannah also dies by fire. The references are numerous and often subtle as when Sula is offered a cold drink and states that she is “burnin’ up.” Not coincidentally, the fever that eventually takes Sula’s life is described by Morrison as a “kind of burning.” Before Sula dies, she experiences “liquid pain,” a reference to the destructive power of water. Another water symbol included is when Shadrack is identified as a fisherman. Still another is present when the tunnel collapses and people drown.

The defining incident in the novel is the accidental death by drowning of Chicken Little when the “water darkened and closed quickly.” This drowning in the river also destroys the relationship between Sula and Nel.

Fire and water are clearly recurring motifs in this novel. They are associated with all of the deaths of the characters who have met their evil fate. The reader can see this association with the deaths of Plum, Hannah, and Chicken Little. The motif is also connected with Sula's death. Nearing death, “her face was thoroughly soaked” and “she... would know the water was near... it would envelope her, carry her, and wash her tired flesh always.”

Sula is riddled with the symbolism of fire and water as methods of destruction used to demolish the vibrant community of The Bottom. It is up to the reader to determine whether traditional symbols of fire and water as life-giving, purification, freedom, and rebirth are also intentionally reflected by Morrison.

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The imagery of fire and water in Toni Morrison's Sula creates an important juxtaposition. Both fire and water are used to describe death. A few characters die by fire, and a few die by water. Historically, both fire and water have been used to purify, and both fire and water were also used during the trials of witches as symbolic purification. It is no different in Morrison's novel.

In the novel, Sula sees people die by both fire and water. Although she finds "comfort," for lack of a better word, in the part of fire in death, she does not find the same comfort in that of water. Sula finds fire to be comforting and destructive, a paradoxical tool used in many literary pieces. The fact that she finds fire beautiful allows her to accept the deaths as necessary—fire allows Plum's suffering to end.

Water, on the other hand, is only seen as destructive. Sula feels responsible for Chicken's drowning. He did not need to die like Plum in order to end her suffering. Instead, Sula is distraught by his drowning. For her, water does not possess the same beauty as fire.

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Fire and water symbolize destruction, the destruction that always threatens but at the same time fascinates Sula. Some of Sula's relatives die by fire: Eva, Sula's grandmother, burns up the heroin-addicted Plum, and Hannah, Sula's mother, burns and melts as she catches on fire while trying to light a lawn fire, as Sula watches.

We learn that Eva “remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

Water also kills people, such as Chicken Little, who drowns in the river. Many residents of Bottom are also drowned in the New River Road tunnel. Sula is one of several characters in the novel who watch others burn or drown, the word "watch," according to Morrison, symbolizing their participation in the deaths of others. Fire and water thus symbolize both the destructive forces in Sula's life, but also her connection with the destruction: the community is interrelated and all are implicated. 


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According to a Hungarian scholar, Eva Gyetvai, "When Eva gets prepared to burn Plum, she first holds him in her
arms. Plum draws blissful pleasure from his mother’s embrace; however, that embrace is also the grip of death for him. When he burns, the 'whoosh of flames engulfed him' (48): burning and embrace are repeated and joined. Plum is literally burning while he is metaphorically embraced.

Hannah is metaphorically burning in sexual pleasure while literally embraced. In chapter '1923,' in Hannah’s burning scene, her agonizing, convoluted, body is 'smoke-and-flame-bound' (76). Now, the motifs of burning and embrace are reversed." So according to this scholar, fire is a symbol for being embraced, for death, and for sexual pleasure.

Sula is often identified in conjunction with water in the novel. "When Sula returns and the robins finally leave in May, Nel senses the 'green, rain-soaked Saturday nights' (94): the surest sign for Sula’s presence back in her life.

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How is the archetypal motif of fire and water threaded throughout Sula?

These two motifs are connected with the deaths of various characters. For example, fire is responsible for the death of Hannah and Plum, and water is responsible for the death of Little Chicken. There is a sense therefore in which these two elements are associated with suffering and death, but also with what is shown or learnt through these tragic events. For example, Nel and Sula both learn that they are not immortal and have their childhood sense of innocence stripped from them after the accident with Little Chicken. They both learn how easily people can die, and Little Chicken's drowning in the river demonstrates this. In the same way, Hannah's death by burning demonstrates Eva's intense love for her daughter, as she is willing to sacrifice herself and cover her daughter's burning body with her own in order to save her:

Eva knew there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover her daughter's body.

The burning of Hannah, as tragic as it is, therefore is used in this sense to evince Eva's fierce attachment to her daughter and the way that she is willing to risk everything--even her own life--to save her. The motif of fire and water is therefore threaded throughout this powerful novel in the way that they relate to death and suffering, but also to the learning, growth and development that each character undergoes as a result of these tragedies. Both fire and water are shown to purify and develop characters, in a sense, spurring them on to discover important things about themselves and their lives with each other.

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