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.