Morrison’s Sula is difficult to simplify down to a single moral, yet there are a number of salient themes and messages that we might identify in the novel.
Part of the reason that Sula is hard to simplify is that one of its principal elements is inscrutability. The character of Sula, in particular, is inscrutable – a woman, driven by impulses that she embraces but does not seem to fully understand and that she certainly cannot (or will not) control.
As a child, Sula accidentally throws Chicken Little into the river, killing him. She does not feel remorse but instead seems only to worry about getting caught. Her response is to make sure that no one besides Nel witnessed the event. This leads her to run to Shadrack’s house where she suddenly becomes embarrassed.
Why, exactly, does she run to the house of the man everyone believes is crazy? What would she do if he did see Chicken Little go into the river? Why does she grow embarrassed when she gets there? Why does never feel remorse for what she has done?
There are no clear answers to these questions. Sula is subject to the forces of an inner life that resist explanation and which do not yield to scrutiny.
Nel too fails to feel remorse for Chicken Little’s death. She is instead fascinated by her own response to the boy’s death. Thinking, years later, about her feelings that day, Nel is stung by a realization that she may have enjoyed watching the boy die.
“Now it seemed that what she had thought was maturity, serenity and compassion was only the tranquility that follows a joyful stimulation. Just as the water closed peacefully over the turbulence of Chicken Little’s body, so had contentment washed over her enjoyment.”
Why does Nel react this way to a boy’s accidental death? There is no clear answer provided in the text.
Sula explores the notion that people do not always know why they feel how they do (or why they do what they do). There is a deep, inner drive that animates the body and the mind, it would seem, and there is not always a way to consciously articulate or explain how this mechanism works.
In other parts of the novel a mother (Eva Peace) kills her adult child (Plum) when he becomes a drug addict. A daughter (Sula) watches her mother (Hannah) burn to death without making a move to help. A group of people enter a tunnel that is under construction and destroy it out of a sense of pent up outrage, destroying their own lives in the process. These behaviors grow out of human nature. The novel insinuates that human nature is part of the natural world in much the same way that weather is part of the natural world, coming and going regardless of the conscious will of men and women.
The idea of human nature being similar (or identical with) capitalized Nature is one potential message of the novel and it parallels another thorny theme of the text. The difference between good and evil is not always clear.
While Sula is seen as evil by the people living in the Bottom, she also is responsible for bringing people together and tightening social bonds in the town. The question of moral goodness versus a larger, abstract sense of goodness as a force beyond human will is underscored in the exchange between Nel and Sula just before Sula dies.
Despite the fact that Sula has effectively destroyed Nel’s marriage, she is still able to pose a question about who is the good one in the friendship.
“‘How you know?’ Sula asked.
“‘Know what?’ Nel still wouldn’t look at her.
“‘About who was good. How you know it was you?’
“‘What you mean?’
“‘I mean maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me.’”
Goodness is complicated and directly brought into question here as a concept. Should we see goodness as an intentional, cleanly understandable personal attribute or should we instead see goodness as impersonal, as the net result of the cumulative acts a person may undertake?
If Sula brought together the people of the town (even though it was in hate) and strengthened the social bonds in numerous families while Nel only looked after herself and her own kids (albeit in harmlessness and humility), who should we say did more good for Medallion?
Is Nel good by virtue of what she abstains from doing? Is she good because it was not her who threw Chicken Little into the river? Or are things more complicated than that?
The novel invites us to question Nel’s complicity in the event, despite her specific role as a non-actor in it. And this question may be another one of the novel’s messages - - by what measure do we judge goodness, especially when joy and tragedy can get so mixed up as to be, sometimes, one and the same?
Other more overt messages are presented in the novel as well. This is a book about self-discovery and self-empowerment, about the privacy and solitude of experience, and about the resilience and subtlety of Black community culture. It is about friendship and female agency. It is also about change.