What is symbolic about fire and water in Sula?
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.
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.