Summary of the Novel
Sula is a multi-faceted novel. It is, first of all, a story of the friendship of two black women (Sula and Nel) over a period of almost 45 years. The friendship, which begins in about 1921, continues through high school and even until Nel’s marriage to Jude. It is almost ten years after Nel’s marriage before Sula returns to the small town of Medallion, Ohio; she brings home tales of college and travels. When Nel meets Sula again, their friendship commences as if nothing had ever happened. Nel, however, interrupts Sula and Jude as they are having sex. Jude and Sula leave town together, but Sula soon returns alone. Nel has no contact with Sula for three more years. Nel goes to Sula when she finds out that Sula is dying. Sula tells Nel that if Nel had truly loved her, Nel would have forgiven her. Nel still does not forgive and continues to ask why Sula behaved as she did. It is only after Sula's death and burial that Nel realizes that it has been Sula—not Jude—whom Nel has missed through the years. Sula is also the story of a neighborhood. The Bottom (actually the hilly land which is supposed to be the bottom of Heaven) with its black residents and the valley with its white residents are marked contrasts. Neither group of inhabitants seems content. The valley residents eventually take over much of the Bottom. The tight-knit neighborhood of the Bottom changes into a community where the people seek little connection with one another. The Bottom residents themselves destroy the uncompleted tunnel, a link to future employment and travel opportunities. Sula traces family histories from grandparents, parents, Nel and Sula themselves, and Nel’s family. Interwoven with their lives are Shadrack, who suffers with a psychic injury from the war, the adopted deweys, and the Jackson and Suggs families. Sula is a tragedy which unfolds in nonchronological order. Sula’s mother burns to death in her sight, her uncle burns at the hand of his mother (Sula’s grandmother), and Sula dies alone at a young age. Shadrack’s life is never the same after World War I. Nel spends her adult years as a single mother rearing three children and mourning the loss of a husband—and later a friend. Eva engages in self-mutilation and loses a leg to draw insurance money, sets fire to her own son, sees her daughter burn to death, and, at last, must reside in an old age home at the hand of her granddaughter. Jude loses his wife and three children when he has sex with his wife’s best friend. The community residents, who had been close, separate themselves from one another; they eventually destroy the tunnel—their link to the New Road and to promised employment opportunities. Many people die in the destruction. Hate, sarcasm, loss of life, and lack of identity bring unhappiness to an area which is supposed to be the Bottom of Heaven. Marvin, in Library Journal of 1973, calls Sula "an evocation of a whole black community during a span of over 40 years." Morrison, he says, describes this "re-creation of the black experience in America with both artistry and authenticity." In the New York Times Book Review, Blackburn describes the novel as "frozen" and "stylized." She calls it an "icy version" of Morrison’s first novel and a book with characters who are "achingly alive." Prescott in Newsweek of 1974 calls Sula an "exemplary fable...arranged in a pattern that cannot be anticipated until the author is done with her surprises." Prescott comments on the "surprising scope and depth" of Sula; Blackburn calls it a "howl of love and rage."
Estimated Reading Time
The average silent reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute, according to Lambert. Because each page has about 300 words on it, an average student would take about one minute to read each page. The reading time for the 174-page book would be about three hours. One must, however, allow extra time for interpretation. This means that the total reading time for Sula will probably be about four hours. Reading the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach.
The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-mill town. Her name at birth was Chloe Anthony Wofford, and she was one of four children born to George and Ramah Wofford.
The Wofford family was not well-off financially. At one point, when George and Ramah could not pay their $4.00 rent, the landlord set fire to the house—with Chloe, her older sister, and her parents still inside. No one was injured. Her parents frequently shared the story in an amusing—not a tragic—way; Chloe said the incident helped give her a sense of humor.
Chloe's father came from Georgia. He left that state because of the racial evils he witnessed there. These atrocities were, to him, sufficient reason for hating all whites. George was a pessimist and believed that no hope was imminent for African-Americans. Chloe's mother, on the other hand, was more optimistic. She believed that individuals in society could better their lots.
Chloe's family life had many influences. One such influence was superstition, which figured prominently into the belief system and activities of the family. For instance, Chloe's maternal grandmother kept a dream book with symbols. She used these symbols for playing the numbers. Chloe's father loved to delight the children with scary ghost stories, which also reflected superstition.
A second important influence on Chloe's family was a respect for its heritage. George Wofford skillfully wove the stories of family into oral history which the children clamored to hear again and again.
Music was a rich, third influence on Chloe's family. Chloe's mother was an excellent singer and often entertained her family with song. Chloe's grandfather, John Solomon Willis, was a violinist in his early life and added to her love of music. It is no wonder that young Chloe set a goal for herself: she would express herself through music by becoming a dancer.
Chloe attended public school in Lorain. She was a gifted child. In her first-grade class Chloe was the only child in her ethnic group and the only student who could read. Many of the older boys in the public school were bullies. Chloe sometimes suffered from their racial slurs and physical abuse.
Chloe shared in chores at home from an early age, assisted in the care of her grandparents whenever she was needed, did above-average school work, and worked for other families from the time she was 12. Although her employers could be cruel to her, her father reminded her that she did not live there. Her father told her to do the work and come on home; Chloe learned not to let others determine her feelings about herself.
Chloe attended high school in Lorain. She studied hard, was a member of the honor society, worked outside the home, and still found time to read the great novels of Russia, France, England, and America. Chloe graduated from Lorain High School in 1949.
Chloe was admitted to Howard University in Washington, DC. Chloe's parents recognized the intelligence of their daughter and wanted to help her succeed. Her father worked three jobs simultaneously to help pay her way; her mother took a job as a restroom attendant.
At Howard, Chloe's classmates recognized Chloe as an actress. She traveled with the Howard University Players and visited the South for the first time with this traveling group. Drama became important to her.
Chloe majored in literature. During her college years, she changed her name to Toni. In 1953 she received a B.A. in English, and in 1955 she earned an M.A. from Cornell. Her thesis topic was Suicide in Faulkner and Woolf.
Toni accepted a teaching position at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. She went back to Howard as an instructor in English and the humanities; there, she assumed many duties, teaching general composition and literature classes while serving as faculty adviser to the English Club. Toni lectured on prominent black rights activists, such as Stokeley Carmichael and Claude Brown while she was at Howard. Brown brought her an 800-page manuscript to critique; this manuscript became Manchild in the Promised Land, a novel hailed as a modern classic.
Toni joined a group of writers and poets with monthly meetings. At every session they each shared something they had written. When Toni used up all her high school writings, she wrote a story of a little black girl wishing for blue eyes. She took the idea from an emotional, real-life event. This was the beginning of her first novel and her life as a writer.
Toni met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architecture student, in 1957. In 1964 she left her job at Howard. She and Harold went to Europe with their young son, Ford. While in Europe, Harold and Toni separated. Toni was pregnant with their second child.
With Ford, Toni returned to family and friends in Lorain. After her second child, Slade, was born, Toni moved to Syracuse to become an editor for I. W. Singer Publishing House, a subsidiary of Random House.
Within two years Toni moved from textbook editor to trade editor. By 1967 she was Senior Editor at Random House in New York City, where she encouraged the publication of many new writers—particularly those writing about the black culture. She edited an autobiography by Angela Davis and another by Muhammad Ali.
After working all day and spending time with her boys every evening, Toni sat down alone each night to work on her own book about the little girl who wanted blue eyes. The Bluest Eye (1970) was Toni's first novel. Her second novel was Sula (1973). Morrison found that when her children were growing up, it was easier to write in the family room with them around; she learned to tune out noise as she wrote.
In 1974, Random House published The Black Book, a collection of African-American culture, life, history, and narratives. Although her name did not appear as the creator, Morrison was the driving force behind publication of the book. During her research for The Black Book, she found the story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who tried to kill her children so that they would not lose their freedom. This story became the basis of her much later novel Beloved (1987).
Morrison began teaching creative writing and African-American studies at Yale. Her novel Song of Solomon (1977) received the National Book Critics Circle Award and also the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Because her books were becoming best sellers, she was able to buy a three-story home for her family. Morrison's Tar Baby appeared in print in 1981, and as a result of her recognition, she became the cover story for Newsweek.
Morrison was always working. She took a position as Associate Professor at SUNY Purchase and Bard College in New York. In 1984 she resigned her job at Random House and became the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at State University of New York at Albany. She wrote her first play while she was there.
On April 1, 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Morrison made it clear to her public that how she was ranked did not change her life. She was not writing for accolades or wealth. She wrote to satisfy herself first. Her popularity grew as more and more readers discovered her writings.
In 1992, her book Jazz appeared in print. In the same year, her collection of essays, titled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, was published. Morrison found time to edit and contribute to another book of essays, Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality.
Other honors followed. In October of 1993 Toni won the Nobel Prize for literature. She traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, in December to receive the coveted award. Reporters and the general public received her acceptance speech with acclaim.
Only a few days after her return from Sweden, a Christmas fire destroyed Morrison's Hudson River home. Over 100 firefighters fought the blaze to no avail. Morrison lost much memorabilia in the fire.
She was acquiring new treasures, however. In 1995 she attended the dedication of the Toni Morrison Reading Room in the Lorain Public Library, and she received a Matrix Award and the title Doctor of Humane Letters from Howard University.
But Morrison's work is not done yet. Her literature, like her life, continues to enrich the lives of readers everywhere.
Sula is set in Medallion, Ohio. This small town with its close relationships among the neighbors essentially has two segments: the valley where the whites live and the Bottom where the blacks reside. Because Medallion figures prominently into the plot and because the geographic location and the physical features described in Sula are unique to Ohio, the setting is integral to—not a backdrop to—the action. The hills and the valley serve to clarify the conflicts and to illuminate the characters; these two features are a literal—not a figurative—part of the text.
The first date in the chapter titles is 1919, and the last date is 1965. However, Sula is nonchronological; the chapters do not progress sequentially as the reader might expect. In her writing Morrison predicts a time after the 1965 date and takes the reader to the time of slavery—much before 1919. Her depiction of a socially and racially divided town helps the reader to understand life in a small town in an earlier era.
Master List of Characters
Sula Peace—a little girl who grows into a woman in the Bottom; the best friend of Nel; granddaughter of Eva; daughter of Hannah.
Inhabitants of the Bottom—black people who live in the hills and are dissatisfied with their lots.
Inhabitants of the valley—white people who live in the valley.
Slave owner—man who gives his slave a chore with the promise of freedom and a parcel of land upon successful completion; talks the slave into taking hill land instead of fertile valley; says that the hill land is the bottom of Heaven.
Slave—performs the chores given to him and accepts the Bottom parcel of land.
Shadrack—a young man with a psychic war injury from World War I; founder of National Suicide Day.
Male nurse—the balding man who treats Shadrack in the hospital.
Reverend Deal—a minister of the Bottom who accepts National Suicide Day.
Cecile—great aunt to Wiley Wright and grandmother to Helene; took Helene from the Sundown House and reared her in New Orleans.
Helene Sabat—daughter of a Creole prostitute; born behind the red shutters of Sundown House.
Wiley Wright—nephew of Cecile; resided in Medallion, Ohio; married Helene Sabat when she was 16; a seaman in port only three days out of every 16; served as cook aboard the ship.
Nel—the daughter of Helene and Wiley Wright after their ninth year of marriage.
Henri Martin—New Orleans resident who writes to Helene to tell her of her grandmother's illness.
Porter—the colored man who points Helene and Nel to the coach.
Conductor—the white man who calls Helene "gal" and who questions Helene's and Nel's presence in the white section of the coach.
Black woman and her four children—passengers who boarded in Tuscaloosa; the woman shows Helene and Nel the field that is used for a restroom.
Rochelle—Helene's mother and Nel's grandmother.
Hannah—Sula's mother; Eva's oldest child.
BoyBoy—Eva's husband and Sula's grandfather.
Pearl—Eva's daughter; real name is Eva; younger than Hannah; aunt of Sula; married at 14 and moved to Flint, Michigan.
Plum—Eva's son; real name is Ralph.
Suggs family—gave food to Eva and her children; gave castor oil to Eva when Plum was constipated; poured water on Hannah when fire consumed her.
Mr. and Mrs. Jackson—gave milk to Eva and her children.
Eva's adopted children—all three named Dewey; one with red hair and freckles, one perhaps half-Mexican, one deeply black; no individuality of mind.
Rekus—husband of Hannah; father of Sula; died when Sula was three.
Tar Baby—along with the deweys, first to follow Shadrack; came in 1920; had some—or all—white blood; mountain boy; alcoholic.
Mrs. Reed—teacher; gave all three deweys the last name of King and the same age.
Buckland Reed—husband of the teacher, Mrs. Reed; takes numbers from the residents of the Bottom; makes a comment about Eva's leg being worth $10,000.
Ajax—21-year-old man with sinister beauty; a frequenter of the pool halls; calls Sula "Pig meat" when he sees her; Sula's lover.
Chicken Little—a little boy whom Sula swings around; drowns when he slips from Sula's hands and goes into the lake.
Patsy and Valentine—Hannah's two friends who are visiting with her the day Chicken Little drowned.
Four white, Irish boys—newly arrived residents of the Bottom; taunted the girls.
Bargeman—the one who found Chicken Little's body.
Iceman—delivers ice to the homes.
Willy Fields—orderly who saved Eva from bleeding to death and received her curse for doing so the rest of her life.
Jude Greene—tenor in Mt. Zion's Men Quartet; 20-year-old bridegroom of Nel Wright; waiter at Hotel Medallion; leaves with Sula.
John L. and Shirley—a couple Sula and Nel remember from their youth.
Laura—the helper who had been living with Eva, Sula, the deweys, and Tar Baby.
Mrs. Rayford—the next-door neighbor to Nel and Jude.
Teapot—five-year-old son of Betty.
Betty—often called Teapot's Mama because mothering was her major failure in life; reforms and becomes a good mother for a while; relapses.
Mr. Finley—was sucking on a chicken bone when he saw Sula and choked.
Dessie—Big Daughter Elk; saw Shadrack tip his imaginary hat to Sula and developed a sty on her eye afterward.
Ivy and Cora—Dessie's friends.
Ajax's mother—the only thing Ajax had ever loved besides airplanes.
Nathan—the school-age child who checks on Sula and runs errands for her periodically; discovers her lifeless body.
Mr. Hodges—man who hires Shadrack to rake leaves; Shadrack becomes aware of Sula's death when he sees her on a table at Hodges' home.
L.P., Paul Freeman and his brother Jake, Mrs. Scott's twins—examples of the beautiful boys of 1921.