Critical Overview

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As Paul Gray noted in Time, some reviewers have found Morrison's work "overly deterministic, her characters pawns in the service of their creator's designs." He quoted essayist Stanley Crouch, who commented that Morrison was "immensely talented. I just think she needs a new subject matter, the world she lives in, not this world of endless black victims." However, Gray also noted: "For every pan, Morrison has received a surfeit of paeans: for her lyricism, for her ability to turn the mundane into the magical."

In the New York Times Book Review, Sara Blackburn commented that Sula was "a more precise yet somehow icy version of [Morrison's first novel] The Bluest Eye," and that "it refuses to invade our present in the way we want it to and stays, instead, confined to its time and place." Although, as Blackburn noted, Morrison's dialogue is "so compressed and lifelike that it sizzles" and her characterization is so skillful that the people in the book "seem almost mythologically strong and familiar," somehow "we can't imagine their surviving outside the tiny community where they carry on their separate lives." Because of this, she wrote, the novel's "long-range impact doesn't sustain the quality of its first reading." Blackburn also commented that Morrison was too talented to continue writing about "the black side of provincial American life" and that if she wanted to maintain a "large and serious audience," she would have to address a "riskier contemporary reality."

In addition, interestingly, Blackburn confessed that she, like other reviewers, might have given Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, more attention than it might have deserved. "Socially conscious readers—including myself—were so pleased to see a new writer of Morrison's obvious talent that we tended to celebrate the book and ignore its flaws." Presumably, she did not do this for Sula.

In the Journal of Black Studies, Marie Nigro wrote that the book is "an unforgettable story of the friendship of two African-American woman and...graciously allowed us to enter the community of the Bottom." By writing the book, Morrison "has given us an understanding of social, psychological, and sociological issues that might have been evident only to African Americans."

Jane S. Bakerman, in American Literature, wrote that "Morrison has undertaken a difficult task in Sula. Unquestionably, she has succeeded." She also praised Morrison's use of the tale of Sula and Nel's maturation as a core for the many other stories in the book, and said that as the main unifying device of the novel, "It achieves its own unity, again, through the clever manipulation of the themes of sex, race, and love."

In Black Women Writers: A Critical Evaluation, Darwin T. Turner praised Morrison's "verbal descriptions that carry the reader deep into the soul of the character. ... Equally effective, however, is her art of narrating action in a lean prose that uses adjectives cautiously while creating memorable vivid images."

Jonathan Yardley, in the Washington Post Book World, noted that a chief distinction of the novel is "the quality of Toni Morrison's prose... [The book's] real strength lies in Morrison's writing, which at times has the resonance of poetry and is precise, vivid and controlled throughout."

In the Harvard Advocate, Faith Davis wrote that a "beautiful and haunting atmosphere emerges out of the wreck of these folks' lives, a quality that is absolutely convincing and absolutely precise."

The novel was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974, but did not win.

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