Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Sula, Toni Morrison explores a community’s role in the individual’s search for wholeness. The story begins at the end, after the African American community known as “the Bottom” has been destroyed and replaced with a golf course. The narrator reveals the history of “the Bottom” forty years before it was destroyed, in chapters titled simply by the year of focus, beginning with 1919 and ending with 1965.

The community gained its name from a joke played on a slave by a white farmer. After promising his slave freedom and land upon the completion of some difficult chores, the farmer did not want to part with his choice land. So he told the slave that the hilly land—difficult to plant and plagued by high winds and sliding soil—was the bottom of heaven, the “best land there is.” Consequently, the slave accepted the land, and “the Bottom” is where Sula Peace and Nel Wright are born.

Nel, her mother Helene, and her father live in a home Nel considers to be oppressively neat. Carefully groomed by her mother, who is admired in the community for her beauty and grace, Nel prefers the disorder that she finds in Sula’s home, where “something was always cooking on the stove, . . . the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions” and “all sorts of people dropped in.” During her only trip outside Medallion, ten-year-old Nel meets Helene’s estranged mother and sees her own mother’s usual grace disturbed by Southern remnants of racist oppression. Nel and Helene must sit in the “colored only” car of the train, and because there were no “colored only” restrooms past Birmingham, they urinate in the woods when the train stops. Helene is pleased to return home. After Nel insists, Helene welcomes the young Sula into her home, in spite of Hannah Peace’s reputation for being “sooty.”

Sula and Nel’s development into adults follows some predictable and some unpredictable patterns. Nel becomes a carbon copy of her mother. She marries, has children, and bases her entire identity on the roles of mother and wife, an identity disrupted by her best friend. After attending college and traveling to some major American cities, Sula returns to Medallion, where she continues her mother’s legacy of promiscuity and has her mean-spirited grandmother placed, against her will, in a home for the elderly.

To Nel’s dismay, Sula has sex with Nel’s husband, Jude. Feeling betrayed by her husband and her best friend, Nel says that her life and her “thighs . . . [are] truly empty and dead.” After nearly three years of not speaking to each other, Nel visits Sula after hearing that she is sick. Nel leaves unsatisfied with Sula’s shallow reason for having sex with Jude. Sula dies of an unnamed illness at the age of thirty.

On January 3, 1941, the National Suicide Day after Sula’s death, Shadrack continues his tradition, although with less passion since he misses Sula. This year, many town members participate in his parade. They march gayly to “the white part of town,” distinguished by the tunnel excavation and beginnings of remodeling for the city. Angered by not being permitted to work on the renovations, many citizens of “the Bottom” crowd into the tunnel as an action of self-assertion and protest. Unfortunately, the tunnel collapses, killing an unspecified number of them (approximately twelve to fifteen).

By 1965, the hills of “the Bottom” are largely populated by whites, and the narrator laments the lack of cohesion among the African Americans who have moved to the valley. As the narrator notes, there were not as many spontaneous visits and everyone had his or her own television and telephone. After Nel visits Eva in the home for the elderly, Nel remembers calling the hospital, mortuary, and police after Sula’s body was found—eyes open and mouth open—in Eva’s bed. Only after Nel leaves the cemetery does she discover that all the pain and loneliness that she had been feeling was from missing having Sula in her life, not Jude.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Medallion. Imaginary Ohio town in which the main action of the novel is set. Morrison grew up in the small town of Lorain, Ohio. Bordered by Kentucky to the south but a Northern state in the Civil War with important Underground Railroad sites, Ohio functions in many of Morrison’s novels as a place of alternating prejudice and freedom for the black characters.

The fictional Medallion’s geography shows the distinctions between black and white characters: The white characters live in the fertile valley, protected from the harshest winds of winter, while the black characters inhabit the rocky, unproductive hillside where the poorly built houses cannot protect their residents from the elements. During a particularly difficult winter, when ice coats the ground and does not melt for days, the black residents lose their jobs in the valley because they cannot get down the steep hill in the ice.

By the end of the novel, the Bottom, the black neighborhood, is disappearing because the wealthy white people have decided the hillside on which it stands is desirable for a golf course and for luxury homes. The new development reflects the town’s power structure as did the earlier layout.

The Bottom

The Bottom. African American neighborhood in Medallion. Local legend holds that the neighborhood’s first settler was tricked by a white man into taking the rocky hillside land rather than the fertile valley land below. The neighborhood’s ironic name refers to the “bottom of heaven.” The residents are not consoled that they can “literally look down on the white folks.” The neighborhood eventually disappears as the homes of wealthy whites and a golf course are put in on the hillside. A tunnel built by white laborers offers a focus for the rage the Bottom’s residents feel at their economic and social privation. In their attempt to destroy it, many are killed when it collapses.

The residents of the Bottom interpret and pass judgment on events and actions of the novel’s characters. Morrison’s giving a communal voice to a place is reminiscent of a technique of William Faulkner, on whom Morrison wrote a master’s thesis. Like Faulkner, Morrison creates characters who seemingly could not exist in different settings.


Train. After Helene’s grandmother dies in 1920, Helene and Nel travel to New Orleans on a train. Their ride provides a vivid picture of the unequal treatment that African Americans received in the Deep South during the days of rigid Jim Crow segregation. The train’s conductor is extremely nasty when Helene accidentally gets on the coach for white passengers. The train stations do not even have rest rooms for black passengers. Although Helene is disgusted by the way she is treated on the trip and by the cold welcome she receives from her mother, her ten-year-old daughter Nel finds the experience exciting. The new sense of self she develops from her journey makes her feel brave, so that she starts talking to Sula Peace, who will become her best friend.

Helene Wright’s home

Helene Wright’s home. House in which Nel grows up. Like its mistress, the house is orderly and attractive, to the point that Nel finds it oppressive. Sula, coming from a more chaotic household, loves to visit the house.

Eva Peace’s home

Eva Peace’s home. House in which Sula grows up, also inhabited by her grandmother Eva, mother Hannah, uncle Plum, three boys all named Dewey, and various others over time. The house was constructed in pieces and contains rooms and stairways in no particular arrangement, in contrast with the orderly Wright home. Nel prefers the Peace home to her own.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Morrison’s exploration of friendship between African American women makes Sula a major link between Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Furthermore, the friendship between Sula and Nel does not depend on or revolve around men. Morrison explores this friendship, its maturity and its eventual dissolution.

Nel and Sula’s relationship blossoms out of mutual admiration, for Sula appreciates the quiet orderliness of Nel’s home. In stark contrast, and in addition to Hannah’s sexual liaisons, the Peace home is characterized by Eva’s unpredictability. Sula’s grandmother has one leg, and the town rumor is that she either placed the other on a railroad track or sold it to a hospital. In either case, Eva provides food and shelter for her family. Yet Eva is not simply a provider; she is also a sacrificer. When her son, Plum, returns from the war in a questionable mental and physical condition, she burns him to death as he sleeps in his room.

Helene, Nel, Sula, Eva, and Hannah continually challenge stereotypes as the narrator reveals these women’s thoughts, fears, and concerns. Morrison’s depictions stress the fact that women cannot be limited to select roles; they are too wonderfully diverse. Not unlike Hurston, Walker, and a host of other female writers, Morrison gives voices to the many women who remained silent when required to choose between severely limited life options.

Although the possibilities for women in American society have expanded since the publication of Sula in 1973, the novel reminds its readers of a time that should be remembered. In the late 1960’s, the women’s liberation movement was in full force to combat sexual discrimination and gain legal, economic, vocational, educational, and social rights and opportunities for women that were equal to those of men. It is important to women, and clearly important to Morrison, that the history of this struggle and the stories of these women not be forgotten.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The events in Sula span much of the twentieth century, during a time of great changes in civil rights for African Americans and other...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The novel is told from the point of view of a wise, omniscient narrator, who sees into all the characters' hearts...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Morrison's greatest talents lie in her descriptive abilities. Her prose is extremely poetic, full of lush, vivid descriptions of the setting...

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Sula is a fascinating study of black life in rural America during some of the nation's most trying moments. While appealing as a...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As a historical novel, Sula's social concerns are particularly focused on the time and place in which the novel's action occurs....

(The entire section is 882 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1920s: More than 350,000 African-American soldiers, who serve in segregated units, return home from World War I.


(The entire section is 215 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the Jim Crow laws and describe how they affected every area of life for African Americans.

Find out about the Civil...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Morrison's novel fits into a rather lengthy tradition of novels which simultaneously celebrate black identity and descry the inequities...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Though Morrison does not continue her examination of the lives of the Bottom's residents in subsequent volumes, she does present similar...

(The entire section is 364 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Sula is available on audiocassette. Random House Audio published an unabridged reading by the author in 1997.

(The entire section is 16 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Sula (1997) is an unabridged audio book narrated by Morrison and available through Random House.

(The entire section is 14 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bakerman, Jane S. “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” American Literature 52 (January, 1981): 541-563. Presents Morrison’s first three novels as accounts of female initiation. Maintains that they show female characters looking for love and self-worth but ultimately failing in their search.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Collection of scholarly essays on Morrison; includes analyses of the self/other dialectic and of the lack of peace in Sula.

Bryant, Cedric Gael. “The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison’s Sula. ” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter, 1990): 731-745. Maintains that in the worlds of Morrison’s novels, the community not only tolerates but also integrates individuals whom the larger world would deem insane or evil.

Christian, Barbara. “The Contemporary Fables of Toni Morrison.” In Black Women Novelists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Argues that Morrison’s first two novels “chronicle the search for beauty amidst the restrictions of life, both from within and without.” Her main characters in both novels search for meaning through connection with the greater world.

De Weever, Jacqueline. Mythmaking and Metaphor in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Examines contemporary black women writers as part of the “return to myth” tradition in letters. Insists that the experience of black people in the New World cannot be told through realism or naturalism and that Morrison and others use myth to order that experience.

Mayberry, Susan Neal. Can’t I Love What I Criticize? The Masculine and Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. This study of masculinity in Morrison’s novels includes a chapter on the elegiac quality of her representation of boyhood in Sula.

Stepto, Robert B. “’Intimate Things in Place’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Massachusetts Review 18 (Autumn, 1977): 473-489. A wide-ranging discussion of Morrison’s life and work, with special attention given to Sula.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Bakerman, Jane S., Review of Sula, in American Literature, March 1980, pp. 87-100.


(The entire section is 474 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Morrison's Beloved (1987), written in an episodic, experimental style, examines the heritage of slavery.

Morrison's first...

(The entire section is 174 words.)