What are the similarities between Sula and Shadrack in Toni Morrison's Sula?

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Shadrack and Sula are extremely similar in the way that they both venture out of the norm. While Shadrack is a man obsessed with death, Sula is a woman who plays with lust, which leads her to her death. Both characters have a negative impact on those around them but still have the capability to influence change in their communities.

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Toni Morrison’s Sula is set in the Bottom, a primarily black community situated in hills above the mostly white and wealthier community of Medallion. The description of the two communities helps promote the duality of good and evil, which Morrison eventually obscures and deconstructs.

Shadrack is a veteran of World War I and has significant difficulty readjusting to life post-war. His trauma forces him to spend two years in a hospital before he settles on the outskirts of the Bottom, constantly trying to create order in his life. His obsession with death leads to his inventing National Suicide Day, where he parades thorough the Bottom promoting suicide and murder.

Shadrack’s experiences in World War I directly lead to his being labeled an outsider. Similarly, Sula’s rejection of cultural norms through her promiscuity compel the community to treat her as an outsider upon her return to the Bottom.

The community others each of these characters, which changes the way the community lives. People of the Bottom find solace in the fact that they live in conventional methods, as opposed to Sula’s free-spirited lifestyle. After Sula’s death, the community is forced to come to terms with the fact that good and evil exist in everyone, and it’s not as simple as labeling themselves good and Sula evil.

After Sula dies, the community responds to their inner confrontation by participating in Shadrack’s National Suicide Day. Both characters are able to awaken a sense of self within those crushed by their obsession with living normal lives.

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Sula and Shadrack are both outsiders in the Bottom. Sula is regarded with suspicion by her neighbors for being a free-spirited, unconventional woman, especially when it comes to relationships. As for Shadrack, he's earned the unenviable reputation of a mean-spirited hermit.

To some extent, both Sula's and Shadrack's local reputations are the product of their experiences away from the neighborhood, out there in the big, wide world. Sula left the Bottom to explore the country, which for someone from her neck of the woods—especially a woman—is very rare indeed. The local gossip-mongers speculate what she got up to during her travels, even suggesting that she may have slept with white men.

Shadrack also left the Bottom behind when he went to Europe as a soldier during World War I. It was his experiences of serving on the front line that left him deeply traumatized and led to the erratic behavior that has alienated him from just about everybody in the neighborhood.

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There are a number of ways that Sula and Shadrack bear some similarities to one another. 

Each character leaves Medallion and returns with a particular sense of self that functions to isolate them from the rest of the town. While Shadrack's sensibility is tied to trauma and injury directly, Sula's self-hood is also connected to trauma, having seen her mother burned to death (which is also how her uncle died).

Both Sula and Shadrack inspire the people of Medallion to express an inner violence at the end of the novel. Sula's powerful presence in the town is associated finally with a dreadful but short-lived winter that brings a thaw to the town's ability to suppress its inner nature.

While Sula remains in Medallion, the town is allowed to reactive instead of active. The people band together in response (reaction) to circumstances that Sula creates and/or represents.

Without Sula, the town comes to understand a joyous and violent sense of self that is manifested on the Suicide Day parade led by Shadrack. This parade leads to many deaths in Medallion.

The warm January thaw and the soft, water-soaked ground lead to the deaths of many Bottom residents who follow Shadrack to the New River Road tunnel to be crushed or drowned. Some are victims of the powerful forces that can overwhelm human beings while others watch. (eNotes)

There is irony built into this scenario. The people of Medallion are finally inspired to live, inspired in part by Sula's example of tapping into an inner self. By living, they quickly act in ways that bring death.   

Sula and Shadrack bring people together in ways that are explicitly associated with life and death. 

"On the third day of the new year, [Shadrack] walked through the Bottom down Carpenter's Road with a cowbell and a hangman's rope calling people together. Telling them that this was their only chance to kill themselves or each other."

Connected to robins and to larger forces of nature, Sula causes the people to love one another anew, tightening the bonds of relationships that had been loose. Both characters are singular and set apart but they function to bring others together.

(There is also a notable moment when Sula runs to Shadrack's house after accidentally killing Chicken Little. Shadrack and Sula share an odd moment, with Shadrack saying, "Always," and somehow calming the distressed young Sula. A thematic connection between the two characters is only insinuated here but we might see in this scene an underlying strangeness or difference that defines these two people, one that is born out of death and violence.)

On a formal level, we can also note that these two characters are each presented at the outset of the respective parts of the novel. They both return from a time away and in their return disturb and re-define the life of the town. They are aberrations, departures from the norms. From the Bottom, they are still not quite "of" the Bottom.  

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