Sula Additional Summary

Toni Morrison


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Sula traces people’s lives in “the Bottom,” a neighborhood in Medallion, Ohio, begun as “a nigger joke.” When a white farmer had promised a slave rich bottomland in exchange for his labor, the slave was given “hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds,” and where the white people in the next century longed to live, far from the farms and factories of the valley. Readers follow the lives of the community’s central figures for half a century. The prologue states that the people of the Bottom have three concerns: “what Shadrack was all about, what that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about, and what they themselves were all about.”

What Shadrack was all about was control. Having survived death in World War I, he had to find a way to survive life. In the hospital, his fingers “began to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk” so that he had to hide “his huge growing hands under the covers.” Released in such a mental state, he is taken home to the Bottom, where he declares January 3 to be National Suicide Day, “to order and focus experience. It had to do with making a place for fear as a way of controlling it. He knew the smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate it.” If he knew when it was coming, however, then there was nothing to fear. “If one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free.” Each year, beginning in 1919, he walked the streets with a cowbell and a hangman’s rope, offering people the opportunity to meet death. No one takes up his offer until 1941.

Sula Peace is about self-possession and relationships. Both she and Nel Wright are “solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them.” When they found each other, it changed everything. Sula was the brave one, once slicing off the tip of her finger to prove to neighborhood Irish bullies that if she were that strong, she would not be afraid of them. Nel, however, “seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted on to sustain any emotion for more than three minutes.” They complete and love each other.

Just as important in Sula’s life are her mother and grandmother. In her mother, Sula sees a...

(The entire section is 976 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Bottom, the black community of Medallion, Ohio, originated in the time of slavery. Through trickery, an enslaved black man had accepted a portion of higher land from his master in exchange for completing “some very difficult chores.” The black man had been told by his master that the land was nearer heaven and of better quality, but it was actually less desirable and subject to erosion.

In 1919, Shadrack, an African American World War I veteran and Medallion resident, is recuperating in a military hospital; he is suffering from psychological trauma. After his discharge from the hospital, he is arrested by the police but eventually released. Following the new year in 1920, Shadrack, carrying a cowbell and a hangman’s noose, walks through Medallion informing the residents that he offers them their “only chance to kill themselves.” With this act, he begins National Suicide Day.

Helene Wright, another Medallion resident, was born in New Orleans to Rochelle, a “Creole whore.” Helene, who was reared by her grandmother, Cecile Sabat, married Wiley Wright, the grandnephew of Cecile, and was brought north to Medallion. A civic-minded woman, Helene reared her daughter, Nel, in a protective manner. When Helene’s grandmother became ill, Helene journeyed with Nel to New Orleans. They experienced segregation on their journey, and in New Orleans, Nel met her grandmother, Rochelle.

After Nel and her mother return to Medallion, Nel seems to have achieved a “new found me-ness.” At this time, Nel meets Sula Peace, who loves the orderly and “oppressive neatness” of the Wright household. In contrast, Sula’s home, headed by Eva Peace, is a “woolly house, where a pot of something was always cooking on the stove.”

In 1921, the household of Eva Peace includes her children, Hannah and Plum, Hannah’s daughter, Sula, and various “strays” such as the Deweys, three children given the same name by Eva. Eva, who had been deserted by her husband BoyBoy after five years of marriage, is rumored to have lost her leg by intentionally allowing a train to run over it so that she could collect money.

Both of Eva’s children had died in tragic ways. Plum, a World War I...

(The entire section is 911 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sula is a novel about the growth, development, and destruction of a person, a friendship, and a community. At the beginning of the novel, the hill on which the black community of Medallion, Ohio, lived (called “the Bottom,” because the white farmer who gave it to a freed slave in return for services told him it was the bottom of heaven) has been deserted. The narrative as a whole sets out to tell why; along the way, one meets a striking variety of characters set against a harsh world.

Sula Peace’s grandmother, Eva Peace, is one of the most remarkable characters in the novel. Left by her husband with three children to care for, she drops the children off with a neighbor and leaves town, to return a year and a half later missing one foot lost in a railroad accident, but with ten thousand dollars. When Sula is still young, Eva locks Plum, her son who had returned from World War I two years earlier, in his room and sets him on fire because he has become a drug addict. This is only the first of several shocking deaths.

As a child, Sula’s closest friend is Nel Wright. In a scene that demonstrates the extent to which Sula has adapted to the violence of her surroundings, she slices off the tip of her own finger with a knife in front of some white boys who have been bothering Nel, as an unspoken threat of castration. At another time, when Sula and Nel are by the side of the river, they start teasing a young boy called Chicken Little. Sula swings Chicken around until he slips from her hands and sails, giggling, into the river—from which he never emerges. This incident forms a grim link between the two friends which separates them as much as it joins them. When the reader finds out that the sole witness to this event is Shadrack, a shell-shocked war veteran who (on the third day of every year) leads a National Suicide Day, a link seems to be made between Sula and Shadrack as outsiders.

The chaotic logic of calling a hill “the Bottom” dominates the novel. The random, violent deaths that appear throughout seem an extension of this logic, the point being that the initial act of greed and viciousness with which almost valueless land was given to a black man as valuable continues to shape and control the lives of the people who live there, preventing the establishment of any healthy social order. The result is that for Sula and Nel, the Bottom is less of a community than a furnace in which their souls are shaped.

The image of the Bottom as a furnace is supported not only by the fiery death of Plum but...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)