Themes and Meanings
Sula is a novel about self-creation, about women, about men, and about a culture. The girls, Sula and Nel, realize early on that the world does not easily accommodate people such as them: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be.” They would be black women. That means something different to each of them. For Nel, it means becoming a wife and mother, sustaining the values of the community. For Sula, it means living an “experimental life,” rejecting commonly held values. Nel tells Sula, “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don’t.” Sula will not accept such limitations. When Nel demands to know what Sula has gained from her choices—having no husband and no children; her grandmother put away in a nursing home; her mother, father, and uncle dead; residents of the Bottom all despising her—Sula responds, “Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.” Nel, on the other hand, has loneliness, an empty space that Jude used to fill, and another one Sula formerly occupied. Sula’s self-knowledge and Nel’s connection to other people are both essential to human existence. Each woman, even if only momentarily, comes to understand that.
Fire and water are recurrent devices throughout the novel, demonstrating the destructive forces always threatening the individual self. Two of Eva Peace’s children die by fire. Plum burns in a kerosene conflagration, and Hannah, her beautiful skin burned and melted, dies while Sula watches. Eva “remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.” Water also proves to be an agent of death for Chicken Little, who disappears in the river after flying from Sula’s hands while Nel watches. 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. Shadrack watches a little boy drown; he watches his neighbors die. Morrison has commented that “’watch’ is something different from ’saw.’ You have to be participating in something that you are watching. If you just saw it, you just happened to be there.” Eva, Sula, Nel, and Shadrack all watch the destruction of others.
Morrison uses the image of a gray fur ball to symbolize Nel’s indistinct anxiety that grows into gradual self-awareness. It begins after Sula commits adultery with Nel’s husband, Jude. It is a gray ball hovering, “a ball of muddy strings, but without weight, fluffy but terrible in its malevolence.” This ill-defined feeling remains with Nel for more than twenty-five years as she struggles to know herself and understand her friendship with Sula.
Such discovery and affirmation, however, must be personal and individual, as the residents of the Bottom also come to know. Waiting for the larger white society to provide validation through jobs, social status, or recognition only leads to self-destruction. Scores of people who die on Shadrack’s National Suicide Day at the site of the Bottom’s hope for a better life, the New River Road tunnel, demonstrate the futility of social redemption. Only the personal is possible.