Sula (1974) is Toni Morrison’s second published novel. Like The Bluest Eye, the novel is a story of two girls coming of age. As children, the two girls in question, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, function as two halves of a whole, often seeming to complete each other in opposition.
As they reach and achieve maturity, the differences in the girls’ responses to the pressure to conform to the norms of their community separate them and split their bond, which is not reconciled until the end of the novel. Sula confronts issues of loyalty, family, assimilation, innocence, gender, and sexuality, but is at its heart an examination of the priorities that determine the character, quality, and relationships of a woman’s lifetime.
Sula begins with the story of an African-American neighborhood that once existed on the periphery of a town called Medallion. The story of the neighborhood unfolds years after it has ceased to exist. The neighborhood was called the Bottom because a white farmer, rather than give his freed slave the land he had been promised, lied to the man and told him that the land in the hills was more valuable. The deceptive farmer called the land in the hills the bottom of heaven, and thus the neighborhood acquired its name.
“1919” tells the story of the shell-shocked African-American soldier, known as Shadrack, who returns from combat without any memory of who he is or where he comes from. This rootless man is haunted by his hands, which, in his delirium, continue to grow monstrously large every time he looks at them. After he is released, his perceptions of the out-of-control growth of his hands stop when he finally sees that his face, unlike that of the soldier he saw die in France, is still attached and intact. More than anything else, Shadrack fears death, and so, in an effort to contain his fears, he invents a holiday entitled National Suicide Day, the only day, according to his perceptions, on which death will occur. Through his belief that he has artificially controlled death, Shadrack is able to contain his fear and to begin a new life on the outskirts of the Bottom in a shack once owned by his grandfather. For sustenance, he sells fish to the people of the Bottom.
Shadrack celebrates National Suicide Day by holding a noose and ringing a cowbell and admonishing the townspeople that this is their one annual opportunity to kill themselves or each other. Although the people of the Bottom at first fear Shadrack and National Suicide Day, they grow accustomed to it and him. National Suicide Day, like Shadrack himself, becomes a point of reference in their lives.
“1920” introduces the Wrights, Nel’s family. Nel’s mother, Helene Sabat Wright, is a Creole from New Orleans who spends her life escaping from the legacy of her mother’s occupation as a prostitute. She marries a ship’s cook, Wiley Wright, and moves to the Bottom where the people of the town admire her long hair and light skin. Helen keeps both her daughter and her house oppressively neat.
When Nel is 10 years old, Helene returns to New Orleans as her grandmother is dying. During the trip she is insulted by a white conductor who believes that she is trying to sit in the Whites Only car. Rather than respond with dignity, Helene smiles at the man’s insults. Witnessing the event, Nel fears that she may have no more substance than her mother possesses. After the trip, meeting her grandmother, and attending her great-grandmother’s funeral, Nel feels that she is a person separate from her mother for the first time. Although she does not know it at the time, the trip to the New Orleans funeral is the only one she ever takes out of the Bottom. The trip, however, does embolden her to make a new friend, Sula Peace.
Unlike the Wrights, Sula lives in a house and with a family that is defined by its relative disorder and chaos. Unlike the traditional familial configuration the Wrights maintain, the Peaces are extended family consisting of the matriarch, Eva Peace, her daughter, Hannah Peace, her son, Plum, her granddaughter, Sula, as well as various and sundry boarders and visitors who occupy the house at various times. The house is teeming with human energy and activity.
The story of how the house came to be and how Eva acquired the resources to build her house at 7 Carpenter Road is shrouded in mystery: Abandoned by her husband, Boy Boy, and helpless to feed or protect her children, Eva leaves for a year and returns to the Bottom without a leg, but with all of the money she needs. Following a visit from her delinquent husband, Boy Boy, Eva determines to spend the rest of her life hating him for his abandonment.
Eva is generous with her house and her resources. When abandoned and neglected children arrive at her door, she always takes them in. In 1921, three such boys arrive at the Peace household. Eva names them all Dewey, and the boys start to resemble each other, eventually becoming indistinguishable. Another outcast, an alcoholic white mountain man that Eva calls TAR BABY, also comes to live at the Peace residence.
Both Hannah and Eva are nonchalant but interested in men. Sula learns from observation that men are fun but dispensable. Eva unintentionally confirms this point of view for her granddaughter when, in 1921, she sets Plum on fire in his sleep. She sees herself as rescuing Plum from infantilization by allowing him to die as a man.
Nel and Sula become fast friends as they grow older and both girls are drawn to the dreams of adolescence, fantasies of the opposite sex and of being loved. The girls’ dreams of love are different though. Nel imagines herself a passive princess with an imaginary someone to share the details of her fantasy dress, bed, and flowers. Sula, on the other hand, imagines a beloved observing her as she rides with him on a horse. The differences in the dreams distinguish the girls, their experiences and expectations, as well as foreshadow their future choices.
The girls not only share dreams but also adventures as they pick their precarious paths toward adulthood. When the girls are hassled on the way home by Irish boys, Sula frightens the gang off by cutting off the tip of her own finger. On another summer day, just before the girls run off on an exploit, Sula overhears her mother saying that she loves Sula, but that she does not like her. This information hurts the child and changes her relationship with Hannah. The girls then run off to play and distract themselves by digging a hole deep in the earth with twigs. The girls stop when Nel’s twig breaks and throw all of the detritus they can find into the hole, and then they refill the hole with earth.
Almost immediately, a little neighborhood boy, Chicken Little, wanders by. The girls tease him and then, playfully, swing him around in a circle. When Sula accidentally lets go of the boy’s hands, he falls into the river and drowns. Shadrack witnesses the event and, in language she does not understand, promises to keep her secret. Sula accidentally leaves the belt of her dress in Shadrack’s shack.
The events that culminate in Chicken Little’s death are a secret that Nel and Sula share as well. It is one of the key moments that the girls experience as they move from childhood to adulthood. The girls keep the secret throughout their lives.
The occurrence of three strange events defines this chapter. The first instance that Eva finds out of sync is a question of Hannah. The second peculiar occurrence is a wind storm without lightning, thunder, or rain. The third event is Hannah’s dream of a red wedding dress.
Hannah begins this chapter by asking her mother the question Eva finds so disturbing. Hannah asks Eva whether she ever loved her children. Eva is offended by the question and Hannah never gets the response she desires. Eva sees love as a pragmatic thing that you do, while Hannah wonders about Eva’s feelings, which remain largely hidden and mysterious. Then Hannah asks Eva why she killed Plum. Eva tries to explain that Plum’s addiction after the war had so impaired him that he is no longer able to function as an adult. As such, Eva feels that she had no choice but to relieve the man’s suffering by ending his life.
Shortly thereafter, as Eva looks out her window while combing her hair, she sees Hannah on fire. Using the fastest method she can imagine, Eva breaks the glass in her window and leaps out trying to land on top of Hannah and save the life of her burning daughter. Eva misses Hannah, but survives the fall. Hannah dies as a result of her injuries. After her fall, as she lies on the ground, Eva sees Sula watching the scene. Eva believes that Sula is not moved to help her mother.
This chapter begins with Nel’s marriage to Jude Greene, an attractive, popular 20-year-old man. Jude believes that marriage to Nel will be the transition to manhood denied to him by racism. With the exception of her relationship with Sula, Nel has very little sense of herself and marries Jude because she believes he needs her. After the wedding, Sula leaves the Bottom for 10 years.
Sula returns to the Bottom during a time when the community experiences an abnormal proliferation of robins. The unnatural abundance of the birds becomes permanently associated with Sula’s return in the mind of the community. The community needs to objectify evil and, as one who does not conform to their ideals of normalcy, Sula becomes the personification of all that is bad and wrong.
Even Eva criticizes Sula’s lack of conformity and tells her that she needs to have children and that she needs a man. Sula says she is more interested in creating a self than in reproducing and decides that Eva needs to be placed in a nursing home. Later, she reveals to Nel that she has Eva committed because she is afraid of her.
In this chapter, Sula’s return also profoundly impacts Nel’s life. Sula casually sleeps with Jude. When they are discovered, Jude responds by leaving immediately. Nel blames Sula and begins to define her life in terms of Jude’s absence from it. The fundamental difference between the two women becomes apparent. Nel cannot adapt to the change in her circumstances and sees the changeability of life as the source of the problem. This belief contrasts with Sula’s earlier observation that hell is stasis, permanence without change. Without evaluating whether events are right or wrong, Sula’s outlook is more in line with the reality of life’s perpetual motion and transition.
Nel imagines her pain as a gray ball of fur that follows her, just out of sight. Its presence frightens her but becomes the defining reality of her life. Rather than moving beyond her loss, Nel chooses to try to freeze her life and to cling to the gray remains of the part of her life that has passed.
In the wake of Eva’s institutionalization and Jude’s desertion of Nel, Sula becomes the town pariah. As a final transgression, the men of the town accuse Sula of sleeping with white men. Although this accusation is never substantiated, it is universally believed and is interpreted as the ultimate break between Sula and the community. Everything that happens that is negative in the Bottom becomes associated with Sula. Sula becomes the embodiment of evil and makes the people of the Bottom feel superior by comparison.
Interestingly, because there is some tangible presence to blame for all of their trials, the people of the Bottom are kinder and more compassionate toward each other after Sula’s return. Sula is misunderstood. She is a woman who is sexually, psychologically, and culturally liberated in a time and space where there is no place for a free woman. Even sexuality is for her not an act of union, but of self-affirmation. She does not need the traditional markers—wife, mother, lover—to define herself.
In spite of all her independence, Sula falls into a possessive love with A. Jacks, Albert Jacks. Jacks is attracted to her because he believes that she is self-possessed and independent enough to love him without controlling or trying to own him. Sula falls into the trap of trying to keep him—to make love that is fixed and unchanging. She forgets that nothing alive can ever be permanent. A. Jacks’s absence when he leaves Sula sends her into an isolation and despair that manifests as illness.
When Sula is dying, Nel comes to visit her. The visit allows Nel to feel superior and to act as if her motives are selfless. She gets Sula’s medicine from the drugstore and then the two old friends talk about their lives. Sula stresses that even though she is dying alone, it is her choice that she does so— that freedom is not about escaping the inevitability of death but embracing that reality and fashioning it on her own terms. Sula makes a final speech to Nel about the need for breaking down oppositions and categories, something she has tried to do with her life. Then Sula asks Nel why she is so certain of her position as the good one, the right one, a question Nel is not able to answer. Sula dies and her first thought after realizing that she is dead is that she wants to share the experience with Nel.
News of Sula’s death is met with rejoicing in the Bottom. The people see it as a good omen. Their perceptions are reinforced when they hear rumors that blacks will be employed in constructing the tunnel that will allow easy passage of the river. The other news they view as a sign is the construction of an integrated nursing home that Eva will move to from the original dilapidated colored women’s home where Sula leaves her.
After their hopefulness, the Bottom experiences a devastating ice storm that hurts them physically, psychologically, and economically and ruins their Thanksgiving. With Sula gone, the town has no one to blame for its misfortune and the inhabitants resume the behavior they had before Sula’s return.
The narrative returns to Shadrack and reveals his slowly emerging awareness. He begins to feel lonely and to miss the company of others. He sees Sula’s body and begins to comprehend that his solution to the problem of death, National Suicide Day, is ineffective. With a spirit of despair, Shadrack begins his marking of National Suicide Day 1941. The harsh weather the folks of the Bottom experienced following Sula’s death breaks just before the new year. As a result, they are open to Shadrack’s holiday in a way they have not been before.
Shadrack becomes a Pied Piper leading a large band of followers through the town and toward the river. When they get to the river, they see the excavation site for the tunnel, the tunnel they have not been allowed to work on because of racism. The joyous parade Shadrack begins transforms into an act of subversion as the people of the Bottom destroy the site of the tunnel construction. Some of them venture too far into the partially constructed tunnel and the structure collapses, killing many of them, including Mrs. Jackson, Tar Baby, Dessie, Ivy, and, possibly, the Deweys. While all of this happens, Shadrack stands on the adjacent hill ringing his bell.
This concluding chapter of Sula provides the perspective of the 55-year-old Nel on the post–World War II Civil Rights–era Bottom. She reflects that much has changed and that the people, particularly the young people, are less vital, less powerful than the youth she remembers. Nel does not have another long-term relationship after Jude leaves. The Bottom also changes, with whites now interested in the land in the hills and blacks eager to move to the valley.
Nel visits Eva in the new integrated nursing home, Sunnydale. While Eva seems somewhat out of touch with reality, imagining, for example, that she is ironing, she asks Nel about Chicken Little and how she and Sula killed him. She also tells Nel that she and Sula are the same, echoing Sula’s final question to Nel.
Nel leaves the nursing home disturbed and reflective. She recalls the events of Chicken Little’s death and ponders her own experience in and culpability for his death. She honestly admits that she enjoyed watching the boy slip from Sula’s hand. She walks to the cemetery where the Peace family members are buried and sees the birth and death dates of each member of the family as a kind of incantation, a hope for a kind of serenity in the face of the realities of human existence. Nel understands what Sula represents to the community, an embodiment of all that they fear: change, difference, and, most importantly, themselves. Nel also recognizes her connection to Sula and that her relationship with her friend, not her marriage, is what she has been mourning all of the years since Jude left.
In Sula’s opening chapter, the narrator refers to the herb nightshade. Nightshade is a plant that has both medicinal and poisonous properties. As a symbol, its meaning may be either positive or negative, or even both simultaneously. Nightshade grows in the Bottom, the setting of the novel. The name of the Bottom comes from a deal between a slave master and the man he enslaves. The farmer does not wish to reward his slave with the best land, so he tells the man that the land up in the hills, the bottom land, is the best land, because it is the bottom of heaven. This definition, although intended to be malicious, calls into question the traditional definitions applied to various oppositions, such as good/ bad and valuable/worthless. Both the nightshade and the name of the community, the Bottom, establish the core concerns of Sula. The novel addresses the question of the accuracy of traditional, socially agreed upon definitions. Sula, through its exploration of the relationship between its central characters, is a critique of oppositions—bottom and top, clean and dirty, ordered and disordered. The herb, nightshade, and the soil in which it is rooted, set the stage for the drama that unfolds in the novel, which centrally concerns the coming-of-age of two young girls.
At its core, Sula is the story of two friends, Sula Peace and Nel Wright. The girls come from two completely different homes. Sula Peace is the daughter of Hannah Peace and the granddaughter of Eva Peace. Sula’s grandfather, Boy Boy, abandons the family when her mother is a small child, and Sula’s father dies when Sula is young. As a result, Sula lives in a house dominated by women. From her observations of these women, Sula experiences life as a chaotic mix of different people in a house that has a random and eccentric design, one that mirrors the lifestyle of its inhabitants. As a result of her environment, Sula becomes a bold person, but she is uncertain about whether she is loved and about how to express affection for others.
On the other hand, Nel Wright, the child of Helene and Wiley Wright, lives in a meticulously ordered home. Her mother, Helene, is obsessed with ensuring that everything in the house is clean and in its proper place, and that desire extends to her daughter, Nel. Helene, through her insistence on perfection and on the importance of appearances, causes her daughter to feel inadequate and insecure. Nel internalizes an idealized notion of love, believing, along with many other young girls, that eventually she will be rescued from the tyranny of her mother’s home by a gallant young man whose only objective is the guarantee of her happiness.
The friendship of the two girls brings into question the central issues of the novel, namely, who is right and who is not. Nel Wright’s last name suggests this question and it is Nel who, through her experiences during her friendship with Sula, decides that she is the virtuous one. The community of the Bottom comes to agree with her conclusion.
The two girls draw from each other’s strengths and supplement each other in such a way that their weaknesses are less significant as a result of their friendship. This mutual affirmation and reassurance continues until the two are involved with a life altering event, the accidental drowning of a little boy, Chicken Little. As with many literary texts that deal with the subject of coming-of-age, Sula reveals the girls’ confrontation with the knowledge that brings about adulthood, particularly knowledge of sexuality and of death. In a climactic scene, Sula and Nel become familiar with both in a short period of time and, as a result, begin their divergent journeys into adulthood.
Just before the moment when Sula accidentally lets go of Chicken Little’s hands and sends him spiraling toward the river and his death, she and Nel dig a hole in the earth and throw all that they can find into the space in the earth. There are many ways this action by Nel and Sula can be interpreted. This scene has been understood by some critics to refer to the girls emerging sexuality. Creating the deep hole in the earth seems to be an almost sensual experience for the girls until they begin to fill the hole they create with debris. The scene may suggest that, as a result of living in the era and the place in which they are coming of age, Sula and Nel’s sexuality cannot develop in a way that would be wholesome and affirming for them both. Instead, their emerging womanhood is doomed to be polluted with all of the negative associations and definitions already assigned to it by the larger culture.
The impending separation between the two girls becomes apparent immediately after they fill the hole with debris. The girls do not talk to each other while they fill the hole together, and the activity fills the young girls with anxiety and tension, possibly predicting the eventual disintegration of their relationship. Because the accidental drowning of Chicken Little occurs immediately after the incident with the hole, there is an association for Nel and Sula between sexuality and death and their loss of innocence. This climactic moment results in their discarding what they perceive as waste, items that are, perhaps, symbolic of their lost innocence. Although Chicken Little’s body is found and buried, the earth cannot contain his memory and its presence in Nel and Sula’s lives. This event cements in Nel’s mind the ideal that she is the morally superior of the two girls.
When the two reach young adulthood, their choices reinforce Nel’s understanding of herself as good. In the time frame of the novel, the late 1920s, a woman was supposed to marry, settle down, and have children. This is the path Nel chooses as she marries Jude, an immature and unfulfilled man who believes that marriage will restore the manhood he feels deprived of as a result of racism. Nel’s choice reinforces the norms of her community and is therefore sanctioned and defined as the right path. On the other hand, Sula chooses to spend her young adulthood in college and then traveling and exploring the country. When she returns to the Bottom after 10 years of absence, Sula represents an alternative to the traditional life of women and is therefore perceived as negative, the embodiment of evil. The town uses Sula and her behavior as a way of demonstrating its moral superiority.
Sula returns to the Bottom and to Nel with her definition of their friendship intact. The girls have always shared everything and so Sula believes that she can share Jude, Nel’s husband. Jude and Sula have sex and Nel catches them during the act. Rather than trying to understand Sula’s action in terms of the girls’ lifelong friendship, Nel decides to judge the act in a way that supports her own understanding of herself as superior to Sula. Nel’s assessment of the situation leads her to adopt martyrdom following the affair and Jude’s abandonment of their marriage and children. After Jude leaves Nel, she has a feeling that reminds her of “mud and dead leaves” (107). This feeling connects Nel’s response to Sula and Jude’s affair with Chicken Little, his death and funeral, and her lost girlhood and innocence.
The negative associations the town holds of Sula are permanent, like dirt that cannot be washed away. She becomes the bottom of Medallion’s moral hierarchy. She refuses to conform to the traditional expectations of women, such as caretaking, and places her grandmother in a home rather than nurse the woman herself. Sula is a woman out-ofsync with the time in which she lives. There is no place for her consistent refusal to obey the rules. Her lack of sexual inhibition is damning in the eyes of the town. One member of the community finds her independence intriguing and appealing. Sula’s seeming self-possession attracts Ajax as it reminds him of his mother who is also a marginalized, yet powerful woman.
The relationship between Sula and Ajax is mutually satisfying until the experience of a love relationship with a man leads Sula to try to enter into a more conventional definition. This shift alienates Ajax and he leaves. In her desperation to keep Ajax, Sula characterizes him as water that needs to be mixed with loam to achieve stability. She is afraid, however, that she might instead make mud. This reference to mud is the nadir, or bottom, for Sula as, at that moment, she relinquishes her defining autonomy and independence and begins a rapid decline upon Ajax’s departure. As she lies on her deathbed Sula acknowledges her humanity and lack of shame as she tells Nel that she is unperturbed by her own dirt. At the end of her life, Sula comes to terms with her own humanity. Nel refuses to understand and characterizes Sula’s behavior in Medallion, the affairs with various men in the town, the lost friendships, and the relationship with Eva, as dirty. She still needs to define Sula as the bottom so that she can remain superior.
Years later, after defining her existence around the fact of Jude’s abandonment and Sula’s betrayal, Nel has an epiphany. She realizes that the relationship between the two women should have been beyond evaluation through simple judgments of right and wrong. Instead, the women should have been able to love and nurture their friendship without the imposition of the expectations of the community. The gray ball that Nel feels dissipating when she recognizes this reality is the remnants of her decision after Chicken Little’s death that the incident was Sula’s fault. As Nel takes responsibility, not only for the boy’s death, but also for her inability to forgive Sula’s affair with Jude, she begins to mourn the one real connection in her life, her relationship with Sula. Preserving the relationship, she learns too late, was much more important than deciding who was right and who was wrong. Like the nightshade that flourishes in the Bottom, Nel’s awareness is both devastating and healing. At the end of the novel she has the ability to experience her life without the limitations of judgment, but she also realizes the profundity of the loss of Sula.
SOME IMPORTANT THEMES AND SYMBOLS IN SULA
The Mystery of Shadrack
Sula both begins and ends with Shadrack. The entire second chapter of the book is devoted to this character and, yet, throughout the rest of the novel, although he is always around, he is on the outskirts of the narrative. Like his biblical namesake, Shadrack has survived the ravages of war, yet the scars of his experiences on the battleground leave him unable to communicate fully with others. Shadrack’s psychic instability is rooted in the nonorganic world. When reconnected to the natural world or earth, he comes close to reassembling his fragmented psyche. When he exits the psychiatric hospital, the trees do not threaten him because they are embedded in the earth. Although his psyche seems fragmented, fundamentally he is rooted and senses essential truth.
Shadrack is alienated and isolated, yet is an integral member of the Bottom community. Shadrack understands the permanence of death and the destructive power human beings can render. His solution, National Suicide Day, is but a temporary containment of the inevitable, but from his perspective it eases the terror of the knowledge he has acquired. His annual ritual serves as a warning and reminder of the inevitabilities the residents of the Bottom face themselves, yet they do not understand the seriousness of the message delivered by a man they consider to be a familiar and harmless madman until the final National Suicide Day, when the realities Shadrack understands firsthand become tangible to the whole community. Shadrack’s mysterious promise to Sula, “always,” points toward his intimate understanding of the omnipresent reality of death.
The Sacrifices of Motherhood
Motherhood is a complicated and multidimensional experience as depicted throughout Morrison’s canon, and Sula is no exception. Through the dilemmas of its characters, Sula asks the reader to consider the roles and responsibilities of motherhood. Rather than foregrounding a patriarch as the head of a family group, Sula exposes the particular dilemma of Eva, a single mother struggling to raise her children alone without resources. Although the exact nature of her sacrifice is not detailed, in her desperation, Eva abandons her children to the care of a generous neighbor. After some time, Eva returns to her children with money, but no leg. Eva’s sacrifice obviously comes at great personal cost, but the ultimate value of her willing mutilation comes into question as her children become adults. Although they have material security, Eva’s children have emotional and psychological damage.
Eva’s son, Plum, returns from his service in the military addicted to heroin. After observing her son’s addiction, convinced that he will not recover, Eva takes his life by setting her son on fire. Eva does not feel that she kills her son but that she rescues him from a terrible fate.
Eva’s daughter Hannah does not have the same interpretation of the events as her mother. Hannah does not understand her mother’s actions as loving and asks Eva if she ever loved them. Eva does not understand what Hannah means by the question and responds with anger. Eva believes that her sacrifice speaks for itself and that she does not need to justify her love for her children. Nonetheless, Hannah clearly is uncertain about her mother’s feelings.
Unwittingly, Hannah puts that love to the test when, shortly after the conversation about maternal love, she catches on fire while boiling water to wash clothes. Eva sees her daughter burning and leaps out of the window in an attempt to put out the fire by landing on her daughter. Eva does not reach the burning woman and Hannah dies from her injuries. Eva is badly hurt, but survives.
This question of what it means to be a mother also affects the next generation of the Peace family. Hannah herself has a tentative and uncertain relationship with her own daughter, Sula. Right before the death of Chicken Little, Sula overhears her mother talking to a friend. Hannah says of her daughter that she loves her but does not like her. This devastating revelation hurts Sula and adds permanent ambivalence to their interactions. When Hannah catches on fire, Sula watches her mother burn.
Sula’s best friend Nel also has an uncertain relationship with her own mother, Helene Wright. Helene is the daughter of a prostitute. She is ashamed of her history and so tries to conform to what she understands as the proper way for a woman to behave. Helene imposes these expectations on her daughter, and grooms Nel for domesticity. Helene’s need for respectability imposes on her daughter the ideal of romance rather than more practical information about self-awareness and personal development. Helene needs her daughter’s life to vindicate the legacy of her mother’s occupation. As a result, Nel enters into an unfulfilling marriage and wastes most of her adult life mourning its loss.
In turn, after her marriage fails, Nel turns to her children for emotional fulfillment they cannot provide. Her children are eager to escape into adulthood, away from her needy over-attentiveness.
Sula presents the complex sacrifices of motherhood without idealizing them. Each of the mothers in the text feels that she is doing what is necessary to provide for her child what she needs, and yet none of them succeed in passing on to their daughters what they actually need.
The Impacts of Shame
Throughout the novel, Sula is the primary focus of the town’s various attempts to find a scapegoat to shame. Shame in the Bottom is expressed in relation to Sula. Shame is attributed by the weak-hearted to those who do not feel shame. The townspeople believe that their judgments of Sula will create in her a sense of shame. People in the community so associate her with what is wrong, that they refuse to look at her or to interact with her in the same way that they would with each other. Despite her many judgments, even Nel feels compassion for Sula’s “shamed” eyes, but Sula’s independence and freedom do not permit her to feel shame herself. Jude is also associated with shame in Nel’s assessment. Jude does not seem ashamed himself, even when Nel witnesses his and Sula’s affair. In fact, neither Jude nor Sula feel shame at that moment.
Nel is the only character in the novel who openly admits her own shame. She feels shame when Jude leaves her. Nel feels this shame because her status as a wife and mother is destroyed. Her inability to conform to the community’s expectations causes Nel to feel ashamed.
Before Sula throws Chicken Little into the river, his cries of delight alarm the birds. When Sula returns to Medallion after 10 years’ absence, robins and other birds overwhelm the town. The residents of Medallion perceive the presence of the birds, and by association, Sula, as a plague of biblical significance. Eva remarks that the unusual number of birds is a sign of Sula’s return. The birds’ departure creates a magical absence in Medallion, a delight in their non-being. This feeling Nel expresses lends ambiguity to the meaning and significance of Sula’s return.
Often the night seems to have a protective function for the residents of Medallion. Morrison compares Shadrack’s desire to see his own face to moonlight sneaking under a window shade. Helene sews late into the night to make herself a dress of heavy velvet to wear for her return to the South. Nel makes the discovery of individual selfhood, separate from her mother, at night. Eva relieves Plum of his constipation during a late winter night.
Night also functions in the novel as a time of fear and destruction. When her children are young, Eva can find work only at night, which forces her to leave them alone. Eva burns Plum to death at night. A bargeman finds Chicken Little’s body in the river at night.
Sula and Nel’s climactic digging in the earth before Sula’s accidental flinging of Chicken Little into the river has sexual, possibly lesbian overtones. This climactic moment results in their discarding what they perceive as waste, items that are, perhaps, symbolic of their lost innocence during the scene that immediately precedes Chicken Little’s death. Although Chicken Little’s body is found and buried, the earth cannot contain his memory and its presence in Nel and Sula’s lives. After Jude leaves Nel, she has a feeling that reminds her of “mud and dead leaves.” This feeling is associated for Nel with Chicken Little, his death and funeral, and her lost girlhood and innocence. (107) Nel also associates mud with her characterization of the sexual relationship between Sula and Jude as dirty.
The Free Fall
In Sula, Morrison defines one of the central themes that repeat throughout her canon. After Jude leaves Nel, she closes off her life to possibility and clings to a past that can never be recovered. The narrator says that she becomes like an insect clinging to a wall to avoid the inevitable plummet to the bottom. The narrator suggests that, as the fall is inevitable, the more graceful and fulfilling thing to do would be to give into the free fall, the unavoidable end of life—death. This passage contains one of the first articulations of Morrison’s ruminations on the difficult human reality of accepting death. This passage suggests that, since one cannot avoid death, the best strategy is an artful acceptance of that truth and the full embrace of life, no matter how brief.
Ajax (A. Jacks, Albert Jacks)
Ajax is an intelligent and attractively lazy man who loves women and treats them well. When Nel and Sula walk to Edna Finch’s Mellow House for ice cream cones, they have to walk past the group of young men that hang around the businesses on Carpenter’s Road. The young men in cream-colored trousers and lemon-yellow gabardines comment on the girls walking past, and the one who is best able to manipulate his language is Ajax. He is a beautiful young man, and the girls are delighted when he pays them the compliment of saying “pigmeat” as they walk by. Years later, Sula falls in love with him, and by the time of his departure, she has become possessive. This new desire for ownership seems to instigate the decline in her health that eventually leads to her death.
Sula proposes that women often fall in love with men and, when they do, find themselves desirous of possessing them, but Ajax does not want to be tied down. He has an affair with Sula because he is attracted to her independence and aloofness. Once she begins to fall in love with him, however, he leaves her.
As previously mentioned, Ajax, the man in the yellow gabardine pants, is an object of sexual desire for Sula from early age. Morrison characterizes him as gold. His name also suggests the similarly named Trojan warrior who was a good soldier but was also very arrogant. Ajax loves airplanes. He brings Sula milk, but she won’t drink it; she just admires the bottles it comes in. He also is the only man who really talks to Sula. The mythological Ajax is like Ajax, Morrison’s character, particularly with respect to his sexual prowess and to his ability to leave women easily. Ajax defends the helpless. He is reputed to shoot at Mr. Finley when he learns that the man shoots at his own dog.
The irony of his name manifests in the fact that his real name is Albert Jacks, A. Jacks, and that Sula never knows his real name until she finds his driver’s license. Sula misses Ajax after he has left. Once she discovers that his real name is Albert Jacks, however, she seems to realize that she never could have loved him because she did not even know him.
Ajax’s mother is described as a beautiful, neglectful, toothless, evil conjure woman who has seven sons that worship her and bring her the items she needs—the detritus of humanity—for her work, witchcraft. Her sons are open and respectful of women and they adore and admire her above, and perhaps to the exclusion of, all other women.
She ignores standards of beauty but, according to the narrator, if she took care of herself she would be a beautiful woman. She does not care about such superficial concerns as beauty. Ajax loves his mother and her independence deeply. It is Sula’s similarity to his mother in this respect that initially attracts Ajax to her. Ajax’s mother is an incarnation of the black, traditionally mystical conjure woman in African-American literature. bargeman
The white bargeman finds Chicken Little’s body after Sula accidentally throws it into the river. When he finds the boy’s body, he puts it in a sack for several days. He regrets having picked up the body because he does not want to return the two miles downriver to Medallion to find the family of the boy. The bargeman and the sheriff of the neighboring town give the body to the ferryman to return to Medallion.
Nel has a brief relationship with a bartender at a hotel in Medallion, but the tryst does not develop into anything lasting.
Betty (Teapot’s Mamma)
Betty is the neglectful and irresponsible mother of a little boy named Teapot. The woman has a drinking problem and a reputation as a bad mother, until Sula returns to town and the town turns against her. When Teapot falls on Sula’s stairs, the town believes Betty’s story that Sula was responsible for the boy’s accident, transforming Betty into a good mother. She does a little dance in celebration when she learns of Sula’s death. After Sula’s death, Betty returns to her original, neglectful patterns of mothering.
Black Soldiers on Train
The soldiers on the train are first sympathetic and then scornful of Helene when she smiles at the abusive and racist conductor. Nel is ashamed of her mother after seeing the looks in their eyes.
Boy Boy is Eva’s husband. He leaves his wife and three children after five years of an unsatisfactory marriage in which he has been unfaithful and abusive. After a few years he returns to visit Eva. He arrives looking smug and prosperous rather than regretful. He has expensive city clothes and an easy, pleasant manner. The entire time he visits with Eva, he does not ask her about their children. His new city girlfriend waits outside for him.
After he leaves, Eva realizes that she will always hate Boy Boy and that this hatred will be her obsession in this life. At this point, Eva also begins to retreat into her bedroom and to live a reclusive life.
Boy Boy’s name sets him up as an immature, irresponsible father who abandons his children to pursue his own boyish and selfish pleasures. He is nowhere near a match for Eva when it comes to responsibility and adulthood. Boy Boy may represent the losses inherent in the move toward the North and the city, as he leaves behind his family and heritage. Eva’s response to his abandonment also may demonstrate that hatred, as much as love, can keep a person from moving forward in life.
Cecile Sabat is Helene’s grandmother and the woman who raises her. Cecile rescues Helene from her mother Rochelle’s brothel when Helene is a little girl. The description of the soft lights and colors in Sundown House where Rochelle lives and works compared with the restrictive religious conventions of Cecile’s house makes Helene’s rescue seem ambiguous.
Although it would not have been proper, Helene probably would have found more love and pleasure in the easygoing arms of her mother than she did in the strict embrace of her grandmother. This possibility illustrates another theme in Sula, the idea that what is thought of as right and proper behavior can be arbitrary and may not necessarily be the best course of action.
Cecile disapproves of her daughter’s actions and instills in Helene a conservative outlook on life as well as shame about her past. Cecile raises Helene to be on guard always for signs of “her mother’s wild blood.” When Cecile’s middle-aged nephew Wiley comes for a visit, Cecile marries Helen off to him to get her as far away from her mother’s background as possible.
Chicken Little is the little child Sula throws into the water and who subsequently drowns. Sula does not intend to murder Chicken Little. She is merely playing with him when the accident happens. Before the accident, she helps him climb a tree and, when she unintentionally lets go of the boy, she is swinging him in circles for fun.
Neither Sula nor Nel tell anybody about Chicken Little’s death because they are frightened of the ramifications. The boy is found by a bargeman three days after the accident and is unrecognizable by the time of the funeral. The events surrounding Chicken Little’s death demonstrate the indifference with which the world treats the life and death of a young black boy.
This incident with Chicken Little occurs shortly after Sula overhears her mother saying she does not like her. This day seems pivotal in Sula’s life because she is shocked to find out that she cannot count on her mother’s love, and then she finds that she cannot count on herself either, since she accidentally killed someone. These revelations free her to the point where she has no center anymore and so she is left to invent herself.
Although Chicken Little’s body is found and buried, the earth cannot contain his memory and its presence in Nel and Sula’s lives.
China is “the most rambunctious whore in town,” whose death evokes more sympathy from the town than when Sula dies. She has a black son and a white son, neither of whom cares when they are told that their mother is dying. China is also a character in The Bluest Eye.
As Helene and Nel board the train for New Orleans and Helene’s grandmother’s funeral, the conductor questions Helene for walking through the white car. Although he is rude and abusive, Helene smiles at him. Nel sees her mother differently after that smile.
Dessie gossips with Cora about Sula after seeing Shadrack tip his hat to her.
Dessie represents an average member of the Medallion community. She lives downstairs from her friend Ivy. Dessie is a Big Elk daughter and is therefore seen as an authority. Dessie says that she sees Shadrack tip an imaginary hat to Sula, which is proof of Sula’s wickedness. She is the first to see Shadrack coming down the road on the last and fatal National Suicide Day. She laughs at his presence because she can see death approaching in the sunshine and feels unafraid. She, like many others, Tar Baby, the Deweys, dies in the tunnel that day. The people of Medallion argue about whether she was the first one to come out and join Shadrack.
Eva names three children that she takes in Dewey, although they are nothing alike. They are a year or two apart in age and, although they all have different skin and eye coloring, they grow to be so much the same in everyone’s mind that no one can tell them apart.
Eva uses the term “dewey” as a generic word for them, effectively canceling their individualities. They differ in appearance, age, and temperament; however, the similarity of their names causes the boys to develop a deep and intense bond. Soon, no one can tell the three boys apart. They are mischievous and, although they grow older, they remain forever childlike. The mysterious trinity of characters with the name Dewey repeatedly drinks milk after they arrive at the Peace house. The Deweys’ milk consumption may represent their status as orphans, motherless children who cannot find the nurturance they need in order to transcend childhood.
The Deweys demonstrate the power of naming and the resiliency of friendship. They are reborn when they move into Eva’s house and are all considered the same age, as if nothing happened to them before they came to her house. The boys do not grow. They all remain 48 inches tall and are said to have gorgeous teeth. Although no one ever finds their bodies, the town assumes that they die in the tunnel on the last National Suicide Day.
Edna Finch is the owner of the Mellow House, Medallion’s ice cream parlor.
Eva Peace is Sula’s grandmother. Eva marries young and has three children, but after five years of marriage, her husband leaves. Her children are Hannah, Pearl, and Plum. The baby boy, Plum, quit having bowel movements as a baby at a time when Eva had no food left. Eva uses the last of her lard to lubricate her finger to unclog his bowels. This experience brings her to the realization that she has to do something drastic to get food for her children.
She is left without the means to support herself or her three children and, therefore, leaves them with a neighbor, Mrs. Suggs, for 18 months. When Eve returns, she comes back without one of her legs but with enough money to survive. Whether she sticks the leg under a train and is paid off by the train company or whether she sold it to a hospital for $10,000 never is definitively known.
Eva is a strong, proud, and beautiful woman despite the missing leg. She has many lovers and opens her house to all sorts of boarders, vagrants, and children. Eva kills her own child, Plum, after he returns from the war mentally disturbed and addicted to heroin. She douses him with kerosene and sets him on fire because she believes, metaphorically speaking, that he is trying to crawl back into her womb.
On the other hand, she nearly kills herself jumping out a window in an attempt to quench the flames that ultimately kill her other child Hannah. Eva does these things out of love for her children.
Sula puts Eva in a rest home because she feels threatened by her. The two women are independent, strong, and concerned with self-preservation. When they love or hate, they do so fiercely and deeply. The two women are too much alike to live amiably within the same household. Eva’s love is the toughest of love. She is consistent and honest in the way she lives. Her name connects her to Eve, the first woman. She is the first and the last, the matriarch of the Peace women.
Sarcastically described as a good white farmer, this man promises his slave freedom and a piece of bottom land if the slave will perform some very difficult chores for him. When the slave has completed the tasks, this farmer convinces the slave that the less-than-desirable hilltop land is really better because it is at the bottom of heaven and so the spot comes to be called the Bottom.
Hannah is Eva’s oldest child and Sula’s mother. After her husband Rekus dies, Hannah has a string of lovers. She is free and easy with her sexuality because, like Eva, she likes maleness and men. She makes the men feel perfect as they are and she is therefore respected by her lovers. She has the attitude that making love to men is a pleasant but unremarkable activity and she does it whenever she feels the need or desire.
Hannah makes no demands at all of the men she loves—just accepts them as they are, so they bask and relax in her company. Sula adopts her mother’s attitude and believes that men are to be enjoyed whenever she feels like it. This philosophy contributes to and explains Sula’s ability as an adult to seduce Nel’s husband, Jude.
Hannah, like Helene, is a distant mother. She is so preoccupied with her lovers and friends that she does not nurture or coddle Sula. Sula even overhears her mother say that she does not like her, although she loves her. The distance between mother and child allows Sula to watch, disinterested, as her mother burns to death.
Hannah is a diluted, more relaxed version of Eva. She teaches Sula her views on sex, but Sula takes them, along with everything else she learns from the women of her family, to a new and different level. Of the three women, Hannah has the weakest, most passive personality.
Helene Sabat Wright
Helene is born to a Creole prostitute, Rochelle Sabat, but is raised by her grandmother, Cecile Sabat. After a short courtship, she marries Wiley Wright, a seaman and cousin who is absent for long periods of time due to his occupation as a seaman on the Great Lakes. After being married for nine years, Helene gives birth to her only child, Nel. Helene is a lot like Geraldine in The Bluest Eye. She is a proper, controlled AfricanAmerican woman who feels superior to the rest of her community and enjoys controlling the “funkiness” in her daughter Nel.
Helene is embarrassed and ashamed of her own blackness, as evidenced by her ingratiating encounter with a white train conductor. This shame and embarrassment of her heritage is also symbolized by Helene’s encounter with her mother, Rochelle Sabat, when Nel and Helene return to New Orleans after Cecile Sabat dies. Helene refuses to allow Nel to speak or learn Creole, her native language. Helene’s oppressive wish to shed her poor black roots leads to Nel’s ignorance of her own heritage and to the death of language. Nel’s mother, upstanding and powerful in the community, wellmannered, conservative, and often emotionless, manages to suppress the desires of her daughter Nel.
Helene is described as an impressive woman who is convinced that she has the authority as social arbiter in Medallion. She holds sway both in her social and church activities and over her husband and daughter, whom she manipulates to suit herself.
Henri Martin is a resident of New Orleans and, apparently, a friend or acquaintance of Cecile Sabat. He writes a letter to Helen informing her about her grandmother’s illness and urging Helene to return to New Orleans immediately. Herrod Brothers, the The Herrod Brothers join Shadrack’s parade on the last National Suicide Day.
Hester is the daughter of one of Hannah’s friends, Valentine or Patsy. In 1922, Hester is grown and out of the house and her mother says that she is not sure that she loves her daughter. Hannah replies with her feelings about loving but not liking Sula.
The hovering gray ball
This ball appears to Nel, or would have appeared had she allowed herself to look at it. After the appearance of the gray ball, Nel finds she cannot allow herself to let out her personal howl of pain following the loss of Jude and her marriage. She feels the howl coming but it will not come. When she stands up, she believes that it is hovering just to the right of her in the air, just out of view.
It takes great effort for Nel not to look at the gray ball, so she is careful not to turn her head. The gray ball begins hovering in 1937, and it is not until 1965 that Nel is able to deal with the gray ball and all that it represents.
At the end of the book, a combination of events finally clarifies what the gray ball is. Nel visits with Eva who accuses her of Chicken Little’s death and tells her that she and Sula were the same. Nel flees the woman and walks past the cemetery where Sula is buried and then, after she has been thinking back about her complicity in Chicken Little’s death, Shadrack passes by and reminds her of that day. Nel is finally able to let out her cry of pain, as she realizes the gray ball is the pain of her longing, not for Jude, but for Sula.
Irene is the owner of Irene’s House of Cosmetology.
Ivy lives upstairs from Dessie. Dessie says that Ivy is the only person she tells about witnessing Shadrack tip his hat to Sula. Dessie says that Shadrack’s gesture is definitive proof that Sula is evil. Ivy dies on the last National Suicide Day when the river tunnel collapses.
Jake Freeman is one of the boys that Nel remembers as being beautiful in 1921. Jake has a brother, Paul Freeman.
John L. is a high school companion of Nel and Sula’s who is rumored to have attempted to have sex with a woman’s hip.
Jude Greene is Nel’s husband. Jude Greene works at the Hotel Medallion as a waiter to help out his parents and their seven other children. Jude wants to work on the road crew, but they do not hire black workers. He really wants the job and all that it entails—the work clothes, the ability to say he built the road—the markers of masculinity in his world. It is his rage at not receiving the job and his determination to take on a man’s role that inspires him to ask Nel to marry him. In his disappointment, he finds that Nel can comfort him as he believes a wife should, so he presses her to marry him. He wants someone to nurture him, care for him, and soothe his wounded pride. Nel’s reluctance to marry is also an added incentive. Her reluctance makes the actual marriage seem like a conquest to Jude. Although Jude seems to Nel to be a model man at first, he cannot take the loss of manhood that racism precipitates. Eventually, Nel and Jude have three children together, two boys and a girl.
When Sula returns 10 years after their wedding, she seduces Jude. This act instigates the break in the women’s friendship that is never repaired. Nel cannot understand why Sula sleeps with Jude, and Sula cannot understand why Nel makes such a big deal about a sexual act and why Nel does not forgive her. In the very long run, Jude is merely an obstacle in Sula and Nel’s relationship. Sula feels she is doing Nel a favor by ruining her draining marriage, but it is only after Sula’s death that Nel realizes this.
After Sula leaves Medallion, Laura cooks for Eva out of the goodness of her heart. When Sula returns, she sends Laura away because she says she does not belong in the house. Sula tells Nel that she believes that Laura is stealing things from Eva’s house.
L.P. is one of the boys that Nel remembers as being beautiful in 1921. Mr. Buckland Reed Mr. Buckland Reed points out to Eva that the Deweys are different ages when Eva decides to send them to school. He reminds Eva that the youngest Dewey is only four, but Eva sends the boys to school together anyway.
Mr. Finley is known for beating his dog. Ajax shoots at him for his meanness toward the animal. Indulging in his 13-year tradition of sucking chicken bones on his front porch, Mr. Finley chokes and dies when he looks up and sees Sula.
Mr. and Mrs. Hodges
Mr. and Mrs. Hodges are the cemetery’s gravediggers who assist with Sula’s funeral. They also run a funeral parlor. Shadrack is cleaning leaves for the couple when he sees Sula’s body. This sight sends him into despair and leads to the final National Suicide Day.
Mrs. Buckland Reed
Mrs. Buckland Reed is a neighbor of the Peace family. Mrs. Jackson When Eva has no money, Mrs. Jackson lets her have milk from her cow. Mrs. Jackson eats ice. She is also described as greedy as she continues to make preserves in 1923 when she still has stores of preserves from 1920.
Mrs. Reed is the woman who takes the Deweys to school and registers them all for kindergarten. She tells the teacher that they are all cousins, that they are all six years old, and that all of their names are Dewey King.
Mrs. Scott’s twins
Mrs. Scott’s twins are two of the boys Nel remembers as being beautiful in 1921.
The otherwise undistinguished Nathan brings food to Sula when she is ill and near to death. He also gets her medicine and is the only one willing to care for her while she is an invalid. Nathan finds Sula’s body after her death. He knows she is dead because her mouth is open.
Nel Wright is the daughter of Helene and Wiley Wright. As a child Nel resolves to leave Medallion and travel, but her trip to New Orleans for Cecil’s funeral is the only time she ever leaves Medallion. Nel is changed by her trip to her greatgrandmother’s funeral. Her great-grandmother dies before they arrive. This trip is symbolic and sets up a frame for how the rest of the journeys in the story will work. It also sets up the dichotomies between North and South, life and death, truth and lies, and mothers and daughters.
Helene is not very visible for the rest of the novel, but she influences Nel and how Nel relates to Sula and the rest of the world. Nel has seen strange places and people, but most of all she has seen that her controlling mother is not the powerful figure Nel thought she was. After her return home, Nel realizes that she is not defined by her mother—that she is not just her parents’ daughter, but that she is herself.
This sense of “Me-ness” she experiences prepares the way for her to act on her impulse to be friends with Sula Peace, whom she noticed at school but knew her mother would not approve of. After the trip, Nel knows that she has some control over herself and has the courage to initiate friendship with Sula, a friendship that her mother Helene comes to approve of eventually.
Nel becomes best friends with Sula Peace. They develop a profound and intense friendship. Nel is with Sula when Sula accidentally throws Chicken Little in the lake, causing him to drown. Neither girl panics and Nel stands steadfastly by her friend.
Nel eventually marries Jude, has children, and settles down in Medallion. After a few years, her marriage with Jude becomes oppressive and burdensome. This burden is somewhat relieved when Sula returns to Medallion and the two once again resume their friendship. This renewed friendship is abruptly cut short when Nel finds Sula and Jude in bed together. Jude leaves Nel and she has to find a job to support her family.
Not until long after Sula dies does Nel realize that it is not Jude she has been mourning all those years. It was her friend Sula. Unlike Sula, Nel is an example of a woman overly dependent on others, namely, a man, for her own satisfaction. She is representative of the woman who marries early, never leaves her home town, and never truly discovers her own wants, needs, ideas, and feelings.
Nel is supposedly the good member of the Nel and Sula partnership. The way that she is raised causes her to lose sight of her dreams of being her own person, traveling, and of having a self-defined identity. Together, Sula and Nel have a complete, well-rounded life. They lost parts of themselves when they lost each other.
In the hospital where Shadrack is treated after returning shell-shocked from World War I, the male nurse is very unsympathetic to Shadrack’s condition and insists that he feed himself. Shadrack cannot manage the task because he thinks his hands have begun to grow gigantic and out-of-control and he cannot take them out from under the covers.
Shadrack becomes violent and is put in a straitjacket. Shadrack is so disoriented that he does not know who or what he is. A directive is issued that hospital space is needed, so Shadrack is dismissed from the army and from the hospital without having received the kind of treatment he needs to enable him to resume a normal life in society.
Old Willy Fields
Old Willy Fields is an orderly who notices Eva bleeding unattended in the hospital and gets the dying woman help. Afterward, Willy boasts that he saved Eva’s life. Eva did not want to be saved and curses Willy every day for the next 37 years.
Patsy and Valentine are Hannah’s friends. Sula overhears them talking about motherhood and children and hears her mother tell them she loves Sula, but does not like her—a defining moment in Sula’s maturation. Shortly after this revelation, Sula accidentally throws Chicken Little, and the innocence of childhood, into the river. After Sula becomes a grown woman and Hannah has died, Patsy turns against Sula and gossips, saying that Sula does not burp when she drinks beer.
Paul Freeman is one of the boys that Nel remembers as being beautiful in 1921. He has a brother, Jake Freeman.
Pearl (Eva Peace)
Pearl is Eva and Boy Boy’s second oldest child, the one Eva names after herself. Pearl marries at 14 and moves to Flint, Michigan. She sends her mother whiny, uninteresting letters about her husband, children, and minor troubles and encloses $2.
Plum Peace (Ralph)
Plum is Eva’s youngest child. Eva’s behavior toward Plum represents the extent of a mother’s love. As a child, Plum suffers from severe constipation. Eva uses the last bit of food she has to soften her fingers as she inserts them in his rectum to physically remove the hard stools from his bowels.
After returning from World War I, Plum becomes addicted to drugs. He does not wash. He steals and he sleeps for days. Out of love for him and sympathy for his unhappiness, Eva holds him tight one last time and then sets him on fire. She loves him enough to try to save his life as a child and enough not to watch him waste his life as an adult.
The police see Shadrack sitting next to the road and, making the assumption that he is drunk instead of sick, take him to jail. In the jail cell, Shadrack manages to see his own reflection in the toilet water and he begins to have some idea of who he is. The next day the sheriff reads his discharge papers from the army and arranges for someone to drop him off in Medallion.
Terrified by the unexpectedness of death and dying, Shadrack establishes National Suicide Day, January 3, as the day that everyone can kill either himself or someone else and get it all over with on the one day, thus removing the uncertainty from death and making it manageable in Shadrack’s mind.
Reba joins in on Shadrack’s parade on the last National Suicide Day.
Rekus is Sula’s father. Described as a laughing man, he dies when Sula is three years old, leaving both Hannah and Sula alone. Sula grows up without a father and this childhood loneliness provides part of the basis for her friendship with Nel. Rekus is really significant only because he is absent and therefore the Peace house is comprised mostly of women.
Reverend Deal is the religious and moral voice in Bottom. He denounces National Suicide Day and he delivers the moving sermon at Chicken Little’s funeral.
Rochelle Sabat is Helene’s mother and a prostitute at the Sundown House in New Orleans. Cecile Sabat, Rochelle’s mother, takes Helene from Rochelle because she feels that Rochelle’s occupation makes her an unfit parent. Rochelle and Helene see each other, for the first time in many years, at Cecile’s house before her funeral. Rochelle is dressed all in yellow, soft and smelling like gardenias. Nel finds her attractive and warm, yet the behavior between Rochelle and Helene is decidedly cool. Rochelle represents everything Helene wants to distance herself from— her poor, black, Creole heritage.
Rochelle seems free-spirited and affectionate. She seems to be like Sula and Hannah, which is why both Helene and Cecile do not wish to be associated with her. Interestingly, Nel finds her grandmother attractive and young-looking. Rochelle shows no discernible affection for her daughter, but holds her granddaughter tightly when she meets her.
Rudy is the child of either Valentine or Patsy. Rudy is wild with his mother, but behaves with his father. His mother says she will be glad when he is grown and gone, although she says she loves him.
During World War II, Nel has an affair with an unnamed sergeant. The relationship does not last.
Shadrack is a young soldier who returns from combat in World War I psychologically scarred. He believes that his hands grow to a monstrous size whenever he looks at them. This belief symbolizes the lack of control Shadrack feels over his own body and the world around him. Although everything seems orderly on the outside—his hands do not really grow uncontrollably—on the inside he is a jumble of confused emotions and feelings.
Shadrack’s psychic instability is rooted in the nonorganic world. When reconnected to the natural world or earth he comes close to reassembling his fragmented psyche. When he exits the psychiatric hospital, the trees do not threaten him because they are embedded in the earth.
The same is true of life. Although everything seems orderly and controlled, this is not always the case. Shadrack declares National Suicide Day on January 3rd of each year in order to control his fear of death. He figures that by devoting one day a year to death the “rest of the year would be safe and free.” National Suicide Day reflects an important theme in Morrison’s fiction, the necessity of accepting the inevitability of death in order to truly live life. National Suicide Day becomes a normal addition to life in Medallion. It is on this holiday that Shadrack inadvertently leads many Medallion residents to their deaths in the tunnel that holds the false hope of employment for the community.
Shadrack also witnesses Sula and Nel’s involvement in Chicken Little’s death. Although Sula was frightened by this knowledge throughout her life, Shadrack merely thought fondly of her as the one woman to visit his home. Cryptically, he says “Always” to her when she runs to his house. He keeps her purple and white belt with its liturgical colors. It is an encounter with Shadrack toward the end of the novel that brings about Nel’s epiphany that Sula is the single most important person in her life. (For information on the biblical Shadrack, see Part III.)
The police see Shadrack sitting next to the road and, assuming that he is drunk instead of sick, take him to jail. In the jail cell, Shadrack manages to see his own reflection in the toilet water, and he begins to have some idea of who he is. The next day the sheriff reads his discharge papers from the army and arranges for someone to drop him off in Meridian.
Terrified by the unexpectedness of death and dying, Shadrack establishes National Suicide Day, January 3, as the day that everyone can kill either himself or someone else and get it all over with on the one day. For Shadrack, National Suicide Day removes the uncertainty from death and makes it manageable.
Shirley is a girl in Nel and Sula’s graduating class who they think is sexually unappealing.
The slave in the story at the novel’s beginning lets himself be fooled by the farmer into accepting the higher hilly land for payment. Later, when an African-American community grows up on the slave’s land, they have to endure the problems of the slave’s choice—the land is hard to work and rocky, the winds batter their homes, they receive the full brunt of winter and storms—while the white town of Medallion below is protected by the slope of the valley. The farmer tells the slave that the land is the bottom of heaven. In the long run, the land becomes valuable.
The Suggs are Eva Peace’s neighbors. After Boy Boy leaves her, the Suggs and other members of the community provide her with the food, milk, and necessities she and the children need to survive. When the baby, Plum, gets constipated, Mrs. Suggs gives Eva castor oil. Eva leaves her children with the Suggs for 18 months and returns with the money and motivation she needs to raise her family. The Suggs represent the helpful and charitable nature of members within a self-sustaining community. Eva and her children could not have survived without their assistance.
Sula Mae Peace
Sula lives in a large house belonging to her grandmother, Eva, along with her mother, Hannah, adopted little boys, and several assorted borders. The house is disorderly, reflecting in its physical characteristics the casually promiscuous attitudes of both Eva and Hannah, who enjoy maleness without apology.
Like Nel, Sula is an only child. The two girls have distinct upbringings. Nel is raised in a conventional household while Sula lives in a busy and hectic household, full of lodgers, alcoholics, and her mother and grandmother’s lovers. These differences and their dissatisfaction with their lives is part of what draws the two girls together. Sula and Nel are such close friends that Sula cuts off the tip of her own finger trying to protect Nel from white bullies.
Even as a girl, Sula never fit into the Medallion community. The birthmark of a rose over her eye, her indifference to the opinions of others, her aloofness toward others besides Nel, sets her apart from the rest of Medallion society.
Sula accidentally throws Chicken Little into a river and watches her own mother burn to death. Sula seems primarily concerned with self-preservation but understands the inevitability of death. Sula leaves Medallion after Nel marries, goes to college, lives in a city, and then returns many years later. Her return is accompanied by a plague of robins and is viewed by the community as an evil omen.
Sula places her grandmother in Sunnydale, a home for older people, and sleeps with many men, indifferently. She has a significant affair with Ajax, but after he leaves her, she loses her independence and self-assurance. In the wake of Ajax’s departure, Sula contracts an undetermined fatal illness and dies. Her last thoughts are of Nel and the need to tell her that death does not hurt.
Sula is representative of an independent, strong, and proud black woman; however, her pride and her independence seem to leave her without enough empathy for other people and cause her ostracism from the community. A compromise between Nel’s dependence and Sula’s independence seems to be the novel’s suggestion for achieving the right balance for a happy and full life.
Sula fears and, at times, despises both Hannah and Eva because of the way these two women influenced her. Sula stands and watches Hannah burn to death. She puts Eva in a nursing home. These two actions demonstrate her need for control. Her sexual relationships also show her as a demanding and dominant woman. Sula has a birthmark above one of her eyes that other people say looks like a rose, a copperhead, and Hannah’s ashes, all in the same story.
Sula is disconnected from her mother and grandmother and seems genuinely attached only to Nel. She does not sleep with Nel’s husband, Jude, to be malicious. She is merely curious about the man. She does not expect that the relationship with Jude will change her friendship with Nel. A
fter Sula dies, the people of Medallion do not come to wash and dress her body, as is the custom. Eventually, Nel calls the police and Sula’s body is taken to the Hodges funeral home in a police van. After the funeral, the Hodges begin to bury Sula, and black members of the town come and sing “Shall We Gather At the River.”
Tar Baby (Pretty Johnnie)
Tar Baby is a boarder who lives in Eva’s house. He is a beautiful and quiet man who never raises his voice. Eva is convinced that he is all white, but teasingly calls him Tar Baby. The white policemen from the valley also believe that he is white. They physically abuse him for being a white man who chooses to live in a black community.
Tar Baby is a mountain boy. He lives as a recluse and is determined to drink himself to death. Although he is a drunk, he does not bother anyone and is therefore tolerated. Tar Baby has a beautiful singing voice and makes the women cry, especially when he sings “In the Sweet By and By.” The people of Medallion do not think to try to help Tar Baby out of his depression and alcoholism. Tar Baby, like Shadrack, is obsessed with death but not willing to commit suicide. Significantly, he and the Deweys are the first ones to join Shadrack’s National Suicide Day parade the year that the tragedy occurs. He dies that day when the shifting earth from the river tunnel project collapses. (For more information on the Tar Baby stereotype, see Part III.)
The teacher is the Deweys’ first instructor. She is annoyed that the boys are registered under the same name and the same age, but is sure that she will be able to distinguish them from each other. Much to her surprise, she confuses the boys and has trouble distinguishing them from each other.
The five-year-old son of an indifferent mother, Teapot knocks on Sula’s door looking for bottles. After Sula denies his request, the boy accidentally falls down the steps. After this incident, his drunken and indifferent mother, Betty, exhibits motherly concern and love. She begins to feed him regular meals and nurture him. After Sula’s death, however, he is soon neglected and beaten again by his mother. Teapot represents the vulnerability and dependence of a young child on parents. More importantly, he demonstrates the extent to which the Bottom needs Sula to have a benchmark for evil and bad behavior.
Teapot’s Mamma (Betty)
Betty is known as Teapot’s Mamma because of her failure as a mother. After witnessing Teapot’s fall down Sula’s steps, however, she becomes devoted to her maternal duties. The imagined threat that Sula poses to her son and the sympathy she receives from the community inspire her to drink less and provide for her son. After Sula’s death, Teapot’s Mamma returns to her drinking and to abusing Teapot. Teapot’s Mamma demonstrates the beneficial influence Sula had upon the Medallion community because her difference provides the townspeople with inspiration to rally together and become better, more charitable people.
Train depot lady and children
Since there are no colored restrooms in the southern train depots, the train depot lady and her children show Helene and Nel how to pee in a field during their trip to New Orleans.
Uncle Paul is the man who brings Kentucky Wonders, a kind of green beans, to Hannah for canning. He tells Hannah that he has two bushels of the beans for her, but he has not brought them to her by the time she and Eva are snapping the beans.
Patsy and Valentine are Hannah’s friends. Sula overhears them talking about motherhood and children and hears her mother tell them she loves Sula, but doesn’t like her—a defining moment in Sula’s maturation. Shortly after this revelation, Sula accidentally throws Chicken Little and the innocence of childhood into the river. Valentine joins Shadrack’s parade on the last National Suicide Day and dies that day when the shifting earth from the river tunnel project collapses.
Wiley Wright is Nel’s father and Helene’s husband. He is a seaman and he is gone for long lengths of time. Wiley marries Helene, at the urging of his Great Aunt Cecile who is also Helene’s grandmother. Although he is substantially older than her, Wiley Wright finds Helene well-mannered, powerful, and mature. It never seems to be an issue that the two are cousins. Wiley Wright works on a ship on the Great Lakes lines and travels for long stretches of time, but Helene is quite content in his absence, especially after her daughter is born. Wiley Wright does not play a large role in the novel or the lives of the women in his life.
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Source: Gillespie, C. (2008). Critical companion to Toni Morrison. New York: Facts On File.