Reviewed by Ashley Schroeder
Sula isn’t what I was expecting when I first picked it up. I’d read Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye before, and while I loved her language and sentence structure—both clearly evident of her lyrical style—I was completely unimpressed with the flat and static characters. But in Sula, Morrison’s second novel, the characters are so developed and complex, and the relationship between them is so intricate, that they will inevitably suck you in. After spending 160 pages with Nel Wright and Sula Peace, I have no doubt that they are the reason Sula has been a cherished classic for over thirty-five years.
The novel begins with a sweeping view of the history and layout of “the Bottom” of Medallion, Ohio. Within this black community reside two only children, the daughters of the seemingly polar-opposite Wright and Peace families.
Nel Wright is the daughter of Wiley, a traveling seaman, and the uptight Helene. Helene, resisting everything that her Creole prostitute mother was, raises Nel in the strictest and most conservative of homes. Nel is desperate for a friend who can share her wild imagination and finds such a friend in Sula.
Sula is the daughter of the late Rekus Peace and widow Hannah. After being widowed, Hannah sleeps around with many of the men in town. Sula is frequently exposed to her mother’s detached attitude toward sex, and in this, and many other ways, Sula leads a much less confined life than Nel. The chaos of her home life is what drives her to the comfort of a friendship with Nel.
As the girls grow up, their differences become more and more pronounced. Nel, at age seventeen, marries Jude Greene and settles into the traditional roles of wife and mother, while Sula sets off for an independent life, full of sexual encounters but devoid of any true relationships. She grows bored of this life and returns to the Bottom ten years later. Upon her return, she is greeted by a community that holds nothing but contempt and hatred for her blatant refusal to conform to social standards.
Toward the end of the novel, Sula becomes extremely ill, so Nel visits her one last time. Nel asks herself ultimately which one of the women was good and who was bad. And we, as readers, are left with the same question, wondering if we can even classify these characters with such simplistic and absolute terms.
Morrison devotes so much of the beginning of the novel to the community of the Bottom, especially to the parents and grandparents of Nel and Sula, instead of focusing solely on the girls themselves. She does this because we the readers need to know their backgrounds, the families and circumstances from which they came, to fully understand who Nel and Sula are, and to appreciate who they become as the story evolves.
Morrison has a gift for creating entire communities and ways of life and presenting them so fully. The Bottom is such an interesting community, filled with conventions and traditions that we, as the reader, are torn between embracing as familiar and rejecting as conservative. It sets up a good-versus-bad, right-versus-wrong dichotomy that tests our own ideas of what’s morally and socially unacceptable. It forces us to assess where we ourselves meet or fall short of society’s expectations for morality.
Moral ambiguity is such a universal concept, and its prevalence throughout the novel is no doubt one of the reasons that Sula is still as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1973. While Sula addresses themes of gender and racial struggle, as does much of Morrison’s work, it is the dynamic relationship between two strong black women, Nel and Sula, that makes Sula a more compelling story than The Bluest Eye. It is through this friendship, and its affect on the Bottom, that Morrison achieves her goal of depicting the heritage of African Americans and delving into the way of life of a black community.
All of this is what continues to attract us to Sula and keeps us turning the pages. It is Morrison’s voice, a mixture of a traditional omniscient narrator and an oral storyteller whose language is rich with local dialect, that keeps us engrossed. It is the classic battle of good and bad, right and wrong, and the universal theme of struggle that keeps Sula in our hearts and minds forever.Posted on March 10, 2010 at 3:23 PM