Motifs in Sula
Inverted World Order
At the beginning of the novel, the Bottom is a black community situated atop a hill, above the valley town of Medallion, where the white community lives. Although the Bottom is geographically higher than Medallion, socially and economically the black community is considered lower than their white counterparts, as were all blacks in the early twentieth century, when the novel begins. Ironically, when the novel ends, the black community will have moved down into the valley, and the white people will have bought property and moved up onto the hilltop.
Morrison creates situations in which characters behave differently from what we might expect. For example, in 1927, at Nel's wedding celebration, the old people dance with the young people, and the church women drink the spiked punch. Nel's mother, the staid and conservative Helene Wright, is so calm and relaxed — from drinking — that she doesn't seem to mind the damage being done to her immaculate house by the revelers.
Morrison repeats this theme of inversion by having seemingly negative characters cause positive reactions in people. After Sula's return in 1937, the Bottom's black community abandons its negative ways and adopts positive counterparts. Teapot's previously abusive mother, for example, suddenly becomes caring and nurturing, and women who formerly neglected their husbands now shower them with affection. Ironically, after Sula's death, the old order of negativity returns; the townspeople resume their previous, unhealthy behavior.
With very few exceptions, Morrison's female characters are fiercely independent and subvert the traditionally assigned roles of dutiful wife, mother, and daughter. Of this category, Sula and Eva are the most prominent. Nel, who is raised by her mother to accept without question the passive roles of wife, mother, and daughter, comes to recognize the power of womanhood by the novel's end, although it remains unclear just what she will do with this newfound knowledge.
Sula and Nel come to realize at an early age that because they are neither white nor male, most freedoms and triumphs will be denied them throughout their lives. When Sula returns to the Bottom after having experienced life in many large cities across the country, she notes how dismal the lives of the black women in the community are; she sees "how the years had dusted their bronze with ash," and that "Those [women] with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting other people's skinned dreams and bony regrets." Sula's feminist spirit makes her refuse to settle for a woman's traditional lot of marriage and child raising. The Bottom's women hate her because she is the antithesis of their own dreadful lives of resignation. Economically, the women are unable to leave the Bottom, but those who do — like Sula — are likely to return to the black community, for from it they gain the little power afforded them in a racist society.
Sula is the most determined, carefree woman of all the novel's female characters. Her attraction to Ajax originates from her need to have someone more free-wheeling and independent than she. Ajax seems to be the warrior his name suggests, especially when he brings her the bottles of milk. Sula excitedly believes that he must have "done something dangerous to get them," which she greatly appreciates. However, her sole attempt at domesticity sounds the death knell of the relationship. Detecting the scent of the nest, Ajax realizes that Sula is becoming the antithesis of the free-spirited, independent woman whom he was initially attracted to.
Throughout the novel, women's perceptions of love are ambiguous and never clearly defined. For example, to Eva, love is being patriarchally maternal; it gives her license to kill the drug-addicted Plum and possibly Hannah. Eva is the biblical Eve, the mother of all living things, which explains the variety of people living in her home. Although only some of the inhabitants are boarders, Eva still involves herself maternally in their lives. She constantly offers unsolicited advice to new brides on keeping a man. Even with her physical disability, she flirts unashamedly with all the men who surround her. However, these relationships are never consummated, which contrasts to the sexual behavior of her daughter Hannah, who consummates her liaisons with her many gentlemen admirers — and without discretion.
In contrast to Sula's self-assured feminism, Nel represses her self-expression and yields to the oppression of white society and black men. Her loss of Jude results in essentially the loss of her own identity because the vast majority of women of this era believed that a husband gave a woman her place in the community. Growing up, Nel, whose imagination was systematically driven underground by her pretentious and staid mother, Helene Wright, seeks emotional solace from Sula, who defers to no one. The girls rejoice in the sexually charged attention they get from the community's men, who tauntingly call them "pig meat." However, after the dissolution of her marriage, Nel never actively seeks the company of men — giving up after only a few lukewarm attempts at a relationship. Instead, she resigns herself to devoting the rest of her life to her children. She allows herself to be chosen by men, while Sula does her own choosing. By the end of the novel, when Nel cries out to Sula, she laments not only for her long-lost friend but also for her own wasted potential, recognizing that she has lost the chance to develop into the fullness of her own womanhood.
The effects of racism upon black American life is a major ingredient in all of Morrison's novels, as she explores the differences between the races' humanity and cultural values. Racism, in all its myriad forms, whether blatant or subliminal, is a part of every scene in Sula, with every aspect of the novel expressing some color of racism. Even the laughter of the Bottom is a laughter born of pain — a series of cruel jokes directed against the laughers themselves.
One example of the Bottom's own racism is Helene Wright's concern over her daughter Nel's physical features. Although Helene does not want Nel to be as fair skinned as she is — this so-called advantage can mean trouble in a color-conscious society — she still forces her daughter to pull her nose in order to make it more narrow. And yet Helene herself is the victim of racism, for having grown up in New Orleans, she knows the dangers of breaking Jim Crow laws, the mandates that segregated white society from black. Returning by train to New Orleans for her grandmother's funeral, Helene realizes immediately that she has accidentally stepped over the line that separates the two races when a white conductor catches her in a Whites Only car.
Another example of the white society's racist attitudes occurs later in the novel when a white bargeman finds Chicken Little's corpse washed ashore at the river's edge. Annoyed at the inconvenience of having to tote the black child's body to the sheriff, the bargeman reacts as though it is not a human life that has been lost. He cannot identify with the blacks of the Bottom as being as human as he is. He even believes that the blacks are so savage that they would kill their own children, which, to him, explains Chicken Little's body being in the river.
In a society that segregates its healthcare facilities, many of which did not allow blacks to step inside their doors, it is not surprising that even those individuals whose skin is white but who have ethnic backgrounds other than Anglo-Saxon are treated better than the Bottom's black residents. One of the key points Morrison makes in this novel is that newcomers — white immigrants — are given preferential treatment for menial jobs, while blacks, with their long history of living in the valley, are mistreated — even by the white immigrants, who, ironically, are themselves looked down on by the established white community; unfortunately, one of the ways that they regain their self-respect is by harassing blacks.
Fire and Water
Throughout Sula, the combative elements of fire and water are closely linked to the ever-present motif of death. As a result of the constant references to these elements, the novel projects qualities of creativity and destructiveness that continually transform the images of nature. Among the many motifs, fire is perhaps referred to most frequently.
The first character to die from fire is Plum, whom Eva sets ablaze. The nature of his death is foretold in how he gets high from drugs: His bent spoon is black from "steady cooking." When Plum is burning in his room from the fire that Eva set, it is Hannah who says to Eva, "He's burning, Mamma!" Eva casually responds in false disbelief, "Is? My baby? Burning?" And, on the day that Hannah dies by fire, there is an unnatural, intense heat as Eva rationalizes her role in Plum's burning.
Sula's return to the Bottom after a ten-year absence portends death associated with fire. She confronts Eva and threatens her with the same means of death as happened to Plum, whom Sula knows Eva set on fire. Sula says to Eva, ". . . maybe I'll just tip on up here with some kerosene and — who knows — you may make the brightest flame of them all." Later, when Sula visits Nel, Nel asks her if she wants a cool drink. Sula answers, "Mmmm. Lots of ice, I'm burnin' up," foreshadowing her eventual death by a fever that is described as a "kind of burning." And just prior to Sula's dying, when she wakes from a dream, she is "gagging and overwhelmed with the smell of smoke," although nothing in the house is on fire. Ironically, as Sula dies, she experiences "liquid pain"; she remembers, in death, the promise of a "sleep of water always," and how she would "know the water was near, and she would curl into its heavy softness and it would envelop her, carry her, and wash her tired flesh always." Sula and Plum are the only characters in the novel who so completely embody the images of fire and water at their deaths. Generally, the women in Sula die of fire, traditionally a masculine element, and the men in the novel die of water, a feminine element.
Although his death is from fire, Plum, a passive character, figuratively drowns. As Eva holds him in her arms just before killing him, her face is awash with tears as she remembers Plum as a child in the bathtub, dripping water playfully onto her bosom. Plum, clearly Eva's favorite, is described as having "floated in a constant swaddle of love and affection . . ." Eva immerses him in kerosene, and just before he dies, he perceives that he is floating, womb-like, and drowning. Morrison describes his death, although by fire, as "some kind of wet light traveling over his legs and stomach with a deeply attractive smell . . . splashing and running into his skin . . . Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought."
Shadrack is also associated with water, although the biblical Shadrack, in Daniel 3:8–18, is cast into a fiery furnace but emerges unscathed by the flames. Sula's Shadrack, a fisherman by trade, is the only witness to Chicken Little's watery death, and it is he who unknowingly leads many members of the black community to their deaths by drowning. Now living in a shack on the riverbank, when he first saw himself after being released from the military hospital after World War I, he looked into a distorted, watery reflection in water. He wanted water most of all, so much so that when he left the hospital, he immediately sought to know where the river was.
At the end of the novel, many people die of drowning on National Suicide Day, having followed Shadrack to the New River Road tunnel. Tar Baby and the deweys die there, as does Mrs. Jackson, partly because of the ice that she had craved and eaten all her life. Ironically, the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River" will probably be sung at the many funerals to follow, as it was at Sula's.
Another instance of death by drowning is Chicken Little's accidental death in the river. In describing this death, Morrison notes that "the water darkened and closed quickly over the place where Chicken Little sank." The phrase "the closed place in the water" becomes a metaphor for death.
Many minor examples of water associated with men are scattered throughout the novel. These include Nel's father, Wiley Wright, who is a ship's cook on one of the Great Lakes shipping lines; Ajax's idea of bliss on earth as a hot bath; the deweys' wildly fighting against the threat of being bathed — a fear that foreshadows their deaths by drowning; and, on seeing Hannah burning in the yard, the reaction of Mr. and Mrs. Suggs, who together "hoisted up their tub of water in which tight red tomatoes floated and threw it on the smoke-and-flame-bound woman" — the water puts out the flames, but the resulting steam sears all that is left of the once-beautiful Hannah.