Toni Morrison’s Novel Sula
Attempts to define Toni Morrison’s novel Sula are as numerous as they are diverse. The text has been read as a black woman’s epic, a study of female friendship, an antiwar novel, a "fable," an exploration of the "feminine psyche," and a prime postmodernist text. If one were to single out one particular interpretation and argue that it were somehow superior, somehow right while the others were wrong, that person would fall into the trap of binary thinking which is also what Morrison’s text is about.
In the novel Morrison provides a textual definition for her notion of “new world woman.” The novel describes how Sula’s personality has taken shape, and, ironically, in the shapelessness of this shape, the paradox of Sula is revealed. The foundation of Sula’s character is, Morrison writes, a lack of foundation, a structurelessness that affects every thought, every action, and every interaction that Sula has. Formed of a creative formlessness, Sula seeks only her own counsel, leaving her indifferent to or uninterested in any kind of quotidian morality. She is, in the truest sense of the word, selfish. “Since she has no ambition, she does not project herself, or her actions, into the future, which suggests that she has no sense of, or sensitivity to, cause and effect.”(McKee, p.135) Since she does not place the events of her life into a larger context, or even consider them in relation to one another, each experience stands alone. Indeed, to “verify herself” would be to sum up, to suggest that there is an ego that anchors or fixes her. She has no such thing.
Faced with such a protagonist, some readers might be discomfited. It is not easy to identify with Sula, and when, in the second half of the novel, she sleeps with her best friend’s husband, some readers might wash their hands of her altogether. Inevitably, this particular, climactic incident generates from readers the morally-driven query. First, it reveals how difficult it is to accept Sula as Sula’s protagonist. One assumes that she is the focus of the narrative because of the book’s title, but most readers find it easier (or as easy) to identify with Nel-the best friend, the compassionate woman, the good girl. Certainly, Nel fills as much textual space as Sula, if not more.
On the one hand, the tone of the novel attributes make Sula heroic. She contextualizes herself by herself; her disinterest in children, a spouse, a job, and a home is, ultimately, a gesture toward creative agency and authority that the other characters in the novel do not make. On the other hand, novel’s symbolism and Sula’s individuality, as Morrison conceives it, cannot help but collide with other characters and with the practicalities of the narrative itself. The “how could she do that to her best friend” question, then, is important because it is the wrong question, wrong because it assumes a moral universe in which Sula does not trade.
Morrison’s novel focuses on several different imaginary values and depicts how each character weighs them through their actions. Nel’s first trip outside of the Bottom allows her to look at herself differently for the first time. The trip gives her a new found “strength to cultivate a friend in spite of her mother and this sense of me-ness” sparks the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Sula Peace. Being with Sula allows Nel to shine and “only with Sula does that quality have free reign”(Iyasere, p. 27). Because Nel and Sula isolate themselves within their Black community, they shelter and value their friendship like no other.
If one accepts that the setting of the book is about Sula, one also assumes that Sula will either be good in a traditional sense or will, at the very least, grow and change and gain self-knowledge as the novel progresses. This transformation does not happen. Instead, Sula is developmentally complete by the middle of the novel; she does not question herself and she has no revelations or regrets, “yet she manages to propel the story forward by the sheer unpredictability of her actions”(Bloom, p.120). The theme of the novel is Sula’s decision to look within herself for strength and direction. However, Jude’s marriage proposal to Nel ignites the family value in her and for the first time in her life, she feels wanted and needed. Like her mother, Nel feels righteous and takes pride in knowing that her loyalty and devotion to her family will win the acceptance of the community.
Bloom, Harold. Toni Morrison’s Sula. New York: Chelsea House, 1999.
Iyasere, Solomon. Understanding Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Sula. Chicago: Whitston Publishing Company, 2000.
McKee, Patricia. Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulker, Toni Morrison. New York: Random House, 1998-reprinted edition.