Although we see a lot of ugliness in the characters, it's spread around fairly evenly. Morrison shows the good and bad in nearly all the major players, and she often follows up the most shocking actions with an explanation of the character's motivation. Take Sula, for example. After she sleeps with Jude, and when we're primed to hate her, Morrison offers us this passage:
Marriage, apparently, had changed all that, but having had no intimate knowledge of marriage, having lived in a house with women who thought all men available, and selected from them with a care only for their tastes, she was ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she felt close to. She knew well enough what other women said and felt, or said they felt. But she and Nel had always seen through them. They both knew that those women were not jealous of other women; that they were only afraid of losing their jobs. After their husbands would discover that no uniqueness lay between their legs. (1939.39)
Morrison doesn't make excuses for Sula here, but she does offer us a possible explanation for why she doesn't understand the betrayal Nel feels. So while we might still condemn Sula's actions, Morrison does provide an explanation for them. She doesn't judge acts of adultery, murder, or accidental drowning. She presents them to us and lets us reach our own conclusions.
The genre of literary fiction has a lot to do with character, and the characters in Sula certainly drive the novel. Events and plot elements are important to the story, but we spend most of our time trying to understand what makes the characters tick, what they mean to the other characters, and why they make the decisions they. And we do this by spending time in their heads (see the "Narrator Point of View" section). The plot is almost secondary to the nuances and complexities of the characters, and that's why we would label Sula literary fiction.
It's also possible to think of the novel as a family drama. Much of the conflict takes place between grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. But we can stretch the label of "family" a little to also include Sula and Nel as a family unit. They are more like sisters than friends, and their relationship is the most significant one in the novel.
Sula Peace is the main character of this story, the one who connects all the other characters to each other and the one around whom most of the action is centered. So it makes sense that her name is also the title.
And it turns out that her name has several meanings that are pretty appropriate for her character. Peace is, well peace. And "Sula" means "the sun," which kind of makes sense since the earth orbits around the sun...just as so many people orbit around Sula in the novel.
We can ask ourselves a lot of questions about why it's important that Sula gets top billing, though. After all, Nel is pretty central to the story, and some would even argue that she is the protagonist, so why isn't the novel named after her? And since Sula succeeds in making so many people mad, what does the title tell us about who might be the "good" guy and who might be the "bad" guy?
At various times we might sympathize with Sula, really like her, or really despise her, so maybe it's this complexity that earns her top titular billing.
By the end of the novel Sula has died, most of the residents of the Bottom have died, and Nel finds herself alone.
Yeah. It's not exactly uplifting.
When she finally cries for the loss of her friendship with Sula, Nel opens up a lot of questions for us. We learn that her cry has "no bottom and it [has] no top, just circles and circles of sorrow" (1965.73). Does this mean that Nel can't find relief from her sorrow now that Sula is gone? Is she crying because she's angry at herself for not realizing that it was Sula and not Jude that she really missed?
And how does Nel's sadness for Sula change how we see Sula? After all, Nel is probably the one person who is most justified in her anger toward Sula, but she seems to let this go by the end of the novel. Are we supposed to do the same? Nel misses her friend, despite the fact that Sula stole her husband, but in the end, their friendship endures more than any other in the novel.
Maybe the ending challenges us to reconsider what friendship and forgiveness really mean. Maybe it challenges us to reconsider our allegiance to certain characters in the book and our distaste for others. The ending doesn't seem happy in the traditional sense, but Nel finally gets the release she's been needing for years. So while the bottomless cry does seem to open up questions, perhaps it provides a resolution of some sort for Nel.
Sula is set in the Bottom, and most of the story takes place in the first half of the twentieth century. The residents of the Bottom are African-American and have to deal with constant discrimination and racism (check out our guide to the Jim Crow laws for a discussion of racial relations during these years).
Many of the characters struggle to make ends meet. The construction of a new tunnel brings hope, with the promise of work for Black townspeople, but this chance for work never materializes for them. Instead, the unfinished tunnel looms as a constant reminder of the racism they face.
The Bottom sits above a valley occupied by middle-class whites. Although they live in close proximity, Black and white people rarely interact with each other in the novel. When they do, the encounters are marked by racial tension. For example, when Ajax goes to the jail to find out why Tar Baby (who is white) is there, then complains that he's been mistreated, the policeman suggests that Tar Baby act "respectable" and go live with other whites.
The neighborhood is one of those places where everyone knows everyone else; they gossip, judge, and get involved in each other's business. There is little privacy when it comes to things like family matters, relationships, arguments, and financial problems. The upside is that there is always someone there to lend a hand.
The homes of Sula and Nel represent two very different worlds: one messy and chaotic, the other contained and quiet. Sula's house is always filled with people, including her family and the boarders who come and go. Because of this, she's often left to her own devices. Nel, on the other hand, lives in a house in which her every action is monitored. She is forced to constantly be clean, quiet and aware of everything she does. Each girl is attracted to the other's house for the different world it offers.
"Nobody knew my rose of the world but me [...] I had too much glory. They don't want glory like that in nobody's heart."
The epigraph is a line from a Tennessee Williams play called "The Rose Tattoo," which is, interestingly enough, about the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter. Sula is also about mothers and daughters to a large degree, so Williams's play seems like an appropriate source for the epigraph. Another interesting tidbit is that Morrison wrote her Master's thesis on William Faulkner, a southern writer like Williams who often deals with the issue of family—so there seems to be a connection here, too. Morrison is obviously familiar with how Southern writers deal with the messed-up things that families can do to a person.
And there's a lot we can unpack about the epigraph as it relates to the novel. The rose in both the epigraph and in the play's title could be linked to the birthmark on Sula's face that so many people think looks like a rose. Like a tattoo, the birthmark is an outward marker of her identity. But the idea that no one knows this rose except for Sula also makes sense since the people who live in the Bottom clearly can't see or deal with the inner "glory" that Sula knows she possesses.
So perhaps the epigraph refers to both the "rose" on her face and the "rose" that she alone knows is inside of her.
There's a lot going on in Sula that requires us to read between the lines (or at least to read the lines more carefully). At the level of character, we have to be careful of jumping to conclusions about who the protagonist and antagonist are. We have to be willing to suspend our judgment of characters like Sula, Hannah, and Eva and to try to understand what purpose they serve in the novel. This is difficult when they do things like light their sons on fire and sleep with their friends' husbands.
We also have to be on the lookout for issues of gender and race. Although the characters offer a few direct statements about the roles of men and women, this needs to be teased out through careful reading. It's there if you look for it. The same goes for issues of race. We do see instances of racism and we hear about how some of the characters deal with discrimination, but the issues of race and gender often intersect, and this adds a level of complexity to some already-complex ideas.
Morrison doesn't mince words, and she doesn't bury the important messages and events in overinflated, difficult language. While the ideas in the novel aren't simple, Morrison uses simple, meaningful words to articulate them. Let's take a look at the passage when Nel first sees Sula and Jude together:
But they had been down on all fours naked, not touching except their lips right down there on the floor where the tie is pointing to, on all fours like (uh huh, go on, say it) like dogs. (1937.180)
Morrison creates sentences that mirror the way we think. She interrupts a train of thought with a short aside, and she uses the simplest, most descriptive words she can to reflect as faithfully as possible how these characters might respond to a given situation. Her sentences are often short and compact: "Accompanied by a plague of robins, Sula came back to Medallion" (1937.1), and she packs a lot of meaning into them without including anything extraneous.
Birds are everywhere in Sula, and they are often associated with specific characters. When we meet Rochelle, she wears a "canary-yellow dress" and has the "glare of a canary" (1920.40-3.41). And we already know that a "plague of robins" (1937.1) arrives in Medallion just before Sula does. Birds invoke the idea of flight, which makes sense when we consider that Cecile and Sula both flee at some point in the story. And robins are often associated with the spring, the season of rebirth and growth. Although Sula brings with her a lot of pain and destruction, we learn that her presence also generates a renewed sense of purpose in the Bottom, even if it is directed against her.
We can again turn to Rochelle and Sula for this one. When Nel meets Rochelle, she notices that she smells like gardenias. Sula has a birthmark shaped like a rose, and "The Rose Tattoo" is the source of the novel's epigraph. These particular flowers are beautiful and fragrant, even intoxicating. Rochelle intoxicates the young Nel, and Sula intoxicates the many men around her. These characters are also a little dangerous in that they disrupt the lives of the people they encounter. But the thing about flowers is, once they're picked, they don't live for very long. Just as the flower's beauty is fleeting, so too is the presence of both of these women in the novel.
Fire appears throughout the novel and results in the deaths of Hannah and Plum. There are many possible meanings of fire, one of which is the idea that it is cleansing. When Eva douses Plum in kerosene (before the fire, but still applicable we think), he feels like he's undergoing "Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing" (1921.49). And when Hannah dies in a fire, it's possible that this somehow cleanses Sula of a mother who is at best indifferent and at worst admits to not liking her daughter.
Water is often associated with death in the novel. For Sula (and Nel, to a lesser degree), it represents Chicken's horrible drowning. Fire might be a cleansing force, but water engulfs and consumes the young boy. Water doesn't comfort Sula but rather agitates and upsets her because of her responsibility for Chicken's death. At the end of the novel, one of the townspeople who die in the tunnel slides and hits the ice below.
Sula is told in the third person, and the narrator is able to let us in on the inner thoughts of nearly every character in the novel. Since the story is so character-driven, the third person omniscient narrator grants us important access to the contradictory figures who propel the action. We get to know Helene as much as we do Hannah, Sula as much as we do Nel, Shadrack as much as Eva. This is especially useful in helping readers reserve judgment, since the narrator doesn't seem to judge them either.
The third person narrator also allows us to understand certain things about characters without them having to tell us or each other. For example, Sula never tells anyone that she chops off her finger in an attempt to be like Nel; we only learn this because we have access to her thoughts when she's on her deathbed. Much goes unsaid in the novel, especially between characters, but the third-person narrator clues us in to their thoughts and motivations.
Booker's Seven Basic Plots apply to many works of literature, but some texts just don't fit into any of these templates, and Sula is one of them. Maybe it's the unconventional plot, or maybe it's the fact that so many characters fulfill so many different roles.
That said, we can see aspects of several of the basic plots at work here. For example, in the Voyage and Return plot, the first stage is "anticipation and the fall into another world." Booker tells us that in this stage, the hero or heroine has a "consciousness [that] is in some way restricted." This sounds like Nel at the beginning of the novel, before she goes on the train trip. And the fall into another world? Nel's friendship with Sula does introduce her to a new world of sorts—Sula's world, with its busy, chaotic household and mother who is nothing like Nel's.
Or how about the Quest plot? In the "Arrival and Frustration" stage, the "hero [or heroine] arrives within sight of his [or her] goal" but is faced with new difficulties that prevent him or her from reaching it right away. If we turn to Nel again, we see that she does encounter these difficulties in her quest to forgive Sula. She goes to Sula's house when she hears that Sula is ill, and the two end up in an argument. She goes to Sula's funeral when virtually no one else will, but she still can't forgive the betrayal. It's not until Sula visits Eva in the senior home and then visits Sula's grave that she finally realizes how much she misses her dearest friend. But it takes a lot of agony for her to reach this point.
The friendship between the two girls launches the rest of the events in the novel.
Although other important events occur in their lives, this moments triggers the break in Sula and Nel's relationship, separating them for many years.
Sula's guilt isn't clear-cut, since she can't understand feelings of jealousy associated with marriage. She simply remembers how things were with Nel—they shared everything as kids. Why not share Jude?
This is the moment we've been waiting for: Nel finally vents her anger and pain and asks for an explanation from Sula.
We, along with Nel, have been waiting to find out why Sula did what she did. But she fails to give a satisfactory answer.
This would seem to be the conclusion, but Sula's death represents a winding down of the story, not an end to it. There's still important stuff to come.
This is sort of a conclusion, but an uncertain one. We learn that Nel's cries can't be contained; they have no beginning and no end, so the conclusion is open to interpretation. It could be that Nel finally finds peace by grieving for Sula, or it could be that a whole new type of pain has just been unleashed.
Nel befriends Sula and they grow into adulthood together...when Sula has an affair with Nel's husband.
Nel and Sula see each other for the first time in three years. Sula fails to apologize or offer any real explanation for the affair.
Sula dies without having mended her relationship with Nel. It's not until after Sula is gone that Nel realizes how much she misses her. She visits Sula's grave and finally really mourns for her.