Study Guide

Sula Choices

By Toni Morrison


It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In this manner he instituted National Suicide Day. (1919.23)

Shadrack makes the choice to try to control the uncontrollable. Instead of letting his life be dictated by outside forces, he chooses the path his life will take by seeking power over what scares him the most.

"I don't know," her mother said. I don't talk Creole. . . . And neither do you." (1920.63)

Helene thinks that by refusing to speak Creole, by refusing to admit this part of her heritage, she can erase the past. This raises the question of whether or not we can choose which parts of our personal history to maintain. Is our past something we can pick and choose for ourselves, or is it something we can never escape?

"Me," she murmured. And then, sinking deeper into the quilts, "I want . . . I want to be . . . wonderful.. . ." (1920.72)

Nel realizes that she can make the choice about who she wants to be, about her own identity. In this moment, she controls her own identity instead of letting it be determined by her parents.

The children needed her; she needed money, and needed to get on with her life. But the demands of feeding her children were so acute she had to postpone her anger for two years until she had both the time and the energy for it. (1921.5)

Sometimes our choices are made for us: by other people, by the circumstances of our lives, by the responsibilities we have. Eva can't make the choice to indulge in her anger; her hungry children are the more immediate concern. For some characters in the novel, choices are a luxury they don't have.

In the safe harbor of each other's company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perceptions of things. (1922.17)

Sula and Nel make the conscious decision to act according to their own ideas about the world. They're able to do this because they have each other, and because they're kids. Sula maintains this attitude into adulthood, and it makes her a social outcast.

It was after he stood in line for six days running that and saw the gang boss pick out thin-armed white boys from the Virginia hills and the bull-necked Greeks and Italians and heard over and over, "Nothing else today. Come back tomorrow," that he got the message. (1927.7)

Jude is robbed of his choices because of his race. He wants so badly to work on the bridge, but this choice isn't open to him because he's not white. Jude shows us that there are differences between dreams and choices.

But thinking that Sula had an odd way of looking at things and that her wide smile took some of the sting away from that rattlesnake over her eye. (1937.177)

Jude articulates the idea that we can choose how we see things, and this can impact the way others see us. To some extent, we are in control of the way we perceive other people.

At twenty-nine she knew it would be no other way for her, but she had not counted on the footsteps on the porch, and the beautiful black face that stared at her through the blue-glass window. Ajax. (1939.46)

Sometimes choices come in the form of other people. Just when Sula thinks she has no choices left, Ajax presents her with a different option.

"[ . . .] Every man I ever knew left his children." "Some were taken." "Wrong Nellie. The word is 'left.'" (1940.44-10.46)

Did Jude choose to leave his family, or was the choice made for him? That is the crux of this conversation, and it shows some pretty stark differences between Nel and Sula. Nel faults Sula for "taking" her husband, but Sula places the burden of choice on Jude.

By his day-slashed calendar he knew that tomorrow was the day. And for the first time he did not want to go. . . . Still, when the day broke in an incredible splash of sun, he gathered his things. (1941.17)

This is the day when many of the residents of the Bottom die, and the passage reminds us that our choices can have unpredictable consequences. Had Shadrack chosen to stay home that day, it's possible that the tunnel accident might never have happened. But when he chooses to fulfill his annual duty, his choice impacts the entire town.