Study Guide

Sula Suffering

By Toni Morrison


He fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the knots. Suddenly, without raising his eyelids, he began to cry. (1919.17)

Shadrack's suffering is both physical and mental, and it creates a framework for the rest of the novel. His feet are in pain from having to walk so far, but the more significant suffering is the feeling of being tied up in knots, a feeling several other characters share.

So soon. So soon. She hadn't even begun the trip back. Back to her grandmother's house in the city where the red shutters glow, and already she had been called "gal." All the old vulnerabilities, all the old fears of being somehow flawed gathered in her stomach and made her hands tremble. (1920.16)

Racism has created deeply ingrained feelings of inferiority in Hannah. The conductor calls her "gal" to diminish her, and this recalls for her the suffering she felt before moving to the Bottom.

Eva squatted there wondering . . . what she was doing down on her haunches with her beloved baby boy warmed by her body in the almost total darkness, her shins and teeth freezing, her nostril assailed. She shook her head as though to juggle her brains around, then said aloud, "uh uh. Nooo." (1921.6)

This is the suffering of a woman abandoned by her husband with no way to support her children. Eva is at the height of her suffering here: cold and engulfed in darkness as she tries to protect Plum. This is the last straw for her, and this extreme suffering causes her to vow to make a change.

Eva lifted her tongue to the edge of her lip to stop the tears from running into her mouth. Rocking, rocking. Later she laid him down and looked at him a long time. (1921.47)

Eva and Plum suffer together when he is a child, and again here when he is an adult. Plum suffers from the ravages of war, and Eva suffers from having to watch her son disintegrate before her very eyes. Their relationship begins and ends with suffering.

When Mrs. Wright reminded Nel to pull her nose, she would do it enthusiastically but without the least hope in the world. (1922.17)

This quote seems somewhat insignificant, but it actually shows how, as a child, Nel suffers from her mother's ridiculous and hurtful expectations. Helene isn't satisfied with Nel as she is, so she instructs her on how to change her appearance. Nel seems to have internalized this, since she eagerly follows her mother's directions.

They did not hear all of what he said; they heard the one word, or phrase, or inflection that was for them the connection between the event and themselves. (1922.93)

The women at Chicken's funeral find a way to voice their suffering through his death. While they're certainly sad for his loss, what they respond to is the link between the suffering in their lives (their own deceased children, their own feelings of abandonment) and the suffering brought on by Chicken's passing.

Mother and daughter were placed on stretchers and carried to the ambulance. (1923.43)

Hannah and Eva are suffering from extreme physical pain after the fire, but it is the pain that Eva suffers at not being able to save her daughter that is the most profound. She has to lie next to her daughter while she dies, suffering the loss of yet another child.

Nel's indifference to his hints about marriage disappeared altogether when she discovered his pain. (1927.9)

This is all about Jude's suffering from his inability to secure the work and life he wants so badly. Because he is black, Jude keeps getting denied work on the bridge.

Pain took hold. First a fluttering as of doves in her stomach, then a kind of burning, followed by a spread of thin wires to other parts of her body. (1940.91)

Sula's suffering is both physical and mental here. She's dying a literal death, but she's also suffering since she knows her relationship with Nel died, too.

"O Lord, Sula," she cried, "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl." (1965.72)

This is at the height of Nel's suffering, and her cries are her physical articulation of it.