Study Guide

Sula 1939

By Toni Morrison


  • When the residents of the Bottom learn that Sula has committed Eva to a mental institution and that she has stolen Jude and then left him, they start calling her a "roach" and a "b****" (1939.1). And the men in the Bottom accuse her of what they consider to be the greatest transgression: having sex with white men.
  • It is this final accusation that really turns the town against her, even though the light skin of some of the residents suggests that they are the result of interracial relationships themselves. It seems the only way they can accept the idea of sex between a black woman and a white man is if it is rape, and the thought that Sula chooses to have sex with white men is "literally unthinkable" (1939.3).
  • The townspeople don't intend to physically hurt Sula, but they keep a close eye on her. It's especially galling that she doesn't seem to care what they think about her. Then "things beg[i]n to happen" (1939.5), things that aren't really Sula's fault, but they blame her anyway.
  • The first incident involves a little boy named Teapot. His mother, Betty, neglects him, preferring to hang out at the Time and a Half Pool Hall. One day Teapot stops by Sula's to collect any extra bottles she might have. When she tells him she doesn't have any, he gets ready to leave, loses his footing, and tumbles off the porch. He seems really hurt, so Sula tries to help him, and this is precisely when a drunk Betty stumbles by.
  • Betty accuses Sula of pushing Teapot down the stairs, telling everyone who will listen, and is finally convinced to take Teapot to the hospital, where they learn that he has broken a bone. (Betty neglects to tell everyone that "the doctor said poor diet had contributed substantially to the daintiness of his bones" [9.6]).
  • All of a sudden, Betty turns into a doting mother. She stops drinking, stops letting Teapot eat candy for breakfast, and stops making the five-year-old spend most of the day by himself.
  • The next event that Sula is accused of having a part in is the death of Mr. Finley, who chokes on a chicken bone after just looking at her. Coupled with Teapot's accident, Mr. Finley's death makes people pay closer attention to Sula's birthmark. They decide that "it was not a stemmed rose, or a snake, it was Hannah's ashes marking her from the very beginning" (1937.7). (Hindsight is 20/20, right?)
  • The thing that angers the women in the Bottom the most is the fact that Sula sleeps with their husbands. Remember how Hannah also slept with married men? Well, for some reason the wives think that Sula's actions are worse, because "Sula was trying [the men] out and discarding them without any excuse the men could swallow" (1939.9). So instead of getting mad at their cheating husbands, they direct their anger at Sula and "cherish . . . their men more" (1939.9)
  • The women continue to search for reasons to hate Sula, for "damning evidence" (1939.11) of how evil she is.
  • A woman named Dessie provides this for them. She recalls seeing Shadrack acting crazy one day (which they're all used to at this point), but when Sula passes by, he stopped "carryin' on as usual" (1939.17), walked over to her, and "tips his [imaginary] hat" (1939.21). Since he normally cusses and yells at everyone, the women decide that it's because both he and Sula are devils that he offers her this friendly greeting. Sula runs away from Shadrack, which Dessie can't really account for. And to make her case even stronger (we're being sarcastic), Dessie remembers getting a sty on her eye right after witnessing this, which the other women declare as proof that she did indeed see two devils.
  • As she becomes more and more isolated from the rest of the town, Sula starts to think about Nel and how she used to think that "Nel [was] the closest thing to both an other and a self" (1939.39). She thinks about how they used to kiss the same boy and compare notes about the "line he used with one and then the other" (1939.39).
  • It's with this history in mind that she had slept with Jude, because she was used to sharing with Nel and because, "She had no thought at all of causing Nel pain" (1939.39). But she quickly learned that marriage is different from childhood kisses, and she found herself "surprised . . . and saddened . . . a good deal" (1939.41) when Nel started to act like the other women in town.
  • Remember that Sula grew up watching Hannah sleep with married men and thinking that sex was not a big deal, so she doesn't really understand Nel's response to her betrayal.
  • All of a sudden, Ajax enters Sula's life - the one who called her "pig meat" all those years ago. He's curious about her and shows up at her house one day with some bottles of milk. Intrigued by him, she lets him in and has sex with him in the pantry, where Hannah used to have sex when Sula was a child.
  • After this first meeting, Ajax starts to stop by Sula's regularly, always with some sort of gift in hand. We learn that he's actually "very nice to his women" (1939.58), which causes some pretty nasty and violent fights over him. He doesn't really care about any of them, though. In fact, his mother, who is "a conjure woman" (1939.60), is the only "interesting woman in his life" (1939.58).
  • It's because Sula's independence, her "elusiveness and indifference" (1939.61), reminds him of his mother that Ajax is first attracted to her. He also senses that she has no interest in trying to marry him or make him settle down.
  • And while Sula enjoys the little gifts that Ajax brings her, what really makes her happy is "the fact that he talked to her" and that "They had genuine conversations" (1939.63).
  • So it seems like things are going well between them. She has someone to talk to and he doesn't have to worry about her acting like the other jealous women he sleeps with. Or so he thinks.
  • One day while Sula and Ajax are having sex, she starts to really think about him and what makes him the man that he is. He likes for her to be on top, so as she looks down at him she concentrates on his face and thinks about taking a cloth and rubbing it on his skin. She starts to picture that underneath his dark skin is "gold leaf [that] she can see . . . shining" (1939.84). And then she starts to picture alabaster under the gold, and under the alabaster she pictures soil. She thinks about how she "will water [his] soil, keep it rich and moist" (1939.92).
  • As they finish the deed, something changes in Sula: she "beg[ins] to discover what possession [is]" (1939.94). This is the beginning of the end for them.
  • All of sudden, Sula starts wondering when Ajax is going to show up, and she pays more attention to her appearance. (She "[ties] a green ribbon in her hair" (1939.94), for example.) She also cleans the house and makes them dinner.
  • He doesn't notice any of this at first. He "smiled at her delicious indifference" (1939.99) when he tells her that Tar Baby (who still lives in Sula's house) has been in jail for a week. Sula hasn't even noticed his absence.
  • Ajax tells us that Tar Baby was drunk in public and caused a car accident involving the mayor's niece. When Ajax and a few others go to check on him in jail, they see that he has been "badly beaten" and that he is "dressed in nothing but extremely soiled underwear" (1939.104). When Ajax and his friends complain about Tar Baby being forced to "lay around in his own s***" (1939.104), they get into a heated argument with the cop that "end[s] with the arraignment of the three black men, and an appointment to appear in civil court" (1939.106).
  • Although Ajax isn't really upset or surprised by the whole thing, Sula becomes extremely concerned for him. "Come on. Lean on me," she tells him (1939.108).
  • This is when Ajax realizes that things have changed between them. He suddenly notices her ribbon and the fact that the house is now spotless. He realizes that soon she will start to act like a possessive girlfriend or wife. He sleeps with her with the knowledge that it will be for the last time, which it is.
  • We jump forward a bit here and find Sula trying to find something, anything to prove that Ajax was once part of her life. Everything in the house reminds her of him, but there is no "tangible evidence of his having ever been there" (1939.112).
  • But then she finds his driver's license and she sees that his name is actually Albert Jacks (A. Jacks), not Ajax. When she realizes that she never even knew his name, it becomes clear that she never really knew him at all, and she blames herself for his leaving.
  • She falls asleep with his driver's license in her hand and remembers the gold, alabaster, and soil that she once pictured under his skin.