Sula is a novel about two childhood friends, Nel and Sula, set in a small town of Medallion, Ohio. Through the girls’ story, we are exposed to the complexities of modern life. To read this novel effectively, you must suspend judgment. Look at what the author is trying to say, read metaphorically, instead of literally. Because the novel is so short (174 pages) you need to read carefully.
1. Sula is in many ways a study of opposites (think about characters, setting, and themes) Find an example where Morrison explores these opposites- how do they play off each other? What is the author trying to say?
2. Also consider how men are portrayed in the novel. Think about male characters, like Boy Boy, Tar Baby, Plum, Chicken Little, Shadrack, and Ajax. Do they have any similarities?
3. How does race affect our understanding of Sula? What are some of the complexities of how race is represented?
4. After reading Things Fall Apart, can you see any thematic similarities between the two? How has Morrison, an African American author, been influenced by African themes?
5. Sula is full of powerful descriptive language. Choose your favorite, and posting it in your discussion response, analyze it briefly, looking at style (and referencing the text specifically!)
Prologue: What role does racism play Sula? What evidence do we have of African Americans suffering at the hands of whites? Why is the name of “the Bottom” ironic?
Racism plays a leading role in Sula. In the first few pages it becomes very apparent that African Americans suffer at the hand of whites. In the first pages Morrison goes onto explain how “the Bottom” was a cruel joke played on a black slave who asked for some land; the white man said “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile…but when god looks down, it’s the bottom of heaven- best land there is.” (pg.5) This was all a trick because the “bottom” ironically I hilly unfertile rocky land. This trick was the first hint of racism that the novel presents, also given the pretext to the setting in which the novel takes place.
1919: What is Shadrack’s story? Why is it significant to the novel? Why do you think Toni Morrison has included his character? How does war change him?
Shadrack is really the first character that Toni introduces in depth. He is a war veteran that experiences the war and becomes traumatized. The Author explains in great depth how Shadrack becomes terrified of his “growing” hands. He spends a while in a hospital trying to regain his mental health. I think that the growing of his hands represents the damage he had done in war. After he is released from the mental institute he returns to the bottom and everyone is terrified of him. Instead of growing hands he is now terribly frightened of unexpected death and therefore creates “National Suicide Day” every January 3rd. NSD consists of him ringing a cow bell and carrying around a noose. This day is created for people to kill themselves or eachother at free will. Obviously everyone in the town is terrified of shadrack so he lives secluded by a river where he spends his day drinking until things make sense and fishes.
1920: Think about how opposites come into play with the characters Nel and Helene. How are they similar? How are the different? What is Helene like as a mother? Explain the extended metaphor of “custard” on pp 21-22. Why doesn’t Helene speak Creole? How are Nel & Sula opposites?
Nel is Helene’s daughter, so she carries similar characteristics, for example her ability to keep her calm under very stressful situations. For example when chicken little dies, Sula becomes very emotional but Nel appears to keep calm. Helene shows the same behavior when she is humiliated on her journey to see cecile. Although Helene raises her daughter, Nel is very independent, and doesn’t afree with everything Helene wants her to. An example of this is her relationship with Sula. Helene doesnt want Nel to be friends with Sula because of her mother’s reputation, but Nel doesnt care about Hannah’s reputation, and becomes best friends with Sula. The custard metaphor refers to Helene’s attitude and personality, although she seems strong and tries not to let things get to her, she cant help it, and as hard as she wants to appear in the outside she’s as runny as custard on the inside. Nel and Sula are opposites in nearly every aspect of their being and that is what makes them perfect for each other. The two girls complete eachother, and this is why they get alone so well. Sula is emotion, and Nel is reason.
1921: Eva’s story. Think about the name “Eva” and her role in this chapter. Why is it significant? What is the difference between love and hate? Where is there foreshadowing in this chapter? Analyze the style from p. 45-48, looking closely at language. How does Morrison use imagery? Extended metaphors? Then, think about the events: why does Eva kill Plum?
Her name Eva, is important because it represents “Adam and Eve” who in most contexts where the greaters of the human population and escencially the world. This is parallel to Eva’s role as the grandmother and mother to many main characters of the novel. The difference between love and hate is very minimal. Both are strong emotions that borderline each other, love is a passion and a connection to another person or thing. Love is commonly expressed as always having that special someone/thing on their mind, hate is similar in this case only more negative. It is so easy for love to turn into hate, and to have a constant long term hate, you have to love them to hate them for that long; to spend that large amount of energy and negativity on someone.
Morison uses imagery in this section of the novel in such a way that it is hard as a reader to see that Eva is actually setting plum on fire until Toni uses the word “flames”. Until this point descriptive words that imply a heavenly scenery are used: “He opened his eyes and saw what he imagined was the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him. Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought.” (pg.47) This description is both morbid and beautiful. When taken into context it is morbid because what Plum thinks he is feeling I the warmth of motherhood (which is beautiful), and then it turns out his own mother is preparing to burn him to death. Eva kills Plum because she can’t stand to see him so disturbed from the war; so out of love she is putting him out of his misery which is a terrible painful blessing to the both of them.
1922: What language does Morrison use to talk about sex? What does the girls’ run in with the white teenagers tell us about Nel and Sula? Analyze the scene on p. 58; what is it representative of? How does Nel react to Chicken Little’s death? Sula? Why is Sula’s interaction with Shradrack important? Why does he say, “Always”?
1923: Why is Hannah’s death significant? What does it tell us about Sula?
When Hannah dies, her daughter Sula just stands there and watches her own mother burn to death. At this point in the novel we realize just how damaged Sula is. She watched her own mother burn to death not because she hated her, but simply because she found it interesting. Sula is a character that doesn’t care for anyone, or anything but herself and her own amusement; and she lives her life this way, she does not care to please anyone, which eventually leads to becoming a pariah for the rest of her life in medallion.
1927: How does Nel change when she marries Jude Green? What foreshadowing is evident in this chapter? Nel changes significantly according to Sula once she marries. She becomes just like everyone else in medallion. Raises children, works, becomes a typical housewife and no longer lives for herself but for others. This is what Sula hates more than anything. Sula’s way of viewing the world is that it only revolves around her wants and needs, with no regard to anyone else.
1937: What is the conflict between Sula and Eva? How does Nel react to Sula’s return? How does she react to Jude’s actions? What language does Morrison use to describe Nel’s betrayal? What is Nel afraid of? What’s the gray ball about?
The conflict between Eva and Sula is simply a build up of emotions over the years. Eva is jealous of Sula’s beauty and way of living. Sula is threatened by Eva’s authority. Nel is happy about Sula’s return, and says that she hasnt changed a bit. Morrison uses
1939:Why is Sula important to the community? What is Sula’s position on love? How does it change when she meets Ajax? Why does he leave her?
Sula in a way brings the community together, they join together in hating her. Sula doesnt love, she only enjoys the satisfaction of companionship; instead of using sexual interactions for pleasure, and emotional bonding with a significant other she uses it for quite the opposite. Love making for Sula opens her up emotionally to herself, bringing loneliness and pain into view. When she meets Ajax everything changes, at first it was just for fun, she never before had the urge to be possessive over a lover, she simply slept with them and sent them on their way. Ajax was different than other lovers, he always brought some kind of gift. Once Sula changed her ways with Ajax, by making sure her home was clean, setting the table for 2 etc. Ajax realized what was happening and left her for good, and never came back. Sula was upset for a while after he left, he left no trace behind but an identification card in the dresser she came across shortly after he left; it was then she realized she hadn’t even known his real name. This makes her more upset, not only at him but herself for letting herself get close to ajax.
1941: What does the Tunnel represent to the Bottom? Why do the residents want to destroy it? How does it end up destroying them?
The tunnel represents the unfairness of racism and the upper hand that whites have, they promised the Bottom jobs to help build the tunnel but at the end were forbidden because it meant taking work away from the white people. Then tunnel presents everything the bottom didnt or could not have. They wanted to destroy the difference that inequality brings. The tunnel ends up drowning them, breaking away and blocking them in while water flooded, killing all who was in their inescapable self created dungeon. In the end recklessness was what really killed them…not the tunnel.
1965: Who is to blame for Chicken Little’s death? What realization does Sula come to and the end of the book?
Eva accuses Nel of being guilty for chicken littles death, because she was there, watching, and did nothing. Although Sula did not mean for chicken little to slip out of her hands and go flying into the river.