In her second novel, Sula, Toni Morrison depicts the story of the friendship that binds Nel Wright and Sula Peace whose personalities, visions and ambitions seem to be diametrically opposed. The relationship between the two women serves as a gateway to the wider topics of women emancipation and social and economic justice in a segregated US. As in all Morrison novels, the story is rich with complex characters that have been meticulously brushed and whose voices are neatly placed. The author also masters the play with metaphors and binary oppositions to point that behaviors or actions that may seem inappropriate could actually be the contrary. She highlights that nothing is ever as it seems to question the value given to morality, individuality and self-consciousness in the collective struggles for freedom.
“The bottom of heaven”: a community frozen by segregation and ethics
The story unfolds in the early twenties in a place named “the bottom of heaven” by a white slave owner to convince a black community that it was a good place to live in because it was supposedly closer to God. “The bottom” nestled in the hills and above the city of Medallion, which was mostly inhabited by white people. Nothing grows in its rocky land and job opportunities are scarce. The inhabitants of “the bottom” seem to be locked in a place they were trapped to live in. Everything around them seems to be moving (new golf course, new pool hall, rumor of the building of a new road) , but “the bottom” remains still and stuck in time. Its people became skeptical that any progress will include them (“They did not believe doctors could heal – for them, none ever have done so”). They believed in God and Evil and chose to diligently follow their own beliefs of what is right or wrong, good or bad, burying at the same time any sense of individual desire (considered as sins) to avoid more misfortune.
Despite their social condition, Toni Morrison does not depict the people of “the bottom” as miserable. Instead, they are people who are “determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive the floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair…”
Sula & Nel emerged in that context.
“Nobody knew my rose of the world but me…”
Nel Wright is a perfect-mannered girl who grew-up in a neat house and has been raised by a creole mother who “won all social battles” by showing the image of a perfect mother, wife and Catholic. As a child and then a teenager, Nel was not afraid to be sensitive and dreamed of speaking her mind. At the beginning of the story, there is this powerful moment when she asserts: “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me”and praises God to make her “Wonderful”. As a young adult, Nel gets married after high school, has three children and focuses her ambition on keeping an orderly household the same way her mother did. She finds her comfort in her community which she never left except once at the age of 10.
Sula Peace, on the other hand, grew up in the house of her grand-mother, Eva Peace, who made a physical sacrifice to ensure financial security to her family. In this house, full of people with wounded souls, Sula was raised by Hannah Peace, a single mother who embraced her sexuality to the fullest and considered “all men available”for her. Surrounded by a financially autonomous grandmother and a mother who paid no attention to conventions, Sula grew up doing what pleased her first despite any consequences. Unlike the other women of “the bottom”, she went to college, traveled the country, slept with the men she wanted without (most of the time) any desire of possessing them.
Despite these apparent differences, a strong natural bond was developed between the two women since their childhood. The strength of their friendship may rely on the fact that their personalities are complementary. For Sula, Nel incarnates the constancy she may have lacked growing up. For Nel, Sula mirrors the audacity and spontaneity she would not allow herself to dream of as a black woman. But above their personalities, the two women are intensively linked by many emotional and tragic events they experienced together.
Through the stories of Sula, Nel, Eva and Hannah, Morrison questions: “What would women be doing or thinking if there were no gaze or hand to stop them?”From the choice of financial autonomy, to the guilt-free sexual fulfilment or even the accommodation of a housewife life, the author subtly points out that there is no right way to feel free as a woman. Morrison opens the novel with a strong quote from “The Rose Tattoo” saying: “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”.These few words capture the essence of the book: it is up to every woman to create her own definition of her freedom and to fight for it.
The strongest man is a wounded and lonely man
The presence of most male characters is only suggested in the novel. Eva’s husband makes a short appearance and quickly disappears although we can feel the burden of his absence in her life. The presence of Nel or Sula’s father is also very anecdotal. Throughout their lives, the other men of “the bottom” in pain or in search of something we don’t quite understand, turn out to be alcoholics or to leave their wife and children. This weakness or absence of male characters could be interpreted as a way for the author to reverse the traditional patriarchal standard in a family.
It appears to me that the only strong male character is actually the most wounded man: Shadrack. In the Bible, Shadrach is the name of one of three Jewish young men who refused to bow down to the King of Babylon. They were considered as pariahs as they refused to worship him. They were all thrown in the furnace before being saved by an angel. I don’t know if Morrison’s character was named as a reference to this story but an analogy could be drawn here. In the novel, Shadrack was thrown to the furnace of World War I and came back mentally destroyed. However, he seems to be the most observant person of “the bottom”. He sees in people and speaks the truth that nobody wants to hear. His presence creates a sense of continuity that reassures the reader (or me at least).
For a long time, I wondered why the author chose to open the book with this focus on a mentally ill WWI veteran. My interpretation is that she wanted to drive the reader’s attention on different types of misfits. Shadrack is accepted by the people of “the bottom” and his eccentric tradition of the National Suicide day has been integrated within the community. However, he still lives at the margin in an abandoned shack along the river. People fear him because of his distressed mind. Similarly, Sula is marginalized because she does not act or think in the way expected of a black woman. Both characters are feared because their inappropriate behavior could create more chaos in the community. It is therefore ironic to see that it is actually Sula and Shadrack who bring a certain order and sense of freedom in “the bottom”. Sula and Shadrack progressively turn out to be the unwanted eye-openers of the community, those who observe from a distance and know that things are not what they appear to be.
Sula is a thin and yet so intense book. It is one of my favorite novel because of its so polished and fluid structure that it rapidly gets the reader involved in the life of this community. I love the way the narrator’s voice is interrupted occasionally in the book by the powerful monologues of Sula and Nel. This creates short breaks in the story to hear the characters and feel their pain. To me, this book is above all a tale that reveals the diversity of black women’s experiences in the twentieth century, battling between a wish of modernity and an attachment to rooted old values because of the fear of judgment from other women and men from both black and white communities. The author also shows the complexity and ambivalence of friendship, love, and mother-daughter relationships to deconstruct conventional values while delivering to women the powerful message that they should not be afraid of their individuality and freedom.