Review of the book Sula
Sula, published in 1973, is an award winning novel written by American author Toni Morison. The novel revolves around the lives of two African-American friends: Sula and Nel. The book addresses the controversial issues of racism, bigotry and suppression of African-Americans. Poverty, hopelessness and the different social conventions in the black community set-ups are the most pertinent themes that run throughout the story. The characters are in an emphatic search for the right way of life acceptable to the community.
Poverty and hopelessness are the explicit themes that run throughout the book Sula. The lives of the several characters in the book are remarkably engulfed in abject poverty. They have little or no money at all. This contrasts the towns inhabited by the white people. The people of Bottom town are extremely poor. Eva, Sula’s grandmother, has got some money because she sacrificed her leg.
Hopelessness is seen when people have to do with menial jobs. Work for African- Americans is hard to come by. Even the black people who should be the pioneers of social development have succumbed to hopelessness. For instance, Shadrack (who fought in the World War 1) is returns to Bottom a deprived man. He lives in the outskirts of the town and leads a life of self-denial, unable to come to terms with the complexities of the world. He is unable to face the realities of life and the various challenges offered. Shadrack is physically and emotionally drained from the war experiences.
The state of hopelessness is deep-rooted in the society. Local folklores have it that Bottom received its name from a slave owner who promises to free the slave and give him some piece of land on the bottom land valley. However, when the time comes, the slave owner is not given his share. Instead, he is given a piece of land on the hills.
Sula examines the different social conventions for families living in the Bottom. For example, Nel’s family believes deeply in social conventions. Theirs is a stable family. She worries about the direction her mom wants her to take in life. Rochelle, her grandmother, is a prostitute and the only one in the family who does not take the family conventions. Nel chooses to marry after high school and soon settles as a wife and a mother. In Nel’s world, women have no choice but to get married and settle down. This explains why she chooses to be married within the community.
On the contrary, Sula takes a different path in life. She takes the life of independence and disregards the norms of the family. Sula decides to go and explore life at the college. She follows in the footsteps of mother and grandmother. During this period, she has many affairs with white men. She lived out her days, exploring her own thoughts and emotions. (Morison 118). “She felt no obligation please anybody unless the pleasure pleased her”. Because of her education and cynicism, she is a society outcast from the start. It does not go well with people that she does not have a man, and children. When her grandmother, Eva, speaks, she is talking to her on behalf of the whole community. Eva rants, “Selfish, ain’t no women got no business floating without a man” (Morison123).
Racism and prejudice is prevalent in the novel. A massive division exists between the hill and valley areas of the Medallion. This is the author’s way of showing the implicit segregation that exists between the behaviors and lifestyles of the characters. It is no wonder that Nel worries about her mother’s mixed blood and lighter complexion. At New Orleans, uneven power dynamic exists between the whites and blacks. This becomes evident when Nel travels to New Orleans. Racial prejudice permeates the Bottom community. Black people are continually denied opportunities in the white neighborhoods.
War is an agent of destruction. Shadrack and Plum return to Bottom as mere shells of themselves immediately after the war. When Shadrack observes the National Suicide Day, it is inspired by his experiences in the War. He is constantly under the fear of unexpected death. Plum’s experiences during the war make him regress into errant behavior.it is no wonder that he engages in petty thieving and drug abuse. The economy of Medallion also suffers immensely during the war.
There is evidence of shame in the novel. The people of Medallion are ashamed of Sula’s actions and way of life. It is ironical that this behavior inspires them to change their conventional beliefs. After Sula’s death, the people are no longer embodied in shame; they are eager to emulate Sula. Helene is ashamed of being born to a prostitute. She rebels against her mother’s ways, and in the end she is overly judgmental and conservative.
The search for a right or wrong identity is also brought out through religion. The people who do not respect religion are seen as the devils in the community. Religion is used as a standard measure for acceptance. For example, Helene is taught not to follow her mother’s promiscuous ways. Nel also becomes more attached to church activities in her late adult life.
Parentage is another tool the author uses to embolden the people’s search for a right or wrong identity. Jude’s role as a father is questionable. He appears to have abandoned his paternal responsibilities. So is Wiley, Helene’s husband. His role as a father is quite distant. Rochelle, a confessed prostitute, is seen unfit to raise her daughter. Helene raises her daughter Nel in a strict and disciplined home. Her influence is evident on the choices that Nel makes. It is speculated that, in a bid to raise her children well, Eva sells her leg to get the money to raise her family.
The community is torn between following Sula’s modern ways and sticking to their conventional ways of life. Sula’s independence encourages them to explore life in diverse ways. She is rebuked at first for being an easy lay. However, the people come to change their ways of life in a bid to emulate her.
In conclusion, the novel Sula emboldens the search for the right and wrong ways of life. The author juxtaposes Nel’s and Sula’s upbringing in different family backgrounds to elongate the sense of search for the best identity. Sula’s family is famous for being liberal while Nel’s family is conservative on matters regarding the choices women have to make. In the end, everyone tries to live Sula’s life; big statements that change is inevitable.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.