Review: Toni Morrison’s “Sula”

by Miles Raymer

Sula Cover

Sula is the first Toni Morrison novel I’ve read, but I’m certain it won’t be the last. This captivating tale of two Black girls growing up in Bottom––a hilly, early-20th-century Ohio town––left me with no questions whatsoever about why Morrison is a core member of the American literary canon.

Though her characters and story are plenty engaging, it’s really Morrison’s prose that makes this novel special. Like many great writers, she describes mundane, everyday events with a reverence reserved for indispensable elements of a grand and sensual mythology. Here are some of my favorite examples:

Nobody, but nobody, could say “hey sugar” like Hannah. When he heard it, the man tipped his hat down a little over his eyes, hoisted his trousers and thought about the hollow place at the base of her neck. And all this without the slightest confusion about work and responsibilities. While Eva tested and argued with her men, leaving them feeling as though they had been in combat with a worthy, if amiable, foe, Hannah rubbed no edges, made no demands, made the man feel as though he were complete and wonderful just as he was––he didn’t need fixing––and so he relaxed and swooned in the Hanna-light that shone on him simply because he was. If the man entered and Hannah was carrying a coal scuttle up from the basement, she handled it in such a way that it became a gesture of love. He made no move to help her with it simply because he wanted to see how her thighs looked when she bent to put it down, knowing that she wanted him to see them too. (42-3)

As Reverend Deal moved into his sermon, the hands of the women unfolded like pairs of raven’s wings and flew high above their hats in the air. 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. For some it was the term “Sweet Jesus.” And they saw the Lamb’s eye and the truly innocent victim: themselves. They acknowledged the innocent child hiding in the corner of their hearts, holding a sugar-and-butter sandwich. That one. That one who lodged deep in their fat, thin, old, young skin, and was the one the world had hurt. Or they thought of their son newly killed and remembered his legs in short pants and wondered where the bullet went in. Or they remembered how dirty the room looked when their father left home and wondered if that is the way the slim, young Jew felt, he who for them was both son and lover and in whose downey face they could see the sugar-and-butter sandwiches and feel the oldest and most devastating pain there is: not the pain of childhood, but the remembrance of it. (65)

During the lovemaking she found and needed to find the cutting edge. When she left off cooperating with her body and began to assert herself in the act, particles of strength gathered in her like steel shavings drawn to a spacious magnetic center, forming a tight cluster that nothing, it seemed, could break. And there was utmost irony and outrage in lying under someone, in a position of surrender, feeling her own abiding strength and limitless power. But the cluster did break, fall apart, and in her panic to hold it together she leaped from the edge into soundlessness and went down howling, howling in a stinging awareness of the endings of things: an eye of sorrow in the midst of all that hurricane rage of joy. There, in the center of that silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning. For loneliness assumed the absence of other people, and the solitude she found in that desperate terrain had never admitted the possibility of other people. She wept then. Tears for the deaths of the littlest things: the castaway shoes of children; broken stems of marsh grass battered and drowned by the sea; prom photographs of dead women she never knew; wedding rings in pawnshop windows; the tidy bodies of Cornish hens in a nest of rice. (123)

As these passages reveal, Morrison treats the unannounced, oft-forgotten features of human life as precious gems waiting to be unearthed and wrapped lovingly in words. Her descriptions of small exchanges between characters, as well as their individual psychological dispositions, makes every page of Sula a joy to read.

At the book’s center is Sula, the eponymous protagonist, and Nel, her best friend. The first half of the book focuses on their shared girlhood, especially a series of traumas that stem partly from the subordinate role of Blacks in American society, and partly from internal familial and community dysfunction that any human could recognize. Sula and Nel form a powerful bond in which “they themselves had difficulty distinguishing one’s thoughts from the other’s” (83). Their friendship becomes a stage on which the specificity of the Black feminine experience merges with the greater universal human struggle to find meaning and belonging in a cold and often-hostile universe.

This relationship becomes more complicated and fraught as Sula and Nel mature, largely due to how their individual paths diverge. Nel does her best to fit into the typical role of the Black woman in Bottom, while Sula, in contrast, develops a heightened and somewhat supercilious sense of agency, leaving town to attend college and returning several years later. She claims a new identity as an enigmatic misfit, or something like a witch––a scapegoat that the residents of Bottom use to explain away their anxieties and misfortunes. Untamable, bullish, and yet strangely lovable, Sula defies everyone and everything in her world. As the doomed harbinger of a not-yet-arrived liberation, she is a tragic heroine that will leave readers perplexed and awestruck.

Rating: 9/10