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Toni Morrison: Sula

Morrison’s second novel is set in the Bottom, a black community in Ohio. It is in the hills, above the white community of Medallion. There are two key characters in this community. Nel Wright and Sula Peace were childhood friends and, though different, are still friends as adolescents, sharing a rebellious attitude towards their parents. When they get older, however, they move apart, partially because Sula accidentally causes a death of a boy, an event they both conceal. Nel follows the conventional route, marrying, having children and taking part in the activities of the community, while Sula goes off to college and returns ten year later, still rebellious. She is determined that, though she is dying like the rest, she is going to die in her way and not conforming and if that means sleeping with a white man and with Nel’s husband, then that is what she will do. Ironically, their common hatred of Sula brings the community together. Before Sula dies, there is a half-hearted reconciliation between the two women but it is not till nearly a quarter of a century later, when Nel visits Eva, Sula’s grandmother, that she realises that she and Sula are part of the same person, two sides of the same coin.

There are other stories going on as well. The white people from down below want to turn Bottom into a golf course and that causes concern. We also meet Shadrack, who invents National Suicide Day. Indeed, Morrison is skilful enough to show us not only the Sula-Nel dichotomy but also the comparison between Shadrack and Sula-Nel. But she is also too good a writer to make this a simple good versus evil story. Nel may be”good” and Sula may be”bad” but both characters are more complicated than that, as Nel realises at the end. As Morrison shows, it is not as easy as that.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Plume