Toni Morrison’s Sula tells the story of a small, black community called ‘The Bottom’ which is under threat by white men who want to use the land for a new gold course. The story, as the title suggests, focuses on the life of a girl who is growing up in the community, whose name is Sula. She and her best friend, Nel, have a difficult friendship which is strong when they are teenagers but grows more complicated and unsatisfying as they become women; this is largely due to the accidental death of a local boy at Sula’s hands (Morrison 64). Sula’s character represents evil, in the novel, in a number of ways. However, it is fair to argue that her ‘demonization’ is quite ethnocentric as she mostly just chooses to live life by her own rules, rather than bowing to social conventions, which is disagreeable with the community of Bottom. The purpose of this essay is to discuss how evil is depicted in Sula and whether it is fair to dub Sula as being evil, or whether she is simply the anti-product of a rigid community.
Sula’s character is essentially that of a rebel; she grows up in an unconventional household where her grandmother, Eva, and her mother, Hannah, are widely considered to be quite eccentric. Her household is a matriarchy – the absence of her father is not fully explained and so instantly, this helps to characterize Sula: she is an independent woman, brought up in a household where women were portrayed as being strong and not necessarily needing men around. Her mother sleeps with married and unmarried men as a matter of course: “With the exception of BoyBoy, those Peace women all loved men. It was manlove that Eva bequeathed to her daughters.” (Morrison 41). Indeed, Hannah seems to use men for sex alone and is incapable of feeling jealousy or any other emotion that may come as a by-product of sex: “. . . Hannah seemed too unlike them, having no passion attached to her relationships and being wholly incapable of jealousy.” (Morrison 41). The effect of this on Sula is apparent through her sexual behaviour as an adult: leaving Bottom behind, Sula makes her own path in the world which is anti-social convention and involves a number of affairs with men, some of whom were white men: “She went to bed with men as frequently as she could. It was the only place where she could find what she was looking for: misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow.” (Morrison 122). The language here suggests that Sula, unlike her mother, is seeking emotional resolution in the arms of men but is struggling to find it. In this sense, it is very difficult to perceive Sula as being ‘evil’ as she comes across as being quite a naïve child in her attempts to use sex as a form of emotional attachment.
As a child, we are met with quite a compassionate Sula who endeavours to look out for other children. In one scene, we see Sula defend Little Chicken: “Leave him 'lone, I said. Come on, Chicken. Look. I'll help you climb a tree.” (Morrison 25). She defends him after Nel picks on him. In this sense, we see a girl who is deeply caring and kind towards others – a figure who is heavily juxtaposed with her adult self. Morrison charts her progress towards ‘evil’ by presenting us with the two sides of Sula: her kindly child self and her emotionally stunted adult form. By doing this, Morrison seems to be suggesting that Sula is not necessarily evil in the traditional sense, but is rather just a bitter person who has had some quite difficult experiences in life which have affected her ability to emote and relate to other people. However, Morrison presents Sula as being evil through the perceptions of the other town folk of Bottom. This has two effects: Sula is presented as being socially awkward rather than evil, and Sula is presented as being un-cooperative with social convention which allows the reader to infer that she is stubborn, selfish and perhaps a bit rude. In this sense, the presentation of Sula as being evil is quite an ethnocentric one as it is her black roots which cause her to be labelled as being anti-social. Particularly when it is discovered that she has slept with white men; it is distinctly frowned upon in the novel as it is inter-racial relations. The presentation of what the characters define as being ‘evil’ is actually a heavy metaphor for the intrinsic racism that existed at the time: black people felt wronged by white people and hated them as a result; white people felt that they were superior to black people and neither group was willing to give an inch. However, Sula crossed that line and saw nothing wrong with it: a symbol of progression and liberalization.
That said, we are also privy to Sula’s manslaughter of Little Chicken – the boy she had earlier protected. She also has an affair with Jude, the husband of her childhood friend, Nel. This causes Nel to feel quite shocked: ““Nibbling at each other, not even touching, not even looking at each other, just their lips, and when I opened the door they didn’t even look for a minute and I thought the reason they are not looking up is because they are not doing that. So it’s all right. I am just standing here. They are not doing that. I am just standing here and seeing it, but they are not really doing it” (Morrison 105). The language here suggests a certain degree is disregard for Nel’s feelings as Sula and Jude continue on without acknowledging her presence in the room. Despite their distance from one another as women, Nel is still attempting to resolutely think the best of her friend, even with this sight in front of her. This suggests that Nel may still see the good in Sula and instead of dismissing her as evil, she recognises that Sula is in fact the product of a difficult childhood and an influential mother and grandmother.
The novel presents a theme of superstition which plays a hand in various deaths in the plot, including those of Hannah and Plum, and seems to assert a sense of moral ambiguity over them too. Both of the deaths are associated with foreshadowing dreams: Plum’s murder, in particular, is rehashed by Eva in her dreams about incest whilst Hannah’s death is predicted by a number of omens, including dreams of a red wedding dress, a strange wind and Sula’s unusually strange behaviour. In many black cultures, superstition and omens play a vital part of day to day life and this is presented fully in Sula and is representative of divine judgement – in this way, it could be argued that those who die are being punished for their sins. Plum’s murder, committed by his own mother, is, upon first glance, an act of evil but is actually an act of empathy designed to relieve him of his suffering. Suffering is a common theme through the novel as all the characters seem to struggle with life. Sula is witness to Hannah’s horrific death by burning, and is surprisingly cool-headed about it; Eva says “she had seen Sula standing on the back porch just looking” (Morrison 127) as her mother burned alive. Her silence in this scene is eerie and gives the image of quite an un-caring woman. The image of burning resonates with the idea of evil as it is an association with hell. Sula’s eventual death is also perceived by the community of Bottom as being a good omen, which suggests that the idea of evil is being associated with superstition throughout: those who are paying for their sins. So, whilst many of the character’s actions can be seen as being morally ambiguous, the under-current of superstition is quietly highlighting those who are good and bad. This also emphasises the perception of their ‘evil’ actions as seen through the eyes of the community.
Sula is presented as being a flawed character who is dubbed as ‘evil’ by her community because she does not follow the social rules and conventions that are expected of her. Her action as a child when she accidentally kills Little Chicken, and her choice to have an affair with Jude, demonstrate that she is not the nicest of people but equally, these actions do not make her evil; as a child, she reacted like a child would – probably not even fully understanding the implications of her actions and as an adult, her conduct is that of a woman who was brought up by a sexually promiscuous, emotionless mother. The language throughout the novel suggests that Sula is evil because she is equally as promiscuous but in all actuality, she is probably only labelled as such because she was a liberal, black woman who was ahead of her time. She is a woman who is seeking love and affection – this does not define her as being evil.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.