Sula by Toni Morrison

Wanna know something funny? I’ve always considered Toni Morrison one of the most prolific writers in the history of ever. In fact, she is one of my favorite authors in the history of ever, yet until last week, I would have been hard pressed to tell you why.

This was no doubt, due to the fact I hadn’t read her work in over 20 years. Still, I remembered the way her writing impacted me—the way the words flowed from the page and formed vivid pictures in my mind.

In my reintroduction to her—long overdue—I was elated to find that her words and imagery were just as vivid as I remembered. Entering a Morrison novel is to be thrown into a world that feels both foreign and familiar.

It is to meet characters that make you feel something and see a perspective of the African American experience long gone, but ever-present.

The themes—the central ideas and messages—in her work are often those of both triumph and tragedy; expressing the resilience of the African American community while also making clear the ongoing battles and rampant problems we are still trying to get to the bottom of.

It is in this Bottom where Sula, Morrison’s 2nd novel, begins.

At its heart, this story is a simple one: two Black girls, Nel Wright, and Sula Peace, form an unlikely yet powerful bond, broken only by their choosing to lead starkly different lives. But Morrison doesn’t stop there.

She uses their story to paint a beautiful yet heartbreaking picture of Black life in the Bottom—a close-knit Black neighborhood in the fictitious town of Medallion, Ohio.


In reading Sula, you’ll find a compelling narrative that intricately weaves together the lives of its characters, exploring their struggles, desires, and relationships. Though the novel explores a number of themes, there are three that truly anchored the story.

Friendship And Identity Formation

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The theme of friendship is the cornerstone of Sula, specifically, the shape-shifting nature of the relationship that defines and frees us one day, and becomes a noose around our necks on the next.

Though Nel’s friendship with Sula begins as an act of defiance against her mother, their relationship quickly morphs into a symbiotic one; a mirror through which they reflect and define themselves to the point that neither girl can distinguish their own thoughts from the other.

Together, they withstand racist white bullies, emotionally unavailable mothers, and even an accidental murder.

When Nel decides to marry, Sula goes out of her way to make sure the wedding is the best the town has seen but when it’s over, she leaves without saying goodbye.

We are never told why Sula left, but when she returns 10 years later, bringing a plague of robins and committing a betrayal that fractures their bond, we witness the delicate nature of friendships and the erosion of a relationship that was not nurtured over time.

Sula assumes that Nel has remained the same over the years, but resents her upon learning she’s conformed to living like the other women of the Bottom. Nel assumes that Sula will have a shared perspective on infidelity, or that her husband would at least be left off of Sula’s growing list of bedmates.

Both women are wrong in their assumptions, yet Morrison does not place blame on either. Instead, she helps us understand the struggle of maintaining friendships—maintaining identity in a world that limits the roles, opportunities, and self-expression available to Black women.

The beauty of Sula lies in how Morrison uses one theme to articulate and substantiate another. After all, it isn’t by happenstance that Sula and Nel had trouble developing identities they could feel safe in.

As always, when it comes to the formation of a character—it’s complicated.

Male Absenteeism

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Within the close-knit community of the Bottom, male absenteeism emerges as another prominent theme in Sula, underscoring the impact of paternal absence on familial dynamics and individual development.

It also reflects a broader pattern of escapism and disengagement among men in the community.

Nearly every male character in Sula either abandons their family, abuses substances as a form of escape, or is mentally/emotionally unavailable. There’s Sula’s absent father and grandfather, Nel’s often passive, “away at sea” dad, and her husband, Jude, who abandons her for Sula.

The Deweys—three boys adopted by Sula’s grandmother—whose growth ends up stunted both mentally and physically because nothing is truly required of them.

Tar Baby, a boarder at Sula’s house, lives in a near-perpetual state of drunkenness. Ajax, Sula’s lover, abandons her the minute she shows signs of “wanting something more” from him.

Through the failure of males to stick around and responsibly handle their roles, we’re able to see the lasting impacts on the development of their children and the intensified burden carried by the women left behind.

This cycle of male absenteeism perpetuates a legacy of trauma and unfulfilled potential, thus helping set the stage for generational curses to take root and flourish.

Motherhood and the Strain of Absence

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The absence of males, particularly fathers, in the lives of women in the Bottom puts an enormous strain on the role of motherhood, leaving behind a legacy of unhealed wounds and unresolved traumas.

Helene Wright, Nel’s mother, is raised by her grandmother in a docile way so that she does not turn out like her “wild” mother. Though Helene’s husband is sometimes around, his passive nature forces her into the dominating role, one in which she relishes and uses to drive down any piece of uniqueness in her daughter, Nel.

When Nel is abandoned by her husband, her relationship with her children shifts from love into an unhealthy obsession.

Eva Peace, Sula’s grandmother, is forced to leave her children for 18 months and mysteriously loses a leg in order to create a better life for them.

Her life became centered on surviving which didn’t leave much room for the expression of love her children needed.

As such, Eva’s daughter, Hannah, is unable to love or even like Sula. She has no interest in showing any attention or affection to her daughter but gives it all to the men of the Bottom—single and married, alike.

Without the support and stability provided by present and engaged fathers or partners, the mothers struggled to protect their children. This act of selfishness causes them to leave out the one thing their children truly want… love.

Yet beneath the surface of the often tragic yet resilient lives of the inhabitants of the Bottom lies a quiet yet insidious force.

Racism’s Looming Presence

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From systemic inequalities to interpersonal prejudices, racism serves as an ever-present backdrop against which the character’s struggles and triumphs unfold.

The effects of male absenteeism are exacerbated by continued cycles of economic and social marginalization. One example is the construction of New River Road which explicitly excluded Black men from participation.

Though many of the men wanted to work, this exclusion left them with minimal job prospects, heightened feelings of inadequacy, and disengagement with their family and community.

Racism in the novel also conflated the challenges of women as they were left alone to navigate the complexities of motherhood within a society that devalues their worth and undermines their agency. It quietly permeated every aspect of their lives, from limited access to quality healthcare and education to the threat of violence and surveillance.

Through richly drawn characters and evocative storytelling, Sula invites readers to confront the complexities of human relationships, community dynamics, and the pervasive influence of racism in shaping our lives.

It’s a masterful exploration of friendship and identity, male absenteeism, and motherhood within the context of a close-knit community grappling with change.

Though published in 1973 to reflect African American life in the early 1900s, Sula continues to resonate with the contemporary Black American experience, reflecting ongoing challenges and realities faced by individuals and communities today.



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