How is motherhood portrayed in the novel?
The relationship between mother and daughter is often tense in this novel. Rochelle and Helene, Sula and Hannah, and Nel and Helene all experience their own tense moments. Sula is pained when she hears that her mother does not like her, though she claims to love her. Sula is confined by the strict rule of her mother and Helene is shamed of her mother’s employment as a prostitute. What is common about these mother-daughter relationships? How does motherhood change across generations?
Look at the fathers in the novel. What do they have in common? What separates them?
Many of the men in the novel who father children abandon their families. Even those who stick around like Wiley Wright are not wholly present because they are frequently traveling and away from home. The fathers in Sula appear to be unified in this absence.
Discuss Sula’s birthmark as a symbol in the novel.
Sula’s birthmark is said by all to resemble something found in nature. Be it ashes, a snake, or a rose and stem, this characteristic mark on Sula is the subject of frequent remarks. As she grows older, the mark grows darker, and when Sula becomes scorned by society, people begin to see it as a mark of death.
Sula and Nel dig a hole and fill it with stems while playing together. How do you interpret this scene?
The scene is read by some as an example of the two girls coming into sexual maturity. The hole in the earth representing the opening of a woman’s sex and the clutter the girls throw into it a representation of all the pre-existing complications that impede a woman’s sexuality. The scene is also said to foreshadow the sexual transgression that corrupts Sula and Nel’s friendship.
Explain the theme of death and dying in the novel.
Death strikes frequently and suddenly in the novel. It is feared by some characters like Shadrack and sought by others like Tar Baby and Plum. Eva considers it an act of mercy when she gives death to her son Plum.
Why does Morrison begin by describing the destruction of the Bottom?
Morrison sets up expectations in the preface of the novel. By beginning with the destruction of the Bottom, she tells the reader that everything she will describe will soon fall away. The preface explaining the destruction of the Bottom also buffers the harsh introduction to Shadrack’s plight.
Why do you think Morrison names the novel after the character Sula?
Sula is the social pariah of the novel. She does not follow societal conventions or traditional roles for women. As the only truly unique character of the novel, she receives the honor of the book’s title.
Explain the symbolism of National Suicide Day.
National Suicide Day is founded by Shadrack to confront what he considers the most fearful part of death, its unexpectedness. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Shadrack boldly marches down the main road in the Bottom encouraging people to kill themselves or one another. The end of National Suicide Day is symbolic when Shadrack begins to realize the true effects of death and the loneliness it brings.
How does Race affect the characters in the novel?
The Bottom is a town that is segregated from the mostly white town in the Valley. The effects of discrimination and segregation are felt throughout the novel when blacks living in the Bottom are unable to find employment. Explicit violence is enacted against Tar Baby because he is perceived to be a white man living amongst blacks. Both communities disparage racial mixing between white and blacks, and the people of the Bottom consider it a nasty insult when they accuse Sula of sleeping with white men.
Discuss the role that nature plays in the novel.
The people of the Bottom are used to experiencing excesses of nature. They have a plague of robins of pigeons, extreme heat and cold as well as drought and floods. After Jude leaves her, Nel has a feeling of “leaves and mud.” Dramatic events in the novel, like Hannah’s death, coincide with extreme changes in nature. A windstorm occurs the night before Hannah burns, and an extreme frost covers the Bottom just after Sula’s death.