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Sula Themes

by Toni Morrison

Major Themes

Race

Set in the postbellum South, the novel contains examples of lasting racism and prejudice. The division between the hill and valley areas of Medallion along racial lines indicates that segregation dictates the behaviors and lifestyles of the novel’s characters. Nel expresses insecurity about her mother’s mixed blood and lighter complexion. As she travels to New Orleans with her mother Helene, she realizes the uneven power dynamic that exists between whites and blacks. Race and racial prejudice pains the black people of the Bottom, who are continually denied opportunities for employment in place of their white neighbors.

War

Like another character in the novel, War acts as an agent of destruction. Two characters, Shadrack and Plum, become victims of war when they return from it mere shells of themselves. The war brings the men into contact with death (another major theme) in traumatic ways. Shadrack’s observance of National Suicide Day is inspired by his experiences in war namely, his fear of death’s unexpectedness and suddenness. Similarly, Plum’s experiences at War cause him to regress back into childhood and errant behavior, such as theft and drug addiction. War also brings changes to the town of Medallion, affecting the economy and availability of jobs.

Shame

At the novel’s end, shame is revealed to be an essential part of community. The shame people in Medallion feel towards Sula and her actions motivates them to behave differently. They define themselves against her as a symbol of shame. When Sula dies and the community members no longer have an embodiment of shame, they begin to neglect their familial and maternal duties that they were so eager to fulfill when Sula lived. Helene also feels shame about being born to a prostitute. In similar fashion, she defines herself against her mother’s example and becomes extremely conservative and judgmental.

Absent Fathers

Accompanying the overwhelming matriarchal structure of the homes, there is also an absence of fathers in the novel. Men like BoyBoy and Jude are introduced in the novel, but each of them eventually abandons his paternal role. Even Wiley who remains married to Helene throughout the novel is often at sea and not present to be a father to Nel.

Motherhood

The novel describes the various stresses and sacrifices of motherhood and offers varied examples of motherhood. Rochelle, Helene’s prostitute mother, is considered unfit to raise her, and she is instead raised by her grandmother, Cecile. Just as Cecile raises Helene in a disciplined and strict home, so too does Helene raise her own daughter, Nel, stifling her imagination and independence. Helene places her own worth in Nel’s upbringing and succeeds in manipulating Nel into a traditional marriage. Eva, a single mother, sacrifices greatly for her children. It is speculated that she sells her own leg for financial security. Eva tells her daughter that she never loved her, which affects Hannah’s relationship with her own daughter Sula. Sula is pained to hear her mother say that she did not like her, though she loved her.

Death

Death occurs frequently in the novel and strikes suddenly. Tar Baby, Plum, and Shadrack become dependent on substances and appear to seek their own deaths. Shadrack is especially focused on death and institutes National Suicide Day, an annual observance devoted entirely to death. Both Plum and Hannah experience death by fire. When Nel mourns the departure of her husband Jude, the novel suggests that instead of clinging to the past, she instead ought to give in to death. Sula presents death as a companion to life and not an end to it. This is most evident when Sula speaks even after her heart has stopped breathing.

Religion

The people of the Bottom insist that nothing “can keep them from their God.” Religion provides a moral standard for the population. Those, like Sula, who do not observe or respect it are seen as devils by the community. Religion also becomes indicative of social acceptability. Helene is taught to be devout by her grandmother, so that she will not follow the model of her mother who was a prostitute. Nel also becomes involved in the Church in her late adulthood, which leads her to the nursing home where Eva Peace resides.

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