A Summary Of The Book Sula By Toni Morrison

African-American writer Toni Morrison is a widely recognized author because of her works depicting the lives of African Americans, something which had not been in the spotlight before. An example of such novel is “Sula”, which depicts the lives of minorities during the early 1900s. In this novel, we are introduced to the many characters living in the town of Medallion, Ohio. We are also introduced to the main protagonists of this narrative; Sula Peace and Nel Wright Greene. Both girls come from incredibly different family backgrounds. For example, Nel comes from a home of rules and restrictions, while Sula is in a home of chaos which is always filled with peculiar characters. The girls have differing relationships with their mothers which acquaints them with the harsh realities of the world. The treatment they receive from their mothers affects how they view themselves, their relationship with each other and the lives they lead as adults.

At the very beginning of the novel we are introduced to Nel’s mother; Helene Wright. Morrison states, “Under Helene’s hand the girl had become obedient and polite. Any enthusiams that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother untul she drove her daughter’s imagination underground”. Any young girl Nel’s age would be outside playing with other children her age. However, we learn that her mother has raised her in an overly-strict home. We learn from the novel that Helene was a strict parent that did not allow any goofing around. Helene even goes as far as preventing Nel from playing with Sula because her mother was “sooty”. On the other hand, Sula has a completely different upbringing from Nel.

For instance: “… woolly house, where a pot of something was always cooking on the stove; where the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions; where all sorts of people dropped in where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink...”.

The text describes the type of environment Sula is in. It’s drastically different from the type of environment Nel was raised in. Compared to Nel, Sula has no rules or limitations to what she is allowed to do because her mother Hannah doesn’t discipline her. There was an instance in the novel where Sula overhears her mother speaking to her friends and she states, “You love her, like I love Sula. I just don’t like her. That’s the difference”. It is not easy for a child to hear these words coming from their own mother’s mouth. This comment made by Hannah changes how Sula views herself and everyone around her. It makes her understand why her mother is the way she is. Towards the end of the book when she is in her death bed she comments about “the lack of love” she has experienced in her life.

Very early on in her childhood Nel experiences an event that changes how she will view herself from that moment forward and how she plans to present herself to others. Notably, “It was on that train, shuffling towards Cincinnati, that she resolved to be on guard- always”. After the incident on the train with the white conductor, Nel realized the way her mother was being looked at. However, she also notably realized that one day she would also be looked at in the same way. The looks they were being given weren’t because of a simple mistake, but because of their skin color. This realization came to her when she began to observe her mother. Taking note of the way she composed herself, the ways she was dressed and her skin tone. “... if she were really custard, then there was a chance that Nel was too”. Nel had not yet realized how the color of her skin would change how others would view her. Although her mother presented herself to be a woman of class, others judged her on the color of her skin, not her character. On the other hand, Sula, “has become just like Hannah and Eva, hardened and wary, and throughout the book, she remains detached from other people, as her mother always has” (Winters). Sula and her mother do not seem to have a close relationship.

Notably, the girls had a mutual understanding of what the other was going through even though they did not understand what it was like to grow up in each other’s homes. The girls had an affinity towards one another and had become inseparable. They had become protective of one another. This closeness stems from the longing of something different in the relationships they had at home. As previously mentioned, Sula was in a home with no restrictions and Nel had grown up in a home with a plethora of rules. Morrison states, “Their friendship was as intense as it was sudden. They found relief in each other’s personality”. While together the girls felt as though they were invincible, untouchable. Their different personalities melted into one and it seemed as though they were one.

The once inseparable friends lead very different lives as adults. Even though they have gone on separate paths they know that their relationship to each other was very important. Winters states, “Nel realizes that she was eve closer to Sula than she thought, more like her than she ever thought, and that her relationship with Sula was more important than any other; that t was more important than her marriage.” Even though Sula betrayed her childhood best friend by sleeping with her husband, Nel understands that the only relationship that truly mattered to her was her friendship with Sula. Even though she had married and had beautiful children, that was the life her mother had taught her to have. And Sula on the other hand was only following behind with what she had been taught by her mother and grandmother, Eva. Vickroy adds, “When Sula has her grandmother… committed… she is rebelling against her… I characterize this as a mother/daughter relationship because Eva is… important to Sula’s personal development.” Near the end of the book when Sula is grown she has her grandmother put into a home for the elderly and take the house as her own. Eva, her grandmother played a major role in Sula’s development throughout her life.

Throughout this novel, there are many experiences one can learn from. Sula and Nel had a strong bond that was nearly inseparable. Although coming from different family backgrounds, they longed to have what the other had. Nel wished for a home of chaos and no rules, while Sula longed for a home with rules and order. In the end, their character and the lives they lead are affected by how they coexisted with their families, especially their mothers.

Works Cited

  • Morrison, Toni. Sula / Toni Morrison. Knopf; 1974.
  • Vickroy, Laurie. “The Force Outside/the Force inside: Mother-Love and Regenerative Spaces in Sula and Beloved.” Obsidian II, vol. 8, no. 2, 1993, p. 28. Gale Literature Resource Center, link-gale-com.db16.linccweb.org/apps/doc/A205735362/LitRC?u=lincclin_mdcc&sid=LitRC&xid=f81a104e. Accessed 19 Feb. 2020.
  • Winters, Kelly. “Critical Essay on Sula.” Novels for Students, edited by Jennifer Smith, vol. 14, Gale, Detroit, MI, 2002. Gale Literature Resource Center, link-gale-com.db16.linccweb.org/apps/doc/H1420040768/LitRC?u=lincclin_mdcc&sid=LitRC&xid=7a2e1921. Accessed 19 Feb. 2020. 
16 August 2021
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