Life And Death In Sula By Toni Morrison
In Toni Morrison's Sula, death happens often and strikes suddenly. Tar Baby, Plum, and Shadrack fall into substance abuse and seem to look forward to their own deaths. Shadrack is particularly focused on dying and institutes National Suicide Day, an annual ceremony dedicated entirely to death. Both Plum and Hannah are killed by fire. Some readers may see this as merely a convenient way for Morrison to forward the plot. However, she uses death for much more, and tries to convey to the reader that life is not just about living but also about death.
Death is not a single event. Historically, the event of 'death' was understood to coincide with the onset of clinical brain death, or whatever the era's medical equivalent was. Today it is realized that dying is a series of events, not a single event, and is contingent on different factors beyond simple cessation of breathing and heartbeat. This may not seem relevant at first, but it actually comes up in what is the most plot-important death in the novel, that of Sula herself. When she dies, alone in her childhood home, it isn't a flash of light or an explosion of emotions; rather, it is a gradual process during which she realizes that her life has been brought to a close. She notices that 'she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely...she realized, or rather she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn't have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead' (Morrison 149). Her death isn't the end of her story. She continues to have thoughts and emotions after death, noticing that 'it didn't even hurt. Wait'll I tell Nel'. This major character death neatly closes Sula's arc and leaves us with a sense of closure without ending her effect on the story; she will continue to play a part in Nel's and other's lives after her death.
The fundamental point that Morrison is trying to make about death is that it is much more than an ending. As an example, the death of Hannah's husband Rekus brings new conflict into the story because 'Hannah simply refused to live without the attentions of a man, and after Rekus' death had a steady sequence of lovers, mostly the husbands of her friends and neighbors'. In many ways, death is a symbol of life. Death can be seen as something that we must accept or at least understand; it is a part of our lives, and we should accept that fact without any hesitation. Morrison embraces this notion of death and tries to show us how it in turn can affect people's lives; the way Morrison uses a character's death to create new conflicts rather than reduce them is indicative of her own thoughts on death and reverberates throughout Sula.
Morrison also uses deaths throughout Sula to also place blame and make points. The deaths of the soldier and of Plum Peace represent effects of the First World War, as the responsibility for Plum's death lies not on Eva but on his trauma, which pointed him towards oblivion via heroin. The deaths of Cecile Sabat, Chicken Little, Hannah, and Sula, and the metaphorical deaths of Nel's soul and of Sula's and Nel's relationship are linked by Morrison to the social war on black women. Cecile's death is significant less for Cecile than for Nel as it demonstrates to Nel the humiliations expected for any colored woman in America.
In conclusion, while it may seem like the many deaths throughout Sula are only used for shock value or to end unimportant character arcs, they are actually used to great effect by Morrison to further the plot and create conflict, as well as shine a light on the historical issues of racism and war.