Throughout the novel Sula, written by Toni Morrison, we are taken on a journey from Sula Peace’s childhood in the twenties to her death in 1941. The narrative revolves around the black community living in Medallion, particularly known as “the bottom”. By exploring Sula’s life and the community’s experiences in the bottom, Morrison effectively demonstrates how families and communities play a significant role in influencing a child’s sense of self.
Sula’s upbringing in the bottom not only shapes the way children are molded, but also the community’s reception to an adult who challenges their environment. Sula’s actions and personality are largely influenced by her childhood experience. Her identity embodies the qualities of a strong, independent feminist character. Unfortunately, the people in Medallion perceive Sula negatively.
When Sula returns to Medallion as an adult, she is perceived as evil and feared by the community. This is because she defies societal norms by refusing to conform to the expectations placed upon women in the town. She rejects marriage and engages in promiscuous behavior. The other characters that surround Sula provide a contrasting perspective on how the community treats those who are different. By comparing the treatment of characters like Shadrack and Hannah to that of Sula, it becomes evident that all three are marginalized and excluded from the community at large.
Shadrack and Hannah do not incite the same fear and resentment from the town as Sula does, but the way the town treats Hannah in comparison to Sula is quite concerning. Following the death of Sula’s father, Hannah lacks any meaningful relationships with men. She engages in sexual activities solely with the husbands of her friends and neighbors.
Despite Hannah’s habit of sleeping with married men, the people in Medallion still hold a certain level of respect for her. According to the text, “The men, surprisingly, never gossiped about her. She was unquestionably a kind and generous woman…” (p 2013). It is worth noting that Hannah tends to have affairs with the same men repeatedly. As a result, the wives of these men often view it as a compliment when Hannah chooses to sleep with them.
Hannah is the mother of Sula and has indirectly influenced Sula’s perception of sex as a pleasurable experience. As described in the text, Hannah’s behavior in the pantry exemplifies her ease and happiness. This has a significant impact on Sula’s relationships with men in her later life, leading her to engage in sexual affairs exclusively with married men.
Sula’s community sees her lack of witnessing a healthy relationship between a man and a woman as terrible. She engages in sexual relationships with men purely for her own pleasure, without regard for their feelings. Sula rejects patriarchal relationships like the one her mother, Hannah, had.
According to the text, Hannah found pleasure in her sexual encounters while maintaining a submissive role in her relationships. She did not challenge or make demands of the men she slept with and accepted them as they were without seeking to change them. In contrast, Sula took pleasure in being in control, even during sex. The text suggests that it was ironic and outrageous for her to surrender herself while still feeling strong and powerful. Sula not only sought pleasure from men but also aimed to exert power over them. She would engage with men and then dismiss them without providing any acceptable excuses.
The women’s anger towards Sula grew when they found out that she had gained power by sleeping with the husbands who controlled their obedient wives. The entire town saw all of Sula’s actions as evil. She was called names like “roach” and “bitch,” and a nasty rumor spread that she had slept with white men. They believed there was no act more degrading or disgusting than what she had done. (p2043)
The story reveals that it was deemed acceptable for black men to sleep in the beds of white women, but when a black woman did the same, it was considered unthinkable. Nevertheless, Sula defied these prejudices and looked after herself. This only intensified the perception of her as evil because she had all her teeth, never suffered from childhood illnesses, and appeared younger than her real age. The townsfolk saw these characteristics as evidence that she lacked any typical indications of vulnerability. “She exhibited no ordinary signs of vulnerability.” (p2045).
She was unlike anyone else in the town, in strange and coincidental ways; she represented things that had never been seen before in their community. This perceived difference was simply another reason for the community to brand her as wicked and unusual. They projected all their fears of the unfamiliar onto their increasing hatred for Sula.
Ajax was drawn to Sula precisely because she was different and unknown to others. Among all the characters in the story, Ajax is the only one who recognizes Sula’s true strength as a woman. Living in the same town as Sula, Ajax becomes someone she falls in love with to some extent. Their relationship is based on genuine reasons, unrelated to material possessions. As stated on page 2050 of the story, Sula’s true delight lies in the fact that Ajax enjoys conversing with her. Sula witnessed all the other relationships in the town and saw them for what they truly were: men exerting control over their wives.
The brief bond between Ajax and Sula is built on their equal standing. Ajax was drawn to her because, aside from his mother, she was the only woman he knew who lived her life independently (p2050). Sula’s aversion to domestic life stems mostly from its patriarchal nature.
Sula faced challenges when trying to communicate with women who were in relationships where men married and impregnated them only to prove their masculinity. Upon returning home, she struggled to engage in social conversation because she couldn’t bring herself to be dishonest. She couldn’t compliment her old acquaintances by saying things like, “Hey, girl, you looking good.” Sula noticed that the more restricted their lives were, the larger their hips seemed to become. The women who had husbands appeared to have lost their energy and became like rigid coffins. (Source: p2048)
Shadrack, another outcast character in the novel, experiences a less severe form of exclusion from the community. Having returned from the war in 1919, he enters the town traumatized and shell-shocked. He eventually becomes the town’s outcast, often seen drinking and considered insane. Despite his peculiar and detrimental behavior which includes public urination and drunken parading, the community fails to perceive it as such. It is worth noting that while Shadrack’s actions involve exposing himself to young girls and women, there is no sexual connotation associated with them; rather, these acts are viewed as repulsive but tolerated nonetheless.
Despite the lack of evidence demonstrating any harm caused by Sula in the town, Shadrack remained continuously disruptive. The community never regarded Shadrack as evil; instead, they perceived him as a deranged elderly man. On January third, he organized National Suicide Day, during which he marched through the town. On this day, people were given the opportunity to gather all their thoughts of death and attempt to make sense of it. “In fact, they had simply stopped remarking on the holiday because they had assimilated it into their thoughts, language, and lives” (p2000).
They accepted Shadrack’s outrageous and unconventional behavior as normal because he was a man. In contrast, they labeled Sula as evil despite her not engaging in such outrageous acts. This perception of evil stemmed from her refusal to explain or justify her actions or viewpoints to any man. Sula’s actions reflect her imaginative nature and intelligent decision-making.
Sula’s imaginative ability allows her to observe her surrounding community closely and distance herself from it. The town creates a separate space for Sula, who does not passively accept societal norms imposed on women. As the novel concludes and Sula’s death approaches, Nel, her former best friend, explains why the community views her as malevolent – like a roach or a bitch – and fears her immensely. Nel asserts that Sula’s independence, her refusal to conform, and her ability to assert herself as she desires are unacceptable for a woman, especially a woman of color (p2057).
Sula defies social norms and seeks to live her life with maximum freedom in the novel. In a patriarchal community that defines a woman solely in relation to a man, not having a male relationship or adhering to socially accepted responsibilities is perceived as wicked and unimaginable.