First of all let me salute Toni Morrison for she is one African-American female writer whom I love to read for various reasons. Most of all, the raw truth in her works. You can feel what she writes so deeply!
“Sula” is one of her books which I fell in love with on my first read, and even more, on my subsequent reads. Here are my thoughts on some parts of the book.
The novel starts with a “Nigger Joke” which i’d quote here
“A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores.
When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain. Freedom was easy –
The farmer had no objection to that. But he didn’t want to give up any land. so he told the slave that he was very sorry
that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him bottom land. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land.
The master said, ‘Oh no! See those hills? That’s the bottom land, rich and fertile.’ “But it’s high up the hills,” said the slave.
‘High up for us,’ said the master, ‘but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven-
the best land there is.’ So the slave pressed his master to try and get him some. He preferred it to the valley. And it was done.
The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away seeds, and where the wind lingered
all through winter. Which accounted for the fact that white people lived on the rich valley floor in that little river town in Ohio,
and the blacks populated the hills above it, taking small consolation in the fact that everyday, they could literally look down on the white folks”
This is where the story begins and introduces us to the ‘Bottom’ – a black community in which we find some of the characters I will be talking about. All with different struggles yet struggles that are so linked and merged with the the people that it is hard to detach the individual from the community.
Shadrack is the very first character introduced in the book. Shadrack – a young man who was described as “handsome and ravaged” for he went off to war (world war II) when he was “a young man of hardly twenty, his head full of nothing and his mouth recalling the taste of lipstick.” Unfortunately Shadrack suffered shell shock –
“He ran, bayonet fixed, deep in the great sweep of men flying across the field. Wincing at the pain in his foot, he turned his head a little to the right and saw the face of a soldier near him fly off. Before he could register shock, the rest of the soldier’s head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his helmet. But stubbornly, taking no direction from the brain, the body of the headless soldier ran on, with energy and grace, ignoring altogether the drip and slide of brain tissue down its back…”
He ended up in a mental facility and henceforth, upon his release, was never normal again. He remained alone and troubled throughout the novel. And his significance in the story is his institution of National Suicide Day. It was based something seemingly simple but deep.
“He knew the smell of death and was terrified of it, for he could anticipate it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit the notion that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free.”
And so he made the third day of every new year, National Suicide day, where he’d march through the town with a bell and call on all those who wished to kill themselves to get it over and done with. As the story progresses, we see how people start getting used to that ritual, accepting it into the norm of things, and how finally people actually joined the march which led to the death of quite a number of them (death that could be seen as suicide) but was however an accident.
Shadrack’s story, and its link with the entire situation developed in the book takes us back to black soldiers and what the faced at war – almost used as human shields. And so where battle was strongest was where you’d find colored soldiers. And so a black young man going off to war was double the agony for the family he left behind and for that young fella himself for it was like signing a death contract. Their chances of survival were slimmer than that of the white soldiers. Most of those who did not die, came back missing body parts, mentally deranged, stuck in the darkness of the war days and the horrors they saw for the rest of their lives. Shadrack could have lived a full life of love, pain, joy, sorrow, family, even death in a normal way. But it was all snatched from by his young and blind passion to serve his country. This also brings to mind a poem by one great war poet Wilfred Owen (died at age 25) who, though white, captured a deep truth in his poem “Dolce et Decorum Est”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And floundering like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
“Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori” is part of a phrase from Horace (Roman poet and satirist), quoted in full meaning “It is sweet and proper (honorable) to die for one’s country.” Let me leave it at that.
This book also developed three different yet very strong female characters. Eva, Nel, and Sula herself.
Eva, was introduced to us as Sula’s grandmother, who had lost one leg, lived in an enormous house. It was rumored that after her husband left her with her kids, she went and stuck her leg under train and took the insurance money. She needed to survive, her kids had to live and so she did all it took to get back on her feet when her husband left her down. She did not lay there crying, feeling sorry for herself, no. She fought through and so we see how strong-willed Eva is and how much he respect she commands, her reputation in the community, the control she has even over the men. Eva does something in this book that is shocking yet her reasons make you wonder if that action was actually not justifiable. She burnt her full grown son (Plum) alive in his sleep.
“Eva stepped back from the bed and let her crutches rest under her arms. She rolled a bit of newspaper into a tight stick about six inches long, lit it and threw it onto the bed where the kerosene-soaked Plum lay in snug delight. Quickly as the whoosh of flames engulfed him, she shut the door and made her slow and painful journey back to the top of the house…..By the time she got to her bed someone was bounding up the stairs after her. Hannah opened the door, ‘Plum! Plum! He’s burning, Mamma! We can’t open the door! Mamma!’ Eva looked into Hannah’s eyes. ‘Is? My baby? Burning?’…..”
Plum had also gone off to war, he was Eva’s only son and she had wished to leave her properties to him. But when he returned from war, he came back an addict. Eva was saddened because the drugs had left him a mere shadow of a man. It was too painful for her to watch and so she killed, not because she loved him not, but because she loved him too much to watch him waste away so slowly.
Nel, was the granddaughter of a creole whore, and her mother was an uptight self-righteous light-skinned, slender-nosed woman who detested who hated her background and ‘suspicious’ colour so much she was “grateful, deep down in her heart that the child (her daughter Nel) had not inherited the great beauty that was hers, that her skin had dusk in it, that her lashes were substantial but not undignified in their length, that she had taken the broad flat nose of Wiley (her husband)…and his generous lips.” . Nel’s creativity was therefore stifled while growing up by this paranoid mother of hers who was bent on not allowing any of her mother’s wild blood to manifest in her daughter. Nel however becomes very close friends with our main character Sula who we see as a very different young girl. Their friendship was so tight that one would wonder if they were not in love with each other (that kind of love). Nel was one who feared to defy societal norms and so unlike Sula, she stays right there in the community, and gets married to a ‘respectable’ man, settles down into wife duties and bears him children, whereas Sula goes off to college and returns to the Bottom with even more deeply rooted standpoints, opinions, ideas.
Nel, I believe was stronger within, than Sula, but she managed to bottle it up well. Her best friend, Sula, after coming back from college, not only sleeps with other women;s husbands, and white men (which enraged the society) but she also sleeps with Nel’s husband Jude. She caught them in the act, and it caused the marriage to end and their friendship to break, but still Nel found herself missing Sula. What I found most significant in Nel’s life was after her husband left and she found herself alone, still quite married, still a woman with feelings, and yet society and God would not let her freely have another man, just a fling of some sort, or just a little fun. She felt that without sex, or without a man, she had no use of her womanhood and so here, she laments..
“And what am I supposed to do with these old thighs now, just walk up and down these rooms? What good are they, Jesus? They will never give me the peace I need to get from sunup to sundown, what good are they, are you trying to tell me that I am going to have to go all the way through these days all the way, O my God, to that box with four handles with never nobody settling down between my legs even if I sew up these old pillow cases and rinse down the coal up out of the bin even then nobody, O Jesus, I could be a mule or plow the furrows with my hands if need be or hold these rickety walls up with my back if need be if I knew that somewhere in this world in the pocket of some night I could open my legs to some cowboy lean hips but you are trying to tell me no and O my sweet Jesus, what kind of cross is that?”
Sula was a wild child, who did crazy things, went off to school, came back and did “the unforgivable thing – the thing for which there was no understanding, no excuse, no compassion. The route from which there was no way back, the dirt that could not ever be washed away..” She slept with white men. “It filled them with choking disgust” The facts lined up here were so raw and true… that –
“There was nothing lower she could do. Nothing filthier. The fact that their own skin color was proof that it had happened in their own families was no deterrent to the bile, Nor was the willingness of black men to lie in the beds of white women a consideration that might lead them toward tolerance. They insisted that all unions between white men and black women be rape; for a black woman willing was literally unthinkable. In that way, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did”
And with this you almost want to pause and take a breath! The truth and how it hits you! Sula had done a lot of things they viewed as wrong yet forgivable, but to sleep with white men…hmm! Sula eventually falls in love with on e black man (Ajax) who was the same as her in terms of character, carefree, handsome, and not ready to commit..and so a relationship doesn’t work and Sula is quite heartbroken (not for long though). Sula falls really ill and dies. But before she died, Nel went in to see her. and their conversation is one to note –
Sula and Nel –
“ ‘You think I don’t know what your life is like just because I ain’t living it? I know what every colored woman in this country is doing.’
‘What is that?’
‘Dying, Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those red-woods. I sure did live in this world.’
‘Really? And what have you got to show for it?’
‘Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.’
‘Lonely, ain’t it?’
‘Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely’ “
Eventually they talk about Sula having an affair with Nel’s husband and still she shows no remorse…
” ‘Sula…you didn’t love me enough to leave him alone. To let him love me. You had to take him away.’
‘Take him away? I didn’t kill him, I just fucked him. If we were such good friends, how come you couldn’t get over it?”
This may seem harsh, from Sula. But she loved Nel in such a weird way it was hard to accept it but it was also there to see if looked into. Her very last thought was of Nel right before she died. The bond was that deep.
“While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was going to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then 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. Sula felt her face smiling. ‘Well, I’ll be damned’ she thought, ‘it didn’t even hurt. Wait till I tell Nel.’ “
Even after death…the bond was strong.
The book ends with Nel walking down the road, after she visits Eva in the old people’s home…and suddenly she has an epiphany. One that shows how strong the bond between the two friends was. She had been thinking about her life in general on her walk home…how things had changed, then she sees Shadrack, who in the book hold a secret very dear to both Nel and Sula and that brings Sula to mind and a familiar yet strange feeling so…
“Suddenly [she] stopped. Her eye twitched and burned a little. ‘Sula?’ She whispered, gazing at the top of trees. ‘Sula?’ Leaves stirred, mud shifted, there was smell of over-ripe green things, A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze. ‘All that time, all that time I thought I was missing Jude (her husband)’ And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. ‘We was girls together’ she said as though explaining something. ‘O Lord, Sula’ she cried. ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.’ It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had not top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
And that is how the book ends, with the revelation that Sula’s rebellion had been some center force holding the town together, holding some balance.
This, I will go back and read yet again, and I’m sure going to find something new to say about it maybe next time. But this was some good exercise! 🙂 🙂