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Sula | Themes

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Friendship

Nel and Sula's friendship is the central theme of Sula. Their friendship starts as a way to "let them use each other to grow on." Each girl is trying to become her own person, and each girl has limitations put on her in her household. Nel and Sula spend all of their time together, playing by the river, discovering the attentions of boys and men, fighting off white bullies, and weathering tragedies. When Sula accidentally drowns Chicken by throwing him into the water, Nel comforts her, insisting that it isn't her fault, but the incident lies between them at the funeral, with Nel feeling guilty though she had done nothing and Sula crying. Still, their friendship is intact; they go home from the funeral hand in hand.

When Sula returns as a young woman after 10 years away, Nel accepts her immediately, and the two friends laugh in Nel's kitchen like they had never been apart. Sula mouths off to Jude about how black men are far more loved than he says they are, and both Nel and Jude laugh, rather than being offended. But the friendship is shattered by Jude's infidelity with Sula, and this is one wrong that Nel cannot forgive. She thinks of things Sula says "even in hate," and she is followed by a "ball of muddy strings, but without weight, fluffy, but terrible in its malevolence." When she goes to visit Sula in her illness, Sula wonders aloud why Nel can't understand that their friendship is more important than the infidelity, but Nel doesn't see things that way. It is only years later, when Nel realizes that Sula had been right about Eva being vindictive, that the gray ball of strings explodes and disappears and Nel understands that it has not been Jude she mourned the loss of all this time, but Sula and their friendship, stronger than the love she had had for Jude.

Nel and Sula's friendship isn't the only instance of this theme in the novel. Hannah's inability to make female friends because she sleeps with their husbands reflects it as well, albeit from the perspective of a person who is incapable of having those friendships. Hannah is also unable to like her daughter, though she loves her because she is her mother. This lack of connection is passed on to Sula, who is unable to see how her own behavior negatively affects her friendship with Nel or anyone else, for that matter. In addition the theme arises when Shadrack is so destitute, realizing that his "visitor" is never coming back. Shadrack has never been able to have a normal connection with another person, but he views Sula as somehow special to him since she appeared at his door years before. To Shadrack this little bit of attention constitutes friendship.

Betrayal

In Sula the very first betrayal is the joke about the beginning of the black neighborhood known as the Bottom. A farmer convinces a slave to whom he has promised freedom that the hills are called the bottom lands because they are at the "bottom of heaven." In reality the hill land is terrible for farming, and the farmer wants to keep his valuable valley land, so he lies to his newly freed slave. Another betrayal is the terrible treatment that black veterans of World War I receive, left to suffer PTSD and deal with drug addiction with no support from the military or their local communities. They are treated as nothing special, not heroes. Shadrack, a veteran of World War I, has nothing left at home, and his insanity is left untreated, so he gets completely drunk when he isn't working. Plum, another war veteran, becomes addicted to heroin and is as helpless as a baby.

The most obvious betrayal is that of the husbands in Sula, who betray their marriage vows almost as a matter of course. BoyBoy, Eva's abusive husband, sleeps with other women throughout their five-year marriage, which is described as "sad and disgruntled." Husbands and boyfriends all over the Bottom betray their wives and girlfriends by sleeping with Hannah, who is "wholly incapable of jealousy," making it difficult for any of these betrayed women to complain about her to their partners. Hannah's attentions are acts of generosity on her part, and the men she sleeps with defend her and protect her from their wives. Jude betrays his wife, Nel, by sleeping with her best friend, Sula, and leaving Nel for Sula. Their relationship is short-lived; Sula then betrays Jude by leaving him to sleep with other men, just like her mother, Hannah, and grandmother, Eva. The promiscuous Peace women love lots of men.

Sula's betrayal goes beyond Jude's. She betrays Nel by having sex with her husband, Jude. Nel is unable to forgive and forget this betrayal, which is perpetrated equally by Jude and Sula. The difference between the two betrayals is that Jude has nothing to fall back on with Nel, having married her to receive her attention and care rather than out of deep love. Sula, however, has a friendship with Nel that was so intense as children that they often couldn't tell the difference between their thoughts and "a compliment to one was a compliment to the other." Sula's betrayal destroys any chance that she could ever regain Nel's love and friendship.

The Peace women, Eva, Hannah, and Sula, live in a web of betrayals, recriminations, and lies. Sula feels betrayed by her mother, Hannah, when Sula overhears her saying to her friends that she doesn't like Sula. Hannah feels betrayed by Eva knowing that Eva killed her own son, Plum, but Eva doesn't see her actions as betrayal. The truth is that she murders him because she doesn't want to have to take care of a grown man who is so desperately addicted to heroin that he acts like a baby and can no longer care for himself. She doesn't confront him or try to help him kick the drugs. Instead, she pours kerosene over him and sets him on fire. Eva feels that Sula betrayed Hannah by standing on the porch watching her burn instead of running to help put out the flames, and she doesn't believe that Sula stayed there because she was numb with fear. Eva is certain that Sula purposely stayed to watch rather than help because it was more interesting to watch. Sula eventually betrays Eva by forcibly relocating her to a home for the aged and infirm.

Love and Sex

The theme of love and its connection or lack of connection with sex runs throughout Sula. Helene's view of prostitution directly influences the way Nel views sexual encounters, and Nel doesn't act on her impulses until she is married to Jude. Her love of Jude includes sex, however, as it's one of the things she mourns the loss of as she realizes Jude is not coming back. She says, "And what am I supposed to do with these old thighs now?" She is shocked when she discovers that Sula did not love Jude. Like her mother, Hannah, Sula sleeps with men strictly for her own pleasure. Of course, it angers Nel even more that Sula could be so selfish and callous, taking her man not for love but to fill an "empty space" in her head. Later in life, Sula's lovers increasingly only seem to give her "misery" and deep sorrow, often bringing her to tears.

Hannah's sexual escapades are gestures of kindness to all of the men she has sex with, but she never lets them stay overnight because that would mean she loves them. For an hour or two, she rejuvenates their libidos, complimenting them on their sexual prowess and their strong masculinity. She has no reason to be jealous of their wives and girlfriends, so the sex poses no threat, at least according to the men. If there is any love in this equation it is the feelings the men get protecting her from their wives. Even the wives and girlfriends who mourn the loss of her beauty after she burns to death, "as though they themselves had been her lovers," show a kind of love for Hannah as well.

It is interesting that Nel looks at prostitution so calmly, having been brought up by a mother whose hatred of the profession dictates that she raise Nel in a strict, religious household. Nel notes that the whores of the late '60s in her town are all about appearances and always seem embarrassed. She says they pale in comparison to the prostitutes of her childhood, who plied their trade with no shame at all. They did it to feed their children. They seemed to be witty, always laughing and teasing each other.

Community and Family

The ties that bind and tear apart families and communities have an important thematic presence throughout Sula. Most central is the Peace family. In this family one false move, and the ties quickly and often violently break apart. Eva kills her own son, Plum, to avoid having to deal with his addiction because she "can't birth him" again, she says. But she also throws herself out her window to try to put out the fire that consumes Hannah, her daughter. Earlier, Hannah wants to know if Eva loves her children, and Eva's view of love is that you feed, house, and clothe your children no matter what, even if it costs you a leg. There is no time for affection and playing, especially if you are trying to keep your children alive, which is all Eva can do for a while after her husband leaves her. Hannah doesn't like her own daughter, a statement Sula overhears. Hannah does love Sula because she is her child, but her comment will cause Sula to forever question her mother's feelings for her and her siblings. Morrison presents a painful, stark, tragic portrayal of a poor black family's dysfunction and disintegration.

Nel's home and family life is strict, religious, and proper. Her mother squashes the spark and playfulness inside her, molding her into an obedient, moral young woman who does what is asked of her. She stays in the Bottom her whole life, but not Sula. When Sula returns to the Bottom, she is disappointed by the way Nel has turned out, with none of the flash she had when they were girls growing up together. Sula no longer has any real family connections there, except her grandmother, whom she commits to a home against her will. The whole idea of family frightens Sula; family and community serve no role in her life except one of oppression. Ties to family and a community only hinder and threaten Sula's freedom to do what she pleases.

From the opening chapters, Morrison indicates that the Bottom, a poor, black, rural community, has some remarkable characteristics. The town's crazy hermit, Shadrack, parades every year through the town ringing a bell to call out the residents to march with him on National Suicide Day. There is often very little participation, although the Bottom's constant talk and tolerance of his eccentricities demonstrate the existence of community. They band together so as not to fear him or ostracize him. When the people of the Bottom come out of a hard winter and do parade after Shadrack down to the tunnel to destroy it, they act as one.

Readers learn most about the Bottom community through its interaction with the main protagonist, Sula. In the Bottom the entire community usually attends everyone's burials at the cemetery, but they essentially boycott Sula's. She is considered evil, a "roach," a pariah. Still, from the outer edges of the cemetery, the Bottom community sings "Shall We Gather at the River?" for her once she is buried. There are many other examples in the novel of the strength and power that community provides for poor, rural folks. Washing Hannah's body for burial, giving food to Eva's family when they have none, and getting provisions to each other in the harsh winter that follows Sula's death are all examples of community solidarity. When Nel is older and the Bottom ceases to be a close-knit neighborhood, she says that maybe it wasn't actually a community, but it was "a place." By "place" she means a neighborhood that had a strong identity and strong connections where people stop by to check on one another. By 1965, when most families had socially and emotionally disconnected, the community ceases to exist.

Racism

The racism experienced by the people of the Bottom is pervasive and absolutely central to everything that occurs in the story. Morrison wants readers to get this message from the first page. It begins with the "nigger joke," a story white people share to feel superior, smarter. The black community of the Bottom tells it among themselves to help explain the discrimination, prejudice, and poverty they face. Of course, black folks never had a choice in where they would build their small community. That was decided by the rich white farmers and businessmen. Explaining it through a "joke" allows whites to avoid a touchier, more uncomfortable discussion. In addition, the presence white people have in the lives of the people in the Bottom is that of rent collector, police officer, and tormentor, and in Medallion, blacks do not get offered jobs. Even the tunnel in progress under the river is being built by a construction company that hires only white people. Morrison's story is, however, not much concerned with the lives of the white community of Medallion, Ohio. The intersection of white and black people occurs only to highlight the difference in privilege, even with poorer whites, and explain how whites are viewed by the people of the Bottom. The purpose of Morrison's storytelling is to allow readers to understand and feel the black experience, especially the experience of black women living in racist, segregated, rural Ohio in the early to mid-20th century, but it is also to show that this particular black community operates on its own, despite the racism that shadows the daily lives of its inhabitants.

Readers experience this racism primarily through the eyes and actions of the novel's two principal characters, Nel and Sula. Early on in the story, the two young girls are harassed by a group of white bullies. Nel feels resignation more than indignation; she realizes this will be an unavoidable part of her life. But Sula decides enough is enough. As a young, powerless black girl, the only way she can retaliate is to scare them, and the only way she can think of to do that is to cut off the tip of her finger. Later in the novel when the plague of robins arrives, members of the community compose a list of evils to survive. Among the many scourges they face is white racism, and it certainly tops their list. According to the people of the Bottom, the most intolerable act Sula commits is sleeping with white men: "For a black woman to be willing was literally unthinkable." The narrator notes that when it came to sexual relationships, black people viewed integration "with precisely the same venom that white people did." Morrison here wants readers to know that because white people were viewed as an evil akin to the devil, any interaction Sula has with white men on a sexual level Is also perceived as thoroughly evil and further cements her reputation as being a woman who herself comes straight from the devil.

By the end of the novel, in 1965, Nel notes that black people have moved from the Bottom and are now living in Medallion, some even working at cash registers handling money, an unthinkable situation when she was a child. Racism hasn't left, though. The Bottom is being razed to create a golf course and build mansions for rich whites. Segregation is loosening a bit, but attitudes are just the same in most cases, and economic prosperity is still reserved only for whites.

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Flashcards for Themes

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Term:

Of Plymouth Plantation

Definition:

Book that told the history of the Plymouth Settlement.

Term:

The Tenth Muse

Definition:

Anne Bradstreet's poetry book, published in 1650 in England, published without her consent by her brother in law

Term:

Huswifery

Definition:

by Edward Taylor, compares household task of making cloth to the gift of God's salvation, uses an extended metaphor: transformation of wool into clothes compared to an imperfect individual's change into glorious servant of God

Term:

The Wonders of the Invisible World

Definition:

Cotton Mather - Colonial / Puritansim - explains cases of whichcraft, (these whiches were 'tainted' and they wanted to get rid of them to purify the community

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