Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) has long been one of my favorite books. Besides simply wanting to immerse myself back into the mastery of Morrison’s writing, I repeatedly return to Sula to contemplate the friendship between Nel and Sula, the issue of betrayal that unfolds within the novel’s plot, and to feel Nel’s grief and long and lasting cry in my own throat and chest in the last lines of the book; the ones that finally set her free:
“‘We was girls together…Oh, Lord, Sula,’ she cried, ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirl,
It was a fine cry, loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow”(Sula 174).
For me the question endures: what do we allow or deny ourselves when we feel betrayed? Often, we indulge in righteousness and revenge delivered with a smile on our faces. We carry our feelings of betrayal with pride. They become badges that we wear, trophies we display.
“People tell me that I am always writing about love,” Morrison writes, “Always, always love. I nod, yes, but it isn’t true—not exactly. In fact, I am always writing about betrayal. Love is the weather. Betrayal is the lightning that cleaves and reveals it”(Love x).
Feeling betrayed reveals our love? Betrayal happens in the “weather” of love. Yes, so it would seem. The friendship and love of these two women moves and inspires me. I first read this book in the 80s when I was in college. It felt different, new, radical. Maybe I had not seen female friendship depicted in a novel before. According to Morrison, I had not. At least not as the central theme. “Friendship between women is special, different, and has never been depicted as the major focus of a novel before Sula”(Heilbrun 75), Morrison writes.
What would have happened, I often wonder, if Nel had forgiven Sula? What would have become of their lives, their loves, if they continued to be friends? Yet the forgiveness remained like water in the desert, what we need most but are cruelly denied. But it wasn’t Sula who needed it. It was Nel.
Could I forgive Sula, I ask myself? What river do I need to forge to get to a place where I could? What is the fundamental change that needs to happen in me? It feels exciting, big, wild, untamed and transformational, like Sula. It requires a kind of courage. And maybe, a sort of freedom.
When Sula is dying, Nel goes to visit her. It is the first time Nel has seen her since the act of the betrayal. Since Nel has come home to find her husband, Jude, the man she has three children with, and Sula, her best friend, naked and on all fours on her bedroom floor, “nibbling at each other”(Sula 105) with their lips.
Nel’s husband walks out that day and never returns. Sula and Nel continue to live in the same town but do not see one another. Nel’s heart turns hard and her purpose turns toward proving her goodness (in opposition to her friend who everyone knows is nothing but bad).
And so, three years later, Nel sets out to visit Sula. “‘I heard you was sick. Anything I can do for you?” She practices saying before she goes.
“For the first time in three years she would be looking at the stemmed rose that hung over the eye of her enemy…She would be facing the black rose that Jude had kissed and looking at the nostrils of the woman who had twisted her love for her own children into something so thick and monstrous she was afraid to show it lest it break loose and smother them with its heavy paw”(Sula 138).
Sula is marked from birth over her eye. The birthmark “spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose”(Sula 53).
In the opening of the book is a quote from the play, The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams.
“Nobody knew my rose of the world
but me…I had too much glory.
They don’t want glory like that
in nobody’s heart.”
This is our clue to who Sula is. Though throughout the book we may wonder and question and even judge, yes, judge and slut-shame her in our minds, this quote at the beginning offers us a clue that we are missing something if we persist in this shallow way of thinking about this character.
In the foreword to the 2004 copy of Sula, Morrison writes:
“What is friendship between women when unmediated by men? What choices are available to black women outside of their own society’s approval? What are the risks of individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet racially uniform and socially static, community?
Female freedom always means sexual freedom, even when, especially when—it is seen through the prism of economic freedom”(Sula xiii).
Morrison wrote the book in 1969 while living in Queens, N.Y. That time period influenced the writing of it:
“Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men. In much literature a woman’s escape from male rule led to regret, misery, if not complete disaster. In Sula I wanted to explore the consequences of what that escape might be, on not only a conventional black society, but on female friendship. In 1969, in Queens, snatching liberty seemed compelling. Some of us thrived; some of us died. All of us had a taste”(Sula xvii).
Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, is the preeminent American writer, according to me. She is a literary Giant. Her intellect is so large, it fills the seas. Author of eleven novels, including, The Bluest Eye, (her first book in 1970), Sula, Beloved, Jazz and Paradise. She raised her sons as a single mother, received the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature(1993). She taught writing for many years at Howard University, SUNY Albany and Princeton. She was also an editor at Random House for many years. She died in 2019.
Nel and Sula are girlhood friends. They grew up on a hill called the Bottom in the 1920s in the town of Medallion, Ohio. Sula is raised by her grandmother and mother in a home that is messy, open and welcoming of all. Nel grows up in a home that is neat and clean and rigid. The two girls complement each other and love each other’s homes for what lacks in their own. They share secrets and giggles. Once grown, Nel chooses the safety of marriage and motherhood while Sula goes off to college. She returns to Medallion ten years later in 1937 for reasons we never fully understand, except she says she had nowhere else to go. She is worldly, educated and powerful.
Upon her return her grandmother tells her,
“When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.”
“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”
“Selfish,” her grandmother says. “Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man”(Sula 92).
But Sula doesn’t live by those rules.
Nel and Sula pick up where they left off and there is a happiness in Nel that she has not felt for some time. Until she finds them “nibbling” and lets her world end.
In her essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” Morrison comments:
“I always thought of Sula as quintessentially black, metaphysically black, if you will, which is not melanin and certainly not unquestioning fidelity to the tribe. She is a New World black and New World woman extracting choice from choicelessness, responding inventively to found things. Improvisational. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained, and uncontainable. And dangerously female. In her final conversation with Nel she refers to herself as a special kind of black person woman, one with choices”(SSR 187).
In that meeting of Nel and Sula in 1940, as Sula lies on her deathbed, things get heated between them fast when Sula says:
“…Every man I ever knew left his children.”
“Some were taken.”
“Wrong Nellie. The word is, ‘left’.”
“You still going to know everything, ain’t you?”
“I don’t know everything, I just do everything.”
“Well you don’t do what I do.”
“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.”
“Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.”
“Really? 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”(Sula 143).
In effect, Sula is free. And she scares the shit out of all of us, (at least a little, come on, admit it). Partly because we know she won’t play by our rules and therefore will disrupt and possibly destroy things we have come to label and hold tight to as precious, sacred and “ours,”and partly because we want to be free like her too (deep down in a hidden and desperate way). Sula reveals our bondage and our complicity with it at the same time. We wish to look away from those parts of ourselves so despicable and ugly, so we shun her.
Sula is free from what Morrison refers to as, “the master narrative.” When Bill Moyers, an interviewer, a white man, asks her what that is, she immediately responds, “white male life,” with a sly smile. Seeing his confusion, she elaborates: “The master narrative is whatever ideological script is being imposed by the people in authority on everyone else. It has a certain point of view…so when these little girls [referring to her novel, The Bluest Eye] see that the most prized gift they can get at Christmastime is this little white doll, that’s the master narrative speaking: This is beautiful. This is lovely, and you’re not it”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53F0lFMSwpc).
When asked why she calls Sula the New World black woman? Morrison replies:
“She’s not going to take it anymore…She’s available to her own imagination. She’s available for her own imagination, and other people’s stories, other people’s definitions are not hers”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53F0lFMSwpc).
Available to and for her own imagination. Yes. That’s a rare kind of freedom.
As Nel leaves that last meeting with Sula, for Sula dies that same day that Nel visits her:
“She opened the door and heard Sula’s low whisper. ‘Hey, girl.’ Nel paused and turned her head but not enough to see her.
‘How you know?’ Sula asked.
‘Know what?’ Nel still wouldn’t look at her.
‘About who was good. How you know it was you?’
‘What you mean?’
‘I mean maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me’(Sula 146).
It’s a good question. I sure don’t have the answer.
Toni Morrison is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Heilbrun, Carolyn, G. Writing a Woman’s Life. (Ballantine Books, 1988.)
Morrison, Toni. Sula. (Vintage International, 2004.)
Morrison, Toni. Love. (Vintage International, 2005.)
Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations. (Vintage International, 2019.)
Toni Morrison, Interview on Her Life and Career(1990) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53F0lFMSwpc