Sula

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The Plague of Robins Symbol Analysis

The Plague of Robins Symbol Icon

When Sula Peace returns to the Bottom in 1937, she’s followed by a large flock of birds—Morrison describes it as a “plague of robins.” Morrison is being a little ironic: she knows perfectly well that birds don’t fly in “plagues.” Rather, Morrison is capturing Sula’s return from the perspective of the small-minded townspeople, who distrust Sula because of her energy and livelihood. As Sula spends more and more time in the town, the people think of other ambiguous signs that supposedly “prove” that Sula is wicked. And yet the plague of robins is the most important of these ambiguous signs, because it can so clearly be interpreted positively or negatively. There’s nothing particularly frightening or threatening about a flock of birds—unless you call it a “plague.” In this sense, the plague of robins is a symbol of symbol—that is, it’s a symbol for the way that narrow-minded people can easily misinterpret the world to fit into their biased opinions.

The Plague of Robins Quotes in Sula

The Sula quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Plague of Robins. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage International edition of Sula published in 2004.
1939 Quotes

When the word got out about Eva being put in Sunnydale, the people in the Bottom shook their heads and said Sula was a roach. Later, when they saw how she took Jude, then ditched him for others, and heard how he bought a bus ticket to Detroit (where he bought but never mailed birthday cards to his sons), they forgot all about Hannah's easy ways (or their own) and said she was a bitch. Everybody remembered the plague of robins that announced her return, and the tale about her watching Hannah burn was stirred up again…

Related Characters: Sula Peace , Eva Peace , Hannah Peace , Jude Greene
Related Symbols: The Plague of Robins
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, as in other passages of the novel, the people of the Bottom become like a single, unitary character. Over the years, Sula acquires a reputation for being a “bitch” and an untrustworthy, devious woman. She sends Eva Peace, her own grandmother, into a nursing home, despite the fact that Eva has been a caretaker to hundreds of children. The townspeople also condemn Sula for sleeping with Jude, Nel’s husband.

Notice the sexism of the townspeople’s comments, however. They condemn Sula for “breaking up the marriage,” but seem not to dislike Jude for cheating on his wife. By the same token, the townspeople seem more interested in attacking women’s reputations than in consistency—they criticize Hannah for being "easy," then criticize Sula for watching her death. Perhaps most tellingly, the townspeople re-interpret an ambiguous sign (the "plague of robins") to rationalize their ideas about Sula. Where before the robins seemed innocent to many, they’re now retroactively made to foreshadow Sula’s wickedness. The point isn’t that Sula is a heroin and the townspeople are wicked; the point is that the townspeople, whether or not they’re right to condemn Sula, traffic in self-righteous stereotypes about women—sexism disguised as morality.

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Their conviction of Sula's evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula.

Related Characters: Sula Peace
Related Symbols: The Plague of Robins
Page Number: 117-118
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage (an homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), we learn that Sula’s reputation for wickedness has a strangely positive influence on the Bottom. Because everyone in town thinks of Sula as a demon, they can’t force themselves to treat their own families and friends with animosity—on the contrary, they stop beating their children, love their significant others more deeply, etc. In short, Sula becomes a scapegoat for the Bottom—a “vessel” into which the townspeople pour all their hatred, instead of taking it out on each other. Sula doesn’t seem to deserve the full extent of the townspeople’s anger (see quote above), but because she receives so much anger, her overall effect on the Bottom seems to be positive.

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The Plague of Robins Symbol Timeline in Sula

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Plague of Robins appears in Sula. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1937
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...Sula has just returned to Medallion, and for some reason, she’s accompanied by a “ plague of robins .” Sula is dressed “like a movie star,” attracting the stares of the old men... (full context)
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
In May (after Eva has been taken away), the “ plague of robins ” has flown away. Nel believes that things have gotten better in the Bottom because... (full context)
1939
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...knowledge that Sula slept with Nel’s husband—makes Sula despised in the Bottom. People remember the plague of robins that accompanied Sula’s return to the neighborhood, and conclude that the robins were a bad... (full context)