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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sula, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon

One of the biggest challenges of reading Sula is to understand how the characters can do things that, on the surface, appear cruel, even as they claim to be acting out of love.

At times, the character’s love for one another drives them to hurt and even kill each other. There’s no better example of this than Eva Peace’s act of “loving murder.” She’s always loved her youngest child, Ralph “Plum” Peace, and nearly killed herself trying to raise him through long winters. When Plum returns from World War I with a strong drug addiction, Eva can’t stand to see her beloved child losing his mind. She douses him in kerosene and lights him on fire, confident that she’s putting him out of the miseries of addiction and war trauma. Even now that Plum is fully-grown, Eva can’t picture herself allowing him to live his life without her help. Because Eva the loyal mother can no longer take care of Plum, she “takes care” of him and ends his life.

Morrison doesn’t fully “explain” Eva’s actions (even the explanation Eva herself gives can’t convey all the intricate reasons for why she did what she did). After a certain point, love is so complicated that we’ll never be able to understand why people do what they do, and Eva’s attack is the central example of this. Nevertheless, Morrison tries to help us understand her characters’ interpretations of love by studying a closely related subject: their sexuality.

Of the two protagonists, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, Nel has been raised to regard sexuality as a sacred, essential part of becoming an adult and a wife. Sula’s interpretation of sex is different: sex has been an uncontroversial, casual part of her life since she was a child. But as different as these two interpretations of sexuality may be, both Nel and Wright try to use sexuality to foster love. Both characters are taught to pursue sex with men, beginning at least when they’re twelve years old. For the young girls, sexuality is indistinguishable from being—it’s just that Nel thinks sexuality should be confined to marriage, while Sula thinks it shouldn’t. Unsurprisingly, when Sula is much older, she’s still trying to use sex to forge meaningful connections with men—indeed, she travels around America, having affairs and trying to find someone to love. After many years, Sula sleeps with Jude Greene, Nel’s own husband. Sula loves Nel Wright: she’s defended Nel from bullies, cheered Nel up when she’s sad, celebrated Nel’s wedding, etc. Yet because she’s been raised to think of sexuality as both uncontroversial and extremely important, Sula winds up hurting Nel, the person she loves most.

In Sula (and in real life), love is almost impossible to define. Partly because it’s hard to understand, and partly because they’ve been raised in a hyper-sexualized community, the female characters of the Bottom try to come to grips with love by reducing it to something else: sex with a man. In a way, the tragedy of Sula is that Nel and Sula, faced with a world in which love seems strange and indecipherable, try to find love through sexuality, and in doing so give up on the purest and most important form of love in their lives: their love for each other.

The great advantage of the process of “identity formation” for the people of the Bottom is that it gives them a strong sense of community. Even if they’re all miserable, they’re miserable together: united in their acceptance of pain. When a character like Sula Peace arrives in the Bottom, clearly unwilling to accept tragedy in her own life, we see the strength of the Bottom community. The townspeople join together in hating Sula for daring to “be” another way, a hatred that lessens their own self-hatred. But the great weakness of the townspeople’s identity is obvious: they’re accepting that they’re doomed to be persecuted and have no reason to try to better their lives. Toni Morrison is fond of saying that she uses her writing to argue for an idea, and then show why that idea is wrong. In typical form, Morrison uses Sula to show how the townspeople’s miserable process of identity formation makes their lives more bearable, and yet also condemns them to further misery.

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Love and Sexuality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Love and Sexuality appears in each chapter of Sula. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Love and Sexuality Quotes in Sula

Below you will find the important quotes in Sula related to the theme of Love and Sexuality.

He was a seaman (or rather a lakeman, for he was a ship's cook on one of the Great Lakes lines), in port only three days out of every sixteen. He took his bride to his home in Medallion and put her in a lovely house with a brick porch and real lace curtains at the window. His long absences were quite bearable for Helene Wright, especially when, after some nine years of marriage, her daughter was born. Her daughter was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene, Helene Sabat Wright, Wiley Wright
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we meet Helene Wright and her husband, Wiley Wright. Helene marries Wiley when she's still a young woman, despite (or really, becauseof) the fact that Wiley is a sailor, and spends all his time sailing around the Great Lakes. Helene seems not to want much contact with a man--perhaps because she's had so much experience as a child with male aggression and sexuality (she was born in a brothel), or perhaps because she just prefers to be alone and independent. So it suits her fine to marry a man who's never home.

It's worth asking why Helene bothers to marry anyone--if she's disgusted with men, why bother? In the unstable, racist society of the 1920s, Helene knows that she needs a man to support and protect her; she also wants the approval and attention of her peers. In general, though, the passage makes it clear that we're going to be reading a novel about women, first and foremost: the men in the novel (with one or two major exceptions) are largely peripheral to the plot.


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He opened his eyes and saw what he imagined was the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him. Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought. Everything is going to be all right, it said. Knowing that it was so he closed his eyes and sank back into the bright hole of sleep. Eva stepped back from the bed and let the 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.

Related Characters: Eva Peace, Ralph / Plum Peace
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ralph “Plum” Peace, the child of Eva Peace, dies. Plum was Eva Peace’s favorite son, and a bright, happy child. But after fighting in the American military, Plum becomes a shadow of his former self—he develops an addiction to heroine, and when he returns to Eva’s house, he spends all his time alone in his room, quiet and depressed. Eva makes the agonizing decision to mercy-kill her beloved child, dousing him with kerosene and then lighting him on fire. Notice the way that Morrison conveys the pain and devastation of the scene. When Morrison describes Eva’s “long, painful” journey back to her room, we’re ironically reminded of Plum’s painful death, and of Eva’s agonizing decision to kill someone she loves—a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Also notice that Morrison describes Plum’s death in language that suggests birth, not death—his death is a “Baptism,” whereby Plum is born again and freed from the pain and trauma of his life. So even as Morrison conveys the pain of the scene, she also suggests that Eva’s decision to kill Plum is (mostly) merciful, not cruel.


He was smiling, a great smile, heavy with lust and time to come. He nodded his head as though answering a question, and said, in a pleasant conversational tone, a tone of cooled butter, "Always." Sula fled down the steps, and shot through the greenness and the baking sun back to Nel and the dark closed place in the water. There she collapsed in tears. Nel quieted her. "Sh, sh. Don't, don't. You didn't mean it. It ain't your fault. Sh. Sh. Come on, le's go, Sula. Come on, now. Was he there? Did he see? Where's the belt to your dress?"

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Shadrack (speaker), Sula Peace, Chicken Little
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial section, Sula crosses paths with Shadrack, the World War One veteran who now lives in a cabin and fishes all day long. Sula, along with her friend Nel, has just witnessed the death by drowning of a young boy named Chicken Little. Sula feels enormously guilty for what she’s done—she feels that she’s responsible for a child’s death. Sula staggers into Shadrack’s cabin, where she’s shocked to see Shadrack smiling knowingly. Although Sula doesn’t ask Shadrack for details, she’s surprised to hear him say, “Always”—a word that, in her mind, proves that he’s been watching her, and knows she was partly responsible for Chicken Little’s death.

This is one of the most important moments of the novel, and yet it’s impossible to understand fully—at least right now. The scene has a strange, elliptical quality—there’s even a sexual element, symbolized by Nel’s question, “Where’s the belt to your dress?” (Given what Morrison has let us know, it’s not difficult to imagine Shadrack attempting to sexually molest Sula.) For the time being, however, we should recognize that a single word—“Always”—changes Sula’s life. The word makes her believe that she’s always watched, and always guilty.


“There wasn't space for him in my womb. And he was crawlin' back. Being helpless and thinking baby thoughts and dreaming baby dreams and messing up his pants again and smiling all the time. I had room enough in my heart, but not in my womb, not no more. I birthed him once. I couldn't do it again. He was growed, a big old thing. Godhavemercy, I couldn't birth him twice.”

Related Characters: Eva Peace (speaker), Hannah Peace, Ralph / Plum Peace
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Eva Peace tries to explain to Hannah why she killed Plum, her favorite son. Eva insists that she continued to feel responsible for Plum, even after Plum became an adult. She felt that after the war, Plum was regressing as a human being—addicted to heroine, he was becoming a child once again. As a mother, Eva felt a strange instinct to treat him like a child again—in a way, to “give birth” to him again. And yet, of course, Eva couldn’t do this—so instead, she burned him to death, giving him the symbolic, fiery “birth” of ascending to Heaven.

It’s possible to consider Eva’s explanation deeply sympathetic and yet wholly unconvincing. Eva is clearly a loving mother, and considers Plum her most beloved child. And yet perhaps she’s too overbearing in her relationship with Plum—her emotional connection with Plum is so intense that she can’t bear the slightest tragedies in his life, let alone the tragedy of his heroine addiction and depression. In short, Eva loves Ralph too much, and in a way, burning Ralph is a suicide, not a murder—Eva is killing a huge part of herself, and she never recovers emotionally.


"But Jude," she would say, "you knew me. All those days and years, Jude, you knew me. My ways and my hands and how my stomach folded and how we tried to get Mickey to nurse and how about that time when the landlord said... but you said... and I cried, Jude. You knew me and had listened to the things I said in the night, and heard me in the bathroom and laughed at my raggedy girdle and I laughed too because I knew you too, Jude. So how could you leave me when you knew me?"

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Jude Greene
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Nel Wright discovers that Jude has been having an affair with her best friend, Sula. Jude has been married to Nel for many years—they have children together, and consider each other close friends as well as lovers. As the quotation makes clear, Nel interprets Jude’s decision to leave her as an attack on Nel's very identity. If Jude knows Nel so completely, how could he abandon her? Only if he has decided that Nel isn’t worth knowing. The passage is a good example of how Morrison’s female characters internalize their own mistreatment—in other words, instead of blaming Jude for being an adulterer, Nel concludes that she is the problem, and essentially blames herself for her husband’s misdeeds.


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.

Lovemaking seemed to her, at first, the creation of a special kind of joy. She thought she liked the sootiness of sex and its comedy; she laughed a great deal during the raucous beginnings, and rejected those lovers who regarded sex as healthy or beautiful. Sexual aesthetics bored her. Although she did not regard sex as ugly (ugliness was boring also), she liked to think of it as wicked. But as her experiences multiplied she realized that not only was it not wicked, it was not necessary for her to conjure up the idea of wickedness in order to participate fully.

Related Characters: Sula Peace
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Morrison tells us about Sula's attitude toward sex. By this point in the text, we know that Sula has had an affair with Jude, the husband of her best friend, Nel Wright. Sula's attitude toward sex is both serious and casual. At first, she regards sex as something wicked and sinful--and all the more enjoyable because it is wicked. But later on, Sula becomes more accustomed to sex. She finds that she can enjoy it on its own terms--that is, without thinking of it as being transgressive or forbidden.

Sula is, in other words, a sexually "liberated" woman. In contrast to the people of her community, she regards sex as a perfectly ordinary thing--enjoyable and yet not special. Morrison isn't trying to excuse Sula's decision to sleep with Jude, but she is trying to explain it. As we can see, Sula doesn't really regard her sexual experiences with Jude as a betrayal of her old friend, Nel--she's so used to thinking of sex as a banal experience that she forgets that Nel doesn't share her point of view.

She lay down again on the bed and sang a little wandering tune made up of the words I have sung all the songs all the songs I have sung all the songs there are until, touched by her own lullaby, she grew drowsy, and in the hollow of near-sleep she tasted the acridness of gold, felt the chill of alabaster and smelled the dark, sweet stench of loam.

Related Characters: Sula Peace, Ajax
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Sula has a strange sexual experience with Ajax, a handsome man whom she befriends after she's left the Bottom altogether. Sula makes love to Ajax and then falls asleep next to him. Unlike most of her sexual partners, Ajax inspires a feeling of levity and excitement in Sula--she imagines Ajax as a being made of gold and loam (rich, fertile soil).

It's important to note that the passage doesn't name Ajax at all--Sula thinks of Ajax as something more basic and elemental than a sexual partner; he's practically a force of nature. In fact, the passage is so abstract that it's difficult to tell what, exactly is going on. Sula seems to embody a feminine sense of youth and vitality, and yet the language of the passagealso points to Sula as a penetrating, masculine presence--boring through Ajax (who is portrayed in the traditionally feminine terms of a passive, fertile soil) until she reaches his "dark, sweet" center. Morrison reminds us of Sula's androgynous nature (remember her birthmark). She also suggests that, contrary to what the sexist people of the Bottom believe, Sula is capable of feeling a deep romantic bond with her partners.


I know what every colored woman in this country is doing."
"What's that?"
"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."

Related Characters: Sula Peace (speaker), Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Nel visits Sula, who is slowly dying of a mysterious disease, and Sula gives an interesting justification for her actions--for sleeping with Jude, traveling across the country, putting Eva in a home, etc. Sula explains that she's spent her adult life trying to fully "live in this world." In order to escape the fate of many black women (being silenced, oppressed, etc.), Sula has always aimed to be strong and independent.

Nel points out the obvious flaw in the way Sula has lived her life: it's lonely being strong and independent without anyone else. By choosing to travel the country and be free with her sexuality, Sula knows full-well that she's condemning herself to a life of loneliness (most people in her life will think of her as a "bitch"). But Sula places more value on freedom and independence than she does on community. Where Nel and Helene Wright think of community and connection as the highest good, Sula concludes that personal freedom and personal experience are the only things worth living for.

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'll I tell Nel."

Related Characters: Sula Peace (speaker), Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this surreal passage, Sula seems to die and then briefly awake from death. Almost amusingly, Sula tells herself that she needs to talk to Nel as soon as possible--she can't wait to tell her old friend about what it feels like to die.

The passage is a good example of Morrison's magical realism (see quotes above for more details). But it's also a surprising reminder that in spite of her arguments with Nel, Sula has always considered Nel her best and closest friend--even after Sula slept with Nel, and Nel came to hate Sula. The passage, therefore, is poignant and tragic: it's the last sentence of the chapter, and afterwards, Sula and Nel never speak again (because Sula is dead). Morrison doesn't offer Nel and Sula the happy reunion they both seem to crave, but at the same time she reaffirms their constant connection, which lasts even unto death.


What did old Eva mean by “you watched?” How could she help seeing it? She was right there. But Eva didn't say, “see,” she said “watched.”
"I did not watch it. I just saw it." But it was there anyway, as it had always been, the old feeling and the old question. The good feeling she had had when Chicken's hands slipped. She hadn't wondered about that in years. "Why didn't I feel bad when it happened? How come it felt so good to see him fall?"

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Eva Peace (speaker), Sula Peace, Chicken Little
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Nel takes her leave of Eva Peace, now a bitter old woman. Eva tells Nel that she knows everything about Chicken Little's death--an event that happened years and years ago, when Nel and Sula were just children. Eva accuses Nel of watching as Sula's hands slipped and Chicken Little fell into the water.

Everything in the passage hinges on the difference between seeing and watching. Seeing is passive--we have eyes, so we can't help but see things around us. Watching is entirely different: to watch something is to choose to pay attention to it, and even be entertained by it, yet not act. As Eva suspects, Nel did not see Chicken Little's death; she watched it. Eva has always been a little afraid and a little jealous of Sula's sense of freedom and liberation--as a result, she got an unwilling thrill of satisfaction when she saw Sula make a mistake and drop Chicken Little into the water. For years, Nel has been denying the truth to herself: she was pleased to watch Chicken Little's death because she wanted Sula to fail.

"All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude." 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 no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Sula Peace, Jude Greene
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final sentences of the novel, Nel comes to realize that her greatest friend and companion in life was always Sula, not Jude. For years, Nel has been telling herself that Sula is her enemy--Sula slept with Jude, Nel's husband, and broke up Nel's marriage in the process. And yet in spite of everything, Nel has never had a friend who knew her as well as Sula did. Nel's realization matches Sula's final words in the novel, "Wait'll I tell Nel," suggesting that in spite of their arguments and rivalries, the two continue to love each other and be bound by something stronger than all their differences.

In no small part, Nel and Sula have been pushed apart by the racism, sexism, and intolerance of their society. Nel has been content to live a docile, domestic life--Sula, on the other hand, has refused to live so passively. As a result, Sula has spent most of her life being free and experimental with her sexuality--a lifestyle that Nel was always unable to understand.