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Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Analysis

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
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Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon

From the first pages of Sula, it’s clear that signs and names carry a huge amount of power. The novel documents some of the ways that signs can be powerful, and how this power can be used and abused.

Morrison makes it clear that the act of naming is enormously important, and always reflects the power and personality of the “namer.” For example, throughout the novel various characters are given the opportunity to “name” one important and ambiguous sign: Sula Peace’s oddly shaped birthmark. Each character gives a different “name” to the birthmark, and the names could be said to reflect the character’s innermost thoughts and behaviors. Jude Greene thinks the birthmark looks like a snake, perhaps reflecting his sexual desire for Sula, while Shadrack thinks the mark looks like a tadpole, symbolizing his fishing and his infantile mind. In short, names are never accidents: ironically, they always say something about who’s doing the naming.

But even if names reflect the namer’s own thoughts and desires, the name he or she chooses also exerts real, tangible power over the thing being named. Eva Peace, who’s tasked with naming every child in the Bottom, gives a group of children the same name: Dewey. Over time, the children continue spending time with each other, even though they’re all different ages. The name becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: because Eva gives the children the same name, they remain bound together for the rest of their lives.

There’s no doubt that naming is an important form of power in Sula. And yet this power can be twisted and manipulated for selfish reasons. The racist white farmers who trick their black field workers into accepting land in the hills overlooking Medallion have manipulated a name—“Bottom”—for their own advantages. The farmers, knowing full well what they’re doing, have promised African-Americans one thing, then given them another, because the ambiguity in the name “Bottom” allows them this leeway. This is why naming is so difficult, and so prone to deception: because not everyone can agree on what something means, one particular interpretation is always in danger of disagreeing with the other interpretations.

In the end, the tragedy of Sula is a tragedy of ambiguous signs, whose definitions and meanings can never be agreed upon. When Sula accidentally kills Chicken Little, she thinks that Shadrack has seen her, and is silently judging her for her crime. When Sula runs into Shadrack’s shack, Shadrack whispers the word “always” to her, seemingly a sign that he is “always” watching, and knows about Sula’s crime. The truth, which only Shadrack and we, the readers, know, is that Shadrack is actually trying to comfort Sula about her birthmark—he didn’t even know that Chicken Little was drowned. One word, interpreted one way, has scarred Sula for the rest of her life. Because the people in the novel interpret different names in different ways—“always,” “husband,” “friend,” “love”—they must live in a state of uncertainty, never sure if their loved ones can truly understand them.

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Signs, Names, and Interpretation ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Sula related to the theme of Signs, Names, and Interpretation.
Prologue Quotes

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 a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, "Oh, no! See those hills? That's bottom land, rich and fertile." "But it's high up in the hills," said the slave. "High up from 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—best land there is." So the slave pressed his master to try to 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 the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter.

Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Prologue, Morrison describes the Bottom, a black community in which the rest of the story takes place. There is a legend about how the area got its name: years before, when the slaves were first being freed, their white owners would promise them "Bottom land," which the slaves assumed meant the good, fertile land in the valley. Later, the slave masters would give their former slaves the arid, useless land high up in the hills--land that was supposedly close to the "bottom of Heaven." In other words, white people used linguistic tricks to force uneducated black people into an inferior position.

The passage is notable because it establishes the importance of names and language for the characters. Powerful characters in the book are shown to have a strong proficiency with language--often, they demonstrate their power by naming babies, or interpreting a complicated word or sign. Controlling language becomes particularly importance, the passage shows, because of the preeminence of racism in the community. White people want to keep black people subjugated, even after the slaves are freed--and controlling words is a way for them to do so. But, as Morrison shows, words are also a way for black people to fight back and affirm their dignity and creativity.


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There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real—that he didn't exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more. In his joy he took the risk of letting one edge of the blanket drop and glanced at his hands. They were still. Courteously still. Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the first sleep of his new life.

Related Characters: Shadrack
Page Number: 13-14
Explanation and Analysis:

Shadrack, a black veteran of World War One, sees his own face in a toilet bowl. He's been deeply disturbed by what he witnessed in the war, probably has PTSD because of it, and wishes he could forget about it altogether. Here, we see Shadrack coping with his own trauma. By gazing at his reflection, Shadrack finds a way to stabilize his anxieties--he keeps coming back to fact that he is Shadrack, and always will be. Notably, he also finds comfort and stability in his blackness. Unlike the racist society he lives in, in this passage Shadrack sees that there is nothing inherently inferior about blackness--in fact it is a color of calm, beauty, and power.

At the same time, of course, Shadrack isn't really looking at himself as he really is: he's looking at himself in a toilet. Shadrack is coming to accept a lesser version of himself, a version that's been tarnished and dirtied both by the savagery of war and the cruelty of U.S. racism. In order to maintain his sanity, he accepts his new "self," but in doing so he also accepts his status as a second-class citizen and an inferior human being. Shadrack's behavior in this passage is the first of many scenes of self-acceptance, in which a character will accept an inferior position in society out of weakness, fear, or sheer exhaustion.

Then Reverend Deal took it up, saying the same folks who had sense enough to avoid Shadrack's call were the ones who insisted on drinking themselves to death or womanizing themselves to death. "May's well go on with Shad and save the Lamb the trouble of redemption." Easily, quietly, Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio.

Related Characters: Reverend Deal (speaker), Shadrack
Related Symbols: National Suicide Day
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

When Shadrack returns to his town, he begins to celebrate a gruesome, made-up holiday called National Suicide Day. On this day, Shadrack walks through the streets, yelling about suicide for all to hear. Although the townspeople are at first shocked by Shadrack's calls for self-slaughter, they eventually begin to accept it, in a grudging, sarcastic way. Here, for example, we see a pillar of the community, the Reverend Deal, joking about how there are many in his community who do practice suicide--albeit the slow, painful suicide of alcoholism or other self-destructive behaviors.

It's crucial to notice that Reverend Deal, though he claims to be joking, is actually being perfectly serious. The townspeople want to dismiss Shadrack's actions as foolish and trivial, but their own lives are so miserable that they secretly sympathize with Shadrack's behavior. Over time, the townspeople will come to accept National Suicide Day as an ordinary part of their calendar--a brief but powerful reminder of the misery in their own lives (paralleling Shadrack's cynical acceptance of his reflection in the toilet bowl, discussed above).


Slowly each boy came out of whatever cocoon he was in at the time his mother or somebody gave him away, and accepted Eva's view, becoming in fact as well as in name a dewey—joining with the other two to become a trinity with a plural name... inseparable, loving nothing and no one but themselves. When the handle from the icebox fell off, all the deweys got whipped, and in dry-eyed silence watched their own feet as they turned their behinds high up into the air for the stroke.

Related Characters: Eva Peace, The deweys
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage—a good example of Morrison’s style of magical realism—we’re introduced to the deweys, a group of children. When they’re young, the children are all given the same name, Dewey. Over time, the name “Dewey” itself becomes a literal, powerful bond between the boys—they do everything together, simply because of their common name. Even when one of the Dewey children is punished, the other boys accept the punishment, too. Strangest of all, the deweys stop growing—after a certain point, they never get any bigger or taller. Morrison conveys the unity of the children by spelling their common name in the lowercase—“deweys,” not “Dewey.”

There are a couple of key points here. First, note that Morrison never presents the peculiar solidarity of the deweys as magical or supernatural, even though it seems to be—as in many works of “magical realism” (the literary style with which Morrison is often associated), supernatural events are presented as perfectly ordinary. Second, notice that the deweys lack any individual identity. Each dewey child is exactly the same—they’re even punished for the same crimes. Perhaps Morrison intends the deweys to be a symbol for the struggle for individualism in the black community. Persecuted by white America and brought up in poverty and misery, it’s easier for the deweys to be a group than for them to be individuals—they’re so frightened that they can't help losing their identities.

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.


Sula was a heavy brown with large quiet eyes, one of which featured a birthmark that spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose. It gave her otherwise plain face a broken excitement and blue-blade threat like the keloid scar of the razored man who sometimes played checkers with her grandmother. The birthmark was to grow darker as the years passed, but now it was the same shade as her gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain.

Related Characters: Sula Peace
Related Symbols: The Birthmark
Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we’re introduced to one of the most evocative symbols in the novel: Sula’s mysterious birthmark. As we’re told, Sula was born with a strange mark above her eye—a mark that gets darker over time, symbolizing Sula’s literal and emotional aging. The birthmark is shaped like a rose with a stem—a shape which, as many critics have pointed out, is both masculine and feminine (the stem could be interpreted as phallic, while the rose is traditionally feminine). In other words, Sula’s birthmark is a sign of her androgynous nature—she embodies both male and female characteristics, as we’ll see very soon. We should also notice that for the time being, the birthmark is pale, reflecting the fact that Sula is still young, and—more importantly—still innocent. As Sula grows older and more sinful, her mark will dark accordingly—it’s a kind of “benchmark” of her soul’s state. (For more on the birthmark, see Symbols.)

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.


"The real hell of Hell is that it is forever." Sula said that. She said doing anything forever and ever was hell. Nel didn't understand it then, but now in the bathroom, trying to feel, she thought, "If I could be sure that I could stay here in this small white room with the dirty tile and water gurgling in the pipes and my head on the cool rim of this bathtub and never have to go out the door, I would be happy. If I could be certain that I never had to get up and flush the toilet, go in the kitchen, watch my children grow up and die, see my food chewed on my plate... Sula was wrong. Hell ain't things lasting forever. Hell is change."

Related Characters: Sula Peace (speaker), Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker)
Page Number: 107-108
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Morrison shows us the fundamental divide between her two female protagonists, Nel and Sula: Sula craves constant change, while Nel craves sameness and stability. By this point in the text, Sula has seduced Nel’s husband, Jude, resulting in Jude’s decision to walk away from Nel and break up their marriage.

Without fully explaining why Sula chooses to sleep with her best friend’s husband, Morrison suggests that Sula is more interested in the thrill of sudden change than she is in the constancy of friendship, let alone marriage. Sula’s desire for adventure and excitement seem to stem from the way she was raised—like her grandmother, Eva Peace, she’s comfortable when she’s “on the road,” in the process of doing many things at once. Nel, on the other hand, thinks of change as a kind of hell. Like her mother, Helene, Nel is afraid of the world’s inevitable changes—death, impoverishment, etc. She’s been raised to conceive of life as a constant process of decay. It’s partly for this reason that Nel chooses to marry Jude in the first place—Jude, a husband, represents some peace and relief from the world’s unpredictability. In a way, Nel and Sula represent two sides of femininity: unending life force and timid domesticity.


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.

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.