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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.
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon

Although Sula moves between many different characters’ perspectives, it is almost entirely told from the point of view of women living in the Bottom. Often, the men in the novel can’t be “pinned down” for long: their jobs keep them away from home (Wiley Wright), or their desire for independence leads them to abandon their families (Jude Greene, BoyBoy, etc.). As a result, it’s no surprise that Morrison offers many insights into the lives of women and their role in their communities.

One quality that defines many of the women in Sula (Helene, Eva, Hannah, Nel, etc.) is motherhood. The men in the novel are often less closely connected with their families than are their wives—sometimes, they abandon their families altogether. Although many of the mothers in the novel leave their hometown in Ohio for long periods of time (even Eva Peace, perhaps the most devoted mother in the book, leaves for eighteen months), they’re likely to come back to take care of their children, and often after they take one leave of absence, they never take another one again. As a result of the heightened presence of mothers in the lives of their children, the bond between a mother and child—and particularly a mother and her daughter—is exceptionally strong.

Another important kind of feminine bond in Sula, arguably even more important than motherhood, is friendship—the paramount example being the close friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright. And yet there’s always an implicit problem in the friendships between women and other women. Too often, women—certainly the women of the Bottom—are taught that they must find a husband, or else always be “incomplete.” We can see this dynamic at work when Sula and Nel, only twelve years old, go off to find “beautiful boys”—an episode of their lives that ultimately drives them apart and spoils their friendship. Years later, Sula, convinced that she must find love and understanding through sex, sleeps with Nel’s husband, Jude Green, destroying Nel’s marriage and ending their friendship for good. When women are convinced that finding a man is their ultimate purpose in life, they will consider their friendships with other women to be only of secondary importance—and as a result, female friendships face the danger of being torn apart by competition for “beautiful boys.”

In a famous essay, the author Virginia Woolf praised Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night for being the first work of Western literature in which two women are friends with one another, and don’t compete for a man’s attention. It’s worth thinking about how rare friendships between women are in literature—more often than not, women’s relationships are defined by a common goal: a husband. In Sula, Morrison shows how the relationships between women hold families and entire communities together. And yet many female friendships are ruined because society teaches women that their purpose in life is to compete for a husband and make a new family.

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Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Sula related to the theme of Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles.

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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It was on that train, shuffling toward Cincinnati, that she resolved to be on guard—always. She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way. That no midnight eyes or marbled flesh would ever accost her and turn her into jelly.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene, Helene Sabat Wright
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we get our first insight into the mind of Nel Wright, the troubled daughter of Helene Wright. Nel is only a small child when Helene takes her to the American South to visit her childhood home in Louisiana. On the train, Nel watches as Helene is accosted by a white man, who bullies her. Helene tries her best to cooperate with the man, and smiles deferentially at him--but then she faces the clear contempt of the black men on the train.

Even as a young girl, Nel feels a strange mixture of pity and contempt for her mother—Nel swears to herself that she’ll never allow men to treat her that way; to make her feel submissive and helpless. The passage is also important because it establishes an antagonistic relationship between men and women, in and out of the black community. Furthermore, it suggests that coming of age—here represented by Nel’s promise to herself—consists of the moment in which one becomes conscious of sex and sexual politics.


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.


“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.


She was not only a little drunk, she was weary and had been for weeks. Her only child's wedding—the culmination of all she had been, thought or done in this world—had dragged from her energy and stamina even she did not know she possessed. Her house had to be thoroughly cleaned, chickens had to be plucked, cakes and pies made, and for weeks she, her friends and her daughter had been sewing. Now it was all happening and it took only a little cane juice to snap the cords of fatigue and damn the white curtains that she had pinned on the stretcher only the morning before.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene, Helene Sabat Wright
Page Number: 79-80
Explanation and Analysis:

Helene Wright presides over the wedding of her child, Nel Wright. Helene has spent her entire adult life immersing herself in the social life of a married, “classy” woman. She does all the right things—goes to church, hosts dinner parties, befriends her neighbors, etc. Now, Helene is about to experience the defining part of her life as a well-off wife: the wedding of her daughter. She spends a huge amount of time preparing for the wedding—she knows perfectly well how important it is, both for her daughter and for her “image” in the community.

And yet the description of the wedding is strangely bitter and melancholy. Helene’s entire life has been building up to this scene—and it's quite the anticlimax, despite Helene's cathartic drunkenness during the celebration itself. Morrison seems to be critiquing the stereotypes of domestic, female life, a life that's overly concerned with the material trappings of success and happiness, and yet neglects real happiness and real emotional connections. (Helene is never shown to be particularly close to Nel—she seems to love being perceived as a good mother more than she loves her own daughter.)


"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.

"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.


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.