Toni Morrison

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Sula Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Toni Morrison's Sula. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born in Ohio to a working-class family that had fled the South to escape racism and economic oppression. She attended Howard University from 1949 to 1953, and later earned a Masters Degree at Cornell. She was married to Harold Morrison, an architect, from 1958 to 1964. During this time she gave birth to two children, who she raised on her own. Following her divorce from her husband, Morrison worked as an editor in New York City, where she was instrumental in publishing the first works of the political activist Angela Davis. In 1970 she published her first novel,The Bluest Eye. She then completed Sula(1973), for which she was nominated for the National Book Award; Song of Solomon (1977), the novel that first brought her widespread acclaim; and Beloved (1987), which contributed to her being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993. Morrison taught at Rutgers, Howard, Princeton, and many other colleges and universities. Her final novel,God Help the Child, was published in 2015. In 2019, at the age of 88, Morrison died of complications from pneumonia.
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Historical Context of Sula

In addition to being a story about the friendship and rivalry between Nel and Sula, Sula can be read as a story about the African-American experience in the first half of the 20th century. As the novel begins, blacks in the United States live in a state of fear and poverty. African-Americans were freed from slavery following the Civil War, but their literal liberation didn’t free them from other forms of economic servitude and social oppression. In practice, blacks had almost no legal or political power, meaning that they could be manipulated and controlled by racist whites with impunity. It was hoped that by serving in World War I, beginning in 1917, blacks could gain some political rights, but this largely turned out to be untrue: the American government of the period, headed by Woodrow Wilson, showed no interest in granting new legal and political protections for the black community, in spite of its loyal service to the U.S. during the war. Morrison alludes to African-Americans’ thankless service in World War I via the character of Shadrack—a young, strong black man who fights in Europe, and returns to his home a broken man. Finally, Morrison’s novel alludes to the economic history of the black community in the United States. In the 30s and 40s, blacks gained some legal rights for themselves, largely as a result of starting their own businesses and making more money. By 1965—the year in which the novel ends—there were more and more prosperous black families, but at the same time, black people remained highly discriminated against in America. While blacks had more money and rights than they ever had before, they were still largely pushed to live in poorer, segregated communities, far from whites.

Other Books Related to Sula

Sula alludes to many works of American literature. One of its most overt allusions is to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. Just as Hester Prynne wears a bright scarlet “A” on her chest and is despised by the hypocritical townspeople, so Sula’s face is “dirtied” with a birthmark, and must face the hatred of the self-hating people of Medallion. The beginning of Sula, in which the narrator dryly notes that a once-thriving black community has been converted into a golf course, is an unmistakable shot at the first pages of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. In this novel Faulkner studies the history of a decaying white Southern family, treating the family’s decision to sell its old golf course as a tragic milestone. By beginning with an all-white golf course, Morrison seems to be criticizing Faulkner for focusing only on the decay of white culture in his portraits of the South—or at the very least, she suggests that she is now offering to tell the other side of the story. Morrison’s novel has many touches that could be termed “magical realism” (though Morrison herself has denied this)—characters speak from the grave, live for decades without aging, etc. Magical realism, a literary movement that began in the 1950s in Latin America, aims to blur the divide between fantasy and reality: in a magical realist novel, the most fantastical events are described as if they’re everyday occurrences. One of the most famous practitioners of magical realism was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude—with its themes of time, aging, memory, and recurrence, as well as its blurring of fantasy and reality—seems to have been an important influence on Morrison. Finally, in Sula, one can see hints of the themes and storylines that Morrison would develop in later novels. For instance, the theme of names—names that tell a great, complicated story—is detectable within the first few pages of Sula. Morrison would later develop this theme in her 1977 novel Song of Solomon, in which the main character must journey across the country to learn the history of his own name.
Key Facts about Sula
  • Full Title:Sula
  • Where Written:Washington D.C.
  • When Published:November 1973
  • Literary Period:1970s Feminism, postmodernism, Magical Realism
  • Genre: Generational saga, family drama
  • Setting:Medallion, Ohio
  • Climax:The mass death at the New River Road on January 3, 1941
  • Antagonist:It’s hard to pin down any definite antagonist in Sula: all the characters have their vices and virtues. However, one could certainly say that racism functions as a kind of general antagonist impacting all of the characters.
  • Point of View:Third person limited—the novel is told from the perspectives of many different characters, including Nel, Sula, Eva, Shadrack, and Jude.

Extra Credit for Sula

Renaissance Woman: Toni Morrison isn’t afraid to say that she’s talented. When she appeared on The Colbert Report in 2014, she told Stephen Colbert that she’d recently re-read her 1987 masterpiece, Beloved. Her conclusion? It was “very, very good.”

Awards, awards, awards:Morrison has won virtually every honor available for an American writer: the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, etc. In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As of 2015, she is the most recent American, the only American woman, and the only African-American to win this honor.