Sula

Sula 1939 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Word gets out that Eva is being sent to a nursing home, and people learn that Sula is responsible for sending her grandmother there. This information—along with the 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 omen. The townspeople also mention how Jude Greene has left Ohio and moved to Detroit, where he never sends letters to his family.
The people of the Bottom don’t really understand what they’re interpreting, but their interpretations still affect their actions. All they know is that something has changed now that Sula is in town, and therefore Sula must be bad. This reminds us of how enthusiastically the people have embraced the status quo in all its flaws—they’re afraid of change (perhaps because in the past, change has usually been for the worse).
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In the coming months, Sula begins to have regular “accidents” and misunderstandings. One day, a child named Teapot knocks on her door to ask if she has any bottles. When Sula says that she doesn’t, Teapot trips and falls down the stairs. In the coming days, Teapot’s mother blames Sula for pushing her child down the stairs. She sends Teapot to the hospital, where she learns that Teapot has a fracture. Teapot’s mother is so angry with Sula that she responds by becoming a model parent—always clean and hard working.
Ironically, hatred of Sula becomes a way for the people of the town to bond with one another, and to become “better,” more moral people. This is, unfortunately, a pattern repeated throughout history: a community chooses a scapegoat, and becomes closer as a result. Even before Sula’s arrival, the people of the Bottom had formed a strong community with one another, based in no small part on their pessimistic acceptance of their own grim lot in life.
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Sula has other misunderstandings with the people in the Bottom. One day, an old man named Mr. Finley is sitting on his porch, eating chicken, when he chokes on a bone and dies—and Sula is blamed for this. The townspeople also make up other stories about Sula—it’s said that mosquitos don’t bite her, that she doesn’t belch when she drinks, etc. A woman named Dessie reports that she saw Shadrack tip his hat to Sula, in response to which Sula smiled and curtseyed. This, the town concludes, means that both Sula and Shadrack are wicked people.
The links between Sula and evil become more and more tenuous, proving to us that the people of the Bottom are desperate to blame their troubles on some external force. Sula, like Shadrack, is misunderstood because she is different. This isn’t to say that she isn’t guilty of some pretty awful things—but the townspeople aren’t judging her for these things. Instead, they’re blaming her for nonsense like a man choking on food.
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The townspeople come to believe that God has sent Sula to do evil in the Bottom. For the time being, they decide not to do anything about this, since the purpose of evil is to be withstood, in demonstration of faith. Nevertheless, the people of the Bottom gossip about Sula’s evil—she betrayed her closest friend, Nel, ruining her life with lust.
The townspeople don’t try to get rid of Sula’s “evil”—or, in other words, they don’t actually try to change things in the Bottom. This is partly because they need Sula’s evil to define themselves as good: they need a scapegoat they can hold themselves up against, and point at as the “bad guy.”
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The narrator switches to describing Sula’s experiences during her ten years away from the Bottom (before returning and sleeping with Jude, etc.). Sula travels to Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Macon, and San Diego. She only returns to Medallion because she misses Nel—and because she becomes bored with travel. In the cities where she travels, she finds all the people to be the same: hard-working, sweating, etc. Her only interactions in these cities are sexual. The narrator notes that if Sula had known how to make art—to paint or dance—then she would have found an outlet for her frustration. But instead, Sula can only bounce from one sexual partner to the other, never finding the relief she craves. Sula continues to sleep with men because she craves sadness. Her favorite moment of sex is the moment after, when her lover turns away from her and she can be alone with her feelings.
Morrison contrasts the narrow-mindedness of the neighborhood’s view of Sula with the richness and depth of her own life. Sula has been traveling around the country in the hope of finding something new—new people and new experiences. But she only finds that people are essentially alike all over, especially in the way that they try to distract themselves from their own misery. For her part, Sula turns to sex as a distraction and to find purpose—perhaps explaining why Sula tries to sleep with her best friend’s husband. There’s no joy in Sula’s actions—she just tries to make peace with her own self, and fails every time.
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Sula then comes back to Medallion and immediately makes the acquaintance of Ajax, the same man who called her “pig meat” 17 years before. Ajax is now 38, working as a milkman, and Sula is 29. Ajax visits Sula at her house regularly, always offering her gifts—ice cream, berries, and, of course, milk. Surprisingly, Ajax is very courteous to Sula—and to other women in the Bottom. The narrator notes that Ajax is kind to the women in his life because he had learned to behave this way around his mother. Ajax’s mother was a resourceful woman who delighted in performing acts of magic and predicting the weather with spells. Ajax was civil with her, and in return, she let him do whatever he wanted.
Based on his earlier appearance in the novel, we’d assumed that Ajax was a crude man who mistreated women. And yet here we find that the opposite is the case: Ajax is remarkably respectful of women, mostly because his mother has taught him to behave this way. This isn’t to say that Ajax “understands” women—beginning with his own mother, women have an air of mystery for him, which he is unable to grasp. But Ajax is at least intriguing and sensitive in a similar way to Sula herself.
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The narrator continues describing Ajax. He loves only two things in the world: his mother and airplanes. Ajax takes long trips to big cities, and most people assume it’s because he’s giving himself elaborate vacations, but actually Ajax just likes to fly in planes because he dreams of working on an airplane one day. In the ten years of Sula’s absence, he had heard many stories about her, and how she was famously elusive and unpredictable. Thus, when Sula returns to town, he can’t resist paying her a visit. Ajax suspects that Sula will be just like his mother: uninterested in other people, and thus uninterested in having sex with him.
Ajax and Sula aren’t so different: they both have lofty ambitions of change and escape. Ajax channels these ambitions into his love for airplanes: a symbol of escape if ever there was one. Ajax’s fascination with Sula is in part the fascination of one dreamer with another. Paradoxically, Ajax is attracted to people who aren’t attracted to him—he respects those who, like him, want to find something new in their lives.
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Eventually, Sula does decide to sleep with Ajax. She’s been charmed by his gifts, but the real reason that she sleeps with him is that he “talked to her,” and seems genuinely interested in what she thinks. Ajax was always a good listener, the narrator notes: he had lots of practice, growing up with five siblings and a mysterious mother.
Sula is attracted to Ajax for the simplest and most clichéd of reasons: he respects her and is interested in who she is. It’s worth thinking about rare this is in the novel: Helene, for example, is attracted to Wiley Wright because she wants stability in her life, not because she finds him to be a sensitive or understanding man.
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Once, while Sula and Ajax are having sex, Sula imagines that Ajax is made out of gold. Beneath the gold, she thinks, there is alabaster, which gives him his powerful frame. Beneath the alabaster, she imagines, there is loam and soil. She then dreams of giving Ajax the “water” he needs to moisten his soil.
In this surreal, beautifully written section of the novel, Morrison gives us a metaphor so rich and complex that after a certain point it stops being just a metaphor for anything. There are a few important things to note about it, however. One is that Sula fantasizes about “understanding” Ajax, finding a connection so intimate that she literally gets “under his skin.” Two, Sula imagines Ajax in a symbolic language more commonly reserved for women. (Ajax is the “soil” for her seed, not the other way around, as in the typically gendered metaphor.)
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One afternoon, Sula and Ajax meet, and Ajax mentions the disappearance of Tar Baby. Tar Baby has been arrested for public drunkenness and sent to jail. Ajax went to the local jail, where he tried to convince the jailers to let Tar Baby change his clothes. Because the jailers—like Eva—regarded Tar Baby as a white man, they refused to let him change, saying that a white man shouldn’t be living among blacks if he wants to be “clean.” Sula feels herself growing attracted to Ajax. Ajax explains that he’ll need to fly to Dayton to see an air show soon. They make love, and afterwards Ajax bids Sula goodbye.
Morrison doesn’t let us forget that the people of the Bottom live in the constant shadow of the oppressive whites in Medallion (and in the larger shadow of the white supremacy inherent in the U.S. government and society at the time). Once again, Sula’s attraction to Ajax seems tied to Ajax’s refusal to accept the status quo: he wants to save a man from pain and humiliation, while everyone else condemns him. And yet Ajax, just like BoyBoy or Jude, leaves Sula when faced with commitment and responsibility. There’s a limit to the close connections between men and women in Sula: they are always imperfect, and never last long.
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In Ajax’s absence, Sula tries to find more information about Ajax. She finds a copy of his driver’s license, which he’s left at her house. She learns that his real name is Albert Jacks (A. Jacks—“Ajax”). Exhilarated, she imagines the gold in Ajax’s flesh, and the alabaster beneath it. After this, Sula falls asleep. In her dream, she tastes “the acridness of gold... the chill of alabaster and… the dark, sweet stench of loam.”
Sula’s fascination with Ajax seems tied to her understanding of the origin of his name. “Ajax” is a famous warrior from Greek mythology, and yet here this figure emerges from a relatively boring, common name: Albert Jacks. Morrison ends the chapter on a lyrical but ominous note: whenever a character goes to sleep in this novel, something bad is in store. Here it is hinted at by the “acridness of gold,” i.e. the dark side of Ajax. We can sense that Ajax and Sula will never see each other again.
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