Toni Morrison

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The Birthmark Symbol Analysis

The Birthmark Symbol Icon

Sula Peace’s most obvious physical characteristic is the large birthmark immediately above her eyes. The birthmark is intimidating and even frightening, and inspires many elaborate stories among the people of the Bottom. Yet it’s also exotic and enticing, especially the way that it grows steadily darker as Sula gets older. It seems that Sula’s ever-darkening birthmark is a symbol of her age, maturity, and growing sadness—the very things she’s trying so hard to fight against. At the same time, Morrison claims that the birthmark resembles a “stemmed rose”—an image that is both feminine (the flower) and masculine (the long phallic stem). This points to Sula’s androgynous qualities: she’s a woman who desires the independence and freedom of a man. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that the birthmark symbolizes whatever we conceive it to represent. Each character in Sula provides a different interpretation of the birthmark: Sula’s admirers think it looks like a snake, Shadrack the fisherman think it looks like a tadpole, etc. The birthmark is like a Rorschach inkblot test, revealing more about the interpreter than about Sula herself.

The Birthmark Quotes in Sula

The Sula quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Birthmark. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage International edition of Sula published in 2004.

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:
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The Birthmark Symbol Timeline in Sula

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Birthmark appears in Sula. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
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
...Bottom would have bullied her. Sula’s skin is dark brown, and she has a strange birthmark above her eyebrow, which is shaped like a stemmed rose. Every year, her birthmark grows... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
In the summer of 1923, Sula is thirteen years old, and her birthmark is darkening. It is peach-picking season, and the people of the Bottom pick peaches for... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...a point of stopping by to see her in the afternoons. Nel notes that Sula’s birthmark has grown darker in the last decade. One afternoon, Sula visits Nel, and they laugh... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
...The girl (whom we know to be Sula) had a “tadpole” in her eye (her birthmark). To comfort the young child, Shadrack said, “Always”—meaning that the girl need not worry about... (full context)