One of the biggest challenges of reading Sula is to understand how the characters can do things that, on the surface, appear cruel, even as they claim to be acting out of love.
At times, the character’s love for one another drives them to hurt and even kill each other. There’s no better example of this than Eva Peace’s act of “loving murder.” She’s always loved her youngest child, Ralph “Plum” Peace, and nearly killed herself trying to raise him through long winters. When Plum returns from World War I with a strong drug addiction, Eva can’t stand to see her beloved child losing his mind. She douses him in kerosene and lights him on fire, confident that she’s putting him out of the miseries of addiction and war trauma. Even now that Plum is fully-grown, Eva can’t picture herself allowing him to live his life without her help. Because Eva the loyal mother can no longer take care of Plum, she “takes care” of him and ends his life.
Morrison doesn’t fully “explain” Eva’s actions (even the explanation Eva herself gives can’t convey all the intricate reasons for why she did what she did). After a certain point, love is so complicated that we’ll never be able to understand why people do what they do, and Eva’s attack is the central example of this. Nevertheless, Morrison tries to help us understand her characters’ interpretations of love by studying a closely related subject: their sexuality.
Of the two protagonists, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, Nel has been raised to regard sexuality as a sacred, essential part of becoming an adult and a wife. Sula’s interpretation of sex is different: sex has been an uncontroversial, casual part of her life since she was a child. But as different as these two interpretations of sexuality may be, both Nel and Wright try to use sexuality to foster love. Both characters are taught to pursue sex with men, beginning at least when they’re twelve years old. For the young girls, sexuality is indistinguishable from being—it’s just that Nel thinks sexuality should be confined to marriage, while Sula thinks it shouldn’t. Unsurprisingly, when Sula is much older, she’s still trying to use sex to forge meaningful connections with men—indeed, she travels around America, having affairs and trying to find someone to love. After many years, Sula sleeps with Jude Greene, Nel’s own husband. Sula loves Nel Wright: she’s defended Nel from bullies, cheered Nel up when she’s sad, celebrated Nel’s wedding, etc. Yet because she’s been raised to think of sexuality as both uncontroversial and extremely important, Sula winds up hurting Nel, the person she loves most.
In Sula (and in real life), love is almost impossible to define. Partly because it’s hard to understand, and partly because they’ve been raised in a hyper-sexualized community, the female characters of the Bottom try to come to grips with love by reducing it to something else: sex with a man. In a way, the tragedy of Sula is that Nel and Sula, faced with a world in which love seems strange and indecipherable, try to find love through sexuality, and in doing so give up on the purest and most important form of love in their lives: their love for each other.
The great advantage of the process of “identity formation” for the people of the Bottom is that it gives them a strong sense of community. Even if they’re all miserable, they’re miserable together: united in their acceptance of pain. When a character like Sula Peace arrives in the Bottom, clearly unwilling to accept tragedy in her own life, we see the strength of the Bottom community. The townspeople join together in hating Sula for daring to “be” another way, a hatred that lessens their own self-hatred. But the great weakness of the townspeople’s identity is obvious: they’re accepting that they’re doomed to be persecuted and have no reason to try to better their lives. Toni Morrison is fond of saying that she uses her writing to argue for an idea, and then show why that idea is wrong. In typical form, Morrison uses Sula to show how the townspeople’s miserable process of identity formation makes their lives more bearable, and yet also condemns them to further misery.
Love and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Love and Sexuality Quotes in Sula
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.
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.
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?"
“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.”
"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?"
When the word got out about Eva being put in Sunnydale, the people in the Bottom shook their heads and said Sula was a roach. Later, when they saw how she took Jude, then ditched him for others, and heard how he bought a bus ticket to Detroit (where he bought but never mailed birthday cards to his sons), they forgot all about Hannah's easy ways (or their own) and said she was a bitch. Everybody remembered the plague of robins that announced her return, and the tale about her watching Hannah burn was stirred up again…
Lovemaking seemed to her, at first, the creation of a special kind of joy. She thought she liked the sootiness of sex and its comedy; she laughed a great deal during the raucous beginnings, and rejected those lovers who regarded sex as healthy or beautiful. Sexual aesthetics bored her. Although she did not regard sex as ugly (ugliness was boring also), she liked to think of it as wicked. But as her experiences multiplied she realized that not only was it not wicked, it was not necessary for her to conjure up the idea of wickedness in order to participate fully.
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.
I know what every colored woman in this country is doing."
"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."
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."
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?"
"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.