From the first pages of Sula, it’s clear that signs and names carry a huge amount of power. The novel documents some of the ways that signs can be powerful, and how this power can be used and abused.
Morrison makes it clear that the act of naming is enormously important, and always reflects the power and personality of the “namer.” For example, throughout the novel various characters are given the opportunity to “name” one important and ambiguous sign: Sula Peace’s oddly shaped birthmark. Each character gives a different “name” to the birthmark, and the names could be said to reflect the character’s innermost thoughts and behaviors. Jude Greene thinks the birthmark looks like a snake, perhaps reflecting his sexual desire for Sula, while Shadrack thinks the mark looks like a tadpole, symbolizing his fishing and his infantile mind. In short, names are never accidents: ironically, they always say something about who’s doing the naming.
But even if names reflect the namer’s own thoughts and desires, the name he or she chooses also exerts real, tangible power over the thing being named. Eva Peace, who’s tasked with naming every child in the Bottom, gives a group of children the same name: Dewey. Over time, the children continue spending time with each other, even though they’re all different ages. The name becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: because Eva gives the children the same name, they remain bound together for the rest of their lives.
There’s no doubt that naming is an important form of power in Sula. And yet this power can be twisted and manipulated for selfish reasons. The racist white farmers who trick their black field workers into accepting land in the hills overlooking Medallion have manipulated a name—“Bottom”—for their own advantages. The farmers, knowing full well what they’re doing, have promised African-Americans one thing, then given them another, because the ambiguity in the name “Bottom” allows them this leeway. This is why naming is so difficult, and so prone to deception: because not everyone can agree on what something means, one particular interpretation is always in danger of disagreeing with the other interpretations.
In the end, the tragedy of Sula is a tragedy of ambiguous signs, whose definitions and meanings can never be agreed upon. When Sula accidentally kills Chicken Little, she thinks that Shadrack has seen her, and is silently judging her for her crime. When Sula runs into Shadrack’s shack, Shadrack whispers the word “always” to her, seemingly a sign that he is “always” watching, and knows about Sula’s crime. The truth, which only Shadrack and we, the readers, know, is that Shadrack is actually trying to comfort Sula about her birthmark—he didn’t even know that Chicken Little was drowned. One word, interpreted one way, has scarred Sula for the rest of her life. Because the people in the novel interpret different names in different ways—“always,” “husband,” “friend,” “love”—they must live in a state of uncertainty, never sure if their loved ones can truly understand them.
Signs, Names, and Interpretation ThemeTracker
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Quotes in Sula
Freedom was easy--the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn't want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, "Oh, no! See those hills? That's bottom land, rich and fertile." "But it's high up in the hills," said the slave. "High up from us," said the master, "but when God looks down, it's the bottom. That's why we call it so. It's the bottom of heaven—best land there is." So the slave pressed his master to try to get him some. He preferred it to the valley. And it was done. The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter.
There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real—that he didn't exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more. In his joy he took the risk of letting one edge of the blanket drop and glanced at his hands. They were still. Courteously still. Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the first sleep of his new life.
Then Reverend Deal took it up, saying the same folks who had sense enough to avoid Shadrack's call were the ones who insisted on drinking themselves to death or womanizing themselves to death. "May's well go on with Shad and save the Lamb the trouble of redemption." Easily, quietly, Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio.
Slowly each boy came out of whatever cocoon he was in at the time his mother or somebody gave him away, and accepted Eva's view, becoming in fact as well as in name a dewey—joining with the other two to become a trinity with a plural name... inseparable, loving nothing and no one but themselves. When the handle from the icebox fell off, all the deweys got whipped, and in dry-eyed silence watched their own feet as they turned their behinds high up into the air for the stroke.
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.
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.
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?"
"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."
Their conviction of Sula's evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula.
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.