I spent the first half of Sula feeling vaguely disappointed at the spare, undeveloped quality of its author's early prose, and the latter half exclaiming at how thoroughly Morrison pulls this novel out of the bag. Some of the late scenes (Sula and Nel's final confrontation on Sula's death bed; the final description of Suicide Day, 1941) will probably haunt me for years, and Nel's final realization in the last three pages of the book is heart-wrenching. Nonetheless, even after reading the last page, I still felt that this short novel is made of a different substance than certain other Morrison works, like Beloved and Song of Solomon. Covering over forty years in under two hundred pages, much of its plot and characterization are implied and suggested, rather than explicitly developed. One online reviewer referred to it as a fable, and I think that's a useful approach. Sula, Nel, Eva, and their poor black hillside neighborhood (called "the Bottom" despite being perched on a hill) are allegorial - or rather, they often treat each other and themselves as allegorical, denying their own humanity, and one "moral" of the Morrison's fable is how harmful that treatment can be.
Like other Morrison novels, there is a complicated love/hate nostalgia at play in Sula; as the novel opens, we are told that even now its setting, the hillside ghetto known as "The Bottom," is largely destroyed, and that soon all trace of it will have vanished in the sweep of "progress." And while there is a definite sadness at the disappearance of this place, in which the dramas and everyday lives of human beings unfolded, that sadness doesn't eclipse the narrator's anger and disgust at the more inhuman aspects of life in the Bottom. She lets her love of the nurturing and even the gritty, enduring parts of Bottom life coexist with her other feelings:
It was sad, because the Bottom had been a real place. These young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn - and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn't been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren't any places left...
I think that line is so telling: "Maybe it hadn't been a community, but it had been a place." On the one hand, this is Nel as a middle-aged woman, disapproving of all the jargon talked by the young kids who are more in love with ideas than the realities in front of them. In another way, though, the poverty and cruel conditions of life in the Bottom do erode its ability to be a "community" in the positive sense: in one scene, a grown woman asks her mother if she ever loved them (the children), and her mother tells her probably not, "Not the way you thinkin'." Hannah means, did her mother ever play with the children, snuggle them, and Eva reminds her that people need food and time for that kind of loving:
"You want me to tickle you under the jaw and forget 'bout them sores in your mouth? Pearl was shittin' worms and I was supposed to play rang-around the rosie? [...] Wasn't no time. Not none. With you all coughin' and me watchin' so TB wouldn't take you off and if you was sleepin' quiet I thought, O Lord, they dead and put my hand over your mouth to feel if the breath was comin' what you talkin' bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you can't you get that through your thick head or what is that between your ears, heifer?"
Eva's narrative is moving - she obviously cares about her family - but her harshness toward her daughter is also hard to read. One of the themes of Sula is the ways in which love is perverted by poverty, and also, paradoxically, by the desire for upward mobility, for gentility and acceptance. When Sula, Hannah's daughter, returns unmarried, college-educated, selfish and sexually omnivorous to the Bottom as an adult, her very badness serves to transform the place into the community it may not previously have been. She becomes the collective scapegoat. To some extent she earns her reputation and to some extent the townsfolk embellish it, but in a way it hardly matters: she's the foil that makes everyone else kinder toward one another, more tolerant, better fathers to their children and wives to their husbands. They band together against a perceived common foe. And later, when Sula is no longer in the town, these benefits start to unravel; with no resistance against which to push, their relationships veer off the tracks. Morrison doesn't really take a stand on the darkness of this vision - that the people in her novel need an enemy in order to be bothered to love each other properly. It's a reality she just lays out for the reader to see, like she portrays the Bottom in all its beauty, ugliness, and erosion. Sula becomes an integral part of life in the Bottom, even though the townsfolk shun and condemn her. Neither her behavior nor their condemnation is particularly righteous, but both are forces of nature.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about Sula its examination of how things we may not like, or even notice, become so integrated into our lives that we use them as reference points. Sula becomes the townsfolks' reference point for an evil woman, just like the iconoclastic holiday "Suicide Day," started by a shell-shocked, cowbell-toting WWI veteran in 1919, becomes a reference point for the passing days and years.
In fact they had simply stopped remarking on the holiday because they had absorbed it into their thoughts, into their language, into their lives.
Someone said to a friend, "You sure was a long time delivering that baby. How long was you in labor?"
And the friend answered, "'Bout three days. The pains started on Suicide Day and kept up till the following Sunday. Was borned on Sunday. All my boys is Sunday boys."
Some lover said to his bride-to-be, "Let's do it after New Years, 'stead of before. I get paid New Years Eve."
And his sweetheart answered, "OK, but make sure it ain't on Suicide Day. I ain't 'bout to be listening to no cowbells whilst the weddin's going on."
Likewise, the two protagonists, Nel and Sula, become the touchstones of each others' emotional lives without fully realizing it's happened. And even after their relationship has been corroded by the selfish independence of Sula and the hard bitterness of Nel, both women continue to think of the other whenever they have a particular realization, or when something happens (or doesn't happen) in their lives. "Wait'll I tell Nel," thinks Sula, while Nel chastises herself for thinking of Sula "as though they were still friends and talked things over." Part of the tragedy of Sula is that the women don't have the resources to recognize the worth of what they have, and another part of it is that they can't find a way to regain what they've lost. Yet another part, it seems to me, is that despite supposedly being the closest of friends, having lived together through "the days when we were two throats and one eye and we had no price," there is still some core of existence in each woman that passes completely outside the understanding of the other.
Sula is a story with a fundamental loneliness at its core. I'm reminded of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's famous argument that all human beings are born and die alone. One of the the only ways for characters in the Bottom to connect is to demonize another human; real, genuine connection is always sabotaged or undervalued. And although it's hard to deny the egregiousness of some of Sula's cruelties, it's also hard to dismiss her cry:
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.
As I've written about Sula, I've realized how deep its questions and motifs go. It's really a small, finely-turned gem, although I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much out of it if I hadn't stopped to articulate my reading experience. In that way, I suppose it's similar to the Faulkner I just reviewed: it has much to offer to the reader who can offer something in return.
(Sula was my ninth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1970s. And hey y'all, I may actually finish all my challenges this year! Only two more books to go!)