Choose only ONE of the following options and write a post that agrees OR disagrees with the assertion. Cite specific scenes and/or use specific quotes from the novel to support your position. Your answer should be written in no fewer than 200 words.

Although the novel is titled Sula, the real protagonist is Nel because she is the one who is transformed by the end.

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While the community ostracizes Sula, it is subconsciously grateful for her presence.


Toni Morrison Sula

First published in 1973

It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they
leave you. This book is for Ford and Slade, whom I miss
although they have not left me.

“Nobody knew my rose of the world but me… I had too
much glory. They don’t want glory like that in nobody’s

–The Rose Tattoo


In the fifties, when I was a student, the embarrassment of
being called a politically minded writer was so acute, the
fear of critical derision for channeling one’s creativity
toward the state of social affairs so profound, it made me
wonder: Why the panic? The flight from any accusation of
revealing an awareness of the political world in one’s fiction
turned my attention to the source of the panic and the
means by which writers sought to ease it. What could be so
bad about being socially astute, politically aware in
literature? Conventional wisdom agrees that political fiction
is not art; that such work is less likely to have aesthetic
value because politics–all politics–is agenda and therefore
its presence taints aesthetic production. That wisdom,

which seems to have been unavailable to Chaucer, or
Dante, or Catullus, or Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or
Dickens, is still with us, and, in 1969 it placed an inordinate
burden on African American writers. Whether they were
wholly uninterested in politics of any sort, or whether they
were politically inclined, aware, or aggressive, the fact of
their race or the race of their characters doomed them to a
“political-only” analysis of their worth. If Phillis Wheatley
wrote “The sky is blue,” the critical question was what could
blue sky mean to a black slave woman? If Jean Toomer
wrote “The iron is hot,” the question was how accurately or
poorly he expressed chains of servitude. This burden
rested not only on the critics, but also on the reader. How
does a reader of any race situate herself or himself in order
to approach the world of a black writer? Won’t there always
be apprehension about what may be revealed, exposed
about the reader? In 1970, when I began writing _Sula,__ I
had already had the depressing experience of reading
commentary on my first novel, _The Bluest Eye,__ by both
black and white reviewers that–with two exceptions–had
little merit since the evaluation ignored precisely the
“aesthetics only” criteria it championed. If the novel was
good, it was because it was faithful to a certain kind of
politics; if it was bad, it was because it was faithless to
them. The judgment was based on whether “Black people
are–or are not–like this.” This time out, I returned the
compliment and ignored the shallowness of such views
and, again, rooted the narrative in a landscape already
tainted by the fact that it existed. Only a few people would

be interested, I thought, in any wider approach–fewer than
the tiny percentage of the fifteen hundred who had bought
the first book. But the act of writing was too personally
important for me to abandon it just because the prospects
of my being taken seriously were bleak. It may be difficult
now to imagine how it felt to be seen as a problem to be
solved rather than a writer to be read. James Baldwin,
Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston–all had
been called upon to write an essay addressing the
“problem” of being a “Negro” writer. In that no-win situation-
-inauthentic, even irresponsible, to those looking for a
politically representative canvas; marginalized by those
assessing value by how “moral” the characters were–my
only option was fidelity to my own sensibility. Further
exploration of my own interests, questions, challenges. And
since my sensibility was highly political _and__
passionately aesthetic, it would unapologetically inform the
work I did. I refused to explain, or even acknowledge, the
“problem” as anything other than an artistic one. Other
questions mattered more. What is friendship between
women when unmediated by men? What choices are
available to black women outside their own society’s
approval? What are the risks of individualism in a
determinedly individualistic, yet racially uniform and socially
static, community? Female freedom always means sexual
freedom, even when-especially when–it is seen through the
prism of economic freedom. The sexual freedom of Hannah
Peach was my entrance into the story, constructed from
shreds of memory about the way local women regarded a

certain kind of female–envy coupled with amused
approbation. Against her fairly modest claims to personal
liberty are placed conventional and anarchic ones: Eva’s
physical sacrifice for economic freedom; Nel’s
accommodation to the protection marriage promises;
Sula’s resistance to either sacrifice or accommodation.
Hannah’s claims are acceptable in her neighborhood
because they are nonfinancial and nonthreatening; she
does not disturb or deplete family resources. Because her
dependence is on another woman, Eva, who has both
money and authority, she is not competitive. But Sula,
although she does nothing so horrendous as what Eva
does, is seen by the townspeople as not just competitive,
but devouring, evil. Nel, with the most minimal demands, is
seen as the muted standard. Hannah, Nel, Eva, Sula were
points of a cross–each one a choice for characters bound
by gender and race. The nexus of that cross would be a
merging of responsibility and liberty difficult to reach, a
battle among women who are understood to be least able
to win it. Wrapped around the arms of that cross were wires
of other kinds of battles–the veteran, the orphans, the
husband, the laborers, confined to a village by the same
forces that mandated the struggle. And the only possible
triumph was that of the imagination. The job, of course, was
summoning those perceptions in language that could
express them. _Sula__ stretched my attempts to
manipulate language, to work credibly and, perhaps,
elegantly with a discredited vocabulary. To use folk
language, vernacular in a manner neither exotic nor comic,

neither minstrelized nor microscopically analyzed. I wanted
to redirect, reinvent the political, cultural, and artistic
judgments saved for African American writers. I was living
in Queens while I wrote _Sula,__ commuting to Manhattan
to an office job, leaving my children to childminders and the
public school in the fall and winter, to my parents in the
summer, and was so strapped for money that the condition
moved from debilitating stress to hilarity. Every rent
payment was an event; every shopping trip a triumph of
caution over the reckless purchase of a staple. The best
news was that this was the condition of every other
single/separated female parent I knew. The things we
traded! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory–and
daring. Daring especially, because in the late sixties, with
so many dead, detained, or silenced, there could be no
turning back simply because there was no “back” back
there. Cut adrift, so to speak, we found it possible to think
up things, try things, explore. Use what was known and tried
and investigate what was not. Write a play, form a theater
company, design clothes, write fiction unencumbered by
other people’s expectations. Nobody was minding us, so
we minded ourselves. In that atmosphere of “What would
you be doing or thinking if there was no gaze or hand to
stop you?” I began to think about just what that kind of
license would have been like for us black women forty
years earlier. We were being encouraged to think of
ourselves as our own salvation, to be our own best friends.
What could that mean in 1969 that it had not meant in the
1920s? The image of the woman who was both envied and

cautioned against came to mind. Elsewhere (in an essay
“Unspeakable Things Unspoken”), I have detailed my
thoughts about developing the structure of _Sula.__
“Originally, _Sula__ opened with ‘Except for World War II,
nothing interfered with National Suicide Day.’ With some
encouragement I recognized that sentence as a false
beginning.” Falseness, in this case, meant abrupt. There
was no lobby, as it were, where the reader could be
situated before being introduced to the goings-on of the
characters. As I wrote in that essay, “The threshold
between the reader and the black-topic text need not be the
safe, welcoming lobby I persuaded myself [_Sula__]
needed at that time. My preference was the demolition of
the lobby altogether. [Of all of my books], only _Sula__ has
this ‘entrance.’ The others refuse the ‘presentation,’ refuse
the seductive safe harbor; the line of demarcation
between… them and us. Refuse, in effect, to cater to the
diminished expectations of the reader, or his or her alarm
heightened by the emotional luggage one carries into the
black-topic text…. [Although] the bulk of the opening I finally
wrote is about the community, a view of it… the view is not
from within… but from the point of view of a stranger–the
‘valley man’ who might happen to be there and to and for
whom all this is mightily strange, even exotic…. [In] my new
first sentence I am introducing an outside-the-circle reader
into the circle. I am translating the anonymous into the
specific, a ‘place’ into a ‘neighborhood’ and letting a
stranger in, through whose eyes it can be viewed.” This
deference, paid to the “white” gaze, was the one time I

addressed the “problem.” Had I begun with Shadrack, as
originally planned, I would have ignored the gentle welcome
and put the reader into immediate confrontation with his
wounded mind. It would have called greater attention to the
traumatic displacement this most wasteful capitalist war
had on black people, and thrown into relief their desperate
and desperately creative strategies of survival. In the
revised opening I tried to represent discriminatory,
prosecutorial racial oppression as well as the community’s
efforts to remain stable and healthy: the neighborhood has
been almost completely swept away by commercial
interests (a golf course), but the remains of what sustained
it (music, dancing, craft, religion, irony, wit) are what the
“valley man,” the stranger, sees–or could have seen. It is a
more inviting embrace than Shadrack’s organized public
madness–it helps to unify the neighborhood until Sula’s
anarchy challenges it. Outlaw women are fascinating–not
always for their behavior, but because historically women
are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal
one from birth if it is not under the rule of men. In much
literature a woman’s escape from male rule led to regret,
misery, if not complete disaster. In _Sula__ I wanted to
explore the consequences of what that escape might be, on
not only a conventional black society, but on female
friendship. In 1969, in Queens, snatching liberty seemed
compelling. Some of us thrived; some of us died. All of us
had a taste.


In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry
patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion
City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood
in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all
the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when
black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One
road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts,
connected it to the valley. The beeches are gone now, and
so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down
through the blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have
been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that
clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They
are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet
in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A
steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology,
where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays
and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in
khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba’s Grill,
where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn’t
remember the ingredients without it. There will be nothing
left of the Bottom (the footbridge that crossed the river is
already gone), but perhaps it is just as well, since it wasn’t a
town anyway: just a neighborhood where on quiet days
people in valley houses could hear singing sometimes,
banjos sometimes, and, if a valley man happened to have
business up in those hills–collecting rent or insurance
payments–he might see a dark woman in a flowered dress
doing a bit of cakewalk, a bit of black bottom, a bit of

“messing around” to the lively notes of a mouth organ. Her
bare feet would raise the saffron dust that floated down on
the coveralls and bunion-split shoes of the man breathing
music in and out of his harmonica. The black people
watching her would laugh and rub their knees, and it would
be easy for the valley man to hear the laughter and not
notice the adult pain that rested somewhere under the
eyelids, somewhere under their head rags and soft felt
hats, somewhere in the palm of the hand, somewhere
behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew’s curve.
He’d have to stand in the back of Greater Saint Matthew’s
and let the tenor’s voice dress him in silk, or touch the
hands of the spoon carvers (who had not worked in eight
years) and let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his
skin. Otherwise the pain would escape him even though the
laughter was part of the pain. A shucking, knee-slapping,
wet-eyed laughter that could even describe and explain
how they came to be where they were. A joke. A nigger
joke. That was the way it got started. Not the town, of
course, but that part of town where the Negroes lived, the
part they called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up
in the hills. Just a nigger joke. The kind white folks tell when
the mill closes down and they’re looking for a little comfort
somewhere. The kind colored folks tell on themselves when
the rain doesn’t come, or comes for weeks, and they’re
looking for a little comfort somehow. A good white farmer
promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave
if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the
slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his

end of the bargain. 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. Which accounted for
the fact that white people lived on the rich valley floor in that
little river town in Ohio, and the blacks populated the hills
above it, taking small consolation in the fact that every day
they could literally look down on the white folks. Still, it was
lovely up in the Bottom. After the town grew and the farm
land turned into a village and the village into a town and the
streets of Medallion were hot and dusty with progress,
those heavy trees that sheltered the shacks up in the
Bottom were wonderful to see. And the hunters who went
there sometimes wondered in private if maybe the white
farmer was right after all. Maybe it was the bottom of
heaven. The black people would have disagreed, but they
had no time to think about it. They were mightily
preoccupied with earthly things–and each other, wondering

even as early as 1920 what Shadrack was all about, what
that little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was
all about, and what they themselves were all about, tucked
up there in the Bottom.


Except for World War II, nothing ever interfered with the
celebration of National Suicide Day. It had taken place
every January third since 1920, although Shadrack, its
founder, was for many years the only celebrant. Blasted and
permanently astonished by the events of 1917, he had
returned to Medallion handsome but ravaged, and even the
most fastidious people in the town sometimes caught
themselves dreaming of what he must have been like a few
years back before he went off to war. A young man of
hardly twenty, his head full of nothing and his mouth
recalling the taste of lipstick, Shadrack had found himself in
December, 1917, running with his comrades across a field
in France. It was his first encounter with the enemy and he
didn’t know whether his company was running toward them
or away. For several days they had been marching,
keeping close to a stream that was frozen at its edges. At
one point they crossed it, and no sooner had he stepped
foot on the other side than the day was adangle with shouts
and explosions. Shellfire was all around him, and though he
knew that this was something called _it,__ he could not
muster up the proper feeling–the feeling that would
accommodate _it.__ He expected to be terrified or

exhilarated–to feel _something__ very strong. In fact, he felt
only the bite of a nail in his boot, which pierced the ball of
his foot whenever he came down on it. The day was cold
enough to make his breath visible, and he wondered for a
moment at the purity and whiteness of his own breath
among the dirty, gray explosions surrounding him. He ran,
bayonet fixed, deep in the great sweep of men flying across
this field. Wincing at the pain in his foot, he turned his head
a little to the right and saw the face of a soldier near him fly
off. Before he could register shock, the rest of the soldier’s
head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his
helmet. But stubbornly, taking no direction from the brain,
the body of the headless soldier ran on, with energy and
grace, ignoring altogether the drip and slide of brain tissue
down its back. When Shadrack opened his eyes he was
propped up in a small bed. Before him on a tray was a
large tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle
was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed
tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish
liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these
triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood
tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance
was contained in the neat balance of the triangles–a
balance that soothed him, transferred some of its
equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red
and the brown would stay where they were–would not
explode or burst forth from their restricted zones–he
suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His
glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful–

anything could be anywhere. Then he noticed two lumps
beneath the beige blanket on either side of his hips. With
extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his
hand attached to his wrist. He tried the other and found it
also. Slowly he directed one hand toward the cup and, just
as he was about to spread his fingers, they began to grow
in higgledypiggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk all over
the tray and the bed. With a shriek he closed his eyes and
thrust his huge growing hands under the covers. Once out
of sight they seemed to shrink back to their normal size. But
the yell had brought a male nurse. “Private? We’re not
going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?”
Shadrack looked up at a balding man dressed in a
greencotton jacket and trousers. His hair was parted low on
the right side so that some twenty or thirty yellow hairs could
discreetly cover the nakedness of his head. “Come on.
Pick up that spoon. Pick it up, Private. Nobody is going to
feed you forever.” Sweat slid from Shadrack’s armpits
down his sides. He could not bear to see his hands grow
again and he was frightened of the voice in the apple-green
suit. “Pick it up, I said. There’s no point to this… ” The nurse
reached under the cover for Shadrack’s wrist to pull out the
monstrous hand. Shadrack jerked it back and overturned
the tray. In panic he raised himself to his knees and tried to
fling off and away his terrible fingers, but succeeded only in
knocking the nurse into the next bed. When they bound
Shadrack into a straitjacket, he was both relieved and
grateful, for his hands were at last hidden and confined to
whatever size they had attained. Laced and silent in his

small bed, he tried to tie the loose cords in his mind. He
wanted desperately to see his own face and connect it with
the word “private”–the word the nurse (and the others who
helped bind him) had called him. “Private” he thought was
something secret, and he wondered why they looked at him
and called him a secret. Still, if his hands behaved as they
had done, what might he expect from his face? The fear
and longing were too much for him, so he began to think of
other things. That is, he let his mind slip into whatever cave
mouths of memory it chose. He saw a window that looked
out on a river which he knew was full of fish. Someone was
speaking softly just outside the door… Shadrack’s earlier
violence had coincided with a memorandum from the
hospital executive staff in reference to the distribution of
patients in high-risk areas. There was clearly a demand for
space. The priority or the violence earned Shadrack his
release, $217 in cash, a full suit of clothes and copies of
very official-looking papers. When he stepped out of the
hospital door the grounds overwhelmed him: the cropped
shrubbery, the edged lawns, the undeviating walks.
Shadrack looked at the cement stretches: each one
leading clearheadedly to some presumably desirable
destination. There were no fences, no warnings, no
obstacles at all between concrete and green grass, so one
could easily ignore the tidy sweep of stone and cut out in
another direction–a direction of one’s own. Shadrack stood
at the foot of the hospital steps watching the heads of trees
tossing ruefully but harmlessly, since their trunks were
rooted too deeply in the earth to threaten him. Only the

walks made him uneasy. He shifted his weight, wondering
how he could get to the gate without stepping on the
concrete. While plotting his course-where he would have to
leap, where to skirt a clump of bushes–a loud guffaw
startled him. Two men were going up the steps. Then he
noticed that there were many people about, and that he
was just now seeing them, or else they had just
materialized. They were thin slips, like paper dolls floating
down the walks. Some were seated in chairs with wheels,
propelled by other paper figures from behind. All seemed
to be smoking, and their arms and legs curved in the
breeze. A good high wind would pull them up and away and
they would land perhaps among the tops of the trees.
Shadrack took the plunge. Four steps and he was on the
grass heading for the gate. He kept his head down to avoid
seeing the paper people swerving and bending here and
there, and he lost his way. When he looked up, he was
standing by a low red building separated from the main
building by a covered walkway. From somewhere came a
sweetish smell which reminded him of something painful.
He looked around for the gate and saw that he had gone
directly away from it in his complicated journey over the
grass. Just to the left of the low building was a graveled
driveway that appeared to lead outside the grounds. He
trotted quickly to it and left, at last, a haven of more than a
year, only eight days of which he fully recollected. Once on
the road, he headed west. The long stay in the hospital had
left him weak–too weak to walk steadily on the gravel
shoulders of the road. He shuffled, grew dizzy, stopped for

breath, started again, stumbling and sweating but refusing
to wipe his temples, still afraid to look at his hands.
Passengers in dark, square cars shuttered their eyes at
what they took to be a drunken man. The sun was already
directly over his head when he came to a town. A few
blocks of shaded streets and he was already at its heart–a
pretty, quietly regulated downtown. Exhausted, his feet
clotted with pain, he sat down at the curbside to take off his
shoes. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing his hands and
fumbled with the laces of the heavy high-topped shoes. The
nurse had tied them into a double knot, the way one does
for children, and Shadrack, long unaccustomed to the
manipulation of intricate things, could not get them loose.
Uncoordinated, his fingernails tore away at the knots. He
fought a rising hysteria that was not merely anxiety to free
his aching feet; his very life depended on the release of the
knots. Suddenly without raising his eyelids, he began to cry.
Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to
acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what
he was… with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no
address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket
handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded
postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled
underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do… he was sure
of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands.
He cried soundlessly at the curbside of a small Midwestern
town wondering where the window was, and the river, and
the soft voices just outside the door… Through his tears he
saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then

rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric,
knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny
eyeholes. By the time the police drove up, Shadrack was
suffering from a blinding headache, which was not abated
by the comfort he felt when the policemen pulled his hands
away from what he thought was a permanent entanglement
with his shoelaces. They took him to jail, booked him for
vagrancy and intoxication, and locked him in a cell. Lying
on a cot, Shadrack could only stare helplessly at the wall,
so paralyzing was the pain in his head. He lay in this agony
for a long while and then realized he was staring at the
painted-over letters of a command to fuck himself. He
studied the phrase as the pain in his head subsided. Like
moonlight stealing under a window shade an idea
insinuated itself: his earlier desire to see his own face. He
looked for a mirror; there was none. Finally, keeping his
hands carefully behind his back he made his way to the
toilet bowl and peeped in. The water was unevenly lit by the
sun so he could make nothing out. Returning to his cot he
took the blanket and covered his head, rendering the water
dark enough to see his reflection. 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. A sleep deeper than the hospital
drugs; deeper than the pits of plums, steadier than the
condor’s wing; more tranquil than the curve of eggs. The
sheriff looked through the bars at the young man with the
matted hair. He had read through his prisoner’s papers and
hailed a farmer. When Shadrack awoke, the sheriff handed
him back his papers and escorted him to the back of a
wagon. Shadrack got in and in less than three hours he was
back in Medallion, for he had been only twenty-two miles
from his window, his river, and his soft voices just outside
the door. In the back of the wagon, supported by sacks of
squash and hills of pumpkins, Shadrack began a struggle
that was to last for twelve days, a struggle to order and
focus experience. It had to do with making a place for fear
as a way of controlling it. He knew the smell of death and
was terrified of it, for he could not anticipate it. It was not
death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness
of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion that if one
day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of
the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In
this manner he instituted National Suicide Day. On the third
day of the new year, he walked through the Bottom down
Carpenter’s Road with a cowbell and a hangman’s rope
calling the people together. Telling them that this was their
only chance to kill themselves or each other. At first the
people in the town were frightened; they knew Shadrack
was crazy but that did not mean that he didn’t have any
sense or, even more important, that he had no power. His
eyes were so wild, his hair so long and matted, his voice

was so full of authority and thunder that he caused panic on
the first, or Charter, National Suicide Day in 1920. The next
one, in 1921, was less frightening but still worrisome. The
people had seen him a year now in between. He lived in a
shack on the riverbank that had once belonged to his
grandfather long time dead. On Tuesday and Friday he
sold the fish …



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