Elements Projects Ideas

Sula by Toni Morrison is a novel filled with symbols and motifs. The story consists of a less fortunate, and mostly black community called the Bottom, which is located near the mostly white and wealthy community of Medallion. Lousy luck follows the characters, and the book highlights these events and the effects they have on those in the community. Sula, Nel, and their families are at the center of the book. Nel’s family is stable and in some ways rigid while Sula’s sharply contrasts the “normal” way of life. Throughout the novel, fire and water have significant symbolic meaning to the characters and their lives. Going deeper into the novel it is evident that women and racism lie at the bottom of the book and are crucial to understanding why the characters act the way they do.

Racism is baked into the book in ways that make every scene have its impact. Near the beginning of the novel the Bottom is geographically higher than the town of Medallion, but by the end, the white and wealthy people of Medallion buy property in the Bottom, and the black community moves down from the hilltop to the valley. An example of the racism the Bottom shows towards its own is Helene Wright’s concern regarding her daughter Nel’s features. While Helene does not want Nel to be fair-skinned, something that could bring trouble in a very color-conscious society, she still forces her daughter to pull on her nose in an attempt to make it less narrow. Helene talks about Nel by saying “Nel was the color of wet sandpaper – just dark enough to escape the blows of the pitch-black truebloods and the contempt of old women who worried about such things as bad blood mixtures and knew that the origins of a mule and a mulatto were one and the same.” Helene is hard to blame for these decisions as she is a victim of racism herself. Growing up in New Orleans she understands the Jim Crow laws. On her way to her grandmother’s funeral Helene realizes that she has stepped on a Whites Only train car and is haunted by having crossed the line that separates the two races. Another example of racism exemplified by the white society appears late in the novel when a white bargeman finds the corpse of Chicken Little on the river’s edge. Inconvenienced by the thought of taking the black child back to the Sheriff, the man reacts as though the body he has found is not of a human. To him, the blacks in the bottom are less civilized than he is. In his mind, blacks are so savage that they kill there own children, which to him explains how the body of Chicken Little ended up in the river.

Almost all the female characters in Morrison's book are fiery and independent without following the roles set out before them. Sula and Eva stand out as the principal followers of this idea. Nel, who was raised by a mother who pounded the ideas of society into her head from an early age, comes to realize the power of womanhood towards the novel’s end. It is impossible to know, however, why this change occurs inside of her. Sula and Nel realize that being neither male or white will deprive them of many opportunities and freedoms throughout their lives. Sula returns from the city having experienced a different life, and she notes how sad and pathetic the black communities are. She expresses how “the years had dusted their bronze with ash,” referring to the slow degradation of the people around her, something she has realized through experiencing a different way of life. While in pity of the way women live around her she expresses her distaste for their way of life by saying, “Those [women] with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting other people's skinned dreams and bony regrets." Refusing to settle for the ideal and traditional roles set out before her is how Sula embodies her feminist ideas. Sula is despised of by the other women as she exemplifies the opposite of the terrible lives that have chosen to live. Women are poor in Sula and are unable to leave their homes in the Bottom. Those who do - like Sula - mostly return to the black community from which they came, drawn back by the little power they gain from the racist society that surrounds them.

Throughout the story fire and water combat each other and are closely related to the constant motif of death. Constant references to these elements projects ideas of creation and destruction that continuously change the surroundings of the characters. Plum is the first character to die from fire after being set ablaze by Eva. His death is foreshadowed by his drug spoon which is blackened from “steady cooking.” While Plum is burning it is Hannah who runs to Eva explaining how her is on fire. Eva replies in false astonishment, “Is? My baby? Burning?” For her, she takes away the pain Plum is feeling, in a sense doing him a favor. Returning from her ten-year leave of absence, Sula confronts Eva and threatens her with the same fate as Plum, whom Sula knows Eva killed. Sula tells Eva, "maybe I'll just tip on up here with some kerosene and - who knows - you may make the brightest flame of them all." Here Sula hints at what she may do without telling Eva directly, keeping with her steady inability to act as others want her to. When Nel offers Sula a cold drink on the day Sula visits her, Sula answers, “Mmmm. Lots of ice, I'm burnin' up," This is foreshadowing the death Sula endures from a fever which is described as some way of burning. Just prior to her death Sula is awakened from a dream as she is “gagging and overwhelmed with the smell of smoke," even though nothing is on fire. As Sula dies, she experiences “liquid pain” and recalls a promise of a "sleep of water always." Sula feels as though she is able to “know the water was near, and she would curl into its heavy softness and it would envelop her, carry her, and wash her tired flesh always." An example of death by drowning is the accidental death of Chicken Little as the phrase “the closed place in the water" becomes an obvious metaphor for death.

Throughout this novel, the motifs of the woman, racism, water, and fire all have an impact on the book. Each of these ideas invites the reader to dig deeper into the actions and changes the characters make and are essential to fully experiencing the story.