Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

"Sula": Critical Overview

[Categories/Possible Tags: Ethics]

Form Matters: Toni Morrison’s Sula and the Ethics of Narrative
Author(s): Alex Nissen and Toni Morrison
Source: Contemporary Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 263-285
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL:

Keywords: Ethics, Form, Narrative, Philosophy, Kinship, Aristotle

Main Claim: “Morrison’s chosen form contains implicit answers to broad ethical questions concerning how human beings might best live together in a community and confront the danger and emptiness in life, and that discovering these answers will involve the reader in an interpretive process that reflects the difficulties and uncertainties of making ethical judgments in our everyday lives. Ultimately, Sula may be seen to conduct a debate as to whether individual experience or general ethical principles are the sounder basis for personal ethics” (265). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“Sula is centrally concerned with questions of right and wrong in interpersonal relationships forged by bonds of kinship, marriage, and, not least of all, friendship. What does it mean to be good? What is evil? What does it mean to be a friend? What is love? How might we learn from each other? Because Sula is a novel and not a treatise, potential answers to these questions await the reader in the form of character and situation rather than explicit philosophical argument” (264).

“Because Sula is the kind of experimental, complex, writerly narrative we often call modernist, the demands on the reader as interpreter and judge are more extensive than by, say, one of the Grimm fairy tales or a Dickens novel” (264). 

“A number of the fragmented episodes…are of a shocking and violent nature: two young girls watch a little boy drown, a mother kills her son, a daughter watches her burn, a woman sleeps with the husband of her best friend. As readers of the novel, a major part of our interpretive struggle is trying to determine how we feel about these happenings. The work we must do is ethical work” (264-5). 

“Morrison’s narrator does not tell us the ‘moral’ of the story as a whole, or of any single episode. Yet this does not mean she abdicates the power to guide our judgment…an ethical stance is implicit in the very discourse of the novel, in the structure of the narrative transmission the author has chosen to relate this particular story” (265). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Bell, Roseann P. Rev. of Sula. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: Hall, 1988, 24-27. 
Genette, Gerard. "Frontiers of Narrative." Figures of Literary Discourse. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. 127-44.
—. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980. 
—. Narrative Discourse Revisited. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
McDowell, Deborah E. “Boundaries: Or Distant Relations and Close Kin.” Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. 51-70.
Peach, Linden. Toni Morrison. London: Macmillan, 1995.

[Categories/Possible Tags: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis]

Circling Meaning in Toni Morrison’s Sula
Author(s): Claude Pruitt
Source: African American Review, Vol. 44 No.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2011), pp. 115-129.
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University on behalf of African American Review (St. Louis University)
Stable URL:

Keywords: Meaning, Circles, Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, 

Main Claim:Sula’s circles of sorrow mark the site of black women’s history at the center of black community, a center that had been denigrated and lost within black culture and was, as Morrison seems to indicate, in serious need of re-vision” (116). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“In completing the loop of [a] circle of sorrow, and by emphasizing the plurality of the circles of sorrow, Morrison throws into relief the fact that Sula is metanarrative, a story about stories. These include all of the stories contained within the text of Sula, and as I will argue, a set of foundational texts upon which Sula is written in a kind of postmodern palimpsest” (116). 

“By reading iteratively, in circles through Morrison’s text, I seek to point to subtexts and intertextual inferences taking shape” (116). 

“Meaning begins to take shape within the mind of the reader as silent centers of unspoken, unspeakable experience coalesce with the reader’s own, equally essential, experience. I take such an understanding to be necessary for a close reading of Sula and argue not that circles exist within Morrison’s text (which is patently obvious), but rather that they are the carriers of meaning” (116).

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Davis, Angela. “The Legacy of Slavery: Standards of a New Womanhood.” Women, Race, and Class. New York: Knopf, 1983. 3-29.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1991. 
Lacan, Jacques, and the école freudienne. Feminine Sexuality. Eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1985.
Johnson, Barbara. “‘Aesthetic’ and ‘Rapport’ in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. Ed. Marc C. Connor. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 200. 3-11.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 
Smith, Valerie. “‘Circling the Subject:’ History and Narrative in Beloved.” Gates and Appiah 342-55. 
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1983.
Wright, Richard. 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States. New York: Viking, 1941. 

[Categories/Possible Tags: Violence, Death]

“Circles and Circles of Sorrow”: In the Wake of Morrison’s Sula
Author(s): Phillip Novak
Source: PMLA, Vol. 114, No. 2 (March, 1999), pp. 184-193.
Published by: Modern Language Association
Stable URL:

Keywords: Death, Violence, Spectacle Circles, Mourning, Sorrow, Time, Mythic, History, Circles

Main Claim:Sula’s attentiveness to violence is expressed in terms of its abiding interest in death…one would be hard-pressed…to find a novel in which death figures more prominently…Dead not only structures the narrative but also governs it, determines the elaboration of character and event. Dead presides. And Sula endlessly presides over death” (185).

Key Quotation(s):

“Brutality in Sula, for example, although rarely the focus of critical inquiry, is endemic and pervasive, the text’s most persistent preoccupation. Indeed, the novel is an almost uninterrupted registering of violence, of violation, of destruction and self-destruction, played out in the form of addiction and alcoholism, self-mutilation, murder, and mass suicide…brutality is a feature not simply of the history the novel narrates. It is a feature of the narration itself—an aspect of the language, of the composition of individual scenes, a matter of details” (185).

“The representation of death in this novel is associated with observation; for even here, when there are no witnesses to watch over the dying, the event still registers as spectacle” (186).

Sula’s interest in time, in the transitoriness of experience that the fact of mortality dramatically epitomizes, has a distinctly communal bearing. In general terms, Sula frames itself—literally—as a representation of the passing of a concretely imagined African-American community” (186).

“In situating itself within absence, in producing itself as absence, the novel at once affirms change and laments loss. Since being bears a fundamental relation to dying, bearing witness to what is becomes commemoration. Writing, in short, bears witness to death…to acknowledge death at all is to acknowledge one’s own death, the death that once harbors as a condition of existence. Mourning, in this sense, is always proleptic, a kind of impossible anticipation—an internalized projection—of the experience of one’s own loss. For a moment, for the duration of our grieving, we live our own dying; we witness, or bear witness to, our own inevitable dissolution” (189). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Baker, Houston A., Jr. “When Lindbergh Sleeps with Bessie Smith: The Writing of Place in Sula.” Gates and Appiah 236-60.
Derrida, Jacques. Aporias. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1993. 
Grant, Robert. “Absence into Presence: The Thematics of Memory and ‘Missing’ Subjects in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Mckay 90-103.
Johnson, Barbara. “‘Aesthetic’ and ‘Rapport’ in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Textual Practice 7 (1993): 165-72.
McDowell, Deborah E. “‘The Self and the Other’: Reading Toni Morrison’s Sula and the Black Female Text.” McKay 77-90. 
Reddy, Maureen T. “The Tripled Plot and Center of Sula.” Black American Literature Forum 22 (1988): 29-45.
Willis, Susan. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison.” Gates and Appiah 308-29.

[Categories/Possible Tags: Death, Form]

The Tripled Plot and Center of Sula
Author(s): Maureen T. Reddy
Source: Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 22, No. 1, Black Women Writers Issue (Spring, 1988), pp. 29-45
Published by: African American Review (St. Louis University)
Stable URL:

Keywords: Death, War, Anti-war, Form

Main Claim: “One approach that has not been taken is to read Sula as a war novel or, more precisely, as an anti-war novel…the longing for peace encoded in the novel’s structure is a response to the several different kinds of war in which the novel’s characters are caught up: actual armed conflict among nations; legal, economic, and social war against black people by the society in which they live, sometimes taking the form of armed (on one side) conflict; and hostility toward black women” (30-1). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“Toni Morrison’s Sula begins and ends with death: The ‘prologue’ to the novel tells of the death of both a neighborhood and its characteristic way of life, and the ‘epilogue,’ from which the above is quoted, is set in a cemetery where Nel Wright Greene is finally beginning to mourn the death of her friend Sula Peace…these deaths, as Nel’s thoughts about the grave markers suggest, are linked to wider scenes of death, to war and to the longing for peace, and, significantly to freedom through formal structure of the novel” (29). 

“Each of the ten major chapters includes a death, sometimes metaphoric but more usually actual” (29).

“The many deaths in Sula reinforce the anti-war theme, as each is linked to one or more of the novel’s centers” (31). 

“Critics of Sula frequently comment on the pervasive presence of death, the uses of a particular cultural and historical background, the split or doubled protagonist (Sula/Nel), and the attention to chronology in the novel. However…no one has presented a reading of Sula that explores the interrelatedness of these elements; yet it is the connections among them that most usefully reveal the novel’s overall thematic patterns” (30).

“Despite its title, Sula actually has three protagonists: Shadrack, Sula/Nel, and the community of black people who live in the Bottom. These three protagonists are at the centers of different but overlapping and intricately interconnected plots that in turn convey various aspects of the anti-war theme” (31).

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Spillers, Hortense J. “A Hateful Passion, A Lost Love.” Feminist Studies 9 (1983): 293-323.
Walker, Alice. “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” In Sears of Our Mothers’ Gardens. New York: Harcourt, 1983. 23-43.
Willis, Susan. “Black Women Writers: Taking a Critical Perspective.” Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism. Ed. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn. New York: Methuen, 1985. 211-37.
—. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison.” Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Methuen, 1984. 263-83. 

[Categories/Possible Tags: Madness, Theory]

The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison’s Sula
Author(s): Cedric Gael Bryant
Source: Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 4, Women Writers Issue (Winter, 1990), pp. 731-745.
Published by: African American Review (St. Louis University) 
Stable URL:

Keywords: Foucault, Madness, Evil, Community, Disorder, Order

Main Claim: “In their attempts to coexist with evil, Morrison’s characters assume a relationship to the larger world uncharacteristic of the ‘hero’ in Western literature as traditionally defined by both white and black male writers. The authorial voice in Sula, acting as standard bearer, makes this idea an irrevocable article of faith for the black community…in Morrison’s novels madness itself is a survival strategy that empowers individuals with the means to order chaos in unusual ways. Madness, then, is power to the black community” (732-3). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“In the fictional world of Toni Morrison’s novels, the moment before the disjunction, or ‘caesura,’ when the man of madness moves apart from the man of reason exists in time always as the past and is spatially defined by the idea of community, or the ‘village’” (732).

“The community’s ability to integrate those individuals who would in the larger world be ostracized is a crucial measurement of both humanity and civilization. There is a moral and intellectual responsibility to understand how and why such ‘disjunctions’ take place and how they may be abolished, a responsibility persistently urged in the writing of Foucault and Morrison” (732). 

“These values are…particularly important thematically in her first and second novels, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973), in which the dramatic tension arises from the community’s efforts to coexist peacefully with the threat posed to its survival by evil and madness. The pattern that madness assumes…is a loss of self-identity, a separation of the self from itself” (732).

“Frequently in Morrison’s fiction evil and madness are obverse sides of the same phenomenon, threatening the black communities in Sula and The Bluest Eye with chaos by testing tolerance, compassion, and liberty—values that are the bases for survival in these novels” (733).

“In just one of several ways that Morrison uses inversion, evil and madness become a vital check and balance, gauging the community’s owl moral conduct. In Sula, the community’s survival literally depends upon the presence of evil that forces the community to reexamine its own ideals constantly. So long as the community does so, it avoids self-destruction” (733). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Christian, Barbara. “Community and Nature: The Novels of Toni Morrison.” Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985. 47-63.
Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage, 1965.
Tate, Claudia. “Toni Morrison.” Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. 117-31.

[Categories/Possible Tags: Narrative, Form, Theory, Postmodernism]

Resolving the Paradox?: An Interlinear Reading of Toni Morrison’s Sula
Author(s): Monika Hoffarth-Zelloe
Source: The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Spring, 1992), pp. 114-127.
Published by: Journal of Narrative Theory
Stable URL:

Keywords: Narrative, Interlinear reading, Paradox, Identity, Deconstruction, Postmodernism, Self, Other

Main Claim: “Both women [Sula and Nel], who lack inner oneness, are portrayed as separate aspects of one being. Bivalence and ambiguity seem to be two unremediable traits deeply rooted in the nature of women. Even more, Morrison emphasizes the existing double conflict between an African/Black unified self and a feminist self. Based on the traditional imagery of the self-other dichotomy…the novel is structured around this ‘twoness’ motif. The symbolism, the image of the self-other dichotomy and the women’s personality conflicts hint at the author’s own paradoxical and fragmented self” (114-5). 

Key Quotation(s): 

“Feminist and Afro-American Literary Criticism have challenged the traditional Western notion of a unified self. Sula…offers us a journey to the epicenter of the human soul, depicting the post-modernist dilemma of multiple incoherent selves” (114).

“The author develops a new understanding of selfhood, emphasizing the double conflict of black females who are torn by antagonistic dual selves in their search for identity and freedom. Morrison’s choice of narrative strategies allows these paradoxes to become simultaneously theme and style” (114).

“Morrison elaborates the notion of a double/split self, which goes back to the romantic period, through a variety of textual signals, oppositions and rhetorical polarities which depict the uncertain and contradictory. They continuously create tension between the textual horizon of meaning and the reader’s signifying system, enticing him/her into deconstructing the idea of an integral identity” (114).

“Through the two protagonists, Morrison tackles the central myth of modern American culture—the myth of individual freedom and equality. Paradoxes and split personalities arise out of the conflict between an individual’s search for independence and society’s demands, norms and values” (115). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:
Banyiwa-Horne, Naana. “The Scary Face of the Self: An Analysis of the Character of Sula in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Sage 2 (Spring 1985): 28-31. 
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk, 1953, repr. Millwood, New York: 1973.
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “Between Individualism and Fragmentation: American Culture and the New Literary Studies of Race and Gender.” American Quarterly 42, 1 (March 1990): 7-34.
Matza, Diane. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison’s Sula: A Comparison.” MELUS 12 (Fall 1985): 43-54. 
McDowell, Deborah E. “Boundaries: Or Distant Relations and Close Kin.” Afro-American Literary Studies in the 1990s, edited by Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989: 51-70.


This page has paths: