By Toni Morrison
In recent years the African-American community has seen the formation of a class of intellectuals (scholars, critics, and writers), a formation continually plagued with conflict both within and without. Toni Morrison is one of those African-American intellectuals. Her book, Sula, reveals some of the conflict within the African-American community. Although all Morrison's novels focus on the relationships between black characters, Sula stands alone in its lack of attention to these characters interaction with whites. Unlike Sethe in Beloved, who was owned and tormented by whites, Nel and Sula (main characters in Sula) live in a small town populated only by blacks. Whites rarely appear in the background.
Set in the small town of Medallion, Ohio, Sula is a story of black women in America. Although the novel opens with accounts of men's actions, it quickly turns to the women who are its center. Men, black and white, may shape the problems of the world in which Sula takes place, but women move through the world reliant on their own ability. Sula Peace and Nel Wright become friends while growing up together in Medallion. When Sula chooses a life of rebellion and promiscuity, and Nel chooses to marry and become a mother, they learn the bounds of their love for each other.
Sula parallels Morrison's own life very closely. The main character in the book was never exposed to racism at a young age, but felt its harshness in high school. Like Sula Peace, Toni Morrison is rebellious in a way. She earned a B.A. in English and then received a Masters degree from Cornell in 1955. At the time, it was not like most African-Americans, especially women, to receive such high respect and regard in the field of English and composition. Morrison took advantage of this position and used it positively to project hope and understanding to blacks and whites alike.
The most captivating element throughout the novel by far has to be the characters and the way they interact with each other. Morrison has briefly commented about the characterization: "Sula was a problem in characterization because she was to be the sort of woman who could be used by other people as the classic type of evil force. Nel, on the other hand, was to be the prototypical salt of the earth type. Each contains elements of the other, such as the deeply hidden desire in Nel for the life of abandon, matched by the equally deep desire in Sula for love a possession. Sula is really outside laws, yet she is a model of self-examination, and because of her singularity she has trouble making connections with other people except Nel and Ajax." The diverseness of the two main characters adds life to the plot. The elegance in which the two main characters touch each other's lives throughout the book is cleverly based upon the way the plot ties together at the end.
Sula is a novel about uncertainty. It questions and examines the terms "good" and "evil," indicating that the two often look like one another. The novel addresses the perplexing mysteries of human emotions and relationships, ultimately concluding that social conventions are insufficient as a foundation for living one's life. The novel tempts the reader to apply the completely opposed terms of "good and evil," "right and wrong" to the characters and their actions while concurrently showing why it is necessary to resist such temptation. While exploring the ways in which people try to make meaning of lives filled with conflicts over race, gender, and simple distinctive points of view, Sula resists easy answers, demonstrating the ambiguity, beauty, and terror of life, in both its triumphs and horrors.