This book is woven around Sula and Nel but has a strong network of other female characters that struggle with their realities as wives, sisters, mothers, friends and as black women. Sula and Nel grow up as childhood friends who could complete each other’s sentences. Though, Nel’s mother does not approve of the relationship but their bond is unbreakable. These two girls are products of other two strong women, Helene who is Nel’s mother and Hannah who is Sula’s mother.
Morrison narrows in on the relationship between mother and daughter as pivotal to family bond and cohesion. Hannah resents her mother (Eva) because of her aloofness and stoic nature. Helene resents her mother because she chose a career in prostitution. However, the love of a mother is deep. They do things for the right reasons even if they go about it the wrong way. Eva loves her son so much that she burns him alive after he arrives from war as a depressed man who became a drug addict. This same line of thought is seen in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when the main character kills her children so that they are not carried off as slaves. Hannah can’t understand why her mother would kill her own son. Incidentally, Hannah also dies in a fire and Eva jumps from the window to rescue her but it was too late. The love of a mother becomes her own pain.
A very sad part of the story is when Shadrack, a war veteran returns and starts a National Suicide Holiday on the 3rd of January. After the terrible event of war, Shadrack is a symbol of hopelessness in humanity. He goes about with a bell announcing that people can kill themselves if they so wish and also kill someone else.
The interesting part of this novel or what makes the novel intriguing and in more ways than one heart-wrenching is the description of the town. The novel is set in a black community in Ohio (Medallion). The author begins by narrating how a once beautiful town becomes the town of sorrow, hurt, pain, abandonment, loneliness and utter despair. Sula’s life is a depiction of dreams gone sour. She becomes the town whore and even sleeps with Nel’s husband. She is described as toxic and the town describes her as the devil. She becomes the reason wives want to be more responsible and updoing in their homes. She is the bad reference for womanhood.
It is important to note that while Sula cannot be excused for the atrocities she commits in the novel, she is only a product of the society where the pains of social inequality resides. The pain of war pushes Plum to drugs. The pain of poverty makes Eva use up her last lard of milk to help her constipated child and consequently leave her children with another woman for eighteen months. When she returns, she returns without a leg but with money. Pain pushes Hannah to become the town slut. The pain of an emasculated man, Jude Greene pushes him to marry Nel just so his manhood can be reconstructed and built within the confines of marriage.
The town of Medallion is indeed the abode of pain and the women lived through it all. The language of the novel is simple and Morrison writes the black American English with such fluidity. The characterisation of each character was quite impressive but none of them ever had a happy place which puts the book as an extreme reality or as reality in itself. The setting is well described as poor but the bond of the community is shown. When Chicken Little dies, everyone shares in the grief. As you read the book you can see the depth of pain and understand the deep seated problems of racism, violence and social deprivation. More clearly is the theme that ‘nuture’ (environment) can become more dangerous than nature in shaping the life of a person. Toni Morrison, thank you for your stories that shines the torch into humanity exposing its rawness. Rest in Power!