Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2014

Sula (1973), by Toni Morrison, narrated by Lynne Thigpen

This is such a strange, melancholy work.  I found it rather confronting.

Toni Morrison was the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Sula (1973) was her second novel.  It’s a story of a testing friendship between two strong women who choose different paths in a racist, sexist society.  And it’s more than that.  It’s not meant to be read literally.

Nel and Sula are childhood friends, united by loneliness and the creativity of their imaginations.  As young women in the 1920s, they are separated by the choices they make, and in later life, the consequences of those choices test their relationship.  Nel chooses to accept the expectations of her society and becomes a traditional wife and mother.  Sula leaves Medallion (in Ohio) and goes to college.  She lives an unconventional life in the big city, and she makes a big splash when she finally comes back home.

The depiction of this journey home is chastening.  Sula is stylish and sophisticated but as she and her child take the train back home the chains of discrimination claim her again.  Her colour consigns her to second-class treatment and the further south she travels, the more her colour decrees who she can be.  A powerful personality, she resists this, (and her child is bewildered by it) but over the course of her long journey she has to capitulate.  She’s not allowed to use the toilet for white people, and she ends up squatting beside the rail line with the other Black women, their solidarity and humour no compensation for the indignity of it.

Settled again in Ohio, Sula holds court, acquiring additions to her family in unconventional ways.  Everything about Sula is confronting: she is a surreal anti-hero who betrays her best friend and does unspeakable things to her family.   She’s an anti-mother surrounded by children whose names she can’t be bothered to remember, and she’s anti-1920s feminine –  lying in state in her bedroom for years, refusing domesticity and the role of housewife and mother.  When it comes to the acts of violence of which she is accused, she’s as cold and unsentimental as any Nazi.  Most readers who want to like a novel’s characters are not going to like Sula at all.

So the question becomes, why has Morrison created this seemingly monstrous woman with a disconcertingly amusing persona?  Like the reader, Nel is torn between a desire to understand her friend and an instinct to reject the woman because of her outrageous acts.  The novel’s tension forces emotional distancing from the character who dominates it yet the reader knows from Morrison’s reputation if nothing else, that this is intended.  I think the answer to this question may be very different in the context of American race relations, and I trespass here with trepidation, but I think that it comes back to the indignity of that journey.  Sula is refusing to let others determine who she will be on the basis of her race and gender.  Every expectation must be confounded.  Children won’t ‘settle her’ because:

I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.

But the freedom she claims is a chimera.  It exists only in the closed community of Medallion. It almost destroys her friendship with Nel, and it sacrifices all other relationships.  A Black woman who lives her life as a symbol is bound to lose, yet she has a power that transcends her own life and circumstances.

The narration is excellent, well-paced and with clear diction for those of us not familiar with accents of the South.

Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Sula
Narrated by Lynne Thigpen
Publisher: Recorded Books, 2002
ISBN: 9781841974996
Source: Kingston Library

For the audio book, try your library. Print editions are available from Fishpond: Sula


  1. I read this years and years ago – it’s a wonderful book. Thanks for the memory.


  2. Sula is one of the books I intend reading. I read Bluest Eyes and was so moved by it. A fine review, Lisa. :-)


  3. Hello Lisa,
    Its Sonia from the U.S. I enjoyed reading your review of Toni Morrison’s novel- Sula. Several years ago, I read Sula for two literature classes I enrolled in as an undergraduate student.. The first time I read the novel, I didn’t have a good understanding of what Morrison’s agenda was in creating such a story. Her writing style is seductive yet complexing in narrative. The second time I read the story, I was perplexed by the character Sula and the denigrating choices she made, especially involving her best friend Nel. I was disappointed that Nel wasn’t able to thrive despite the societal problems African Americans faced in the south during the 1920s. Despite the complex nature of Morrison’s novels, she challenges readers to search within the layers of narrative to discover essential truths.


    • Hello Sonia, lovely to hear from you, I was hoping some American friends would comment:)
      It is a very perplexing story. Sula does such awful, awful things, and I had to think about it long and hard to write what I have, and am still unsatisfied with my review. Maybe that’s the mark of a really great book, that it defies definitive analysis, that every time we read it, we find different things to bother us? I like the challenge of that, especially because the challenge in her books (of the two that I’ve read) seems to be about confronting our own ideas about race. And that is so important, to be vigilant with one’s own unconscious attitudes, I think.


  4. I’m sorry I don’t remember much. I read Sula shortly after it came out in paperback, I think. It hooked me on Morrisin. Probably time for a reread – maybe I’ll nominate it somewhere.


    • Is there a C20th reading group at GoodReads? I’ve abandoned Yahoo groups entirely after their last fiasco with passwords…


      • I don’t know – I was thinking Yahoo but I’m sure there’s a Black or Women author group on G’reads. Also some general reading groups, no era involved.


        • Yes, I belong to a few. Too many really, I’m trying to cut back …


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