“Sula”: How Evil Defines Female Characters

Evil is a place and it resides in Medallion, Ohio. The opening sentence of Sula recounts an act of annihilation, “In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Gold Course, there was once a neighborhood” (3). I love the economy of Morrison’s first line and the way it transmits a subtle irony; a golf course for rich white folk is far more important than the preservation of a neighborhood for poor black people. Beginning with that act of destruction, Morrison portends the prejudice that consumes Medallion and carries with it an allegorical evil that acts as jailor.

Sula: by Toni Morrison

Sula: by Toni Morrison

In my novel I struggle with the concept of how to create a sense of foreboding or “evil” without detailing epic anecdotes and without exposing certain characters as wholly malevolent. In Sula, women’s oppression – in particular – delivers an unspoken, amorphous evil that has no comprehensive narrative. Medallion’s women accept transgression, pain, poverty, and the spite of a capricious universe as necessary parts of their lives, “Plague and drought were as “natural” as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows robins could fall. The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their mind to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine, and ignorance” (90). It is an accepted fact that an omniscient, uncontrollable force presides over every aspect of the community’s life.

Each major female character commits reprehensible acts – if one takes them out of context. But placed within the context that the author illustrates – a community plagued with racism, poverty, crime, and lack of mobility, the acts become redemptive. This juxtaposition fascinates me and is something that I’m anxious to explore in my own work. In a wrenching scene, Sula’s grandmother Eva makes the agonizing decision to burn her son to death while he sleeps. After returning from war Plum has slipped into a cocaine addict’s purgatory with no hope of recovery. We experience the horror of a mother who fully realizes the hopelessness of the situation and who has arrived at the only viable solution. Plum’s death is the only way Eva can protect herself from his dependence on her and at the same time, relieve his endless suffering. Is this an evil act or is it necessary to prevent further anguish and reprehensible indignities? There is no right answer. Death, infidelity, poverty, and illness become signs that a malevolent presence is always one step away – or one step closer.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Morrison also explores the conceit that evil triumphs when people fail to act. This is echoed in a scene that depicts Sula’s mother, Hannah, catching fire in their backyard and literally burning to death. As the scene unfolds, ten-year-old Sula watches in silence. The fact that Sula makes no motion to help her mother is chilling. We see a child who has interpreted her life in relation to a world that appears not only out of her control, but also, from which there is no escape. We surmise that Sula’s lack of action has been prompted, in part, by a comment she overhears her mother say to a friend, “…I love Sula. I don’t like her. That’s the difference” (57). It is a brief but momentous declaration that reverberates throughout Sula’s life. Taken alone, we may dismiss Hannah’s comment as a parent’s frustrated lament with child rearing but as the trajectory of Sula’s life unfolds, we understand that words can be evil harbingers.

Prior to her death, Sula returns to Medallion with a “plague of robins” on her heels. Robins descend on the town and blacken the skies. It is clear to Medallion residents that they are at the mercy of forces completely out of their control, “In spite of their fear, they reacted to an oppressive oddity, or what they called evil days, with an acceptance that bordered on welcome” (89). Morrison once again drives home the fact that evil exists as an entity – always ready to declare its culpability, capable of exercising conscious decisions and waiting to wreak havoc.

When Sula seduces Nell’s husband does she not reveal him to be of weak character? Isn’t she saving Nell from a life of heartache? Years later, as Sula lay dying Nell confronts her, “What about me? What did you take him for if you didn’t love him … I was good to you, Sula, why don’t that matter?” (144). Sula replies with, “It matters, Nell, but only to you. Not to anybody else. Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it” (145). The idea that charitable acts are always rewarded is a moral construct that holds no currency for Sula. Who or what, is considered “good” is a judgment call; it’s relative. As Sula says to Nell just before Nell leaves her for the last time, “How do you know… About who was good. How do you know it was you? …Maybe it was me” (146).

The relationship of circumstance to survival consumes Medallion’s inhabitants. The profound insularity and marginalization of the “Bottom” produces a stoic belief in evil deeds as a necessary part of existence. The author never defines this evil – she simply describes the actions, rituals, and taboos that rule the dispossessed. It is the intangibility that rivets us; we are assailed by the passivity of Medallion’s inhabitants. Aspiring to achieve anything more would be futile and the full weight of this oppression is on every page. Herein lies the true manifestation of evil – intolerance, oppression, and a slow, insidious chipping away at hope.

Sula by Toni Morison


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