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Sula

Toni Morrison

1923-1927

1922

1937

Summary

A fierce wind sweeps through the Bottom, tearing up trees and leaving behind a terrible heat wave. The next day, Hannah angers Eva when she asks if Eva had ever loved her, Plum, or Pearl. Eva retorts that the desperate struggle to feed and clothe Hannah and her siblings did not leave her enough time to indulge in playing with them as children. Hannah then asks her why she killed Plum. Eva begins to cry and states that Plum had wanted to crawl back into the womb. Eva explains that he had become a child again, and remembers the terror she felt at his life-threatening impacted bowel so many years earlier.

Hannah takes a nap and dreams of a red bridal gown. She tells Eva about it, but Eva is too distracted by 13-year-old Sula's adolescent behavior to think much about it. Later, Eva looks out her window in time to see Hannah's dress catch fire. She throws herself out the window, hoping to cover Hannah's body with her own. Mr. and Mrs. Suggs throw a tub of water on Hannah, but she is horribly scarred. Eva and Hannah are sent to the hospital in the same ambulance. Hannah is dead on arrival. Old Willy Fields, an orderly, barely saves Eva's death by blood loss, an act for which she curses him for years. In the hospital, Eva attributes Hannah's dream to a premonition of her death by fire. She recalls that she saw Sula standing on the porch, watching her mother burn to death. She is convinced that Sula was not stunned, but "interested."

20-year-old Jude Greene is a waiter at the Hotel Medallion. However, he longs to have a "man's job." When he hears that there is a plan to build a new road to the river, Jude hopes to take a job in the project. To his bitter disappointment, he learns that only whites are being hired. To secure a sense of manhood, he decides to marry and proposes to Nel. Shortly after her high school graduation, they are married in an elaborate ceremony. Nel, having embraced the conventional beliefs of her mother after the trauma of Chicken Little's death, gladly accepts the role of submissive wife. After the wedding, Sula leaves the Bottom to attend college. She does not return for 10 years.

Commentary

The conversation between Eva and Hannah again raises the ambiguity of a mother's love. Eva's harsh experiences did not allow her to express her love in affectionate terms. She struggled simply to ensure that her children survived. Her explanation for killing Plum again raises the question of whether such strong love is entirely positive. Eva couldn't face seeing the product of her own flesh live with the degradation of a drug addiction. She couldn't face the same terror she felt when he had an impacted bowel as an infant. Therefore, she chose to end her fear and suffering by killing him. At the same time, she ended his suffering. To simply praise or condemn her actions is a shallow response to the complexity of her dilemma. Judging from Eva's words, there seems to be both a constructive and a destructive aspect to love.

It may be a good thing that Hannah is not completely consumed with such love for Sula. Although Sula was hurt to learn that her mother did not like her, Hannah's words free Sula to a certain extent, as Sula realizes that she does not have to become or do anything to gain her mother's love because Hannah loves her regardless. /PARAGRAPH The Bottom is a superstitious community. Eva tries to understand Hannah's tragic accident by attaching special significance to the heat wave, Hannah's dream, and the fact that her comb was misplaced. Infusing these events with mystical significance allows her to find meaning in Hannah's death. Like Shadrack, Eva needs to order and focus the experience for herself, especially because she was unable to save Hannah. /PARAGRAPH However, it is not possible to simply dismiss the mysterious conjunction of the heat wave, the missing comb, and Hannah's dream. These unsual events imply that there is an order behind what appears to be random disorder. Moreover, Hannah died by fire just as Plum did. Maybe, this is the price Eva pays for intentionally killing Plum. However, it is also implied that Eva might have killed Hannah on the way to the hospital. We never know for sure. She was alive when she was placed in the ambulance with Eva, but she was dead on arrival at the hospital. Eva's attempt to symbolically lay the blame for Hannah's death on Sula could be an attempt to deal with her own secret guilt for Hannah's death as well as the guilt for Plum's. She condemns Sula for standing motionless while Hannah died by fire. She attributes her inability to correctly read the signs of disorder in time to Sula's fretful adolescent behavior; she did not read the warning in Hannah's dream because Sula distracted her. She attempts to define Sula as the source and origin of her inability to impose order on chaos. In the years to come, the community of the Bottom will do exactly the same thing.

Nel breaks her promise to define the boundaries of her own identity by choosing to marry young just as her mother had. A marriage is supposed to be a happy event; however, Jude chooses marriage as the inferior alternative to what he really wants: a man's job. Nel basically fulfills Helene's expectations by getting married rather than fulfilling her own original plan to live a wonderful and exciting life on her own terms. In the end, Helene succeeded in filing away the rough, unconventional edges from Nel's personality. The marriage thus symbolizes the reduction of possibilities. It signals a narrowing of the personalities of the people involved. It also heralds Nel's and Sula's separation from one another.

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