Literary Life Moment #2: Sula


sula10272011I recently bought Toni Morrison’s Sula not only because I love Morrison’s imagery in her writing, but because I was hooked by the book’s description:

“Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies… their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal—or does it end?”

As I was reading the book, I saw much of both people in my life and myself reflected in the characters. I initially identified most of all with Nel, though after some reflection, I can also see parts of myself in Sula and Shadrack—much as I can see others around me in them as well.

I recorded quotes throughout the book that struck a chord with me. Here they are; here is my journey through Toni Morrison’s Sula and how the book resonates in my own life:


My Life Through Quotes from Toni Morrison’s Sula


“There in the toilet water he [Shadrack] saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real—that he didn’t exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more.”

(p. 13)

“It had to do with making a place for fear as a way of controlling it.”

(p. 14)

“Once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his [Shadrack’s] madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things.”

(p. 15)

“The trip, perhaps, or her newfound me-ness, gave her [Sula] the strength to cultivate a friend in spite of her mother.”

(p. 29)

“Which was fitting, for it was in dreams that the two girls had first met… they had already made each other’s acquaintance in the delirium of their noon dreams. They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream. When Nel, an only child, sat on the steps of her back porch surrounded by the high silence of her mother’s incredibly orderly house, feeling the neatness pointing at her back, she studied the poplars and fell easily into a picture of herself lying on a flowered bed, tangled in her own hair, waiting for some fiery prince. He approached but never quite arrived. But always, watching the dream along with her, were some smiling sympathetic eyes. Someone as interested as herself in the flow of her imagined hair, the thickness of the mattress of the flowers, the voile sleeves that closed below her elbows in gold-threaded cuffs.”


Their friendship was as intense as it was sudden. They found relief in each other’s personality. Although both were unshaped, formless things, Nel seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted to sustain any emotion for more than three minutes. Yet there was one time when that was not true, when she held on to a mood for weeks, but even that was in defense of Nel.”

(p. 53)

“But toughness was not their quality—adventuresomeness was, and a mean determination to explore everything that interested them…”

(p. 55)

In the safe harbor of each other’s company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and focus on the perception of things… Joined in mutual admiration, they watched each day as though it were a movie arranged for their amusement.”

(p. 55)

“Nel’s call floated up and into the window, pulling her [Sula] away from dark thoughts and back into the bright, hot daylight.”

(p. 57)

“There was a space, a separateness between them.”

(p. 64)

“…feel the oldest and most devastating pain there is: not the pain of childhood, but the remembrance of it.”


“Nel and Sula stood some distance away from the grave, the space that had sat between them in the pews had dissolved… They relaxed slowly until during the walk back home their fingers were laced in as gentle a clasp as that of any two young girlfriends trotting up the road on a summer day wondering what happened to butterflies in the winter.”

(p. 66)

“…inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

(p. 78)

“’I built that road,’ he [Jude] could say… ‘I built that road.’ People would walk over his sweat for years.”

(p. 82)

“Without that someone he [Jude] was a waiter hanging around a kitchen like a woman. With her [Nel] he was head of a household pinned to an unsatisfactory job out of necessity. The two of them together would make one Jude.”

(p. 83)

Only with Sula did that quality have free reign, but their friendship was so close, they themselves had difficulty distinguishing one’s thoughts from the other’s. During all of her girlhood the only respite Nel had had from her stern and undemonstrative parents was Sula. When Jude began to hover around her, she was flattered—all the girls liked him—and Sula made the enjoyment of his attentions keener because she seemed always to want Nel to shine.”

(p. 83)

“They never quarreled, the way some girlfriends did over boys, or competed against one another for them. In those days a compliment to one was a compliment to the other, and cruelty to one was a challenge to the other.”

(p. 84)

“Nel’s response to Jude’s shame and anger selected her away from Sula. And greater than her friendship was this new feeling of being needed by someone who saw her singly. She didn’t even know she had a neck until Jude remarked on it, or that her smile was anything but the spreading of her lips until he saw it as a small miracle.”

(p. 84)

“The purpose of evil was to survive it.”

(p. 90)

“She [Nel] knew it was all due to Sula’s return to the Bottom. It was like getting the use of an eye back, having a cataract removed. Her old friend had come home. Sula. Who made her laugh, who made her see old things with new eyes, in whose presence she felt clever, gentle, and a little raunchy. Sula, whose past she had lived through and whose present was a constant sharing of perceptions. Was there anyone else before whom she could never be foolish? In whose view inadequacy was idiosyncrasy, a character trait rather than a deficiency? Anyone who left behind that aura of fun and complicity? Sula never competed; she helped others define themselves.”

(p. 95)

“She [Nel] looked around for a place to be. A small place. The closet? No. Too dark. The bathroom. It was both small and bright, and she wanted to be in a very small, very bright place. Small enough to contain her grief. Bright enough to throw into relief the dark things that cluttered her.”

(p. 107)

“Sula was wrong. ‘Hell ain’t things lasting forever. Hell is change.’ Not only did men leave and children grow up and die, but even the misery didn’t last. One day she [Nel] wouldn’t even have that. This very grief that had twisted her into a curve on the floor and flayed her would be gone. She would lose that too.”

(p. 108)

“’Why, even in hate here I am thinking of what Sula said.’”

(p. 108)

“…Nel waited. Waited for the oldest cry. A scream not for others, not in sympathy for a burnt child, or a dead father, but a deeply personal cry for one’s own pain… But it did not come.”

(p. 108)

“She [Nel] even hoped their dreams would rub off on her and give her the wonderful relief of a nightmare so she could stop going around scared to turn her head this way or that and see it. That was the scary part—seeing it.”

(p. 110)

“When the word got out about Eva being put in Sunnydale, the people in the Bottom shook their heads and said Sula was a roach. Later, when they saw how she took Jude, then ditched him for others, and heard how he bought a ticket to Detroit (where he bought but never mailed birthday cards to his sons), they forgot all about Hannah’s easy ways (or their own), and said she was a bitch. Everybody remembered the plague of robins that announced her return, and the tale about her watching Hannah burn was stirred up again.”

(p. 112)

“That incident, and Teapot’s Mamma, cleared up for everybody the meaning of the birthmark over her eye; it was not a stemmed rose, or a snake, it was Hannah’s ashes marking her from the very beginning.”

(p. 114)

“And the fury she [Sula] created in the women of the town was incredible—for she would lay their husbands once and no more. Hannah had been a nuisance, but she was complimenting the women, in a way, by wanting their husbands. Sula was trying them out and discarding them without any excuse the men could swallow.”

(p. 115)

“The presence of evil was something to be first recognized, then dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over.”

(p. 118)

“Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her [Sula] and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”

(p. 118)

“She [Sula] had no center, no speck around which to grow… For that reason, she felt no compulsion to verify herself—be consistent with herself.”

(p. 119)

She [Sula] had clung to Nel as the closest thing to both an other and a self, only to discover that she and Nel were not one and the same thing. She had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude. They had always shared the affection of other people: compared how a boy kissed, what line he used with one and then the other. Marriage, apparently, had changed all that, but having had no intimate knowledge of marriage…she was ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she felt close to.”

(p. 119)

Nel was the one person who had wanted nothing from her [Sula], who had accepted all aspects of her. Now she wanted everything, and all because of that. Nel was the first person who had been real to her, whose name she knew, who had seen as she had the slant of life that made it possible to stretch it to its limits. Now Nel was one of them.”

(p. 119, 120)

She [Sula] had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and never could be—for a woman.”

(p. 121)

“In a way, her [Sula’s] strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination… had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”

(p. 121)

“And there was the utmost irony and outrage in lying under someone, in a position of surrender, feeling her [Sula’s] own abiding strength and limitless power.”

(p. 123)

“There, in the center of that silence was not eternity but the death and time of a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning.”

(p. 123)

“…but her [Sula’s] real pleasure was the fact that he talked to her. They had genuine conversations. He did not speak down to her or at her, not content himself with puerile questions about her life or monologues of his own activities. Thinking she was possibility brilliant, like his mother, he seemed to expect brilliance from her, and she delivered. And in all of it, he listened more than he spoke.”

(p. 127, 128)

“Sula began to discover what possession was. Not love, perhaps, but possession or at least the desire for it.”

(p. 131)

“But Sula, the green ribbon shining in her hair, was flooded with an awareness of the impact of the outside world on Ajax.”

(p. 133)

“Ajax blinked. Then he looked swiftly into her [Sula’s] face. In her words, in her voice, was a sound he knew well. For the first time, he saw the green ribbon. He looked around and saw the gleaming kitchen and the table set for two and detected the scent of the nest. Every hackle on his body rose, and he knew that very soon she would, like all of her sisters before her, put to him the death-knell question ‘Where you been?’ His eyes dimmed with a mild and momentary regret… He dragged her under him and made love to her with the steadiness and intensity of a man about to leave for Dayton.”

(p. 133, 134)

“She [Sula] could find nothing, for he had left nothing but his stunning absence.”

(p. 134)

“It was as if she were afraid she had hallucinated him…”

(p. 134)

“’When I [Sula] was a little girl the heads of my paper dolls came off, and it was a long time before I discovered that my own head would not fall off if I bent my neck. I used to walk around holding it very stiff because I thought a strong wind or a heavy push would snap my neck. Nel was the one who told me the truth. But she was wrong. I did not hold my head stiff enough when I met him and so I lost it just like the dolls.”

(p. 136)

“She [Nel] had practiced not just the words but the tone, the pitch of her voice. It should be calm, matter-of-fact, but strong in sympathy—for the illness though, not for the patient… For the first time in three years she would be looking at the stemmed rose that hung over the eye of her enemy. Moreover, she would be doing it with the taste of Jude’s exit in her mouth, with the resentment and shame that even yet pressed for release in her stomach.”

(p. 138)

“Nel was glad to have a concrete errand. Conversation would be difficult. (Trust Sula to pick up a relationship exactly where it lay)

(p. 139)

“It was funny, sending Nel off to that drugstore right away like that, after she [Sula] had not seen her to speak to her for years.”

(p. 140)

“Pain was greedy. It demanded all of her attention.”

(p. 141)

“’Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

(p. 143)

“’How you know?’ Sula asked.

“’Know what?’ Nel still wouldn’t look at her.

“’About who was good? How you know it was you?’

“’What you mean?’

“’I mean maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me.’”

(p. 146)

“A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead. Sula felt her face smiling. “’Well, I’ll be damned,’ she thought, ‘it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.’”

(p. 149)

“Other mothers who had defended their children from Sula’s malevolence (or who had defended their positions as mothers from Sula’s scorn for the role) now had nothing to rub up against. The tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made.”

(p. 153)

“If he [Shadrack] was lonely before, he didn’t know it because the noise he kept up, the roaring, the busyness, protected him from knowing it.”

(p. 155, 156)

“The messier his house got, the lonelier he [Shadrack] felt…”

(p. 156)

“She [Sula] had a tadpole over her eye (that was how he knew she was a friend—she had the mark of the fish he loved)…”

(p. 156)

“…he [Shadrack] tried to think of something to say to comfort her, something to stop the hurt from spilling out of her eyes. So he had said ‘always,’ so she would not have to be afraid of the change…he had said ‘always’ to convince her, to assure her, of permanency.”

(p. 157)

“Still, when the day broke in an incredible splash of sun, he [Shadrack] gathered his things. In the early part of the afternoon, drenched in sunlight and certain that this would be the last time he would invite them to end their lives neatly and sweetly, he walked over the rickety bridge and onto the Bottom. But it was not heartfelt this time, not loving this time, for he no longer cared whether he helped them or not. His rope was improperly tied; his bell had a tinny unimpassioned sound. His visitor was dead and would come no more.”

(p. 158)

“They killed, as best they could, the tunnel they were forbidden to build.”

(p. 161)

“It didn’t take long, after Jude left, for her [Nel] to see what the future would be. She had looked at her children and knew in her heart that that would be all. That they were all she would ever know of love.”

(p. 165)

“One of the last few pedestrians, Nel walked the shoulder road while cars slipped by. Laughed at by her children, she still walked wherever she wanted to go, allowing herself to accept car rides only when the weather required it.”

(p. 166)

“’You. Sula. What’s the difference?’”

(p. 168)

“What had she [Nel] felt then, watching Sula going around and around and then the little boy swinging out over the water? Sula had cried and cried… But Nel had remained calm.”

(p. 170)

“All these years she [Nel] had been secretly proud of her calm, controlled behavior when Sula was uncontrollable, her compassion for Sula’s frightened and shamed eyes. Now it seemed that what she had thought was maturity, serenity, and compassion was only the tranquility that follows a joyful stimulation.”

(p. 170)

“’Sula?’ she whispered, gazing at the tops of trees. ‘Sula?’

“Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green things. A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze.

“’All that time, all that time I thought I was missing Jude.’ And the loss pressed on her chest and came up into her throat. ‘We was girls together,’ she said as though explaining something. ‘O Lord, Sula,’ she cried, ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.’

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

(p. 174)