Places: Sula

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1973

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1919-1965

Places DiscussedMedallion

Medallion. SulaImaginary Ohio town in which the main action of the novel is set. Morrison grew up in the small town of Lorain, Ohio. Bordered by Kentucky to the south but a Northern state in the Civil War with important Underground Railroad sites, Ohio functions in many of Morrison’s novels as a place of alternating prejudice and freedom for the black characters.

The fictional Medallion’s geography shows the distinctions between black and white characters: The white characters live in the fertile valley, protected from the harshest winds of winter, while the black characters inhabit the rocky, unproductive hillside where the poorly built houses cannot protect their residents from the elements. During a particularly difficult winter, when ice coats the ground and does not melt for days, the black residents lose their jobs in the valley because they cannot get down the steep hill in the ice.

By the end of the novel, the Bottom, the black neighborhood, is disappearing because the wealthy white people have decided the hillside on which it stands is desirable for a golf course and for luxury homes. The new development reflects the town’s power structure as did the earlier layout.

The Bottom

The Bottom. African American neighborhood in Medallion. Local legend holds that the neighborhood’s first settler was tricked by a white man into taking the rocky hillside land rather than the fertile valley land below. The neighborhood’s ironic name refers to the “bottom of heaven.” The residents are not consoled that they can “literally look down on the white folks.” The neighborhood eventually disappears as the homes of wealthy whites and a golf course are put in on the hillside. A tunnel built by white laborers offers a focus for the rage the Bottom’s residents feel at their economic and social privation. In their attempt to destroy it, many are killed when it collapses.

The residents of the Bottom interpret and pass judgment on events and actions of the novel’s characters. Morrison’s giving a communal voice to a place is reminiscent of a technique of William Faulkner, on whom Morrison wrote a master’s thesis. Like Faulkner, Morrison creates characters who seemingly could not exist in different settings.


Train. After Helene’s grandmother dies in 1920, Helene and Nel travel to New Orleans on a train. Their ride provides a vivid picture of the unequal treatment that African Americans received in the Deep South during the days of rigid Jim Crow segregation. The train’s conductor is extremely nasty when Helene accidentally gets on the coach for white passengers. The train stations do not even have rest rooms for black passengers. Although Helene is disgusted by the way she is treated on the trip and by the cold welcome she receives from her mother, her ten-year-old daughter Nel finds the experience exciting. The new sense of self she develops from her journey makes her feel brave, so that she starts talking to Sula Peace, who will become her best friend.

Helene Wright’s home

Helene Wright’s home. House in which Nel grows up. Like its mistress, the house is orderly and attractive, to the point that Nel finds it oppressive. Sula, coming from a more chaotic household, loves to visit the house.

Eva Peace’s home

Eva Peace’s home. House in which Sula grows up, also inhabited by her grandmother Eva, mother Hannah, uncle Plum, three boys all named Dewey, and various others over time. The house was constructed in pieces and contains rooms and stairways in no particular arrangement, in contrast with the orderly Wright home. Nel prefers the Peace home to her own.

BibliographyBakerman, Jane S. “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” American Literature 52 (January, 1981): 541-563. Presents Morrison’s first three novels as accounts of female initiation. Maintains that they show female characters looking for love and self-worth but ultimately failing in their search.Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Collection of scholarly essays on Morrison; includes analyses of the self/other dialectic and of the lack of peace in Sula. Bryant, Cedric Gael. “The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison’s Sula. ” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter, 1990): 731-745. Maintains that in the worlds of Morrison’s novels, the community not only tolerates but also integrates individuals whom the larger world would deem insane or evil.Christian, Barbara. “The Contemporary Fables of Toni Morrison.” In Black Women Novelists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Argues that Morrison’s first two novels “chronicle the search for beauty amidst the restrictions of life, both from within and without.” Her main characters in both novels search for meaning through connection with the greater world.De Weever, Jacqueline. Mythmaking and Metaphor in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Examines contemporary black women writers as part of the “return to myth” tradition in letters. Insists that the experience of black people in the New World cannot be told through realism or naturalism and that Morrison and others use myth to order that experience.Mayberry, Susan Neal. Can’t I Love What I Criticize? The Masculine and Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. This study of masculinity in Morrison’s novels includes a chapter on the elegiac quality of her representation of boyhood in Sula. Stepto, Robert B. “’Intimate Things in Place’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Massachusetts Review 18 (Autumn, 1977): 473-489. A wide-ranging discussion of Morrison’s life and work, with special attention given to Sula.
Categories: Places