In the middle of the 1900s, the United States of America survived hard times when racism, poverty, and inequality shaped human standards. There are many literary works where authors tried to share their opinions and describe specific situations, conflicts, and lessons. One of them is Sula, a novel written by Toni Morrison in 1973. Its main characters, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, are friends whose relationships are reshaped because of social ambiguity. The author used strong metaphors and symbols to represent an interesting plot and a complex nature of images and characters. In this paper, the analysis of three symbols, fire, a tunnel, and birds, will be developed to explain the theme of black American life and human qualities through the prism of good and evil actions.
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Symbolism in the Novel
The creation of a good-and-evil parallel is one of the strongest aspects of Morrison’s Sula. The author does not want to take a single position and divide characters into positive and negative. On the one hand, Nel is a quiet girl who likes the role of wife and mother and follows social norms and expectations, but she is represented as an antagonist. On the other hand, Sula is an impulsive and sometimes aggressive girl whose chaotic lifestyle leads to her death but causes compassion and support from the reader. In the beginning, the girls’ relationships are strong and positive, and “they felt the ease and comfort of old friends” (Morrison, Sula 54). However, with time, this friendship becomes shaped by prejudice and expectations, and Morrison uses several symbols of fire, a tunnel, or birds to underline their impact on human life.
Fire is usually presented as one of the most powerful destructive things that a person can hardly control. It is a sign of change, end, and pain that the characters should experience to achieve an outcome. In Sula, fire is used to kill two characters, Plum and Hannah. It was “the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness” and “some kind of blessing” with the help of which “everything is going to be all right” (Morrison, Sula 50). In this case, the symbol of fire may be interpreted as an inevitable part of life that may be harsh and cruel but fair and merciful. The characteristics of the same symbol may be found in another Morrison’s work where “the fire seemed to live, go own, or die according to its own schemata” (The Bluest Eye 37). As well as black American life or any human life, a fire has its origin and purpose and ends as soon as its mission is complete.
The New River Road is a tunnel that connects the Bottom community with other surroundings. It is an important element of change to encourage “similar hopes” that “blacks would work” after its opening (Morrison, Sula 140). The tunnel symbolizes a new agreement between the government of Ohio and the black community. People believe that there is always some light at the end of the tunnel and cherish their dream to change something. However, as Morrison says, “definitions belonged to the definers – not to defined” (Beloved 363). The government defined the New River Road, and, instead of contributing to this idea, the Bottom citizens do not find it necessary to check the process. Unfortunately, the tunnel becomes a human tragedy and deception when people see “the timber, the bricks, the steel ribs” that “had lain… leaf-dead” (Morrison, Sula 150). This symbol also proves that black life cannot be improved if an individual expects something from others and does nothing.
A bird is probably one of Morrison’s favorite symbols because it is commonly used in many of her novels. In Beloved, the main characters are compared to a hawk who is “snatching up her children” or a cardinal, “the blood spot shifting in the leaves” (Morrison 195, 302). In The Bluest Eye, human actions resemble the bird’s ones “in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly” (Morrison 219). In Sula, the main characters returned to Medallion, “accompanied by a plague of robins,” “the little yam-breasted shuddering birds” (Morrison 85). When birds arrive or leave their ordinary places, it means that something is going to be changed. In the story, the symbol of birds is used to predict a new meaningful event or underline the uniqueness of the character, providing him or her with some bird’s qualities. Despite their intention to find freedom and follow their dreams, black people, like birds, hurt their wings and souls as a result of multiple attempts to fly out of the cage.
In general, Sula, as well as other Morisson’s novels, are full of symbols that could be interpreted by the readers in their specific ways. The chosen examples of fire, the tunnel, and birds help describe the quality of life black people had at the beginning of the 1900s. Just like fire, the characters had their origins and purposes that cannot be neglected. The image of the tunnel explains the inevitability of darkness and the necessity to fight against it. Finally, birds are the symbols of humans, their behaviors, and intentions. It is wrong to think about things as good or evil only, and Morrison shows the line where qualities and thoughts are in a tangled mess that challenged black Americans.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. 1973. Web.
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Beloved. Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Web.
The Bluest Eye. Vintage International, 2007. Vintage Books, Web.