A Dew-Lined Web: On Sula


On Books

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It’s the name. Sula. That’s what always strikes a space between my breasts whenever I think of Toni Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, and my favorite of her oeuvre. There are other proper names in Morrison’s titles—Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved—but they do not wear their allegory so lightly. Sula always seems to me to name a person, not an idea. She is, of course, a type, but she is the type of person who exceeds typology. She’s the kind of woman about whom you start to say “she’s the kind of woman…” even though you know any words that follow will twist like winter leaves before they hit the air, will fall to the ground, dry and dead wrong.

Sula is a real character, as we say. Sula is incomparable, matchless, singular. There is nobody like Sula. And yet. I’ve seen Sula in my days, in my sisters, my aunts, my friends, a stranger crossing the road. Morrison saw Sula in someone, too, before she wrote her:

I began to write my second book, which was called Sula, because of my preoccupation with a picture of a woman and the way in which I heard her name pronounced. Her name was Hannah, and I think she was a friend of my mother’s. I don’t remember seeing her very much, but what I do remember is the color around her—a kind of violet, a suffusion of something violet—and her eyes, which appeared to be half closed. But what I remember most is how the women said her name: how they said “Hannah Peace” and smiled to themselves, and there was some secret about her that they knew, which they didn’t talk about, at least not in my hearing, but it seemed loaded in the way in which they said her name. And I suspected that she was a little bit of an outlaw but that they approved in some way. (The Source of Self-Regard, 241)

In the novel, this remembered Hannah is Sula’s mother, Hannah Peace, but she is also Sula.

The paradox of Sula is that she’s quintessentially herself—nobody is like her—but she’s also everybody we know who is like that. This paradox takes shape in different ways in Sula, in the novel’s preoccupations with ironic oppositions, with how the individual self-relates to the collective, with the dynamic relation between order and disorder. As is Morrison’s tendency, all aspects of the novel—I am drawn in this writing to its names—flow through these interlocking thematic valves, coordinating like an intricate machine or body.


The novel is named for a character whom we don’t really meet for thirty-odd pages. Sula begins instead with a fictional place—Medallion, Ohio—and specifically with “that part of town where the Negroes lived, the part they called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up in the hills.” This paradoxical name comes from “a nigger joke,” the kind told by both white folks and colored folks “when they’re looking for a little comfort.” Morrison here sets up the first of many dizzying spins between high places and low, from treetops to holes, from hilltops to mud, from the aeronautical skies to tunnels and trenches. This species of irony—“it was lovely up in the Bottom”—is technically called antiphrasis, but it just means calling something by its opposite, how we sometimes call a hefty man “Slim” or a tall one “Tiny.”

Antiphrasis is at work in the names of several characters in Sula. We meet a grown man named BoyBoy. We meet a pale man named Tar Baby. We meet a woman everybody calls Teapot’s Mamma “because being his mamma was precisely her major failure.” Late in the novel, we learn that the people of the Bottom have a general “disregard for name changes by marriage” and mark four gravestones with the surname Peace. “Together they read like a chant,” Morrison writes, a chant as eerie as it is holy, given that none of the dead comes to their end in peace or rests in peace after.

And then, of course, there are the deweys:

Eva snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names. She looked at the first child closely, his wrists, the shape of his head and the temperament that showed in his eyes and said, “Well. Look at Dewey. My my mymymy.” When later that same year she sent for a child who kept falling down off the porch across the street, she said the same thing. Somebody said, “But Miss Eva, you calls the other one Dewey.”

“So? This here’s another one.”

Eva bestows the name Dewey upon three boys—whose skin is respectively “deeply black,” “light-skinned,” and “chocolate”—for a quality she sees in each, as if matching some inner thing to the outer label. But each dewey becomes “in fact as well as in name a dewey—joining with the other two to become a trinity with a plural name … inseparable, loving nothing and no one but themselves.” The chain gang game they play enacts their concatenation: “With the shoelaces of each of them tied to the laces of the others, they stumbled and tumbled out of Eva’s room.” The boys stop growing, so they do not become different from each other over time; eventually, not even their mammas can tell the deweys apart.

Each of these reversals of nominal expectation is but a slight topsy-turvy amid the mellifluous waves of Morrison’s prose. Yet this tic of antiphrasis casts all names into doubt. Names are meant to pinpoint a person, fix them as a discrete entity, not entangle them or flip them around. But, as Morrison says of the real-life Hannah Peace, even the way a name is spoken can change it indelibly, like the cover of a song. Sula plays with and overturns the usual logic of marking an individual’s uniqueness with a name, the same logic that we see both in Sula’s belief that her best friend, Nel, “was the first person who had been real to her, whose name she knew,” and in Sula’s horror upon learning that the man she has always known as Ajax is actually Albert Jacks (A. Jacks): “when for the first time in her life she had lain in bed with a man and said his name involuntarily or said it truly meaning him, the name she was screaming and saying was not his at all.”

If you can be named for something you’re not, for somebody other than yourself, are you real, are you truly yourself? If your name can dissolve and recombine into another name, who are you anyway?


This mystery of the self, of our shared but unbreachable condition of singularity, twinkles like a string of lights through the novel. The first time young Nel leaves Medallion and meets her grandmother Rochelle—“this tiny woman with the softness and glare of a canary”—she returns with an epiphany:

“I’m me,” she whispered. “Me.” Nel didn’t know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant. “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me.” Each time she said the word me there was a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear.

Me is a name that only you have and that everybody else does, too; this is the uncanny magic of pronouns.

Nel is herself but late in the novel, she tries to distinguish herself from Sula, only to be reminded: “You. Sula. What’s the difference?” Because despite their individuality, the two girls are as deeply connected as the deweys and in a manner just as fantastical. Sula and Nel first meet one another in their dreams, each sensing that “watching the dream along with her, were some smiling sympathetic eyes.” Like Nel’s epiphany of self-regard, this “intense … sudden” friendship with Sula is both consummately specific and hauntingly familiar.

When I think of Sula and feel that thrum at my breastbone, I’m thinking of the tart green sap of girlhood (“Hey, girl,” they say, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl”). I’m remembering the “adventuresomeness” of young girl friendship, the “mean determination to explore everything” together, truly everything, and the perfection of this sentence: “And they had no priorities.” I’m conjuring the teetering into fleshly doings that happens at a certain age when, suddenly, like a flock of birds erupting into flight, all of the boys are beautiful: “It was in that summer, the summer of their twelfth year, the summer of the beautiful black boys, that they became skittish, frightened and bold.”

I’m feeling this trembling time, its desire and ache, “their small breasts just now beginning to create some pleasant discomfort,” this girlish queerness—neither straight nor lesbian exactly, but feverish with slant possibility—this dewy conspiracy of selves:

Together they worked until the two holes were one and the same. When the depression was the size of a small dishpan, Nel’s twig broke. With a gesture of disgust she threw the pieces into the hole they had made. Sula threw hers in too. Nel saw a bottle cap and tossed it in as well. Each then looked around for more debris to throw into the hole: paper, bits of glass, butts of cigarettes, until all of the small defiling things they could find were collected there. Carefully they replaced the soil and covered the entire grave with uprooted grass.

Neither one had spoken a word.

Again, what strikes me is the scene’s combination of strangeness and familiarity: the weird games children play when they are outside and have no toys; the sense that as a young girl, I, too, played this way with, became one with, other young girls (whose names I know: Hilda, Chanda, Nyaka). Even the smallest details of the scene—the literal bits and pieces Sula and Nel throw in their merged hole—shudder between the random and the archetypal.


This suits the novel’s interest in waste: every other page refers to shit, piss, butts, asses, stool, outhouses, restrooms, bladders, or constipation. (The Bottom is a triple pun at least). The girls’ burial of “small defiling things” comes after two other episodes of oblique abjection, one familial, one erotic. In the first, Sula overhears her mother speaking dismissively about her and feels radically severed from home, cast out like slops. In the second, Sula and Nel run a gauntlet of male gazes (“pig meat,” Ajax calls after them), secretly thrilled by what lies curled behind the seams of the men’s trousers. The hole-digging scene in turn foreshadows later sexual entanglements and gruesome deaths, some requiring a closed casket.

The scene itself climaxes in a beautiful and horrifying death—horrifying because it is beautiful—that both binds the two girls together and, when she tries to ensure that he has not witnessed it, binds young Sula to Shadrack for life. In this novel, the abject—filth and mess, all that is beyond the bounds, the realm of the “jettisoned … where meaning collapses”—is, oddly enough, a binding agent (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 2). This symbiosis of order and disorder appears throughout Sula—Nel lives in “the high silence of her mother’s incredibly orderly house, feeling the neatness pointing at her back,” while Sula is “wedged into a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry”—but especially in Shadrack’s story, which itself sits on the outer edges of the novel.

Shadrack’s name points us to the Book of Daniel, where King Nebuchadnezzar II throws three men, one named Shadrach, into a furnace for refusing to bow to the king’s image. This biblical tale echoes the immolation of Sula’s uncle and mother in the novel, as well as the hellhole Shadrack finds himself in during World War I: “he turned his head a little to the right and saw the face of a soldier near him fly off.” Shadrack’s trauma as a veteran makes him unravel. His fingers seem “to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk” and to join up with his shoelaces: “The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.”

But he’s soothed by the “neat balance” of a food tray separating rice, tomatoes, and meat: “All their repugnance was contained.” And so, when he returns to Medallion, he invents National Suicide Day “to order and focus experience,” to make “a place for fear as a way of controlling it”; “if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free.” His shack on a riverbank on the outskirts of town is a spatial version of National Suicide Day, a place of containment beside a muddy slurry.

When young Sula walks into his home that fateful day to see about a death, she’s struck by how clean and neat it is, despite housing such a chaotic mind. The relationship between girl and man is thin and taut, brief yet consequential. Their conversation revolves around one word—“Always”—that holds radically different meanings for each. This eventful, contingent day brings Shadrack a shred of humanness to hold onto; the child’s belt that Sula drops becomes “the one piece of evidence that he once had a visitor.” And this day also serves as the crucible that forges that unaccountable being: Sula, the woman.


Who—or what—does Sula become? Sula the woman is beautiful and loose; she works little and discards people; she sleeps around with the men in town and catches feelings for one. On one hand, Sula is completely understandable, the natural outgrowth of her mother and grandmother, who are cruel to women but adore men. On the other hand, Sula is utterly alien. When she’s caught with another woman’s husband, they’re on their hands and knees licking each other’s lips like dogs, neither of them notably aroused. When Sula does fall in love, she imagines her paramour’s body in this unsettling way: “Skin black. Very black. So black that only a steady careful rubbing with steel wool would remove it, and as it was removed there was the glint of gold leaf and under the gold leaf the cold alabaster and deep, deep down under the cold alabaster more black only this time the black of warm loam.”

Sula is “like any artist with no art form … dangerous.” Her material is life—“hers was an experimental life”—and she creates two major works of art, the Bottom and her own self: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.” In each case, she creates via negation, by rubbing herself off, carving herself out: “She had no center, no speck around which to grow … She was completely free of ambition, with no affection for money, property or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments—no ego.” This emptiness is crucial to her art but it is also threatening. It makes Sula extra in every sense: too much, a “wayward stranger,” a “pariah.”

Yet Sula is necessary, essential to the black people of Medallion. This is because they have a precise understanding of evil, one that is akin to Shadrack making a place for fear rather than trying to dispel it:

Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back…

Sula’s evil makes the good rise in others; her bad brings out their best; her wrongs make them right.

While some critics interpret the birthmark over Sula’s eye as the biblical mark of Cain, the divergent and quotidian readings of the birthmark in the novel itself (other characters see it as a rose, a snake, ashes, a tadpole) suggest not just spiritual symbolism, but also worldly, deeply human ambiguity. Each person sees the particular evil in her that they need to. The community doesn’t cast Sula out or set out to sacrifice her; everybody knows deep down that her magnificent, maleficent presence is what unites them. Sula isn’t in fact a scapegoat but a supplement, the allegedly “unnatural” extraneous piece that turns out to be missing from the center. (Jacques Derrida writes in Speech and Phenomena: “We can speak … of a primordial ‘supplement’: their addition comes to make up for a deficiency, it comes to compensate for a primordial nonself-presence.”)

When Sula’s gone, everybody misses her; they miss hating her and measuring themselves against her. When Sula’s gone, everything collapses.

Who, and what, she is therefore isn’t merely a question of personality. It’s a question of philosophy: “That’s how philosophy started … One of the first questions one could pose … is the question of the difference between the who and the what … Do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? I love you because you are you. Or do I love your qualities? … The history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and what.” (Derrida, in Derrida, by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman).

If what Sula is to us is an emblem, a mirror, a type, a supplement of the community—and she is all of these things—we must always remember that who Sula is belongs, in the end, to her friend. “We was girls together,” Nel cries and it strikes me in my chest like the point of a pin hitting a gong.


Sula is Nel. Sula is Rochelle, Nel’s grandmother, who also wears yellow and brings birds. Sula is her mother, Hannah, who also fucks all the men in the Bottom. Sula is her grandmother, Eva, who also kills a boy. Sula is Shadrack, another outcast whose hellfire teems at the edges of the community, sealing it whole. And Sula is herself, Sula Mae Peace, as well as every possible unraveling of that triple rippling name, which only on this latest rereading did I think to look into.

As with many of Morrison’s names, Sula Mae is biblical. Sula Mae is Shulamit or Shulamite, the name of Solomon’s beloved in the Song of Songs, the woman whose “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb.” Sula Mae could also be Salome—either the temptress who danced for King Herod and demanded the head of John the Baptist at the behest of her fiery mother, or a female disciple who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion. Both the names Shulamit and Salome come from the root word shalom, or peace. So, Sula Mae Peace is Peace Peace, a doubling that seems to jar her loose from herself, and makes us wonder whether she is one of the peaces in that graveyard, or all of them. And Sula spelled backward—is it “all us” or “alas” or “a lass” or “a loss?”

Sula is all of these possibilities, every line of light on a dew-lined web. But no matter how many times I reread Sula, analyze her names, untangle her threads, the light of her slips through my fingers. Some small thing that lives in my chest and has a bell for a tongue knows the truth of the matter: Sula is Sula.


From Namwali Serpell’s introduction to the new reissue of Sula, published by Vintage Classics.

Namwali Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard University and the author of Seven Modes of Uncertainty (2014), The Old Drift (2019), Stranger Faces (2020), and The Furrows (September 2022).