In the novel Sula by Toni Morrison symbols are used in different ways and different contexts to suggest and represent something about the characters and theme. Throughout the novel the reader is introduced to different characters that all share the same neighborhood (the bottom). Throughout the novel Toni Morrison uses different symbols to suggest ideas to the reader. Toni Morrison exemplifies symbols in her novel Sula in many different ways. Throughout the novel, the reader is constantly reminded of Sula’s birth mark not only does it vary in size but with different people the birthmark changes. Some would see it as a snake while others saw it as a rose. The different inferences about the birthmark correlate with the feelings people have toward Sula. “Sula’s status as outsider manifests itself symbolically in a mysterious birthmark that runs from the middle of the lid towards the eyebrow of her right eye. It marks her as evil to most bottomites,who blame her for unpleasant occurrences”(Samuels 33)
Those describing the mark as a rose may find her sexual and beautiful, while those who view it as a snake or other evil portent (like Teapot’s Mamma) find her dangerous or mean. The symbol of the birthmark is the symbol of the perception we have of a person, place or community based on outward appearances. Often, these perceptions are not what they seem, although our willingness to follow these misconceptions can lead to our own struggles and demises, such as the real “National Suicide Day” in the novel. Each character in this story was trying to survive. Sometimes it drove them crazy (Shadrack), led to drugs (Plum) or even adultery (Jude), but these people were each trying to live, to find a way to be free, and to shake the perception that they were branded as less than equal with their own invisible birthmarks.
Fire appears throughout the novel and results in the deaths of Hannah and Plum. There are many possible meanings of fire, one of which is the idea that it is cleansing. When Eva Plum in kerosene he feels like he’s undergoing, “Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing” (Morrison 49). Eva felt as if her killing her son would free him from the pain of wanting to die, and her own pain of not being able to stop his suffering .And when Hannah dies in a fire, her death cleanses Sula of a mother who admits to not liking her daughter. “Sure you do. You love her, like I love Sula. I just don’t like her. That’s the difference. Guess so.likin’ them is another thing” (Morrison 57) Sula only hears what Hanna says and in result feels as if her mother never truly loved her, resulting in her watching her mother burn while she watched in wonder and awe on her front porch.
The robins followed Sula into town the day she arrived back in the bottom. Just like Sula, the birds were not welcomed into the town’s friendly arms. Instead they were hated, and people wished that Sula and the robins would go back where they came from. Everything that makes Sula, who she is, also makes the robins such nuisances “accompanied by a plague of robins, Sula came back to Medallion” (Morrison 89) Sula and the robins brought with them annoyance and remembrance of years passed that were not always filled with happiness. The return of both of these pests reminded the people how glad they were the last time they left. “The little yam-breasted shuddering birds were everywhere, exciting very small children away from their usual welcome into a vicious stoning” (Morrison 89). Like Sula, the birds in their massive numbers were so spectacular and interesting, that the children followed them around town, much like men followed Sula.
These birds came into town just as an appealing and attractive woman stepping out of the “Cincinnati flyer” (Morrison 89). Nel was the only person who noticed this into so subtle coincidence with the return of the birds and Sula at the very same time. Sula was like the robins, that she left heartache and sadness wherever she went. The robins also made it “hard to hang up clothes pull weeds or just sit on the front porch birds were flying and dying all over.” (Morrison 89). No one knew why the birds were dying but no one cared just as long as Sula and the birds left as quickly as they came. However, Sula stayed and left her share of pain like the robins. Sula, for example, made Nel become a single parent. Sula slept with Nels Husband and so he left. The robins were also an equally forceful entity to be reckoned with. They hurt others such as Shadrack. Once, a bird flew into Shadracks house. The birds stayed looking for an exit for the better part of an hour.
When the birds found the window and flew away, Shadrack was grieved and waited and watched for its return during those days, his usually clean house became a mess. Just like what happened with Sula, he lost his power over the bird. When he realized that he could not control the bird, he grew tired of doing anything. In the same way, when Sula came back to town and Shadrack realized that he did not have the same power that he used to have over her, he became uncaring towards everything that used to matter to him.
When the birds’ tragedy hit the bottom and Sula came back. Throughout the novel Sula, the reader is taken into the lives of the black community in the times when racism was an everyday life. We see life through different eyes and how their own lives are affected. Toni Morrison, uses symbols throughout her story to suggest different things to the readers. Sulas’ birthmark, the use of fire, and the birds. Each symbol suggests something more than meets the eye. Like Sulas’ birthmark which would get darker when she got older suggesting how her life was getting darker, fire as a use for cleansing rather than destruction and birds as a use of destruction rather than beauty.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1974.
Samuels, Wilfred D., Hudson-Weems, Clenora.Toni Morrison. New York, 1990