The Subtle and Not so Subtle Symbols of "Sula" 

Categories: Sula

Toni Morrison novel, Sula, has been hailed by several critics as a remarkable expression of the feminist ideology. To accurately understand this novel, it is necessary to focus on symbols used throughout. While many of the symbols used throughout, whether flowers, fire, water or the mysterious repeating of the number “4”, Life and culture in the “Bottom”.

Sula is set in the Bottom, and most of the story takes place in the first half of the twentieth century. The Bottom sits above a valley occupied by middle-class whites.

Although they live in close proximity, blacks and whites rarely interact with each other in the novel. When they do, the encounters are marked by racial tension. The residents of the Bottom are African-American and have to deal with constant discrimination and racism. Many of the characters struggle to make ends meet. The events in Sula span much of the twentieth century, during a time of great changes in civil rights for African Americans and other minority groups.

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Race binds communities together and creates a shared sense of identity, culture, and tradition.

The main character of Sula, has a birthmark over one of her eyes. Depending on their perception of her, people think the birthmark looks like different things: a stemmed rose, a snake, or Hannah’s ashes.

Birds are everywhere in Sula, and they are often associated with specific characters. When we meet Rochelle, she wears a “canary-yellow dress” and has the “glare of a canary” (40) (41). And we already know that a “plague of robins” (1) arrives in Medallion just before Sula does.

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Birds invoke the idea of flight, which makes sense when we consider that Cecile and Sula both flee at some point in the story. And robins are often associated with the spring, the season of rebirth and growth. Although Sula brings with her a lot of pain and destruction, we learn that her presence also generates a renewed sense of purpose in the Bottom, even if it is directed against her.

When Nel meets Rochelle, she notices that she smells like gardenias. Sula has a birthmark shaped like a rose, and “The Rose Tattoo” is the source of the novel’s epigraph. These particular flowers are beautiful and fragrant, even intoxicating. Rochelle intoxicates the young Nel, and Sula intoxicates the many men around her. These characters are also a little dangerous in that they disrupt the lives of the people they encounter. But the thing about flowers is, once they’re picked, they don’t live for very long. Just as the flower’s beauty is fleeting, so too is the presence of both of these women in the novel.

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 douses Plum in kerosene (before the fire, but still applicable we think), he feels like he’s undergoing “Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing” (49). And when Hannah dies in a fire, it’s possible that this somehow cleanses Sula of a mother who is at best indifferent and at worst admits to not liking her daughter.

Water is often associated with death in the novel. For Sula (and Nel, to a lesser degree), it represents Chicken’s horrible drowning. Fire might be a cleansing force, but water engulfs and consumes the young boy. Water doesn’t comfort Sula but rather agitates and upsets her because of her responsibility for Chicken’s death. At the end of the novel, one of the townspeople who die in the tunnel slides and hits the ice below.

Through the novel I noticed that Morrison repeated the use of the number four several times. The Wofford family was not well-off financially. At one point, when George and Ramah could not pay their $4.00 rent, the landlord set fire to the house-with Chloe, her older sister, and her parents still inside. No one was injured. Her parents frequently shared the story in an amusing-not a tragic-way; Morrison said the incident helped give her a sense of humor. Throughout this story, you come across the life and work of Toni Morrison, and it is evident, that the two are not very far away from each other in this book. Through reading some biographies on Morrison, I discovered that Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-mill town. Her name at birth was Chloe Anthony Wofford, and she was one of four children born to George and Ramah Wofford. Morrison’s father came from Georgia.

He left that state because of the racial evils he witnessed there. These atrocities were, to him, sufficient reason for hating all whites. George was a pessimist and believed that no hope was imminent for African-Americans. Chloe’s mother, on the other hand, was more optimistic. She believed that individuals in society could better their lots.

Chloe’s family life had many influences on her work. One such influence was superstition, which figured prominently into the belief system and activities of the family. Chloe’s father loved to delight the children with scary ghost stories, which reflected superstition. Morrison’s maternal grandmother kept a dream book with symbols. She used these symbols for playing the numbers. Every number has a certain power which is expressed both by its symbol to denote its representation and by its connection to universal principles. Numbers have relationships with all things in nature, thus making them supremely powerful symbolic expressions. The symbolic meaning of number Four deals with stability and invokes the grounded nature of all things. Consider the four seasons, four directions, four elements all these amazingly powerful essences wrapped up in the nice square package of Four. Fours represent solidity, calmness, and home. It is said that the recurrence of Four in your life may signify the need to get back to your roots, center yourself, or even “plant” yourself. Fours also indicate a need for persistence and endurance.”

Throughout “Sula,” Morrison countlessly repeats the number four to add a significance and a deeper underlying meaning to the story. To Morrison, there is more to literature, than meets the eye. Here are all of the uses of the word “four” in Sula.

“Shadrack took the plunge. Four steps and he was on the grass heading for the gate.” (11)

“Through his tears he saw the fingers joining the laces, tentatively at first, then rapidly. The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.” (13)

“Then, on subsequent National Suicide Days, the grown people looked out from behind curtains as he rang his bell; a few stragglers increased their speed, and little children screamed and ran. The tetter heads tried goading him (although he was only four or five years older then they) but not for long, for his curses were stingingly personal.”(15)

“Helene licked her lips. “Oh…I…” Her glance moved beyond the white man’s face to the passengers seated behind him. Four or five black faces were watching, two belonging to soldiers still in their shit-colored uniforms and peaked caps.” (21)

“She looked around for the other woman and, seeing just the top of her head rag in the grass, slowly realized where “yonder” was. All of them, the fat woman and her four children, three boys and a girl, Helene and her daughter, squatted there in the four o’clock Meridian sun.”(24)

“Then it was she who carried the gardenia smell. This tiny woman with the softness and glare of a canary. In that somber house that held four Virgin Marys, where death sighed in every corner and candles sputtered, the gardenia smell and canary-yellow dress emphasized the funeral atmosphere surrounding them.” (25)

“There were rooms that had three doors, others that opened out on the porch only and were inaccessible from any other part of the house; others that you could get to only by going through somebody’s bedroom. The creator and sovereign of this enormous house with the four sickle-pear trees in the front yard and the single elm in the back yard was Eva Peace, who sat in a wagon on the third floor directing the lives of her children, friends, strays, and a constant stream of boarders.” (30)

“He was seven, freckled dewey was five, and Mexican dewey was only four. Eva solved the problem by having them all sent off together. Mr. Buckland Reed said, “But one of them’s only four.” (39)

“They were on their way to Edna Finch’s Mellow House, an ice-cream parlor catering to nice folks-where even children would feel comfortable, you know, even though it was right next to Reba’s Grill and just one block down from the Time and a Half Pool Hall. It sat in the curve of Carpenter’s Road, which, in four blocks, made up all the sporting life available in the Bottom.” (49)

“Four white boys in their early teens, sons of some newly arrived Irish people, occasionally entertained themselves in the afternoon by harassing black schoolchildren.” (53)

“They ran in the sunlight, creating their own breeze, which pressed their dresses into their damp skin. Reaching a kind of square of four leaf-locked trees which promised cooling, they flung themselves into the four-cornered shade to taste their lip sweat and contemplate the wildness that had come upon them so suddenly.” (57)

“That was why Chicken Little was missing for three days and didn’t get to the embalmer’s until the fourth day, by which time he was unrecognizable to almost everybody who once knew him, and even his mother wasn’t deep down sure, except that it just had to be him since nobody could find him.” (64)

“The men who worked in the valley got up at four thirty in the morning and looked at the sky where the sun was already rising like a hot white bitch.” (73)

“Before she trundled her wagon over to the dresser to get her comb, Eva looked out the window and saw Hannah bending to light the yard fire. And that was the fifth (or fourth, if you didn’t count Sula’s craziness) strange thing.”(75)

“At Eva’s house there were four dead robins on the walk. Sula stopped and with her toe pushed them into the bordering grass.” (91)

“But they had been down on all fours naked, not touching except their lips right down there on the floor where the tie is pointing to, on all fours like (uh huh, go on, say it) like dogs.” (105)

“They will never give me the peace I need to get from sunup to sundown, what good are they, are you trying to tell me that I am going to have to go all the way through these days all the way, O my god, to that box with four handles with never nobody settling down between my legs even if I sew up those old pillow cases and rinse down the porch and feed my children and beat the rugs and haul the coal up out of the bin even then nobody, O Jesus, I could be a mule or plow the furrows with my hands if need be or hold these rickety walls up with my back if need be if I knew that somewhere in this world in the pocket of some night I could open my legs to some cowboy lean hips but you are trying to tell me no and O my sweet Jesus what kind of cross is that?” (111)

“They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula. They had lived with various forms of evil all their days, and it wasn’t that they believed God would take care of them.” (118)

“He came regularly then, bearing gifts: clusters of black berries still on their branches, four meal-fried porgies wrapped in a salmon-colored sheet of the Pittsburgh Courier, a handful of jacks, two boxes of lime Jell-Well, a hunk of ice-wagon ice, a can of Old Dutch Cleanser with the bonneted woman chasing dirt with her stick; a page of Tillie the Toiler comics, and more gleaming white bottles of milk.”(125)

“Nel took two steps out the door and closed it behind her. She walked down the hall and down the four flights of steps. The house billowed around her light then dark, full of presences without sounds.”(146)

“The normal meanness that the winter brought was compounded by the small-spiritedness that hunger and scarlet fever produced. Even a definite and witnessed interview of four colored men (and the promise of more in the spring) at the tunnel site could not break the cold vise of that lean and bitter year’s end.”(154)

“Nevertheless, the sun splashed on a larger and larger crowd that strutted, skipped, marched, and shuffled down the road. When they got down to where the sidewalk started, some of them stopped and decided to turn back, too embarrassed to enter the white part of town whooping like banshees. But except for three or four, the fainthearted were put to shame by the more aggressive and abandoned, and the parade danced down Main Street past Woolworth’s and the old poultry house, turned right and moved on down the New River Road.”(160)

“When she got to Sunnydale, the home for the aged, it was already four o’clock and turning chill. She would be glad to sit down with those old birds and rest her feet.” (166)

“They came in a police van and carried the body down the steps past the four pear trees and into the van for all the world as with Hannah.”(172)

So the number four has some significance in the story, but its meaning and reason for being repeated is still remains a mystery.

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The Subtle and Not so Subtle Symbols of "Sula" . (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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