“Sula” Themes: Identity, Friendship, And Nonconformity

Sula’s Complex Character and Upbringing

In Sula, Toni Morrison explores a community’s role in the individual’s search for wholeness. The story begins at the end, after the African-American community known as “the Bottom” has been destroyed and replaced with a golf course. The narrator reveals the history of “the Bottom” forty years before it was destroyed, in chapters titled simply by the year of focus, beginning with 1919 and ending with 1965. We follow the life of Sula, who leads a life of experimentation and exploration of what it means to live in such conditions.

Sula, the protagonist, is a complex character. In the novel, Sula Peace is Hannah’s daughter and Eva Peace’s granddaughter, both matriarchs. This upbringing must be the reason for her embodying freedom, adventure, curiosity, unpredictability, and passion, the traits that are usually suppressed under conventional patriarchic laws for women.

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The Significance of Sula and Nel’s Friendship

The friendship between Sula and Nel plays an important role in the life of Sula. Nel and her parents live in a home that Nel considers “oppressively neat.” Sula’s life can be seen as the polar opposite of Nel’s because Nel prefers the disorder that she finds at Sula’s home, where “something was always cooking on the stove, … the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions” and “all sorts of people dropped in.” Their development into adults follows some predictable and unpredictable patterns. Nel becomes exactly like her own mother. She marries, has children, and bases her entire identity on the roles of mother and wife, which is disrupted by her best friend.

Sula’s life is shaped by two occurrences in her youth: the death of Chicken Little, which she blames on herself, and the overheard conversation of her mother when she says she does not really like her daughter. Sula grows up feeling guilty and unloved. Her only joy is spending time with her best friend, Nel Wright. The two of them become inseparable, even though they are totally different in background and personality.

Sula’s Contradictions and Defining Moments

Sula, as a child, lived in a chaotic household run by strong-willed women, her mother, and her grandmother. Because her surroundings are so noisy, messy, and busy, she prefers the quiet and neatness of Nel’s house. This tells us something about her character. Although Sula is consistently positioned as the wild, emotional, irrational one, she can “sit on [Helene’s] red-velvet sofa for ten to twenty minutes at a time – still as the dawn” (1919.75), just taking in the calm around her. It’s easy for us to forget this about Sula, especially as we follow her into adulthood, but one of her great contradictions is that she craves the order she never gets in her own home.

Sula is a marvelously created and complex character. Early in the novel, she cuts off the tip of her own finger to protect herself and Nel from the vicious attacks of some white boys. When Chicken Little drowns, she is terrified but cares enough to go and seek the help of Shadrack; when he tells her only “always,” she misunderstands and feels that he has made some kind of threat, which she never forgets. Sula resents her mother because of her lack of emotion towards her daughter; as a result, when her mother catches on fire, Sula watches with detachment as she burns to death. With the same controlled emotion, she puts Eva in a nursing home rather than care for her, and she sleeps with Nel’s husband to strike back at her friend for having abandoned her. Sula has truly lived her life independently and on the edge.

Sula’s Transformation and Legacy

She violates this independence only twice in the novel, and both times, she is devastated by the relationship. Only once does Sula fall in love. When she realizes that she genuinely cares for Ajax, she becomes devoted to him and demanding; her attachment frightens Ajax away, leaving Sula in misery for a long time. More important is the attachment that she forms with Nel. Sula wraps her life up so completely in her friend that Morrison indicates they have almost become one; therefore, when Nel decides to marry Jude, Sula feels totally betrayed. As soon as the wedding is over, she leaves Medallion for ten years. When Sula returns, she and Nel try to be friends again, but Sula ruins it by having an affair with Jude, Nel’s husband. It is almost as if she were subconsciously striking out at Nel for having married Jude, making Sula feel abandoned.

When Sula returns to The Bottom after her ten-year absence, it is obvious that she has definitely changed. She comes home dressed like a movie star and reveals that she has been to college. The people in Medallion, who have always found Sula to be strange, now feel totally alienated from her. Her difference makes her unacceptable; as a result, every bad thing that happens in the town is blamed on her, especially after she puts Eva in a nursing home and has an affair with her best friend’s husband. Because the people of The Bottom, in their small-mindedness, reject her, Sula feels totally isolated; then, when Nel rejects her as well, she has nothing to live for and goes early to her grave. On her deathbed, Sula reflects on her life. She remembers the death of Chicken Little and watching her mother burn to death. She decided her life had little meaning. It is a tragic comment on Sula’s existence. Contrary to the beliefs of the townspeople, who believe that a brighter day will dawn after she dies, her death is followed by a severe ice storm and the catastrophic cave-in of the tunnel.

When Nel visits Eva in the home for the elderly, Nel remembers calling the hospital, mortuary, and police after Sula’s body was found—eyes open and mouth open—in Eva’s bed.

“All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We were girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girl, girl, girl.” It was a fine cry–loud and long” (1965.11)

Only after Nel leaves the cemetery does she discover that all the pain and loneliness that she had been feeling was from missing having Sula in her life, not Jude.

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. She is not ruthless; rather, she is spontaneous and unable to moderate or temper the sudden impact her actions might have on her community. Morrison tells us that Sula “had no center, no speck around which to grow.” The main reason for Sula’s strangeness is her defiance of gender norms and traditional morality, symbolized by the birthmark “that spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose,” which, according to some psychoanalytic readings, is a dual symbol with both phallic and vaginal resonance. Sula must experience events in order to reflect on them; she watches her mother burn, she commits her grandmother to a nursing home, and she has a sexual affair with her best friend’s husband. She never surrenders to falseness or falls into the trap of conventionality in order to keep up appearances or to be accepted by the community. As Morrison notes of her, “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 is how she led an independent, uncompromising life that did not have any conditions or boundaries. 


  1. Morrison, Toni. “Sula.” Vintage Books, 2004.

  2. Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.” Routledge, 2006.

  3. Christie, Agatha. “Friendship.” HarperCollins, 2002.

  4. Freud, Sigmund. “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Basic Books, 2010.

  5. Adams, Rachel. “Toni Morrison’s Style in ‘Sula’.” African American Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 1990, pp. 223-233.

  6. Bell, Bernard W. “The Twentieth-Century Novel: A Short Introduction.” John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

Gilgamesh And Enkidu’s Friendship: Forging Destiny

The Transformation of Enkidu: From Wilderness to Civilization

Enkidu was created from clay in the wild. A beautiful, strong man who knew nothing of human civilization. Just a man grazing on the grass with gazelles. He had neither greed nor desires; he was uncorrupted. However, that all changed the moment he laid his eyes on the shamhat and fell into lust. “The gazelles saw Enkidu; they started to run, and the beasts of the field shied away from his presence.” No more was he “the child of nature, the savage man from the midst of the wild” but a human filled with emotions. Enkidu began to desire to live within the civilization of Uruk, to have a friendship with Gilgamesh, and to go kill Humbaba for glory, and he began to fear death. He did not become corrupt in the sense of becoming evil and ruining himself, but by changing what he originally was. “Enkidu had defiled his body so pure. His legs stood still though his herd was in motion. Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before, but now he had reason and wide understanding.” True, instead of wasting his life eating grass, Enkidu lived what modern people deemed living: to think, to love, to enjoy life. That might’ve been a better life, but without a doubt, he was corrupted. Although he didn’t get destroyed in a traditional sense, he did die, and not in battle where names are made, but in bed, sick.

Ishtar’s Corrupted Lovers: The Devastating Effects of Possession

Unlike Enkidu, where leaving his place may have made his life better, the lovers of Ishtar suffered without a doubt. Ishtar corrupted and destroyed her lovers. She took them and changed them in the worst way. The speckled all-bird had his wings broken; no longer can he fly. The horse famed in battle became a lowly animal being whipped and forced to drink muddy water. She turned the herdsman into a wolf in which his own shepherd boys chased him away, and his own dogs bit his haunches. “What bridegroom of yours did endure forever? What brave warrior of yours went up [to the heaven?]” By possessing them, she had corrupted them. Not only did she damned her lovers, but she also had the bull of heaven suffer the worst fate after putting her hands on it. To pay back Gilgamesh for his insults against her, she took the Bull of Heaven down to Earth to bring famine and chaos to the city of Uruk. To defend the city, Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed the bull. Enkidu may not have been destroyed, but the Bull of Heaven and lovers of Ishtar certainly were after she corrupted them.

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The Quest for Immortality: Gilgamesh’s Struggle with Mortality

Gilgamesh’s last chance at immortality was the Plant of Heartbeat. A plant-like coral in the deep sea. Gilgamesh wanted to possess it for his fear of death. After the death of Enkidu, his best friend, he came to realize his humanity, the side that can die, and became afraid. To ensure that he can live forever, he went on a quest to find the answer to immortality. He ended up diving deep into the sea to retrieve the plant. That plant, however, was taken by a snake due to his negligence. A plant that grants immortality does not belong on land with humans. It lives in the deep sea. When Gilgamesh took the plant from its home, it became vulnerable, making it end up inside a snake. The plant has done its job of granting immortality. However, the plant ends up destroyed in the process. This is a classic example of humans destroying nature for the sake of fulfilling their desires.

Lessons from the Past: Humanity’s Relationship with the Environment

This, of course, does not mean that the Mesopotamians believed that humans were evil creatures destroying the world for their own selfishness. It is just a fact. Humans will end up taking and changing nature to benefit themselves. People found Enkidu threatening, so they tamed him. Ishtar loved her past lovers, so she played with them until they were dull. Gilgamesh wanted to live forever, so he killed a plant. Thousands of years later, humans still continue to destroy the environment for their own sake. From destroying an entire forest to make a city to ruining the ocean with garbage. Ayn Rand once said, “ The difference between animals and humans is that animals change themselves for the environment, but humans change the environment for themselves.” Whether it is for the good or just for selfishness, humans ultimately do harm to the environment. This is a fact that ancient Mesopotamia accepted.  


  1. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” (Ancient Mesopotamian text)

  2. Dalley, S. (1998). “Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others.” Oxford University Press.

  3. George, A. R. (2003). “The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts.” Oxford University Press.

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