The Earth Where They Stood: An Exploration for Place and Community in Sula
Through the first line of Sula, Toni Morrison gives a sense of place, community, and culture. By starting the novel after all the events of Sulahave taken place, she is able to give the reader the notion that every single detail is responsible for the destruction and replacement of the Bottom. Morrison’s acute awareness of her language gives unclear references that foreshadow deep events happening later in the novel. She uses descriptive, not difficult, language that tends to mirror how the reader thinks.
To further the sense of place, the first line makes a reference to earth, “tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots” (3). This corresponds with multiple events later in the novel including the scene in 1922 when Sula and Nel dig holes with their twigs that had been, “stripped to a smooth, creamy innocence” (58). Morrison describes the imagery in this scene ironically to foreshadow what is about to happen and explain that neither Sula nor Nel are innocent. They begin to throw debris into their conjoined dug out holes and cover it up as if they were applying some positive impact to what they just did, “carefully they replaced the soil and covered the entire grave with uprooted grass” (59). It doesn’t matter that they made the area wholesome again, the foundation will always be there and will always be tampering with that which has replaced it. Everyone who walks by this spot where Sula and Nel dug will probably think nothing of it, but the land their occupying is tarnished.
To people not from the Bottom, the Medallion City Golf Course seems like a beautiful center for a new and upcoming town. But it has a severely haunted past. This parallels the moment when Chicken Little sees the girls embracing each other and enjoying themselves without knowing or understanding that they had just destroyed a peace of earth and covered it up with garbage. Sula shows Chicken Little the river and he thinks it’s beautiful. It’s farther away than he has ever seen before. It’s new, it’s riveting, and he gets thrown into the water still believing that everything he is seeing and experiencing is wonderful. Sula feels grief about his death, Nell feels guilt. The white people who fish him out of the river feel nothing but annoyance. This represents how people feel about the Bottom being torn up for a golf course. White people who will soon be inhabiting the area don’t know nor care about the town’s past. If they were to learn about everything that went down since the start of the novel in 1921 and before that, they would feel nothing.
The town-as-character style receives plenty of attention in the novel. Morrison foreshadows the destruction of many of the characters as well as the incongruous nature of the black community. The community gives up on both Nel and Sula so these characters must cross polarizing lines to give themselves a new beginning. For Sula, this new beginning is through her own death. Out of the numerous trials she goes through, out of everything that the community of the Bottom did to her and she reciprocated, it is her death that gives her life. For Nel, it is Sula’s death that gives her a new beginning. For the town, Sula’s death is its own suicide. Sula was the scapegoat that held the town together and when she died, the social identity of the town disintegrated, “to wipe from the face of the earth the work of the thin-armed Virginia boys,” (161). Morrison returns to the theme of earth to describe the tunnel collapsing and to give a new sense of place, “A lot of them died there. The earth, now warm, shifted,” (162). The tunnel was the bridge between the black and white communities. A place that the black community despised not only because they weren’t allowed to work there, but because they knew how close they were to having their home become lost and forgotten: just like the tunnel, just like Chicken Little, just like the town’s identity.
It would seem logical for this shared identity of a black community in first half of the 20th century to revolve around race. Especially when there is an impending white community right across the river that is inevitably going to engulf the Bottom. Many blacks respond to the white culture with hatred and violence. However, due to the way white culture has shaped society, whiteness is the people of the Bottom’s only standard for beauty and prosperity. And their standard for ugliness is Sula. The people of the Bottom self-designed their culture around Sula’s life so they could avoid their notion of ugliness. They do not envy white culture for denying them work or health care. Instead, they are obsessed with removing the preconceived cancer that the community thought had cursed their lives. Through Sula’s death, the black community expected a cultural renaissance. But as Morrison prophesized, their culture would not survive and the earth where Sula and Nel buried garbage, the earth that destroyed the tunnel, and the earth where the entire neighborhood stood was replaced to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course.
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Through the first line of Sula, Toni Morrison gives a sense of place, community, and culture. By starting the novel after all the events of Sulahave taken place, she is […]