Toni Morrison’s Use Of Symbolism In Sula
Some stories affect people emotionally, but once in a while, a story can open a new perspective to life for the reader. Sula, a novel written by Toni Morrison is a story of two girls, Nel and Sula, living contrasted lives, who form a friendship connecting them through events they lived out together; following them to womanhood. Throughout the novel, symbolism is unfolded in different characters to create a parallel between good and evil. Repeated symbols, such as Sula’s birthmark, color on clothing and the plague of robins are emphasized to create an understanding of what’s behind the message being carried in the theme.
Being born with a birthmark from the middle of her eyelid to her eyebrow, Sula throughout her life was always criticized for it. “Sula was a heavy brown with large quiet eyes, one of which featured a birthmark that spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose” (Morrison 52). Depending on the person and how they correlated their feelings towards Sula, they viewed the birthmark differently. For example, when Sula committed adultery with her best friend’s husband, people saw her as the Devil; labeling her birthmark as the Devil’s Mark and darkening whenever evil came to play. “When the community learns that she has slept with Jude and put out Eva, they read the mark as a sign of evil” (Lister 246). In other words, the community was displaying their hate towards her and shaped her birthmark for who she was as a person; representing the wickedness in her. Furman expressed “Nel does not discover it until after Sula’s death and she is old, the real loss in her life is that of Sula and not Jude”, which ties to the message of friendship being carried as a theme. However, observing it from another point of view, Nel, her best friend, and Shadrack, a World War I soldier, saw the birthmark as a beautiful thing. Nel saw it as a rose on a stem, which “gave her glance a suggestion of startled pleasure”. While Shadrack “sees a tadpole over her eye: a sign of friendship and the mark of the fish he loves”. This stating Sula’s birthmark symbolizes how other characters viewed her and had their share of opinions about her, but despite those comments, Nel chose the power of friendship.
In the chapters of Sula, descriptions of multiple vivid colors are applied to events and characters that embody the story being told, unfolding the message of family. Stated by Lister, “The color red signifies death: shortly before she dies, Hannah has a dream in which she wears a red wedding dress.” This implying that Hannah wearing the red dress was a foreshadow of what was to come, which was in this case, Sula watching her mother burn to death. “Rochelle, Helene’s prostitute mother, wears a canary yellow dress. Sula wears a purple and white belt…”. This displaying that bright colors signify individuality, and their place in society. For example, yellow is effective for attacking attention and known for caution, hence Rochelle’s profession. Sula forever questioned her mother’s love for her, portraying a painful and tragic life of the dysfunctional family. This leading to a change in Sula’s personality. Power, independence, goodness, and purity, what she’s identified as throughout the book; representing the colors purple and white.
Birds are usually associated with happiness and rebirth but in “Sula”, they’re detailed as omens within the “Bottom”. An arrival of robins normally brings a welcome sign of spring; however, to the city of Medallion, known as the “Bottom”, a plague of them carries a theme of suffering. “… A plague of robins accompanies Sula on her return and an October frost follows her death. Spring arrives in January and unexpected gales of wind bring no rain or lightning”. In other words, Sula and the birds were not greeted into the town’s friendly arms. Everything that shaped Sula into the adolescent she is, the plague of robins brought annoyance and remembrance of pasted years that weren’t filled with happiness. Reminding the community of how glad they were when these pests left last time and the reputation she left behind. Representing herself into the robins, Sula left heartache and sadness wherever she went. Making it “hard to hang up clothes, pull weeds or just sit on the front porch when robins were flying and dying all around you”. Creating an image of the suffering and shared pain Sula and the robins were witnessing, and how uncaring the community felt towards them.
Put into the shoes of a resident in a black community where racism was a part of everyday life, the readers see life through their eyes and how they were affected. Using symbols to create a connection to themes in the novel, Toni Morrison uses Sula’s birthmark, color on clothing and the plague of Robins to propose there’s more behind the memo. With Sula’s birthmark being viewed differently depending on the person, Color representing individuality, and the plague of Robins being used as a representation of emotion rather than beauty.
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