Toni Morrison is one of the few authors I have read whose writing style defies conventions, yet is on a higher level because of it. In terms of plotting, her novels tend not to follow the strict outline of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and, finally, the resolution. Instead, if I had to describe it, her stories hover right around the top of Freytag’s pyramid, with the maximum amount of tension and intrigue, occasionally climaxing with jarring, life-changing events.
In the same way that I cannot elucidate the narrative structure of Morrison’s Sula, I cannot pin down the titular character. Is she the hero? The protagonist? A little bit of both? Neither? It’s a complicated question for a complex character. In reading the novel, Sula’s actions are alternately praise-worthy and reprehensible, and sometimes both at once. In the instance where Sula cuts off a bit of her finger, my reaction was a combination of the horror that Nel felt and a feeling of admiration for Sula. I have a hard time not sympathizing with a character that does something like that because “[she] was so scared she had mutilated herself, to protect herself” (Morrison 101). Don’t heroes stand up for themselves? Yes, but don’t heroes also think rationally?
My gut instinct when faced with a main character sleeping with her best friend’s husband is disgust, yet Morrison does not permit me to hold onto that seemingly automatic response. While Nel is the more relatable character, in my opinion, Sula tends to bring out the best in people despite her own “devilishness.” When Morrison introduces the reader to Nel and Jude’s marital situation, she paints Jude as a man who manipulates for self-sympathy: “He expected his story to dovetail into milkwarm commiseration…” Sula does not allow that, however: “…but before Nel could excrete [sympathy], Sula said she didn’t know about that—[Jude’s life] looked like a pretty good life to her” (Morrison 103). The word that Morrison uses, “excrete,” is a hint towards her opinion of Jude’s behavior, apparently connoting sympathy and Nel’s use of it with all the glory of a bowel movement. Suddenly, Jude, who has been reliant on his wife is free from that ugly character trait, thanks to Sula. Of course, he then goes on to sleep with his wife’s best friend, which knocks Sula down a few rungs in the “Hero Ladder.”
The same could be said about everyone in the town, that Sula brings out the best in them while acting as the scapegoat for the Bottom. If she’s a hero, then her role must be of a martyr. She lived lonely, loved only one man Ajax who left her as soon as she began exhibiting traits of a domesticated woman, and she died alone. Yet, Morrison notes that while Sula lived, mothers didn’t hit their children, women didn’t coddle their husbands, and wives cared for their mothers-in-laws (Morrison 154). Is Sula, in my opinion, a hero? Yes, but she is human, and she wears all the flaws that come with that designation with pride.