A Dew-Lined Web: On Sula


On Books

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It’s the name. Sula. That’s what always strikes a space between my breasts whenever I think of Toni Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, and my favorite of her oeuvre. There are other proper names in Morrison’s titles—Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved—but they do not wear their allegory so lightly. Sula always seems to me to name a, not an idea. She is, of course, atype, but she is the type of person who exceeds typology. She’s the kind of woman about whom you start to say “she’s the kind of woman…” even though you know any words that follow will twist like winter leaves before they hit the air, will fall to the ground, dry and dead wrong.

Sula is a真实角色, as we say. Sula is incomparable, matchless, singular. There is nobody like Sula. And yet. I’ve seen Sula in my days, in my sisters, my aunts, my friends, a stranger crossing the road. Morrison saw Sula in someone, too, before she wrote her:

我开始写第二本书,被称为Sula,因为我关注了一张女人的照片以及我听到她的名字的方式。她的名字叫汉娜(Hannah),我认为她是我母亲的朋友。我不记得看到她很大,但是我记得的是她周围的颜色 - 一种紫罗兰色,充满紫罗兰的颜色,而她的眼睛似乎闭着了一半。But what I remember most is how the women said her name: how they said “Hannah Peace” and smiled to themselves, and there was some secret about her that they knew, which they didn’t talk about, at least not in my hearing, but it seemed loaded in the way in which they said her name. And I suspected that she was a little bit of an outlaw but that they approved in some way. (自我的来源,241)

In the novel, this remembered Hannah is Sula’s mother, Hannah Peace, but she is also Sula.

The paradox of Sula is that she’s quintessentially herself—nobody is like her—but she’s also everybody we know who islike that。这个悖论以不同的方式形成Sula在小说对具有讽刺意味的反对的关注中,个人如何与集体的自我相关,以及秩序与混乱之间的动态关系。正如莫里森(Morrison)的趋势一样,小说的各个方面(我都在撰写其名称中都绘制在这些互锁的主题阀中,都像错综复杂的机器或身体一样进行协调。


The novel is named for a character whom we don’t really meet for thirty-odd pages.Sulabegins instead with a fictional place—Medallion, Ohio—and specifically with “that part of town where the Negroes lived, the part they called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up in the hills.” This paradoxical name comes from “a nigger joke,” the kind told by both white folks and colored folks “when they’re looking for a little comfort.” Morrison here sets up the first of many dizzying spins between high places and low, from treetops to holes, from hilltops to mud, from the aeronautical skies to tunnels and trenches. This species of irony—“it was lovely up in the Bottom”—is technically called antiphrasis, but it just means calling something by its opposite, how we sometimes call a hefty man “Slim” or a tall one “Tiny.”

Antiphrasis is at work in the names of several characters inSula。我们遇到一个名叫BoyBoy增长。我们遇到一个苍白的man named Tar Baby. We meet a woman everybody calls Teapot’s Mamma “because being his mamma was precisely her major failure.” Late in the novel, we learn that the people of the Bottom have a general “disregard for name changes by marriage” and mark four gravestones with the surnamePeace。莫里森写道:“他们在一起读起来像是一首歌。”莫里森(Morrison)的颂歌是神圣的,因为没有一个死者在和平或安宁之后陷入和平。

And then, of course, there are the deweys:

Eva snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names. She looked at the first child closely, his wrists, the shape of his head and the temperament that showed in his eyes and said, “Well. Look at Dewey. My my mymymy.” When later that same year she sent for a child who kept falling down off the porch across the street, she said the same thing. Somebody said, “But Miss Eva, you calls the other one Dewey.”

“So? This here’s another one.”

Eva bestows the name Dewey upon three boys—whose skin is respectively “deeply black,” “light-skinned,” and “chocolate”—for a quality she sees in each, as if matching some inner thing to the outer label. But each dewey becomes “in fact as well as in name a dewey—joining with the other two to become a trinity with a plural name … inseparable, loving nothing and no one but themselves.” The chain gang game they play enacts their concatenation: “With the shoelaces of each of them tied to the laces of the others, they stumbled and tumbled out of Eva’s room.” The boys stop growing, so they do not become different from each other over time; eventually, not even their mammas can tell the deweys apart.

Each of these reversals of nominal expectation is but a slight topsy-turvy amid the mellifluous waves of Morrison’s prose. Yet this tic of antiphrasis casts全部names into doubt. Names are meant to pinpoint a person, fix them as a discrete entity, not entangle them or flip them around. But, as Morrison says of the real-life Hannah Peace, even the way a name is spoken can change it indelibly, like the cover of a song.Sulaplays with and overturns the usual logic of marking an individual’s uniqueness with a name, the same logic that we see both in Sula’s belief that her best friend, Nel, “was the first person who had been real to her, whose name she knew,” and in Sula’s horror upon learning that the man she has always known as Ajax is actually Albert Jacks (A. Jacks): “when for the first time in her life she had lain in bed with a man and said his name involuntarily or said it truly meaning him, the name she was screaming and saying was not his at all.”

If you can be named for something you’re not, for somebody other than yourself, are you真实的, are youtruly你自己?如果您的名字可以溶解并重组为另一个名称,那么您还是谁?


This mystery of the自己, of our shared but unbreachable condition of singularity, twinkles like a string of lights through the novel. The first time young Nel leaves Medallion and meets her grandmother Rochelle—“this tiny woman with the softness and glare of a canary”—she returns with an epiphany:

“I’m me,” she whispered. “Me.” Nel didn’t know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant. “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me.” Each time she said the wordthere was a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear.

is a name that only you have and that everybody else does, too; this is the uncanny magic of pronouns.

Nel is她自己but late in the novel, she tries to distinguish herself from Sula, only to be reminded: “You. Sula. What’s the difference?” Because despite their individuality, the two girls are as deeply connected as the deweys and in a manner just as fantastical. Sula and Nel first meet one another in their dreams, each sensing that “watching the dream along with her, were some smiling sympathetic eyes.” Like Nel’s epiphany of self-regard, this “intense … sudden” friendship with Sula is both consummately specific and hauntingly familiar.

当我想到Sulaand feel that thrum at my breastbone, I’m thinking of the tart green sap of girlhood (“Hey, girl,” they say, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl”). I’m remembering the “adventuresomeness” of young girl friendship, the “mean determination to explore everything” together, trulyeverything, and the perfection of this sentence: “And they had no priorities.” I’m conjuring the teetering into fleshly doings that happens at a certain age when, suddenly, like a flock of birds erupting into flight, all of the boys are beautiful: “It was in that summer, the summer of their twelfth year, the summer of the beautiful black boys, that they became skittish, frightened and bold.”

我感觉到了这段颤抖的时光,它的欲望和疼痛,“他们的小乳房刚刚开始造成一些愉快的不适”,这种少女的酷儿 - 毫无直截了当,也不是女同性恋,但有可能发烧,可能是倾斜的,这是自我的阴谋:

他们一起工作,直到两个洞是一个and the same. When the depression was the size of a small dishpan, Nel’s twig broke. With a gesture of disgust she threw the pieces into the hole they had made. Sula threw hers in too. Nel saw a bottle cap and tossed it in as well. Each then looked around for more debris to throw into the hole: paper, bits of glass, butts of cigarettes, until all of the small defiling things they could find were collected there. Carefully they replaced the soil and covered the entire grave with uprooted grass.

Neither one had spoken a word.

Again, what strikes me is the scene’s combination of strangeness and familiarity: the weird games children play when they are outside and have no toys; the sense that as a young girl, I, too, played this way with, became one with, other young girls (whose names I know: Hilda, Chanda, Nyaka). Even the smallest details of the scene—the literal bits and pieces Sula and Nel throw in their merged hole—shudder between the random and the archetypal.



The scene itself climaxes in a beautiful and horrifying death—horrifying because it is beautiful—that both binds the two girls together and, when she tries to ensure that he has not witnessed it, binds young Sula to Shadrack for life. In this novel, the abject—filth and mess, all that is beyond the bounds, the realm of the “jettisoned … where meaning collapses”—is, oddly enough, a binding agent (Julia Kristeva,Powers of Horror,2)。这种秩序和混乱的共生始终出现Sula—Nel lives in “the high silence of her mother’s incredibly orderly house, feeling the neatness pointing at her back,” while Sula is “wedged into a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry”—but especially in Shadrack’s story, which itself sits on the outer edges of the novel.

Shadrack’s name points us to the Book of Daniel, where King Nebuchadnezzar II throws three men, one named Shadrach, into a furnace for refusing to bow to the king’s image. This biblical tale echoes the immolation of Sula’s uncle and mother in the novel, as well as the hellhole Shadrack finds himself in during World War I: “he turned his head a little to the right and saw the face of a soldier near him fly off.” Shadrack’s trauma as a veteran makes him unravel. His fingers seem “to grow in higgledy-piggledy fashion like Jack’s beanstalk” and to join up with his shoelaces: “The four fingers of each hand fused into the fabric, knotted themselves and zigzagged in and out of the tiny eyeholes.”

But he’s soothed by the “neat balance” of a food tray separating rice, tomatoes, and meat: “All their repugnance was contained.” And so, when he returns to Medallion, he invents National Suicide Day “to order and focus experience,” to make “a place for fear as a way of controlling it”; “if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free.” His shack on a riverbank on the outskirts of town is a spatial version of National Suicide Day, a place of containment beside a muddy slurry.

When young Sula walks into his home that fateful day to see about a death, she’s struck by how clean and neat it is, despite housing such a chaotic mind. The relationship between girl and man is thin and taut, brief yet consequential. Their conversation revolves around one word—“Always”—that holds radically different meanings for each. This eventful, contingent day brings Shadrack a shred of humanness to hold onto; the child’s belt that Sula drops becomes “the one piece of evidence that he once had a visitor.” And this day also serves as the crucible that forges that unaccountable being: Sula, the woman.


Who—orwhat有苏拉成为?苏拉的女人是美丽的loose; she works little and discards people; she sleeps around with the men in town and catches feelings for one. On one hand, Sula is completely understandable, the natural outgrowth of her mother and grandmother, who are cruel to women but adore men. On the other hand, Sula is utterly alien. When she’s caught with another woman’s husband, they’re on their hands and knees licking each other’s lips like dogs, neither of them notably aroused. When Sula does fall in love, she imagines her paramour’s body in this unsettling way: “Skin black. Very black. So black that only a steady careful rubbing with steel wool would remove it, and as it was removed there was the glint of gold leaf and under the gold leaf the cold alabaster and deep, deep down under the cold alabaster more black only this time the black of warm loam.”

苏拉是“就像任何没有艺术形式的艺术家一样……危险。”她的材料是生活 - “她的生活是一种实验性生活” - 她创作了两幅主要的艺术品,底部和自己的自我:“我不想做别人。我想让自己。”在每种情况下,她都会通过否定创造,通过擦掉自己,将自己雕刻出来:“她没有中心,没有斑点可以成长……她完全没有野心,没有对金钱,财产或事物的感情,没有贪婪,不希望引起注意或称赞 - 不自我。”这种空虚对她的艺术至关重要,但也是威胁性的。它使苏拉extrain every sense: too much, a “wayward stranger,” a “pariah.”


Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back…


虽然一些评论家解释对苏的胎记la’s eye as the biblical mark of Cain, the divergent and quotidian readings of the birthmark in the novel itself (other characters see it as a rose, a snake, ashes, a tadpole) suggest not just spiritual symbolism, but also worldly, deeply human ambiguity. Each person sees the particular evil in her that they need to. The community doesn’t cast Sula out or set out to sacrifice her; everybody knows deep down that her magnificent, maleficent presence is what unites them. Sula isn’t in fact a scapegoat but a supplement, the allegedly “unnatural” extraneous piece that turns out to be missing from the center. (Jacques Derrida writes inSpeech and Phenomena:“我们可以谈论……原始的'补充':他们additioncomes to弥补a deficiency, it comes to compensate for a primordial nonself-presence.”)

When Sula’s gone, everybody misses her; they miss hating her and measuring themselves against her. When Sula’s gone, everything collapses.

Who, and what, she is therefore isn’t merely a question of personality. It’s a question of philosophy: “That’s how philosophy started … One of the first questions one could pose … is the question of the difference between the who and the what … Do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? I love you because you are you. Or do I love your qualities? … The history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and what.” (Derrida, in德里达, by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman).

If what Sula is to us is an emblem, a mirror, a type, a supplement of the community—and she is all of these things—we must always remember that who Sula is belongs, in the end, to her friend. “We was girls together,” Nel cries and it strikes me in my chest like the point of a pin hitting a gong.


Sulais内尔。苏拉(Sula)是内尔(Nel)的祖母罗谢尔(Rochelle),他还穿着黄色并带来鸟类。苏拉(Sula)是她的母亲汉娜(Hannah),她还操底部的所有男人。苏拉是她的祖母伊娃(Eva),她也杀死了一个男孩。苏拉(Sula)是沙德拉克(Shadrack),他的地狱火在社区的边缘,将其整体密封。苏拉(Sula)本人,苏拉·梅(Sula Mae)和平(Sula Mae Peace),以及对三重波纹名称的每一个可能的揭开,只有在我认为这是最新的重读中,我才想到。

As with many of Morrison’s names, Sula Mae is biblical. Sula Mae is Shulamit or Shulamite, the name of Solomon’s beloved in the Song of Songs, the woman whose “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb.” Sula Mae could also be Salome—either the temptress who danced for King Herod and demanded the head of John the Baptist at the behest of her fiery mother, or a female disciple who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion. Both the names Shulamit and Salome come from the root wordshalom, orpeace。So, Sula Mae Peace is Peace Peace, a doubling that seems to jar her loose from herself, and makes us wonder whether she is one of the peaces in that graveyard, or all of them. And Sula spelled backward—is it “all us” or “alas” or “a lass” or “a loss?”

Sula就是所有这些可能性,是露水衬里的网络上的每一条光线。但是无论我重读多少次Sula, analyze her names, untangle her threads, the light of her slips through my fingers. Some small thing that lives in my chest and has a bell for a tongue knows the truth of the matter: Sula isSula

来自Namwali Serpell的新介绍Sula, published by Vintage Classics.

Namwali Serpellis a professor of English at Harvard University and the author ofSeven Modes of Uncertainty((2014),The Old Drift(2019),陌生人的脸((2020), andThe Furrows((September 2022).