In Sula, Toni Morrison depicts the relationships of two girls living in the African American community of Bottom. The novel aims to describe their complicated lives in the social context of people’s conventional perceptions. Water and fire are used by the author as symbols of destruction and purification respectively, which allows the readers to better understand the main characters in the context of the communist oppression.
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Water motif can be observed throughout the novel, and it determines the plot structure and serves as a means of understanding the entire story. The first scene with water shows the adolescence of Nel and Sula, who played with Chicken Little when Sula unintentionally caused his death by drowning him in the river. The responsibility for this death lies on Sula, causing upset and agitation in her inner world (Idol 59). Water is also associated with Shadrack, a paranoid WWI veteran, and a fisherman, who lived on the riverbank and observed the death of Little Chicken. It is noteworthy that he led the parade when the tunnel collapsed at the end of the story and some of the community members died: “They found themselves in a chamber of water” (Morrison 162). It is possible to interpret these events as irony: people who oppressed Sula and considered her eccentric were killed by water. At the same time, water may act here as a symbol of cleansing, which ended people’s painful lives. Thus, water is a symbol associated with death and parallels between characters, which are utilized to make meaningful plot twists in the novel.
Fire also serves as the cause of death of several people, which has an evident purifying impact. When Hannah, Sula’s mother, attempts to make a fire outside the house, her dress catches fire, and Eva tries to help her by jumping from the window on the second floor and fails. The second case happens to Plum, Eva’s child, who was burned by his mother due to mental instability after returning from the war. This act may seem violent at first, but it represents humility and release from suffering. While Eva poured kerosene on her son, he felt “some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing” (Morrison 49). The readers may note that she killed him led by mercy since her son wanted to die like a man. The words “snug delight” and “wet light” show that Plum wanted to die and that water was present in his last minutes as well (Morrison 49). Overall, fire is perceived in close connection with the cleansing and alleviating end of life.
Fire and water are intertwined in the final scenes, which imply that death as the final stage of one’s life summarizes all person’s actions, emotions, and behaviors, making them all accepted and pacified. In the episode when Sula dies in loneliness at the hospital, she “met a rain scene and would know the water was near” (Morrison 149) and she “woke gagging and overwhelmed with the smell of smoke” (Morrison 148). The denouement becomes evident to the readers due to a simile used by the author to refer to the deaths of both Sula and Plum. Namely, just as Eva smelled smoke before her son passed away, Sula smells it too. The protagonist’s personality becomes clear in the last scene, in which she is purified and unrestricted from the blame of her community. Thus, the use of water and fire in combination allows the author to present a more thorough analysis of the end-of-life moments and their relation to people’s lives.
Water and fire play a key role in the lives of characters in Sula, which represent their emotions as well as behaviors. Water symbolizes destruction, retribution, and pacification, while fire shows cleansing at the end of life, which is merciful and calming. Both symbols are used by Morrison for the purpose of portraying death, detailing its causes, and explaining relationships between people through these symbols.
Idol, Kimberley. “Contemplating the Void: How Narrative Overcomes Anonymity in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 2017, pp. 48-68.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Vintage, 2004.