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Folklore, Women’s Issues, and Morals in Toni Morrison’s Sula

The Themes of Folklore, Women’s Issues, and Morals in Sula

Toni Morrison has asserted that she likes to write the kind of books that she would like to read (Harris 52). By this we can assume she favors black folklore, women’s issues, and discussions of accepted moral standards. These are some major themes in Sula.

Folktales are a type of oral prose that is passed from one person to another. Listeners may chose to add or subtract from the main story lines, embellishing with experiences and wisdom from their own lives. It then takes on the collective morals, or conscienceness, of that culture. From those individuals who we normally would not consider cultured, great gems of knowledge and wisdom are passed down through folktales. This is done without the traditional use of written language or use of proper organizational style. Yet these oral traditions are not without power; they reach into the very heart of what it is to be human.

Typically, folktales are set in believable surroundings with extraordinary people. We see the same in Sula. The setting is in a common Negro village called the “Bottom” where it is said that it is “the bottom of heaven” (Morrison 6). The wider historical settings are kept intact in the novel as the events of World War I swirl around and capture some of the residents of Bottom.

It is people, however, that makes up the surreal in Sula. Eva is a tireless grandmother who controls her domain of a large boarding house; Shadrach is a war-shocked veteran who invents an amnesty day for people to kill each other; Hanna and her daughter Sula are shameless adulteresses.

In this tale, Toni Morrison takes liberty to change the style of folklore (Harris 53). Instead of happy endings, violent …

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Harris, Trudier Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Hedge, Holly. “Toni Morrison.” Empire Zine (accessed on September 6, 2001)

Morrison, Toni Sula. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1973.

“Morrison, Toni.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000. 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. (accessed on September 26, 2001)

O’Neill, Cynthia. Goddesses, Heroes and Shamans. New York: Larousse Kingfisher Chambers Inc., 1994.

“Toni Morrison.” Contemporary Authors, Gale Research, 1993; abstracted at

(accessed on September 26, 2001)

The Message of Quinn’s Ishmael

The Message of Ishmael

Quinn gains a unique perspective on humanity through the main character of the novel, Ishmael. Ishmael is a gorilla. And Ishmael is a teacher who communicates with humans telepathically. On the surface, this hardly seems to be a character who would appear in a serious book; more likely a children’s story, a fable, or perhaps a bad science fiction novel. Yet Ishmael is none of these, and Ishmael is a strong character, with a powerful intellect and a serious purpose. The character of Ishmael needs to be non-human in order to be effective. Looking in on civilization from the outside gives him a perspective from which to criticize humanity without hypocrisy. To hear the oppressor repent is not nearly so effective as to hear the voice of the oppressed demand freedom and restitution.

As Ishmael opens, the author writes of a day in his life when he found what he thought a truly ludicrous advertisement in the personals section of a newspaper:

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

Investigating with the purpose of exposing fraud, he came upon Ishmael in Room 105 of a nondescript office building. Ishmael was sitting calmly, nibbling on a slender branch. Momentarily shocked, Quinn stumbled towards a chair. He glanced into the gorilla’s eyes, and much to his disconcertment the eyes calmly spoke to him. Nodding in answer to an unuttered question, Ishmael spoke silently “I am the teacher.”

In language of the sort one might expect from a well educated man speaking with a friend, Ishmael told Quinn the story of his life. A large portion of it was spent in captivity, before a wealthy elderly man befriended and educated him. At the end of Ishmael’s tale, Quinn was still somewhat befuddled.

I sat there for a minute, then I said, “I’m trying to figure out what this has to do with saving the world.”

Ishmael thought for a moment. “Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?”

“Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”

“And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world.”

“Yes, that’s so.”

“Why don’t you stop?

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