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Although Sula is arranged in chronological order, it does not construct a linear story with the causes of each new plot event clearly visible in the preceding chapter. Instead, Sula uses “juxtaposition,” the technique through which collages are put together. The effects of a collage on the viewer depend on unusual combinations of pictures, or on unusual arrangements such as overlapping. The pictures of a collage don’t fit smoothly together, yet they create a unified effect. The “pictures” of Sula’s collage are separate events or character sketches. Together, they show the friendship of Nel and Sula as part of the many complicated, overlapping relationships that make up the Bottom.
Morrison presents the novel from the perspective of an omniscient narrator — one who knows all the characters’ thoughts and feelings. An omniscient narrator usually puts the reader in the position of someone viewing a conventional portrait or landscape rather than a collage. (In such situations, the viewer can perceive the unity of the whole work with only a glance.) To create the collage-like effect of Sula, the omniscient narrator never reveals the thoughts of all the characters at one time. Instead, from chapter to chapter, she chooses a different point-of-view character, so that a different person’s consciousness and experience dominate a particular incident or section. In addition, the narrator sometimes moves beyond the consciousness of single, individual characters, to reveal what groups in the community think and feel. On the rare occasions when it agrees unanimously, she presents the united community’s view. As in The Bluest Eye and Jazz, the community has such a direct impact on individuals that it amounts to a character.
In narrative technique for Sula, Morrison draws on a specifically modernist usage of juxtaposition. Modernism, discussed in Chapter 3, was the dominant literary movement during the first half of the twentieth century. Writers of this period abandoned the unifying, omniscient narrator of earlier literature to make literature more like life, in which each of us has to make our own sense of the world. Rather than passively receiving a smooth, connected story from an authoritative narrator, the reader is forced to piece together a coherent plot and meaning from more separated pieces of information.
Modernists experimented with many literary genres. For example, T. S. Eliot created his influential poem The Wasteland by juxtaposing quotations from other literary works and songs, interspersed with fragmentary narratives of original stories. Fiction uses an analogous technique of juxtaposition. Each successive chapter of William Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, for instance, drops the reader into a different character’s consciousness without the direction or help of an omniscient narrator.
To figure out the plot, the reader must work through the perceptions of characters who range from a seven-year-old boy to a madman. The abrupt, disturbing shifts from one consciousness to another are an intended part of the reader’s experience. As with all literary techniques, juxtaposition is used to communicate particular themes. In Cane, a work that defies our usual definitions of literary genres, Jean Toomer juxtaposed poetry and brief prose sketches. In this way, Cane establishes its thematic contrast of rural black culture in the South and urban black culture of the North.
Morrison, who wrote her master’s thesis on two modernists, Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, uses juxtaposition as a structuring device in Sula. Though relatively short for a novel, Sula has an unusually large number of chapters, eleven. This division into small pieces creates an intended choppiness, the uncomfortable sense of frequently stopping and starting. The content of the chapters accentuates this choppy rhythm. Almost every chapter shifts the focus from the story of the preceding chapter by changing the point-of-view character or introducing sudden, shocking events and delaying discussion of the characters’ motives until later.
In “1921,” for example, Eva douses her son Plum with kerosene and burns him to death. Although the reader knows that Plum has become a heroin addict, Eva’s reasoning is not revealed. When Hannah, naturally assuming that Eva doesn’t know of Plum’s danger, tells her that Plum is burning, the chapter ends with Eva’s almost nonchalant “Is? My baby? Burning?” (48). Not until midway through the next chapter, “1923,” does Hannah’s questioning allow the reader to understand Eva’s motivation. Juxtaposition thus heightens the reader’s sense of incompleteness. Instead of providing quick resolution, juxtaposition introduces new and equally disturbing events.
Paradoxically, when an occasional chapter does contain a single story apparently complete in itself, it too contributes to the novel’s overall choppy rhythm. In a novel using a simple, chronological mode of narration, each succeeding chapter would pick up where the last one left off, with the main characters now involved in a different incident, but in some clear way affected by their previous experience. In Sula, however, some characters figure prominently in one chapter and then fade entirely into the background.
The first chapter centers on Shadrack, and although he appears twice more and has considerable psychic importance to Sula and symbolic importance to the novel, he is not an important actor again. In similar fashion, Helene Wright is the controlling presence of the third chapter, “1920,” but barely appears in the rest of the book. These shifts are more unsettling than if Shadrack and Helene were ancestors of the other characters, generations removed, because the reader would then expect them to disappear. Their initial prominence and later shadowy presence contribute to the reader’s feeling of disruption. The choppy narration of Sula expresses one of its major themes, the fragmentation of both individuals and the community.
Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973. Rpt. New York: Penguin, 1982