Sula: Characterization & The Politics of Male Nomenclature

Direct and indirect characterization. If you’ve ever studied literature on any level, you know what those words mean. If you don’t, here’s a brief explanation via examples from Toni Morrisson’s Sula:

Oftentimes, the author directly tells the audience what a character is like. This direct characterization is employed by Morrisson when she describes Boyboy as a man who “did whatever he could that he liked, and he liked womanizing best, drinking second, and abusing Eva third.” This directly addresses the objectionable habits of Boyboy, and allows us to recognize that Morrisson is portraying him as a bad man.

We as readers are also able to draw our own conclusions about characters based on action and dialogue, as is made evident by the conclusions that can be drawn about Sula from her dialogue with Ajax:

“‘I been lookin’ all over for you.’ ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘To give you these,’ and he nodded toward one of the quarts of milk. ‘I don’t like milk,’ she said. ‘But you like the bottles don’t you?’ He held one up. ‘Ain’t that pretty?’ And indeed it was.”

This dialogue makes the reader realize how Sula is preoccupied with beauty, surface value, and possession. She loves the bottles only for their exterior, no their content.

However, sometimes the most effective way to recognize a character’s personality and traits is slap-in-the-face, right-under-your-nose simple. Just look at the character’s name.

Suggestive nomenclature gives insight into the personality and future actions that could be taken by a particular character. Giving a character a significant name in order to allow the reader to compare the character to another in a different work—perhaps a biblical allusion or an allusion to Greek mythology—is effective, suggestive nomenclature has the potential to reach far beyond the realm of characterization. The strategic and meaningful naming of a character provides an opportunity to link that character to the bigger issues of the novel: themes, motifs, and morals.

Toni Morrison masterfully weaves names into the greater significance of Sula, as nearly every name contributes to the book as a whole. By looking at the names in Morrison’s Sula as references to history, the bible, and simple everyday connotations, we are able to delve deeper into the themes that the novel is meant to convey. Through the richness of her nomenclature, particular the names she gives to male characters, the reader is able to reach a heightened awareness and understanding of the themes and motifs that provide the foundation for Morrisson’s Sula.

One of the inescapable presences trapped in the pages of Sula is the presence and constant acknowledgement of race, blackness, and the link between black protagonists and the history of slavery in America. This is evidenced by many names in the book that sound like slave names. BoyBoy. Chicken Little. The Deweys. Teapot. All of these names would be perfectly at home in a slavery narrative, but they are found in Morrisson’s Sula, which is set in post-WWI Ohio. This emphasizes the inescapability of the past. Slavery is immortalized in the minds and lives of African Americans and also immortalized in their names. Even though slavery is abolished during the time period in which the novel is set, it is still very much present in the Bottom, particularly in the socioeconomic limitations imposed on those with dark skin.

The names BoyBoy, the Deweys, Chicken Little, and Teapot are all childlike nicknames, and each of these characters ultimately fails as a man. Thus, they are denied of strong male names. For example, BoyBoy abandons his wife and children. He chose to leave his family, but during times of slavery fathers were often ripped away from their families and sold to different plantations. Even when families were all on the same plantation, they were separated. Regardless of the fact that he was not a slave, BoyBoy follows in the fatherhood pattern that was forcibly cultivated in slave populations. Because of his inability to act like a free black man, he is given a name that harks back to the enslavement of his ancestors. The name itself, “BoyBoy,” also alludes to slavery. Slave-owners and overseers often referred to male slaves as “boy.” This same idea exists in Morisson’s other noteworthy novel, Beloved, where a slaveowner asserts that there “ain’t no nigger men.” Just as if he was a slave, BoyBoy is not present in his family’s life, never asserts himself as a true man, and bears a slave-like name. While he is not denied the opportunity of manhood, BoyBoy fails to claim it, and he might as well have never had the opportunity to be a man at all.

The names of the Deweys is also reminiscent of slavery, and it is probable that Morrison is even alluding to her own novel, Beloved, in which there are three slave characters named Paul: Paul D., Paul A., and Paul F. This idea of three black male figures being clumped together as one is very reminiscent of slavery, as that was often the case on plantations. Chicken Little’s death has slavery-like undertones as well. After his body is found, the bargeman “would have left him there but haunted that it was a child, not an old black man, as it first appeared, and prodded the body loose, netted it and hauled it aboard.” The bargeman would’ve left Chicken there like a dead dog, which shows that he still doesn’t see African Americans as equal. Just like a dead slave without a grave, Chicken Little would’ve been left to rot in the river had he not been a child. Even after Chicken is pulled from the water, he is “dumped…into a burlap sack and tossed…next to some egg crates and boxes of wool cloth.” The bargeman has little to no respect for the boy’s corpse. Through many of the male names in the novel, Morrison is able to convey to the reader the theme that slavery and racist mentalities were present well into the 20th century.

Another male name in the novel is Shadrack, the very first character introduced in Sula. His name is striking and peculiar, and piques the interest of the reader immediately. A veteran of the First World War, Shadrack suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and is beyond abnormal, as his name suggests. One byproduct of his PTSD is that he creates a new holiday that is eventually widely recognized: National Suicide Day.

“On the third day of the new year, he walked through the Bottom down Carpenter’s Road with a cowbell and a hangman’s rope calling the people together. Telling them that this was their only chance to kill themselves or each other.” Shadrack created the holiday as a means for people to avoid the unexpectedness of death, setting aside a day to give everybody the opportunity to avoid the shock of dying and just kill themselves. He had a great fear of death, and his rationale behind the holiday was that there was no reason to be afraid if there was a day where everybody had the chance to just get death over with.

This idea plays into the recurring motif of chaos vs. order in the novel. Shadrack also displays a preoccupation with order over chaos when he wakes up in a hospital and observes “a tin plate divided into three triangles. In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the grid stewed tomatoes…Shadrack started at the soft colors that filled these triangles: . . . All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him.” Order soothes Shadrack, and he even tries to impose a sense of order over the unexpectedness of death.

The name “Shadrack” is also significant because “Shadrach” is a biblical figure who is able to avoid being executed by burning in a furnace in Babylon. The bible states that God stepped in and spared him from the flames. His fearlessness of death is his salvation. Shadrack is a clear allusion to this biblical figure, he wants to free himself and others from the chaotic and imminent death that all humans face by replacing it with a planned suicide.

Regarding Sula’s recurring theme of chaos versus order, the idea of mass suicide on a certain day every year may sound like chaos, but it actually provides a sense of order. The unpredictable chaos of natural death is replaced by the order of premeditated suicide. The book is filled with so many seemingly inevitable motifs besides death: absence, void, and nostalgia, that Shadrack appears as nothing short of a biblical savior. He aims to spare the people of the world from the inevitable shock of death by setting a consistent death date every new year. Through his biblical nomenclature, Morrison uses Shadrack’s character to highlight the importance of the motif of chaos vs. order.

Clearly, the names of the male characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula are full of rich and hidden meanings by which the reader can characterize them, but they are also layered with significance in relation to the entirety of the text. Each character’s name can be interpreted in a way that is relevant to at least one greater theme or motif that Morrison works to convey throughout the course of the entire work. Biblical allusions like Shadrack help rope in motifs such as good vs. evil or chaos vs. order, while blatantly slave-like names such as BoyBoy, Chicken Little, or the Deweys make the reader question whether or not slavery was actually abolished, or if it is perpetuated by the society in which we live. The meaningful natures of the names of each character are an undeniable aspect of Sula, and they were not meant to go unnoticed, and they are one of the heftiest building blocks that form the creative foundation of this novel.

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