I’ll be teaching Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula in my fall tutorial introducing freshman English majors to the study of English as a discipline. It’s been several years since I last read this novel, so when I flew down to Texas to visit friends and family this past weekend, I took it with me to read.

I had forgotten how powerful this novel is. Especially as I got near the end of the book, I kept thinking that it is too real, too truthful. It’s a book that hurts to read even while you can’t help but see how great a masterpiece it is. I kept thinking, “This is my life. How did Morrison write this book about two black women in Ohio when I was still a toddler in Indiana and somehow manage to make it about me?”

I started wondering about the question of great literature’s universality, the idea that great works of art surpass the particulars of their subject matter, author, date of composition, etc. to speak to the “human condition.” As an English professor, I’ve largely been skeptical of this concept, especially the idea that there is a universal “human condition” that literature can speak to.

Yet, somehow it seems like my story, a summation of what I was thinking as I read it this time. Not that I think I’m an early to mid-twentieth-century African American woman. Nor do I mean that I think Morrison’s particular message about the experiences of African Americans in the twentieth century in this novel should be subsumed into some narcissistic impulse on my part.

But the questions she raises in this novel, especially those of how we relate to others, how we define, find, and relate to ourselves — our true selves (whatever that means) — and how we deal with life’s challenges, all feel like questions that spoke directly to me this weekend.

Early in the novel, Nel, one of the work’s two protagonists, is traveling with her mother on a train. As a result of a particular occurrence during this trip, Nel has an epiphany:

She looked for a long time and suddenly a shiver ran through her.

“I’m me,” she whispered. “Me.”

Nel didn’t quite know 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 word me there was a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear. Back in bed with her discovery, she stared out the window at the dark leaves of the horse chestnut.

“Me,” she murmured. And then, sinking deeper into the quilts, “I want … I want to be … wonderful. Oh, Jesus, make me wonderful.” (28-29)

Later, Sula also thinks about her being, what it means to be a self. For her, this quest for selfhood is tied, at least partially, to sex:

Lovemaking seemed to her, at first, the creation of a special kind of joy. She thought she liked the sootiness of sex and its comedy; she laughed a great deal during the raucous beginnings, and rejected those lovers who regarded sex as healthy or beautiful. Sexual aesthetics bored her. Although she did not regard sex as ugly (ugliness was boring also), she liked to think of it as wicked. But as her experiences multiplied she realized that not only was it not wicked, it was not necessary for her to conjure up the idea of wickedness in order to participate fully. During the lovemaking she found and needed to find the cutting edge. When she left off cooperating with her body and began to assert herself in the act, particles of strength gathered in her like steel shavings drawn to a spacious magnetic center, forming a tight cluster that nothing, it seemed, could break. And there was utmost irony and outrage in lying under someone, in a position of surrender, feeling her own abiding strength and limitless power. But the cluster did break, fall apart, and in her panic to hold it together she leaped from the edge into soundlessness and went down howling, howling in a stinging awareness of the endings of things: an eye of sorrow in the midst of all that hurricane rage of joy. There, in the center of that silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning. For loneliness assumed the absence of other people, and the solitude she found in that desperate terrain had never admitted the possibility of other people. (123)

This sense of being “a spacious magnetic center, forming a light cluster that nothing … could break” but which turns out can be broken and is a center of silence and loneliness is what strikes some chord with me right now. In other words, the postmodern condition.

I don’t know if it’s a matter of getting older, of having gone through a lot of changes (especially in my career) lately, or what, but I’m feeling some sense of sorrow at the center of my joyous life right now. It’s difficult to put into words.

My point is that great works of literature, like Sula, do this to us. They take the author’s issues and ideas and themes and make us adopt them as our own. Make us feel what their characters feel. Great works of literature are dangerous. There’s a great line about Sula in the novel: “like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous” (121).

In reality, it’s the artist with an art form who is most dangerous, I think. She makes us think, feel, and question our lives. I guess that’s what’s universal about great art — not that they speak to a non-changing human condition but that they make us feel that our specific condition is everyone’s. That the breakable center and sorrow and joy are what everyone feels. Or something like that.

What worries me about teaching the novel is that I’m pretty sure none of my students are going to see any of this. And maybe they shouldn’t. Eighteen-year-olds shouldn’t be worried or thinking about these things. It’ll be fun to see what they make of it.