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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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The novel begins with an introduction to the community of Medallion, Ohio, particularly the area known as The Bottom. It is a normal and closely-knit Black community where the strangest thing is probably Shadrack, a shell-shocked veteran from World War I. Having proclaimed January 3 to National Suicide Day, Shadrack often marches through town encouraging citizens to plan the day of their death in defiance of the horrible unexpectedness of dying naturally. The civil, conventional community of The Bottom dares to treat Shadrack with familiarity and tolerance.

One of the upright and outstanding members of The Bottom community is Helene Wright. She has moved to Medallion from New Orleans, where her grandmother raised her because her mother was a prostitute. During the story, Helene is married to a respectable man and has established herself in the community as the picture of propriety; it is all an effort to escape the family history of ill repute. She carefully and successfully raises her daughter, Nel, to be like her, living a life free from shame and immorality. Nel turns out to be a good, obedient, and traditional daughter. When Helene takes her to New Orleans for her grandmother’s funeral, Nel is shocked to see racism for the first time. She is also shocked to realize that her mother is very insecure. Nel vows to never be like her mother; she returns home to The Bottom from New Orleans as a determined young woman who wants to be an individual.

Sula Peace is one of Nel’s good friends, even though they are very different in personality and background. Sula lives in a house with her grandmother, her mother, and several stray boarders, including a white alcoholic named Tar Baby and three young boys all named “Dewey.” Her grandmother Eva is a strong-willed matriarch who cut off her own leg to collect insurance money so she could raise her three children. When Eva's son, Plum, returns from the war, he is a changed man-- a drug addict who steals and lies. Plum has always been Eva’s favorite, and she cannot bear to see him suffering from his addiction. One night, she goes into his room, only to find him in a stupor. She holds Plum tenderly, says goodbye to him, then pours kerosene on him, and lights him on fire. Even though Plum burns to death, no one ever says anything to the formidable Eva. She, however, chooses never to go downstairs again; instead, she runs the entire household and her family from her makeshift wheelchair in the upstairs room.

Sula’s mother, Hannah, is a deeply sensual woman who sleeps with all the men in The Bottom, shying away from any commitment. In spite of her lustfulness, the women in the community like Hannah, for she is not a threat; she does not want to possess their husbands, only sleep with them. Sula, however, cannot feel close to her mother and views her with detachment. Instead, she shares all of her thoughts and emotions with her best friend, Nel.

One day Sula hears her mother say that she does not like her daughter. Sula feels wounded and betrayed. The same afternoon Sula and Nel play with a little boy, Chicken Little, down by the river. Sula is holding him by his hands and swinging him around and around. She loses her grip, and the young boy falls in the water and does not come up. Not knowing where to turn, Sula goes to Shadrack’s cabin for help. He stares at her and simply says the word "always," which she for years interprets as a threat, as in he will always know. She runs back to Nel, and the two decide not to tell what has happened. Nel assures Sula that it was just an accident, but Sula feels terrible. During Chicken Little’s emotional funeral, the two girls are numb and silent. Sula has been changed forever.

The year after Chicken Little’s death, Hannah catches on fire in the yard while canning preserves. Eva sees her burning daughter from her second story window and jumps to the ground to try and save her. Eva almost bleeds to death from her injuries, and Hannah dies from her burns. When Eva recovers, she realizes that she saw Sula on the porch the whole time, watching her own mother burn and doing nothing to stop it.

Five years later, Nel is married to Jude, a young boy anxious to prove he is a man. Sula is very active in the wedding arrangements and stands up with Nel at the altar. As the evening wears on, Nel sees Sula walking down the road, away from the marriage celebration. Feeling that she has lost her only friend to Jude, Sula leaves The Bottom. She and Nel do not see each other again for ten years.

When Sula returns to The Bottom after ten years, she seems changed; she is more worldly and harsh. She immediately puts Eva in a nursing home, much to the shock of everyone in town; they believe that is simply not the way one should treat a grandmother. Sula is, however, very glad to see Nel, and for a while they seem to be close friends again. Then Nel catches Sula having sex with Jude. Out of shame, Jude leaves Nel and their three children. Nel is shattered over the loss of her husband and wants to wail and cry like the women did at Chicken Little's funeral. Since her proper upbringing will not allow her to truly display her emotions, her grief takes on its own shape and form, and she feels lost.

Sula becomes the scapegoat for all the evil that happens in The Bottom. When someone chokes, it is because he looked at Sula. When a child falls on her steps, Sula is accused of pushing him. Myths about her begin to circulate; it is said that she never ages, never loses a tooth, and never belches; it is even whispered that she sleeps with white men. The Bottom community becomes bonded in their effort to oppose Sula. In response, she becomes proud and alone. Sula believes that Nel is just like all the rest of the critical community; she calls her old friend small-minded, vicious and inflexible.

In the midst of her loneliness and misery, Sula has an affair with Ajax, and the unthinkable happens. Sula falls in love with him; it is the first time she has ever had such emotions. She longs for the kind of commitment she has never thought she would want. Ajax, terrified of her attachment, leaves her. Sula never fully recovers from the loss and misses him terribly.

A couple of years later, Sula is dying. Nel forces herself to visit her old friend out of a sense of duty and her own “goodness.” The visit soon degenerates into an argument when Sula explains her vision of life, and Nel questions it. Nel wants to know why Sula took Jude from her. Sula says that she did not "take" him, that no one is able to "possess" anyone else. She then warns Nel not to be so sure of her own moral superiority. Nel leaves feeling angry, but unable to forget Sula’s warning. Shortly after Nel’s visit, Sula descends into pain and dies. The townspeople consider her death to be good news; few come to her funeral and those present barely manage to sing at her graveside. Neither Nel nor Eva attends Sula’s burial.

The townspeople expect that Sula’s death will bring some fortune to their community, but they are wrong. Winter comes early and is very harsh. In the cold and ice, no one is able to work, so there is no money. Without Sula to blame everything on, the once bonded members of the community begin to treat each other as poorly as they had before. Thanksgiving and Christmas are meager, with hardly celebrations at all. By the time Suicide Day comes around, the weather has just started to warm, and people are in strange and crazy mood. For once, they laugh and dance and follow Shadrack in his Suicide Day Parade. The weird parade continues through The Bottom toward the river tunnel. The people are so crazed with pent-up frustration that they riot in front of the tunnel, destroying the work of the white men. They then make their way into the tunnel, and because of the recent thaw, some mud and rocks come loose. A flood of water quickly drowns most of the people. Shadrack stands above them on the bank, sadly ringing his bell.

Twenty-four years later, in 1965, The Bottom is vastly different. Nel no longer knows many people; the community has changed so much that neighbors hardly speak to one another. A member of an organization that visits old people in rest homes, Nel one day finds Eva, whom she has not seen in thirty years. Eva is a little out of her mind, and only sometimes seems to know who Nel is. In a moment of lucidity, she asks Nel how and why she killed that little boy many years ago. Nel is shocked at the question and claims that Sula was responsible for the death. First, Eva says that there is no difference between Sula and Nel; then she suggests to Nel that watching is the same as doing. Nel says she only "saw" what happened. She leaves, very upset.

Walking back home quickly, Nel sees the cemetery and stops to look at all the graves of the Peace family, including the one belonging to Sula. She remembers how everyone, including herself, treated Sula so badly after her return to The Bottom. Maybe Sula had been right; perhaps Eva was mean, and the townspeople were small-minded. Maybe she herself is not as good as she judges herself to be. Nel thinks about the death of Chicken Little and remembers that it felt good to watch him drown. She realizes now that her heart was evil, even though she looked innocent. She then thinks about poor Sula, who had been so frightened about the death. Although Sula had been the one to throw the boy into the water, Chicken Little’s death was totally unintentional. Sula should not have felt so guilty, and Nel should have told her so.

Nel now realizes that she has had everything wrong in life, for she has thought that she was the good one and Sula was the bad one. When she leaves the cemetery feeling upset, she passes Shadrack on the road walking in the other direction. He looks at her, vaguely recalling her face, but he can barely keep his mind on the little details of his day. They both move on silently, thinking about distant things. As she walks, Nel feels her eyes brimming with tears. She hears the leaves stir about her and smells the rich earth. She calls out to her friend, “Sula.” Grief then overwhelms Nel; she cries out a long, loud wail, realizing that Sula was her best friend whom she has treated badly. There is a deep ache in her heart as she thinks of the loss and the missed opportunities.

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