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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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Sula returns to The Bottom after a ten-year absence, dressed like a movie star. She comes back to Medallion on the same day that a plague of robins has arrived. The people of the town consider the arrival of both the birds and Sula to be an evil omen. As she marches through the town, trying to avoid the excess of bird waste, the townspeople stare at her in amazement. When she arrives at Eva’s house, she notices four dead robins out front. Sula avoids them and goes inside to look for Eva. As always, she is up above in her room. The window she had jumped out of long ago is boarded up, and she is burning some hair from her comb. She looks at Sula and says, "I might have knowed those birds meant something." It is not a happy greeting.

The reunion between grandmother and granddaughter is cool, without affection. Eva comments on her clothes and asks Sula about the money that she (Eva) has sent her; Sula, however, does not respond. Eva then tells Sula that she needs to settle down, to find a man. Sula says she only needs herself. In typical fashion, they soon begin to argue. Sula accuses Eva of killing Plum; Eva accuses Sula of cruelly watching her own mother burn to death. They throw terrible accusations back and forth until Sula threatens to set fire to Eva when she is sleeping. Eva responds by locking Sula out of the room. Later in the year, Sula claims power of attorney over Eva and commits her to a nursing home. The community is horrified at this terrible defiance of family ties.

Nel sees Sula’s arrival as a magical occurrence, believing it will be full of good will and happiness. She is even more encouraged about Sula’s arrival when the robins leave the town and Tar Baby sings at church like never before. Unlike Eva, who blames everything bad on Sula, Nel believes that all the good things are occurring because of Sula's return. Nel finds herself feeling happy and whole again with her friend back in town; she is certain that they can pick up where they left off more than ten years before. She also finds that she is more patient with her children and more playful in her lovemaking with Jude.

The two women immediately rekindle their friendship. They talk easily about neighbors, sex, and old times. Nel confesses, "Talking with Sula had always been a conversation with herself." Nel learns that Sula has gone to college and seen big cities. Nel wants to hear about the things her friend has experienced, but Sula shrugs off her travels. Instead, they discuss Eva, and Sula tells Nel that she put Eva out because she was scared of her. Nel is skeptical, saying Sula’s decision was unreasonable. Sula is upset that her friend now disagrees with her; she tells Nel that she (Nel) has really changed.

Jude is fascinated by Sula, admiring her darkening birthmark and her bold manner of speaking. She tells him he has nothing to complain about himself, for the world loves him just because he has a penis. Such comic opinions make Jude and Nel both laugh. Then one day Nel discovers Jude and Sula in bed together. Jude, filled with shame, leaves Nel, causing her world to fall apart. In one day, Nel has lost her husband and her best friend. In her grief she remembers Chicken Little's funeral and how the women howled in pain; she now understands that kind of suffering. She, however, cannot gain relief from a big, dramatic emotional response.


Part Two marks the beginning of a new period in the lives of both Sula and Nel. It is symbolically linked Part One by the images of reversed happiness in each. Part One ends with a wedding, the traditional symbol of unity and happiness, marred by doubts, sacrifice, and general discontent. Part Two opens with robins, a tradition symbol of spring and happiness, marred by a sense of impending evil and foreboding danger. The symbols are indicative of the discord in Medallion, discord that will grow more pronounced.

Ten years have passed since the close of Part One, and both Sula and Nel have changed dramatically. Sula has gone to college and seen the world; she returns to Medallion dressed like a movie star. She seems like an extravagant and extraordinary figure on the dull landscape of Medallion. By contrast, Nel is a good and respectable wife and mother. She has become totally mired in the propriety that her mother so wished for her. She literally blends into the dull Medallion landscape. It is amazing that these two very different characters can find friendship in one another.

Nel is overjoyed that Sula is back home. She sees her return to Medallion as a magical thing, full of good happenings and positive signs; she believes that because of Sula, the troublesome robins leave and Tar Baby sings more beautifully than ever before. Nel even thinks her own household is more harmonious and her own relationship with Jude is more passionate and playful. Nel’s opinion of Sula, however, is a marked contrast to the opinion of Eva and the townspeople, who judge Sula to be an evil omen.

Although the two friends try to pick up where they have left off, their differences soon become obvious. Nel disapproves of Sula’s treatment of Eva; she feels that putting a grandmother in a nursing home goes against the family values of the black community. Sula is upset that Nel questions her, for in the past Nel has always agreed with her friend. Sula is also upset that Nel has bought into a dull married existence, filled with obedience and expectation. By contrast, Sula lives in defiance of all traditional roles.

When Nel discovers Sula and Jude “on all fours, naked,” she is shocked. Her respectable, traditional world quickly vanishes, and she is left with no husband and no best friend. She feels defenseless and alone. Her suffering makes her think of the funeral of Chicken Little, linking this section back to an earlier part of the book and foreshadowing the ongoing importance that Chicken Little holds. Nel wishes that she could express her grief like the women at Chicken Little’s funeral, who howled in misery; but Nel is unable to express her own pain. Morrison, however, uses four images to symbolize Nel’s grief: mud, leaves, “overripe green things,” and a ball of gray fur drifting just out of reach in the corner of her eye. These vivid images will appear again at the end of the book and help to unify the story.

Morrison clearly depicts that Nel’s sense of betrayal and grief are justified; after all, she has been betrayed by her best friend and her own husband. It is not surprising that Nel’s response is deep and intense; but even though she is stricken with grief, she senses that her grief is not yet complete.

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