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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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Three years have passed since Nel caught Sula with her husband, and the two women have stayed separated. Nel, however, hears that Sula is very sick and makes up her mind to visit her old friend. She is so nervous about what to say to Sula that she practices her words and her tone. She wants to make sure that Sula does not see the visit as anything extraordinary, simply common concern. When Nel arrives, Sula is in bed in Eva's old room, where the window is still boarded up. The two women dispense with greetings. Sula immediately says she needs some medicine, and Nel is glad that she has been called upon to act, not talk. When she realizes that Sula has no money for her painkillers, Nel rushes out to buy the medicine herself. The pharmacy stands where Edna Finch’s Mellow House used to stand. Nel remembers how she and Sula used to go there; now she is buying Sula’s medicine that will ease her impending death.

When Nel returns with the medicine, she and Sula try to talk, but it is not easy. Sula does not want to talk about her illness, and Nel takes her refusal as arrogance and pride. The conversation turns to the relationships between men and women. Nel becomes irritated, for she believes that Sula acts like she knows everything.

When Sula says she is proud of how she has lived, being her own independent person, Nel accuses her of hiding her loneliness. Sula points out that at least it is loneliness of her own choosing, not somebody else's; she is obviously referring to the fact that Nel has been left by Jude. This makes Nel angry.

Nel gathers up enough courage to ask Sula why she betrayed her with Jude. Sula casually answers that Jude filled a space. Nel is shocked to discover that Sula did not even love Jude. She asks Sula if she ever thought about what sleeping with Jude would do to her (Nel) and her marriage. Sula does not answer, but turns her head away; the birthmark over her eye appears darker. Before long, Sula raises herself out of bed and claims that when all the people and animals in the world have slept with each other, there will be a little love left over for her. Nel suddenly realizes that Sula feels very unloved. She also knows that even Sula does not understand why she's lived her life the way she has.

Nel gets up and says her last good-byes, for she knows she will not be coming back. As she leaves, Sula asks how Nel knows she was the good one and not Sula. Nel does not answer; she simply walks away, out of Sula’s life. Sula thinks that Nel, in her anger, will never remember what the two girls once were together. Sula, however, is filled with pictures of Nel and her sharing their lives and adventures. Sula begins to reflect upon her life. When she evaluates herself, she thinks that she never really meant anything. She remembers how she watched her mother burn to death and thinks about Chicken Little’s death.

The pain is unbearable for Sula. She is so tired that she cannot even cry out. She wants to look towards the boarded up window, but she does not have the strength. She imagines herself washed away in water like Chicken Little. Then she thinks of the word “always” and wonders who it was that said that to her. Suddenly she notices that she is not breathing, that her heart has stopped. She is dead. She notes that dying did not even hurt and muses, "Wait'll I tell Nel."


In the last three years, Nel has suffered, but she has not basically changed. She has overcome the loss of Jude by devoting herself to her children, her home, and her work. She is a respected woman who has joined the ranks of other women abandoned to care for their children. Nel is a good person, but she is too assured of her own goodness. She even states that she makes her last visit to Sula out of her sense of goodness.

Nel has heard that Sula is sick and dying. When she visits her old friend, it is the last chance for the two women to redeem their affection for each other, which is still alive, though buried in hurt. During the visit, Nel finally challenges Sula about Jude, and Sula has the chance to explain her thinking about life. Each woman expresses her philosophy, but their points of view are very different, largely due to their backgrounds.

In their confrontation, Sula and Nel continue to complement one another. Nel is proud of her conformity; Sula is proud of her defiance. Nel declares Sula to be a victim of loneliness; Sula calls it independence which she has earned and which she is proud of. Each represents what the other is not. By the time Nel stalks out, Sula has had her say; in spite of her great pain, she still gets the last word.

After Nel departs, Sula reviews her life. She remembers watching her mother burn to death and causing Chicken Little’s death. She also remembers the word “always” spoken by Shadrack, but she cannot remember who has said it to her. As she dies, she feels her heart stop beating and thinks that death does not hurt. In her dying moments, Sula is thinking about Nel. It is clear that the bond these two women share is eternal.

In this section, Morrison truly reveals her mastery of dialogue. The discussion between Sula and Nel is sharp, poignant, and very believable. Nel is trying to be a polite visitor, and still speak her mind. Sula tries to talk between the pain of her sickness. With nothing to lose, the women speak directly, honestly. The conversation is definitely tragic in tone, for both women know that this is their last chance to explain themselves to each other.

The key symbols and images of the novel are revisited in this section: the birthmark, the broken window, the drowning of Chicken Little, the unspoken closeness of the two women, and the absence of Jude. The climax also occurs in the section. On her deathbed, Sula confesses to Nel and herself the pain of her existence; Nel reveals the ordinariness of her life. Both women know who they are, but neither is satisfied. Although the end of the actual story and the friendship between Nel and Sula comes to a close with Nel’s departure and Sula’s death, the story is not complete; there is something more to come, some further discussion of what old frustration and anger can do to a person. Nel has not fully reached self-knowledge; nor has The Bottom, which is its own character, reached its climax.

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