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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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CHAPTER SUMMARY / NOTES: SULA BY TONI MORRISON

OVERALL ANALYSIS

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

Sula Peace

Sula is a dark character, emotionally defined by a sense of evil and physically defined by her black coloring, as well as the darkening birthmark in the shape of a rose that adorns her eye. As a child, she is strange, mysterious, somewhat defiant, and definitely different from those around her. Her life is shaped by two occurrences in her youth: the death of Chicken Little, which she blames on herself, and the overheard conversation of her mother when she says she does not really like her daughter. Sula grows up feeling guilty and unloved. Her only joy is spending time with her best friend, Nel Wright. The two of them become inseparable, even though they are totally different in background and personality.

Sula is determined to live without commitments and independent of others; she inherited this attitude from Hannah, her mother. She violates this independence only twice in the novel, and both times she is devastated by the relationship. Only once does Sula fall in love. When she realizes that she genuinely cares for Ajax, she becomes devoted to him and demanding; her attachment frightens Ajax away, leaving Sula in misery for a long time. More important is the attachment that she forms with Nel. Sula wraps her life up so completely in her friend that Morrison indicates they have almost become one; therefore, when Nel decides to marry Jude, Sula feels totally betrayed. As soon as the wedding is over, she leaves Medallion for ten years. When Sula returns, she and Nel try to be friends again, but Sula ruins it by having an affair with Jude, Nel’s husband. It is almost as if she were subconsciously striking out at Nel for having married Jude, making Sula feel abandoned.

When Sula returns to The Bottom after her ten-year absence, it is obvious that she has definitely changed. She comes home dressed like a movie star and reveals that she has been to college. The people in Medallion, who have always found Sula to be strange, now feel totally alienated from her. Her difference makes her unacceptable; as a result, every bad thing that happens in the town is blamed on her, especially after she puts Eva in a nursing home and has her affair with her best friend’s husband. Because the people of The Bottom, in their small-mindedness, reject her, Sula feels totally isolated; then when Nel rejects her as well, she has nothing to live for and goes early to her grave. On her deathbed, Sula reflects on her life. She remembers the death of Chicken Little and watching her mother burn to death. She decides her life had little meaning. It is a tragic comment on Sula’s existence.

In spite of her evaluation of herself, Sula is a marvelously created and complex character. Early in the novel, she cuts off the tip of her own finger to protect herself and Nel from the vicious attacks of some white boys. When Chicken Little drowns, she is terrified, but cares enough to go and seek the help of Shadrack; when he tells her only “always,” she misunderstands and feels that he has made some kind of threat, which she never forgets. Sula resents her mother because of her lack of emotion towards her daughter; as a result, when her mother catches on fire, Sula watches with detachment as she burns to death. With the same controlled emotion, she puts Eva in a nursing home, rather than care for her, and she sleeps with the husband of Nel as a way to strike back at her friend for having abandoned her. Sula has truly lived her life independently and on the edge.

Despite her strange ways, there are a few moments in which Sula is portrayed with utter sympathy. In Shadrack’s cabin, she is seen as a frightened, guilt-ridden, and inconsolable child. When she hears her mother say she does not like her, Sula is portrayed as a totally crushed daughter. When Nel marries, she becomes the jilted friend who feels she must leave town to find herself. On her deathbed, she is the pathetic vision of a wasted life who destroyed the relationship with her one true friend, Nel Wright; in pain and misery, she calls out to Nel, but it is too late. After Sula dies, Nel knows that her friend’s negative vision of herself shaped her whole being. She realizes that Sula was totally misunderstood all her life, even by Nel; this misunderstanding constitutes the tragedy of the novel.

Nel Wright

Nel is Sula’s opposite in many respects. Physically she is light-colored and plain, in contrast to Sula’s blackness and mysterious appearance. Nel is also thought to be a good girl by her mother and everyone else in The Bottom, for she is quiet and obedient. Nel’s background is also different than that of Sula. Her family is respectable, staid, and proper. Nel is brought up to be the same way.


Early in the novel, Nel travels with her mother to New Orleans, for Nel’s great-grandmother is dying. The trip is a turning point in her development. First, she sees her respectable, dignified mother having to urinate in a field because the train has no restrooms for black passengers. She also sees her mother groveling and apologetic to the conductor, who chastises the two of them for being in a train car for whites. Nel is amazed to learn about discrimination and to see that her mother is not always in control. Then, she meets her grandmother and is shocked to find out that she has been a prostitute; she realizes that her mother’s search for prim and proper behavior is her effort to wipe out her past. As a result of the trip to New Orleans, Nel determines that she will be different than her mother; she will not live her life running from the past and seeking respectability and conformity above all It is Nel’s desire for individuality that leads her into a friendship with Sula, who is independent, brave, and strong. As Sula's friend, Nel becomes more like her and even approaches individuality. In the end, her upbringing and her mother’s influence are dominant. In order to gain respectability and acceptance in the community, she decides to marry and settle down; the decision obviously delights her mother, for she wants Nel to be just like her. For Nel, her husband, Jude, becomes a poor substitute for Sula, who feels abandoned by the marriage and leaves town. Nel throws herself into trying to please Jude and making him feel like a man; in the process, she loses her sense of self.

When Sula returns to Medallion after a ten-year absence, Nel, who has suffered from a lack of friendship, is eager to befriend Sula, in spite of the opinion of the town about her. Then when she finds Sula in bed with her husband, she is infuriated; when Jude leaves her out of shame, Nel is truly devastated. She goes through the next years of her life believing that she mourns the loss of her husband, when in truth it is Sula that she misses. Yet she is too proud and proper to approach Sula. It is only when her old friend is dying that Nel dares, in her “goodness,” to go and see her; but even on her deathbed, she judges Sula to be evil and does not go to her funeral.

After her own children are adults and abandon her, Nel decides to pay Eva a visit. The old woman accuses Nel of being just as guilty for Chicken Little’s death as Sula. Nel is finally forced to come to grips with the truth. Sula was not really the evil one; instead, it is she herself that is evil - hard-hearted and accusing; she even admits to herself that she delighted in Chicken Little’s death, while Sula was horrified by it. Nel suddenly knows that her friendship with Sula was the best thing she has ever had, stronger than motherhood or marriage. She accepts that Sula was really the other side of her coin. The unique combination of the two women, who completely complement each other, forms a friendship that supercedes everything else in their lives.

Shadrack

Shadrack is a strange resident of The Bottom. He returns shell-shocked from the war and turns to alcohol for company. Although a relatively minor character, he takes on more importance because the actual story starts and ends with him. His created holiday, National Suicide Day, also become important in the story of The Bottom. Shadrack only interacts with Sula one time in the novel. When Chicken Little does not surface in the river, the frightened young girl runs to get help from the closest place; it happens to be Shadrack’s cabin. He cannot understand what the inconsolable child is trying to tell him; all he can utter, in an effort to comfort her, is the single word “always;” it is said as a kindness, but misunderstood as a threat by Sula. Because Sula is the only human being that has ever dared to enter Shadrack’s cabin, he goes through life thinking of her as his friend. He often observes her in town, and always recognizes her by the mysterious birthmark on her face. Sadly, Sula, who is so in need of love, is totally unaware that Shadrack cares for her; but her life, which she judges as meaningless, has given meaning to Shadrack.

Shadrack’s National Suicide Day is an element of both catalyst and closure for The Bottom. Throughout the novel, he faithfully celebrates his holiday, eagerly leading a parade through town that few people join. Ironically, after Sula’s death, Shadrack has no excitement for National Suicide Day and has to make himself go to the parade; but the townsfolk, excited to be rid of Sula, join in the procession. The excitement swells, and the Blacks find themselves heading toward the tunnel being built by the whites. Filled with hatred for the tunnel, they begin to destroy it from the outside. Then they go inside to do more damage, but the tunnel caves in and most of them are killed - on National Suicide Day; it is as if their own small-mindedness has destroyed them. Shadrack appropriately stands above on a hill observing the death scene and ringing a bell.

Eva

Eva, Sula's grandmother, is alive during the entire span of the novel. She is significant in the shaping of Sula and in the movement of the novel's plot. She is also the book's most colorful character. When her husband leaves her as a young mother, she goes away for awhile. In her absence, she cuts off one of her legs in order to collect insurance money to use to raise her children. Throughout the novel, she is seen sitting in a wheelchair contraption observing life from above. Many people do observe her, for she has turned her dwelling into a boarding house and has taken in an odd assortment of people, including the three “dewey” boys.

The community looks up to her literally and figuratively. Sula, however, is not in awe of Eva. When the one-legged Eva jumps from the second story of her house in order to save Hannah from burning, Sula makes no attempt to help either her mother or her grandmother. It is her symbolic rejection of the life that has been forced on her, largely by Eva. Later, Sula puts Eva in a nursing home instead of caring for her, much to the shock and horror of the community.

Eva is a survivor and is never afraid to act or to speak her mind. When Nel visits her at the end of the novel, she is an old and confused woman, but she clearly accuses Nel of being guilty of Chicken Little’s death; she forces Sula’s friend to acknowledge that she was more evil than Sula. It is a life-changing experience for Nel. As a result, Eva has done much to shape both Sula and Nel, the two central characters in the novel.


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