Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary|
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CHAPTER SUMMARY / NOTES: SULA BY TONI MORRISON
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 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, 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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. 09 May 2017