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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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The plot of Sula consists of two parts set within a frame narrative. The novel opens around 1965 with a prologue; after the first section, it jumps back in time to the year 1919. From that point, the plot moves forward chronologically until the very end of the novel, which is also set in 1965. In between the frame narrative at the beginning and end, each chapter, or section, is titled by a year. Even though the book spans a lifetime, the plot is not hard to follow because of the time designations.

The plot within the frame narrative is developed in a traditional pattern. It opens with an introduction to The Bottom, the setting for the whole novel. It also begins to introduce the key characters, starting with Shadrack and his National Suicide Day. Sula is introduced in the third section, and the rest of the book centers on her and her friendship with Nel, which constitutes the rising action of the plot. In the seventh chapter, Nel marries, causing Sula to leave The Bottom for ten years. Part One of the novel ends with Sulaís departure.

When Sula returns to Medallion, Part Two begins, and the plot resumes and moves rapidly toward Sulaís death. She betrays Nel by sleeping with Jude in the eighth section; she is vilified by the community in the ninth section; and in the tenth section, she dies, believing her life had no meaning or purpose. In the eleventh chapter, Nel visits Eva and is forced to admit that she was probably more evil than Sula. In the twelfth and final chapter, also set in 1965 like the opening section, Nel acknowledges that Sula is the best thing that has ever happened to her, more than motherhood or marriage. Additionally, Shadrack reveals the meaning that Sula had in his life. The novel has come full circle into a unified whole.


Major Themes

The major theme of Sula is good versus evil. The question of right versus wrong in the novel can be traced all the way back to the childhoods of Sula and Nel. As the two girls played with Chicken Little, a young child from the neighborhood, Sula was swinging him around by his hands. She accidentally threw him into the water, and he drowned. Sula and Nel decided not to tell anyone the truth about what had happened. The result is that Sula goes through life believing that she is evil because she killed Chicken Little; in contrast, Nel judges herself to be good because it was not she who caused Chicken Littleís death. The lives of both women are clearly shaped by the views they have of themselves. As an adult, Sula is wild and unconventional, while Nel is the picture of propriety and goodness.

Prompted by a discussion about Chicken Little with Sulaís grandmother, Nel goes to visit the grave of Sula. There she comes to terms with the truth of her past. Nel remembers that Sula had been terrified and anguished over Chicken Littleís death; she certainly had not wanted the boy to die, but blamed herself fully for the accident. Nel made no attempt to change Sulaís thinking. Instead, Nel had inwardly rejoiced at the death, proving the cruelty and evil in her heart. The truth is that Sula lived a more honest life than Nel; she accepted herself as evil and lived accordingly. Nel, on the other hand, has lived a hypocritical life, pretending to be good and pure in every way. At the end, however, she faces the falseness of her life and embraces the dead Sula as her best friend and judges her to be good, in spite of the opinion of the community.

Minor Themes

Sula is a story about the presence and absence of family and friendship. The entire book revolves around two friends, Sula and Nel. Morrison even indicates that their friendship is the most important relationship in their lives. Unfortunately, even though the girls are closely bonded in their childhood, they are not really truthful with one another in their adulthood. Even though they seem to need one another, they betray each other. Sula sleeps with Nelís husband, breaking up the marriage; and Nel refuses to tell Sula that she should forgive herself for Chicken Littleís death. The two women are separated and mature according to the beliefs they have about themselves; Sula acts out her evil nature, while Nel is the picture of goodness and propriety. When Sula is dying, Nel goes to visit her, not out of friendship, but because she sees herself as such a good person. Amazingly, from her deathbed, Sula sows the seed of self-realization for her friend when she tells Nel not to be so sure of her own goodness. Many years later, Nel comes to terms with the truth of Sulaís statement, spoken from her deathbed; she also realizes the great importance of Sulaís friendship to her.

Another theme that runs throughout the novel is the influence of family on a personís being. Nelís maternal grandmother had been a prostitute in New Orleans; therefore, Nelís mother, Helene, determines that she will rise above such sinfulness and live a life of goodness, purity, and respectability. She comes to The Bottom to escape the ill repute of her motherís past. She raises her daughter to have her same moral values, even though Nel tries not to be just like her mother. Sula, on the other hand, receives little attention from her mother, Hannah, or her grandmother, Eva, who clearly favor Sulaís brother. Hannah is a sensuous woman who seeks the company of all the men in town; Sula disapproves of her motherís behavior and views her with a detached sense of alienation. When Hannah catches on fire, Eva jumps from the second story to try and save her, while Sula watches from the porch and does nothing. Ironically, Sula grows up to be much like her mother, believing she has no need for attachments and having no self-respect. Sula even destroys her one friendship in life by sleeping with Nelís husband.

Sula is also a commentary on the need for a person to feel loved. Throughout her life, Sula tries to follow her motherís example of detachment, believing she needs no one in the world. In truth, she lives a life of misery and loneliness because she makes no attachments. When she does finally fall in love with Ajax, she realizes how desperately she wants a commitment and scares him away. It is not surprising that from her deathbed she talks about the lack of love in the world. The hopelessness of life is also presented through the character of Shadrack. Shell-shocked from the war, he exists in The Bottom in a state of half craziness. His claim to fame is that he has invented a holiday - National Suicide Day. Although he is a humorous character on the surface, his message is really one of doom and gloom. Ironically, a large portion of The Bottom population dies while celebrating his National Suicide Day. It is their small-mindedness that has led to their end.

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