Toni Morrison has said of Sula and Nel that “the two of them together could have made a wonderful single human being.” They need and love each other, though neither recognizes that fact until it is too late. As little girls, the two are polar opposites. Sula is headstrong, independent, and courageous; Nel is quiet, obedient, and thoughtful. Together they are wildly happy—proud when Ajax and his friends in front of the ice cream parlor utter the words “pig meat” in their direction, excited when discovering their woman’s bodies for the first time under the trees by the river, and curiously joyful as Sula lets go of Chicken Little’s hands as he flies out over and into the water, to become “something newly missing.” He is a secret that closes the gap opened up between the girls at his funeral: “They held hands and knew that only the coffin would lie in the earth; the bubbly laughter and the press of fingers would stay aboveground forever.”
Nel and Sula grow into very different women. Nel represents women who choose selflessness, devoting their lives to bolstering their insecure husbands and rearing children. Nel becomes what Sula calls “one of them. . . . Now Nel belonged to the town and all its ways.” Sula, on the other hand, chooses herself. She has been to college, lived in various cities, and been with many men, only to return home as a stranger.
Nel appears to be the good woman and Sula the evil. A plague of robin deaths and a warm winter are all the proof the people in the Bottom need of Sula’s character. Morrison does not allow such easy categories. When Nel attempts a reconciliation near Sula’s death, Sula asks, “How you know? . . . About who was good. How you know it was you? . . . I mean maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe it was me.” Sula, in effect, makes Nel question all of her assumptions about her own innocence and about Sula’s guilt. The matriarchal Eva Peace is drawn in strength. Morrison says of her: “Eva is a triumphant figure, one-legged or not. She is playing God.” She is a dignified survivor who commands respect. Seated in her rocker atop a child’s wagon, she rules her eclectic household.
The men in this novel, with the exception of Ajax, are presented as helpless, absent, irresponsible, or dead. Shadrack and Plum are casualties of war, driven by violent social forces to an orderly madness or drugs. Tar Baby—possibly “high yellow,” possibly white; no one seems to know—drinks his life away on cheap wine. Emasculated by a white racist society that will not employ black men in well-paying, respectable, and meaningful work, Jude too is victimized. He is incomplete and needy. Sula’s father is dead, Nel’s always away. Only Ajax appears strong. In a 1976 interview, Toni Morrison observed, “Although in sociological terms that is described as a major failing of black men—they do not stay home and take care of their children, they are not there—that has always been to me one of the most attractive features about black male life.” When Sula wants to possess Ajax, he follows the airplanes he loves. The negative expression of this impulse is Eva’s husband BoyBoy, who leaves her and three children for fast women and the city.