Sula is a novel that spans many years. At the center of the novel is the friendship between Sula and Nel. Sula is seen as the "bad one", while Nel is considered the "good one". Nel's childhood is drastically different than Sula's, but they are extremely close. From an early age, Nel decides to be her own person. She experiences first hand, the racism that lives in the world, after seeing her mother humiliated by white men. These experiences lead her to decide that she will live on her terms, and no one else's.
At the beginning of the novel, we think of Nel as hero of the story, but we soon learn different. Nel has a way of letting people think good things about her, but on the inside, there is a nastiness that hides itself. After Nel graduates high school, she marries a man named Jude. Nel becomes the kind of woman she swore she wasn't going to be. Jude's dreams become hers. She always has her friendship with Sula to fall back on. She can always go and talk to her, but Sula leaves town for ten years. When she comes back, Nel once again picks up the friendship. Soon though, Jude and Sula have an affair and Jude leaves Nel. The devastation she feels is immense. She thinks she longs for Jude, but what she really longs for is her friendship with Sula. She and Sula were connected by a secret and the loss of the friendship is hard on her.
"Although it was she alone who saw the magic, she did not wonder at it. She knew it was all due to Sula's return to the Bottom. It was like getting the use of an eye back, after having cataract surgery."
We get glimpses of Nel's personality early on. With the tragic death of Chicken Little, while he is playing with Sula and Nel. Sula is swinging the boy by the arms, when she slips and lets go of his arms. Chicken Little falls into the lake and drowns, despite Sula trying to save him. The two friends keep it a secret for many years. Years later, Nel admits that it excited her to watch the boy drown. Sula, however, was horrified by the incident. Nel also has a closed heart. She never really forgives Sula. Even when her friend is dying, Nel still holds a grudge against her friend.
By the end of the book, we come to see Nel as a woman, who was so wounded by the things she saw as a young girl, that she has become a cold, hard and bitter woman. This is a multifaceted novel, but the real story is between these two women. It goes into the depths of what a real friendship is about. Nel realizes too late that Sula was her true soul mate. She holds onto so much hatred and anger that it keeps her from truly expressing her feelings. She spends her whole life caught in a vicious cycle and in the end she realizes she is all alone.
When Nel is younger you can see her wanting to differentiate herself from her mother when she states "I am Nel. I am me." She strives to create her own identity away from her mother and to be herself. Yet we see a reversal of roles when the two girls grow up: Sula is very independent and strong, and similar to her mother sleeps with men, however we see Nel in a domestic view conforming to the norms of society. As the novel progresses we see Nel turn from a girl into a woman as she was excited by Chicken Little's death, yet Sula was freaking out and worried. We also learn how Nel kept a grudge against Sula for a couple of years since she believed everything was her fault, until she finally comes to understand it was never Jude she missed, it was Sula. We see the friendship between the girls as strong and confident, and as the story progresses we see Nel transform from a girl into a woman.