What is the symbolism of the gray ball?
In the novel Sula, Toni Morrison traces the long time friendship of two black women, Sula and Nel. The gray ball appears after Nel catches Sula in bed with her husband, Jude. For Nel, this is devastating as she loses both her husband and her best friend, and she cannot seem to deal with the pain brought on by what she perceives as betrayal even though Sula views the situation in a different light.
After she catches them together and they leave, Nel goes into the bathroom and she sees the ball in the air: "Quiet, gray, dirty. A ball of muddy strings, but without weight, fluffy but terrible in its malevolence" (109). This ball appears to represent not only the pain and suffering that Nel is experiencing, but also the greater loss, that of her best friend, Sula. For later on, Nel speculates that Sula would know what this gray ball is, but she can no longer confide in Sula. The ball terrifies Nel so much that she compares it to her children's scary dreams, and their nightmares are nothing compared to that ball of fur that hangs over her head.
Nel even goes so far as to think that she would rather die so she can go where there is no malevolent ball of fur. This ball becomes the symbol of all Nel has feared, losing her connection to other people, her roots in the real world, the strings that bind her to those she holds dearest.
The gray ball symbolizes Nel’s worries and anxiety that eventually grows into self-awareness. It begins after Sula commits adultery with Nel’s husband, Jude. It is a gray ball hovering, “a ball of muddy strings, but without weight, fluffy but terrible in its malevolence.” This feeling remains with Nel for more than twenty-five years as she tries to learn how to know herself.