When did Sula and Nel's friendship end?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The obvious answer to this question is that Sula and Nel stop being friends when Sula has an affair with Nel's husband. After returning from her absence of ten years, Sula scandalizes the Bottom with her behavior. But Nel is intrigued by Sula's experiences, perhaps envying her friends knowledge of...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The obvious answer to this question is that Sula and Nel stop being friends when Sula has an affair with Nel's husband. After returning from her absence of ten years, Sula scandalizes the Bottom with her behavior. But Nel is intrigued by Sula's experiences, perhaps envying her friends knowledge of the world and sophistication. Naturally, the affair puts an end to all that.

The real event that strains their relationship, however, is the drowning of Chicken Little. This event was an accident: Sula was simply swinging the boy in her arms and lost her grip. The trauma of the child's death, the strain of keeping their role in it a secret and Nel's concern about Sula's reaction (or lack thereof) taints the friendship and they are never quite as close.

Ultimately, Nel is drawn to Sula for all the ways that her friend is unconventional and she is not. She envies Sula's free spirit, open way of talking, and casual attitude toward relationships and sex. However, Sula's life is punctuated by shocking, dramatic events that make Nel question Sula's basic decency. The death of Chicken Little is one such event. The death of Sula's mother, Hannah, who is burnt alive in an accidental fire, is the second. Eva, Sula's grandmother, jumps out the window to try to save Hannah but Sula, who is standing on the porch, simply watches as her mother burns.

Additionally, the fact that Sula has affairs with white men as well as Ajax, a town pariah, make her an object of contempt throughout the Bottom. For someone like Nel, who was raised to follow social conventions, it simply becomes easier to keep her distance.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The catalyst for the break between Nel and Sula occurs when Sula goes to bed with Nel's husband, Jude. Jude initially isn't physically attracted to Sula but sees how she could engage a man's mind. He's intrigued by the challenge that Sula seems to represent, which contrasts with Nel's more malleable character. Nel walks in on Jude and Sula having sex and, initially, registers incredulity at what she sees. After they notice that Nel has entered the room, Sula sits up in bed, leaving her nude body exposed. She doesn't look at her shocked friend but instead casually examines her fingernail.

Both Sula and Nel are products of the Bottom, the ironically-named black community in the town's valley. Nel, who is lighter-skinned, grew up with a mother who believed that she could gain favor with white people by distinguishing herself and her daughter as "a better breed" of black folks. Nel witnesses this one day, as a child, when her mother smiles obsequiously at a white man who insults her. Sula, who is darker, is the daughter of Hanna, a beautiful woman known for having many relationships with men. The Peace family, particularly its women, are known for existing on the margins of an already ostracized community.

Despite these contrasts in their backgrounds and their characters, I wouldn't agree with the previous educator's assessment that it's "amazing" that the girls became friends. They grew up learning different ways to cope with oppression. The friendship between the girls is cemented when Sula staves off a pack of boy bullies by slicing off the tip of her finger, warning them that, if she's willing to do such a thing to herself, what might she do to them? Arguably, Sula's decision to sleep with Jude is a similar act. It, too, bears the mark of mutilation and severance. The purpose, in both instances, was to protect Nel, to let her know that Sula would protect her right to exist. It's not until the end of the novel, after Sula has died, that Nel understands her friend and the things she tried to do for her. Sula's transgressive act of "taking" Nel's husband had nothing to do with wanting Jude and everything to do with getting Nel to see which bonds would really help her to flourish.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sula and Nel's friendship has more than its fair share of ups and downs. But it is amazing that they ever became friends in the first place when considering their radically different upbringings. In any case, as Morrison is anxious to point out, friendship is a complex business, involving good times and bad times: this includes love and hate, loyalty and betrayal. Betrayal is what finally puts an end to Sula and Nel's friendship.

Sula has a different attitude when it comes to forming sexual relationships, one that puts her outside the bounds of so-called respectable society. Nel, on the other hand, subscribes to the social role accorded to her as a young African American woman from a good family. The friends' respective worldviews are diametrically opposite to one another, and it is their eventual collision that leads to the breakdown of their friendship. When Sula returns to her hometown after a lengthy absence, she hooks up with Nel's husband and begins an affair with him. Unsurprisingly, Nel is infuriated by this and severs all connections with her former friend.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team