Chapter 11: 1965 Summary
Last Updated on March 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1026
The story resumes over two decades later, picking up in 1965 when the situation for the residents of the Bottom appears to be improving. Those in the community have secured employment in local shops, and one of them was even employed as a teacher in a nearby school. Nel, however, noticed that several things were better in the past and finds it increasingly challenging to identify many of the individuals in the town she once knew.
Medallion constructed new elderly homes along with every road it built, indicating a growing demand for such facilities in the community. The population was not living longer, rather families were sending their elderly to these homes at an earlier stage. White families appeared to have an easier time putting their elderly relatives in these homes, whereas Black families typically only did so when the elderly person became "crazy and unmanageable." However, there were a few Black residents, such as Sula, who sent their elderly away out of cruelty.
Before 1965, Nel led a limited existence. She had a romance with a sergeant stationed at a nearby camp to Medallion, but it eventually fizzled out. She also had a brief connection with a hotel bartender, but that too did not endure. By 1965, Nel was fifty-five years old and found it challenging to recall the meaning of relationships.
When her children left the house, Nel became a member of a service group called Circle Number 5. The members of this group would take turns visiting the elderly, and it was Nel's turn to do so. She was on her way to the old folks' home, eager to visit Eva once more.
After Jude's departure, Nel foresaw her future. With three children in tow, she was sure she would not have the chance to find love again. In addition, her three children had grown up and were now seeking happiness from sources other than their mother.
Over time, the Bottom transformed. Land prices had gone up, and white people from Medallion were seeking to expand into the hills. Black people who did not already own land could not afford to buy any in the Bottom. The new home builders in the Bottom were all white, and they desired homes with a scenic view of the river and elm trees. Some residents of the Bottom wished to move to the valley, so they sold their hillside land to whoever showed interest. Only a handful of the tight-knit relationships of Nel’s youth remained in the Bottom.
Nel was among the few people who still walked in the Bottom. Her children teased her for her choice to walk, but she steadfastly refused to accept a ride unless the weather was particularly bad. As a result, she usually walked to the old folks' home.
Despite the late-afternoon chill, Nel walked to the local elderly home. When she arrived, she was eager to take a seat and relax for a bit. The building had a long hallway with doors on both sides, which she thought looked like a school dormitory. After receiving a pass from the receptionist, Nel knocked on the third door to the right and went inside.
Eva appeared tiny as she sat in her chair. Her previously attractive leg was uncovered, clothed only in a slipper. A wave of nostalgia and regret rushed over Nel as she looked at the old woman whom she knew so well. After greeting Eva, Nel asked the older woman what she was thinking about; Eva replied that she was thinking about ironing and stairs. As they chatted, Eva predicted that Nel would fall ill, likely from eating chop suey. Nel attempted to reject Eva’s prediction, but the old woman—who is no less lively than before—prevented her.
Nel introduced herself to Eva, who at first appeared to recognize her, asking if she is Wiley Wright’s daughter. However, Eva’s next question is about Chicken Little, accusing Nel of drowning him. Nel attempted to clarify that Sula was responsible, but Eva appeared too befuddled to understand the difference between the two women. They moved on from the subject, but Eva continued to refer to Nel as Sula, distressing her greatly.
Their conversation devolved rapidly, and Nel left early, fleeing as Eva shouted “Sula!” behind her. Her identity swam before her eyes, hazy and uncertain, and Nel found herself struggling to reconcile her sense of self with the person Eva saw her as. In a panic, Nel raced to the cemetery where Sula and Plum were buried and stared at their sparse grave markers, realizing that the words listed there are a poor means of describing a life.
The conversation with Eva rearranged much of Nel’s worldview. Where she once aligned herself with Eva’s feelings of isolation and loneliness, she now rejects the older woman’s bitterness and harsh words. Nel no longer thinks that Eva did not attend Sula’s funeral out of brief but feels that she did so out of anger and spite.
Nel thought back to the day Sula’s lifeless body was discovered; when Nathan, who discovered it, informed the community, no one expressed interest in paying their respects to her. In fact, they disregarded the news entirely, and Sula's body remained unvisited and alone. She remembered how the residents of the Bottom would typically come together to mourn the dead; in Sula's case, no one had come. The responsibility to make the necessary arrangements fell on her alone, and she mourned her old friend’s isolation in both life and death.
The following day, Nel returned to the cemetery. A group of white people was gathered around Sula’s grave; after they left, the Black residents of the Bottom congregated around the grave, singing “Shall We Gather at the River” in an uncertain tone.
As she walked home from the strange scene at the cemetery, Nel stopped suddenly in her tracks, realizing that the pervasive sadness she felt since her marriage ended was actually due to the loss of Sula, not Jude. The novel ends with this crushing realization, as Nel, speaking to no one, says, "O Lord, Sula...girl, girl, girlgirlgirl."