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.
Sula Peace, the protagonist. Sula is different from the other women of the town of Medallion, as willing to feel pain and pleasure as she is to give them. Having lost her best friend, Nel, she looks in vain for friendship in men. After leaving Medallion to go to college and to travel, she returns as a pariah and is blamed for all the town’s misfortunes. She fuels the town’s hatred of her by sleeping with married men and with white men. Contrary to the beliefs of the townspeople, who believe that a brighter day will dawn after she dies, her death is followed by a severe ice storm and the catastrophic cave-in of the tunnel.
Nel Wright, Sula’s best friend. Reared in an oppressive household, she decides to be her own person, not her mother’s daughter. Nel marries the handsome Jude Greene because she wants to be needed. She blames Sula when he leaves her, because Sula seduced Jude. Unlike Sula, she fears change, so much so that she refuses to buy a car. Long after her marriage ends, Nel realizes that she has been mourning for Sula, not for Jude.
Eva Peace, the physically disabled matriarch of the Peace family, Sula’s grandmother. She is so preoccupied with her hatred of her womanizing husband and with keeping herself and her family alive that she is unable to show much love to her children. When her husband leaves her, she leaves her children with a neighbor, returns eighteen months later with only one leg, and builds a new home. Her arrogance is apparent in the fancy shoe she wears on her one foot. Strangely, she murders her own son and almost bleeds to death trying to save her daughter.
Shadrack, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I. When he returns to Medallion after the war, he earns the reputation of town character, spending most of his time catching fish to sell, cussing people, acting obscenely, and getting drunk. In 1920, he proclaims January 3 as National Suicide Day, and he commemorates the event every year thereafter by carrying around a hangman’s noose and ringing a cowbell. On January 3, 1941, he leads a parade of townspeople to the tunnel, where many of them die in a cave-in.
The Deweys, Eva’s three adopted sons, unrelated to one another. Surly and unpredictable, they resist all attempts to distinguish among them. They speak with one voice and think with one mind. After Eva is sent to a nursing home, they live wherever they want. Their bodies are never found after the tunnel collapses.
Hannah Peace, Sula’s beautiful and self-indulgent mother. After the death of her husband, Rekus, she takes a series of lovers because of her need to be touched every day. As a result, she is despised by all the women in town. She teaches Sula that sex is pleasurable but otherwise unremarkable. Hannah burns to death while trying to light the yard fire. Eva throws herself out a window trying to save her.
Tar Baby, an alcoholic half-white man who rents a room from Eva. He is arrested for causing a wreck involving the mayor’s niece. Tar Baby dies in the cave-in.
Jude Greene, Nel’s handsome husband and Sula’s lover. Frustrated in his attempt to find work building the New River Road, he marries Nel in his determination to take on a man’s role. Even after ten years of marriage, he still feels belittled by white society. Jude leaves Nel shortly after she catches him making love to Sula.
Albert Jacks, called Ajax, the one true love in Sula’s life, the son of a conjure woman and nine years Sula’s senior. Ajax loves women, airplanes, and hot baths. He is the only one of Sula’s lovers who actually talks to and listens to her. He senses that she is changing from an unpredictable, spontaneous, and untraditional woman to a more traditional one like those he has previously left. After he is arraigned for arguing with the police, he goes to an air show in Dayton, Ohio, and walks out of Sula’s life forever.
Helene Wright, Nel’s domineering mother. She moves to Medallion to get as far away as possible from the New Orleans brothel where she was born. In the absence of a Catholic church, she joins the most conservative black church in town and spends her time forcing her daughter to be obedient and polite. Helene saves her own life by refusing to march in the parade to the tunnel.
Plum Peace, Eva’s shiftless, spoiled son, to whom she had planned to bequeath everything. He almost dies as a baby because he shoves pebbles up his anus. When he returns to Medallion after serving in World War I, he steals, takes trips to Cincinnati, uses heroin, and sleeps for days in his room with the record player going. Believing that Plum cannot live as a man, Eva sets him afire while he is asleep.