Sula Summary

Sula is a novel by Toni Morrison in which the friendship between Sula and Nel is repeatedly tested. Their friendship is forever changed when Sula sleeps with Nel's husband.

  • Sula and Nel grow up in an African-American community nestled in a hilly landscape said to be the bottom of heaven. They quickly become best friends.

  • While Sula goes to college, Nel stays home and marries Jude. After Sula returns, she and Jude have an affair. Nel catches them.

  • Sula and Nel become estranged. Years later, Sula falls ill, and Nel visits her. Only then does Nel realize how much she missed her friend.

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Summary of the Novel
Sula is a multi-faceted novel. It is, first of all, a story of the friendship of two black women (Sula and Nel) over a period of almost 45 years. The friendship, which begins in about 1921, continues through high school and even until Nel’s marriage to Jude. It is almost ten years after Nel’s marriage before Sula returns to the small town of Medallion, Ohio; she brings home tales of college and travels. When Nel meets Sula again, their friendship commences as if nothing had ever happened. Nel, however, interrupts Sula and Jude as they are having sex. Jude and Sula leave town together, but Sula soon returns alone. Nel has no contact with Sula for three more years. Nel goes to Sula when she finds out that Sula is dying. Sula tells Nel that if Nel had truly loved her, Nel would have forgiven her. Nel still does not forgive and continues to ask why Sula behaved as she did. It is only after Sula's death and burial that Nel realizes that it has been Sula—not Jude—whom Nel has missed through the years. Sula is also the story of a neighborhood. The Bottom (actually the hilly land which is supposed to be the bottom of Heaven) with its black residents and the valley with its white residents are marked contrasts. Neither group of inhabitants seems content. The valley residents eventually take over much of the Bottom. The tight-knit neighborhood of the Bottom changes into a community where the people seek little connection with one another. The Bottom residents themselves destroy the uncompleted tunnel, a link to future employment and travel opportunities. Sula traces family histories from grandparents, parents, Nel and Sula themselves, and Nel’s family. Interwoven with their lives are Shadrack, who suffers with a psychic injury from the war, the adopted deweys, and the Jackson and Suggs families. Sula is a tragedy which unfolds in nonchronological order. Sula’s mother burns to death in her sight, her uncle burns at the hand of his mother (Sula’s grandmother), and Sula dies alone at a young age. Shadrack’s life is never the same after World War I. Nel spends her adult years as a single mother rearing three children and mourning the loss of a husband—and later a friend. Eva engages in self-mutilation and loses a leg to draw insurance money, sets fire to her own son, sees her daughter burn to death, and, at last, must reside in an old age home at the hand of her granddaughter. Jude loses his wife and three children when he has sex with his wife’s best friend. The community residents, who had been close, separate themselves from one another; they eventually destroy the tunnel—their link to the New Road and to promised employment opportunities. Many people die in the destruction. Hate, sarcasm, loss of life, and lack of identity bring unhappiness to an area which is supposed to be the Bottom of Heaven. Marvin, in Library Journal of 1973, calls Sula "an evocation of a whole black community during a span of over 40 years." Morrison, he says, describes this "re-creation of the black experience in America with both artistry and authenticity." In the New York Times Book Review, Blackburn describes the novel as "frozen" and "stylized." She calls it an "icy version" of Morrison’s first novel and a book with characters who are "achingly alive." Prescott in Newsweek of 1974 calls Sula an "exemplary fable

(The entire section is 3,063 words.)