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Sula

Toni Morrison

1922

1921

1923-1927

Summary

Nel and Sula have radically different personalities: Nel is quiet and unassuming while Sula is spontaneous and aggressive. Together, the girls seem to form two halves of a whole person. Both girls are pleased when Ajax looks at their developing bodies and mutters, "pig meat." A group of Irish Catholic boys begins to harass black children. After Nel falls victim to their bullying, she and Sula avoid them by taking a circuitous route home from school. When they are confronted by the boys a second time, Sula draws a knife and cuts off the tip of a finger to demonstrate what she plans to do to them should they continue harassing them. The boys, disturbed by her calm, cool demeanor, leave them alone.

One day, Sula overhears Hannah tell some other women that she loves Sula, but that she doesn't like her. Later, Chicken Little, a neighborhood boy, happens upon Sula and Nel when they are alone. Sula defends him when Nel teases him. Sula playfully swings him around by his hands, but he accidentally slips from her grip. He falls into the river and drowns. She runs to Shadrack for comfort, accidentally leaving the belt of her dress behind. Nel remains cool and collected, stating that no one saw what happened. They never tell anyone about the accident.

A bargeman finds Chicken Little's body. The whites in positions of power consider the death of a black child to be of little consequence; one even suggests that the bargeman throw it back in the water. Sula and Nel both attend Chicken Little's funeral. Nel sits silent, burdened with a heavy sense of guilt. Sula cries freely, but she feels no guilt.

Commentary

The Deweys represent a parallel to Sula and Nel. Like the two girls, the three boys are intensely attached to one another, and the intensity of their friendship makes it difficult to draw a boundary between their individual identities. On the other hand, the close friendship between the girls gives Nel the ability to assert her independence, and she has begun to resist Helene's attempt to mold her according to her own desires.

Hannah's offhand comment that she does not like Sula even though she loves her again raises the ambivalence of a mother's love. Morrison insists that there is a difference between loving and liking someone. Her comment heralds Sula's loss of childhood innocence. Hannah's comment reveals to Sula that love is not a simple thing and conforms to no idealistic, romantic understanding. Instead, love can be an involuntary emotion carrying a heavy weight of responsibility; love can be something that engenders frustration and annoyance; it can feel unfair, or be a burden. Hannah's comment has the effect of making Sula feel simultaneously secure and insecure: her mother will never stop loving her, but that love is not the simple thing Sula had long believed it to be. Sula's confrontation with the ambivalent, often mysterious side to human emotions is her first inkling of the complicated world of adulthood.

Chicken Little's accidental death further drives the loss of childhood innocence. His sudden death shows Sula and Nel how easy it is to die. They are no longer protected by a childish sense of their own immortality. Shadrack assumes that Sula's tear stained face is connected to her fear of change. Morrison does not completely explain the significance of his statement, "always," to Sula until several chapters later. At the funeral, Sula does not feel the guilt that afflicts Nel. It is possible that Shadrack's assurance of her permanence relieves her fears that Chicken Little's accidental death has changed her good nature in any essential way. Nel's guilt arises partly from her upbringing. She has been raised not to question authority, and authority is that which judges. Later in the novel, we learn that she was thrilled when she saw Chicken Little sailing through the air. She remained calm while Sula became distraught. It is likely that she feels guilty about her lack of reaction, or her lack of the socially approved reaction, to the accident.

Although Sula and Nel's actions following Chicken Little's death may seem reprehensible, it is necessary to remember that they are still children. They did not intend to harm the boy. They were too afraid to tell anyone about the accident for fear they would be blamed for intending to kill him. The incident seems on the surface not to have affected them much, but later chapters reveal that his death had a profound influence on them. Instinctively, they know it is possible that society will misunderstand the incident and blame them for something they didn't really do.

In contrast, the reaction of the white world to Chicken Little's death is clearly reprehensible. The white officials consider the matter of returning the boy's body to his family an annoyance. If we compare their attitude toward the boy's death to that of Sula and Nel, there is a clear difference between them. Sula grieves and Nel feels guilt while the white men feel nothing at all.

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