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Sula

Toni Morrison

1940

1939

1941-1965

Summary

When Sula falls seriously ill, Nel decides to go and see her for the first time in three years. She asks Sula if she can do anything to help. Sula asks her to go to the drug store for her. Nel finally gathers the courage to ask her why she slept with Jude. In the resulting conversation, they dance around the topic of morality and obligation. Sula denies Nel's assertion that black women can't afford to be alone and independent. She declares that every woman she knows is slowly dying. While they are dying like "stumps," Sula is "going down like one of those redwoods." She declares that her loneliness is her own whereas Nel's is a "secondhand" loneliness. Sula affirms that Jude simply filled a space in her head. Before she leaves, Sula asks Nel how she knows that Sula wasn't the one who had been good.

Wracked with pain, Sula ponders the past. She remembers that she was thrilled when she saw her mother burning and thinks that all emotions, actions, and words are just "something to do." She curls into a fetal position and puts her thumb in her mouth. She notices suddenly that her heart has stopped beating and that she has stopped breathing. She realizes that she has died and thinks that she can't wait to tell Nel that death is painless.

Commentary

Nel thinks of herself as a "good woman," and takes pride in that fact. When she goes to see the seriously ill Sula she feels that her generous action makes her Sula's moral superior because she sees herself as the betrayed party and Sula as the traitor. Like the community, she is blind to the blame that Jude bears for abandoning her. She blames Sula entirely for the end of her marriage.

The conversation Nel has with Sula raises the ambiguity of terms like "good" and "evil." Sula claims her loneliness and her sickness as her own. She has always remained true to her personal desires rather than those of society. Sula does not deny her actions, but refuses to accept total responsibility for the rupture of their friendship. She also refuses to accept total responsibility for the end of Nel's marriage. Sula states that she slept with Jude, but Jude chose to abandon his marriage. In contrast to Nel, who relies on a sense of herself as being "good" to make her way in the world, Sula can acknowledge the negative consequences of her decisions.

Sula reflects on her life without regret. She believes that so much of the emotion that people display is just something to occupy their time. People attach moral meaning to their feelings and their actions to give them a special significance, but in the end, Sula believes, they are just there to fill up the time. She marvels and pities that Nel would view her entirely in light of her affair with Jude. In Nel's mind, their close, wonderful friendship prior to the affair has been thrown into question. Sula acknowledges to herself that the sight of her mother burning thrilled her. Sula did not feel animosity toward her mother, but she reflects that her mother's death by burning was at least less monotonous than the way that most women die. Hannah went out of life as a ball of fire after a life full of good sex and good times. Sula herself prefers to die like a "redwood" rather than a stump.

Sula's last living thoughts are about Nel, the one person besides Ajax who aroused her curiosity. She wants to share her revelation with Nel that death doesn't actually hurt. Again, the novel proposes that things are not always as they seem: normally death inspires fear and horror, but for Sula, death is not at all frightening. She does not regret dying because she feels that she has milked all the experiences she can out of life.

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