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Sula

Toni Morrison

1941-1965

1940

Study Questions

Summary

The community of the Bottom regards Sula's death as a good omen. They go to the burial to verify for themselves that the "witch" is indeed in the ground. At first, her passing seems to herald good things. There are rumors that black workers will be hired for the construction of the tunnel under the river. There are also plans to build a new nursing home, which will house both black and white patients, including Eva.

However, a devastating frost overtakes the area, destroying crops and killing livestock. Many people cannot even get into Medallion, so they lose several days of much needed wages. The bitter cold snap brings in its wake a host of illnesses. The community begins to suffer from Sula's passing in other ways, as well. Without her "evil" influence to rally them together, the moral righteousness Sula inspired in the townspeople begins to crumble. Teapot's mother beats him furiously after he refuses to eat some food she has made for him. Wives cease to cherish their husbands as they did when Sula was alive. Thanksgiving and Christmas are bitter, ill-tempered affairs.

The weather finally warms on New Year's Day. The night before National Suicide Day, Shadrack begins to feel lonely for the first time since he came back from World War I. Only one visitor has ever come to his house. He fondles the belt, which provides the only evidence of her brief presence. When a frightened, crying child had come to his door years ago, the tadpole birthmark over her eye had signaled to him that she was a friend. She seemed to want to ask him a question. He could only muster the word "Always" to allay the fear of change,which he thought he saw in her face.

Suddenly, Shadrack doesn't want to go out to observe National Suicide Day. After seeing Sula's dead body with the same tadpole mark above the eye, he realizes that he had been wrong. There is no "always." Nevertheless, he gathers his implements the next morning and proceeds with his annual ritual. Many of the Bottom's residents, including the Deweys, follow him on his march. They walk to the tunnel where they begin to vandalize the construction site because the jobs have again been denied to black workers. Suddenly, it collapses, and many of Shadrack's followers, including the Deweys, drown.

In 1965, Nel reflects on the changes she has seen in her lifetime. The black community of the Bottom has slowly moved into the once all-white city of Medallion to build homes with their wartime wealth. Their job prospects have improved, but she laments the loss of community, which characterized the Bottom. Now, people live in isolated households rather than as a collective whole.

Nel spent most of her energy raising her children after Jude left. With the children gone, she feels that her life has passed her by, and that there is nothing waiting for her now that the Bottom is becoming a haven for rich whites. Nel visits Eva in the nursing home, but she is confronted with a sad, shriveled woman, a shadow of the vibrant matriarch Eva once was. Their conversation is rambling because Eva is going senile. During their odd talk, Eva accuses Nel of killing Chicken Little. Nel tries to blame the death entirely on Sula, but Eva reminds her that she watched. She doesn't think there is a difference between Sula and Nel's role because they were "just alike." Disturbed, Nel admits to herself that she shares some of the guilt for the boy's death. She remembers feeling thrilled when Chicken Little slipped from Sula's hands.

Nel visits the cemetery where Eva's children and Sula are buried. When she exits the cemetery, Nel sees Shadrack. Shadrack tries to remember who she is. Nel whispers Sula's name and then cries out in grief for her deceased friend.

Commentary

The community views Sula's death as a positive event. However, events are again not what they at first seem. Besides the natural misfortunes of weather and the social misfortune of racism, the community has lost the binding influence of Sula's presence. The community's moral resolve and harmony dissolve in the absence of the woman who, in breaking social conventions, motivated others to uphold them. /PARAGRAPH The final chapter closes the circular narrative of Sula. Nel reflects on the ambiguous blessings of "social progress." The former residents of the Bottom now have more civil rights, and they have been wealthier in the years following the war. On the surface, this seems like a positive thing. However, they have also lost something. The disintegration of the collective social identity that began with Sula's death has only grown worse; the community, which once defined the Bottom, has been replaced by a town in which the people live in relative isolation from one another.

Eva's comments during Nel's visit force Nel to confront her unfair judgment against Sula. Sula reacted to Chicken Little's death with a total rejection of all social responsibility; Nel responded by enveloping herself with it. Like Sula's fascination with Hannah's immolation, Nel was likewise thrilled when she saw Chicken Little drown in the river. Nel blamed Chicken Little's death entirely on Sula and set herself up as the "good" half of the relationship. As she questions why it felt good to watch Chicken Little falling, she realizes that her pleasure came from seeing the water peacefully close around his "turbulent" body. The water imposed an illusion of calm and order over the traumatic event. It erased the disorder and chaos of his flight through the air and his accidental death. Sula feared the monotony of calm and order, so she was thrilled by her mother's turbulent, dancing death. Nel loved order, and so she was thrilled to see the smooth water envelop the "turbulent" Chicken Little. Sula and Nel, the book insists, are two halves of the same equation; and as such, neither can be worse than the other.

In her trip to Sula's grave, Nel acknowledges her regret for the course of her life. When she cries out Sula's name, she is finally able to admit her feelings of love toward Sula and, therefore, is able to mourn her loss. And in grieving for Sula, in letting herself once more see the positives in Sula, Nel is able to mourn for herself, for the sacrifices she made to gain social acceptance, which Sula defined herself by by refusing.

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