The Bottom is a mostly black community in Ohio, situated in the hills above the mostly white, wealthier community of Medallion. The Bottom first became a community when a master gave it to his former slave. This "gift" was in fact a trick: the master gave the former slave a poor stretch of hilly land, convincing the slave the land was worthwhile by claiming that because it was hilly, it was closer to heaven. The trick, though, led to the growth of a vibrant community. Now the community faces a new threat; wealthy whites have taken a liking to the land, and would like to destroy much of the town in order to build a golf course.
Shadrack, a resident of the Bottom, fought in WWI. He returns a shattered man, unable to accept the complexities of the world; he lives on the outskirts of town, attempting to create order in his life. One of his methods involves compartmentalizing his fear of death in a ritual he invents and names National Suicide Day. The town is at first wary of him and his ritual, then, over time, unthinkingly accepts him.
Meanwhile, the families of the children Nel and Sula are contrasted. Nel is the product of a family that believes deeply in social conventions; hers is a stable home, though some might characterize it as rigid. Nel is uncertain of the conventional life her mother, Helene, wants for her; these doubts are hammered home when she meets Rochelle, her grandmother and a former prostitute, the only unconventional woman in her family line. Sula's family is very different: she lives with her grandmother, Eva, and her mother, Hannah, both of whom are seen by the town as eccentric and loose. Their house also serves as a home for three informally adopted boys and a steady stream of borders.
Despite their differences, Sula and Nel become fiercely attached to each other during adolescence. However, a traumatic accident changes everything. One day, Sula playfully swings a neighborhood boy, Chicken Little, around by his hands. When she loses her grip, the boy falls into a nearby river and drowns. They never tell anyone about the accident even though they did not intend to harm the boy. The two girls begin to grow apart. One day, in an accident, Sula's mother's dress catches fire and she dies of the burns.
After high school, Nel chooses to marry and settles into the conventional role of wife and mother. Sula follows a wildly divergent path and lives a life of fierce independence and total disregard for social conventions. Shortly after Nel's wedding, Sula leaves the Bottom for a period of 10 years. She has many affairs, some with white men. However, she finds people following the same boring routines elsewhere, so she returns to the Bottom and to Nel.
Upon her return, the town regards Sula as the very personification of evil for her blatant disregard of social conventions. Their hatred in part rests upon Sula's interracial relationships, but is crystallized when Sula has an affair with Nel's husband, Jude, who subsequently abandons Nel. Ironically, the community's labeling of Sula as evil actually improves their own lives. Her presence in the community gives them the impetus to live harmoniously with one another. Nel breaks off her friendship with Sula. Just before Sula dies in 1940, they achieve a half-hearted reconciliation. With Sula's death, the harmony that had reigned in the town quickly dissolves.
In 1965, with the Bottom facing the prospect of the white golf course, Nel visits Eva in the nursing home. Eva accuses her of sharing the guilt for Chicken Little's death. Her accusation forces Nel to confront the unfairness of her judgment against Sula. Nel admits to herself that she had blamed his death entirely on Sula and set herself up as the "good" half of the relationship. Nel comes to realize that in the aftermath of Chicken Little's death she had too quickly clung to social convention in an effort to define herself as "good." Nel goes to the cemetery and mourns at Sula's grave, calling out Sula's name in sadness.
Sula is a novel about ambiguity. It questions and examines the terms "good" and "evil," often demonstrating that the two often resemble one another. The novel addresses the confusing mysteries of human emotions and relationships, ultimately concluding that social conventions are inadequate as a foundation for living one's life. The novel tempts the reader to apply the diametrically opposed terms of "good and evil," "right and wrong" to the characters and their actions, and yet simultaneously shows why it is necessary to resist such temptation. While exploring the ways in which people try to make meaning of lives filled with conflicts over race, gender, and simple idiosyncratic points of views, Sula resists easy answers, demonstrating the ambiguity, beauty, and terror of life, in both its triumphs and horrors.