It has been ten years since Sula last saw Nel. Sula has just returned to Medallion, and for some reason, she’s accompanied by a “plague of robins.” Sula is dressed “like a movie star,” attracting the stares of the old men who sit on their porches and whistle at any woman who passes by. Sula walks to Eva’s house, and finds Eva sitting outside. Eva stares at Sula in more or less the same way she stared at BoyBoy the last time she saw him—with pure hatred.
The “plague of robins” is another perceived omen, and shows how the people of the Bottom interpret a seemingly natural phenomenon to mean that Sula is evil or somehow bad luck. Morrison also alludes to the Biblical plagues described in the Book of Exodus—as if Sula is bringing divinely ordained misery and sadness with her. Sula’s outsider status in the town is plain from the way Eva—the resident “namer” and representative of the Bottom’s culture—glares at her.
Eva peppers Sula with questions as soon as she sees her. Eva wants to know when Sula is going to settle down—when she’s going to get married. Sula replies that she has no interest in marriage—Eva finds this “selfish.” Sula quickly becomes annoyed with her grandmother, and repeats a rumor she heard long ago: Eva cut off her own leg under a train to collect the insurance money—Eva, Sula claims, has sold her life for “23 dollars a month.” Eva is furious with Sula for bringing this up. Sula hisses that she’ll soak Eva with kerosene and burn her to death one day. The narrator notes that in April, Eva would be carried away from her house in a stretcher (though he doesn’t explain why), and Sula would become the legal guardian of Eva’s children and grandchildren.
The first sign of a distance between Nel and Sula appears when Sula refuses to answer Nel’s questions right away. This is similar to the way that Plum refused to talk about his time after the war, and we fear that Sula has changed for the worst. Another sign of Sula’s changing loyalties comes when she sends Eva out of her own home. This seems to be unambiguously heartless: Sula is punishing Eva, seemingly for no reason. (We’d been expecting something closer to the other way around: Eva lashing out at Sula.)
In May (after Eva has been taken away), the “plague of robins” has flown away. Nel believes that things have gotten better in the Bottom because of Sula’s return after 10 years. Nel is still a great admirer of Sula’s: she thinks that Sula has to power to bring joy and humor to almost any situation. At this time, Nel has been married for a decade, and her love for Jude, her husband, has faded somewhat in that time. Yet whenever Sula visits Nel and Jude now, Nel’s love for Jude grows.
In spite of some tension, Nel and Sula seem to still be good friends, despite not talking for a decade. Again, we see a tension between heterosexual love and same-sex friendships (at least in the environment of the time and place, where women are encouraged to compete for men’s attentions). Here, the tension has reversed: Nel has become a little tired of her marriage, and now turns to her girl-friend for happiness.
Sula reunites with Nel, and makes a point of stopping by to see her in the afternoons. Nel notes that Sula’s birthmark has grown darker in the last decade. One afternoon, Sula visits Nel, and they laugh and reminisce about a boy who didn’t know how to have sex, and wound up ramming his crotch into a girl’s hip. Nel laughs heartily, as if for the first time in her life.
Sula’s birthmark is another ambiguous sign, like the plague of robins. In one sense, the birthmark may symbolize Sula’s growing maturity: as she accumulates more and more experiences, both good and bad, the mark gets darker and more “worn.”
Nel asks Sula to tell her about the last decade of her life—Sula hasn’t written or called at all in that time. Sula explains that she went to college, but Nel protests that Sula obviously wasn’t in college for ten years—all Nel knows is that Sula was in Nashville for some time (Nel had asked Eva, who gave a largely incoherent answer). Sula turns Nel’s questions back on her—she points out that Nel has changed a great deal in ten years. Sula also tells Nel that she’s arranged for Eva to be taken to a nursing home in Beechnut, Ohio, where she’ll supposedly be cared for. Nel is shocked. She reminds Sula that the women in the nursing home are insane—Eva may be strange, but she still has a working mind. Sula confesses the truth: she got rid of Eva because she was afraid. She explains that Eva burned Plum to death, and claims that she witnessed this. Nel isn’t sure what to think—Sula has never lied to her before.
Sula’s journey out of town is different from the other characters’ journeys: she went to educate herself. Morrison doesn’t linger on descriptions of Sula’s education. We should note that Sula was able to go to college because of Eva’s money, meaning that Eva has sacrificed her own happiness for her family’s betterment once again. (This makes it especially shocking that Sula sends Eva off to a home as soon as she’s back in town.) It’s unclear if Sula is lying about being present for Plum’s death—if she was there (Morrison does mention “some child” crying immediately after Plum’s death), or if she is simply repeating what her mother told her and is using it as justification for sending Eva away. Either way, her proclamation adds to the strange, supernatural, and sinister aura developing around Sula.
Sula continues telling Nel about Eva’s family situation. After Plum and Hannah died, Eva collected large amounts of life insurance, some of which paid for Sula’s college education. Sula and Nel agree to try to send money to Eva to ensure that she’s well taken care of in Beechnut.
We see where Eva gets her money: she’s collected insurance money, turning her misery and her family’s pain into cold, hard cash. It’s ironic that Eva, who’s cared for others with this money all her life, will now be the one the money provides for—even against her will.
Before Sula and Nel can say anything more, Jude arrives—he’s home from work—and greets his young children. Jude looks exactly the same as he did a decade ago, except that he now has a thin mustache. Jude greets Sula and tells her and Nel about his bad day—a whining customer argued with him. Nel is about to comfort Jude when Sula pipes up—she says that Jude has a perfectly good life, and shouldn’t be ungrateful for it. Everyone in the world envies a black man, Sula explains—even white men want to cut off black men’s genitals, and if that’s not respect, she concludes, she doesn’t know what is. At first Jude is irritated with Sula for interrupting Nel, and imagines that her birthmark looks like a snake. But then he begins to laugh at her humor, and starts to notice that Sula is an attractive woman.
There’s a dark side to Jude’s unchanging appearance. He’s still young and good-looking, but he also hasn’t matured or progressed in life: he’s still blindly hoping to find work in the New River Road, even though it seems likely that no work will ever come. We might compare Jude’s unchanging appearance with that of the deweys: the tragedy and lack of opportunity in the Bottom “freezes” these characters in their current states, symbolizing their tacit acceptance of the status quo. Jude’s interpretation of Sula’s birthmark as a snake is important as well: the snake first seems like something evil or ugly (as Jude is angry with Sula at the time), but it is also phallic sign that could represent Jude’s immediate attraction to Sula. On another level, snakes symbolize the temptations of sin (i.e. the snake in the Biblical Garden of Eden story), foreshadowing how Jude will soon “sin” by having an affair with Sula.
The narrator jumps ahead, saying “He left his tie.” As the passage begins, Nel is frantically trying to convince Jude to remain married to her. She reminds Jude that they’ve been married for ten years, and have raised children together (the narrator doesn’t mention their names). She demands to know how Jude could leave him when he’s known her so well for so long.
Morrison begins this section with another ambiguous sentence. We quickly come to see that Jude is leaving Nel, but we don’t understand why just yet. The irony here is that Jude, who’d seemed to be an unchanging character, is changed as soon as Sula comes into his life—seemingly right after their first conversation.
The narrator reveals that Nel has caught Jude having sex with Sula one afternoon. When Nel catches them doing this, she sees Jude pulling on his clothes, with his genitals hanging out for a split-second. Nel also sees that Sula and Jude seem completely comfortable with one another. Nel feels Jude looking at her—the same way the veterans looked at Helene years ago, on the train to New Orleans. Jude and Sula walk out, and Jude turns and tells Nel that he’ll be “back for his things” later.
In less than two paragraphs, Morrison establishes that Jude is attracted to Sula, and then shows Jude and Sula having an affair. Jude walks out on Nel, just as BoyBoy walked out on Eva years and years ago. (Note also that the manner in which Nel catches Sula and Jude mirrors the way that Sula saw Hannah having sex one afternoon, years before.)
Nel sits alone in her house, having just discovered that her husband was having an affair with her best friend. She goes to sit in her bathroom—the smallest and least comfortable room in her house. She remembers something Sula told her long ago—“The real hell of Hell is that it is forever.” Nel realizes that Sula is wrong—the real hell is constant change. One day, Nel thinks, she’ll be alone: life changes so quickly that she can never be completely happy.
Here Morrison makes explicit some of themes of change and constancy that she’s been alluding to lately. While most of the people in the Bottom have accepted that nothing will ever change in their lives, Sula seems to believe that change is possible, and that change has to be better than stagnancy. Even if Sula betrays Nel, she’s also rebelling against the status quo of sadness that has gripped the Bottom for years.
In the coming months, Nel grieves for her husband’s sudden absence. Her children—two boys—ask her to sleep with them one night, because they’ve been frightened by the movie they saw. Nel is glad to do this. She thinks about whom she can go to in order to talk about her sadness, and her mind jumps to Sula—then she corrects herself: Sula is the woman Jude left her for.
In her grief, Nel turns to her children for happiness, much as Eva turned to childrearing to fight off her own grief when BoyBoy left her. Nel instinctively still wants to be close with Sula, and has to remind herself that they should be enemies now. Nel gives up the friendship for the sake of her principles, and because of the idea that for a woman, a relationship with a man is the most important thing in life.
Nel tries to understand what she’s supposed to do with the rest of her life. In her time of need, she tries to turn to Jesus, but doing so doesn’t make her feel any better. She thinks that she would gladly spend the rest of her life in hard physical labor, if only it meant that she could find another man to be with.
Nel has been taught that her life is incomplete until she finds a man to settle down with—as we’ve seen, she’s been conscious of this fact at least since the age of twelve. She can’t shake off this way of thinking, despite any evidence to the contrary.