The narrator begins, “Things were so much better in 1965. Or so it seemed.” Over time, black people in Medallion gain more wealth and power for themselves—they begin holding better-paying jobs with more responsibility. New roads and nursing homes are being built constantly, using black labor. Some of the young people in the community look like the deweys (who died in 1941 in the bridge collapse). Nel, who still lives in Medallion, thinks about all the “beautiful boys” around her in the 1920s. Now, forty years later, the beautiful boys are gone—everyone seems uglier to her.
Over time, the black community in the U.S. gains more rights and more money. But there’s still a persistent sense that nothing has really changed: blacks are still second-class citizens and looked down upon by the white establishment. This lack of change is here reflected in Nel herself—she’s still thinking about beautiful boys, just as she did forty years before. More money hasn’t made anything essential change, and in fact she misses the old days.
Nel thinks of Eva—still confined to a nursing home, thanks to Sula. Nel considers the facts: it’s true that Eva is mentally unstable, but it can’t be true that she needs to be turned over to the nurses.
Even as we come to the close of the novel, it’s just not clear why certain characters do certain things. We might want to think that Nel is going to see Eva out of sympathy and love, but we should also consider Nel’s need to control and rationalize everything: she might just be trying to make sense of the events of her life.
Nel, now fifty-five years old, considers her life. Her three children are fully-grown now, and take up little of her time. After Jude left her, she tried to remarry, but nobody would take her, since she had three children. Nel still loves her children, but she believes that her children increasingly ignore her.
Nel’s life is getting emptier and emptier—she’s losing all connection with her children, or at least believes that she is. It seems that she never gave up on the belief that she could only find true fulfillment with a husband.
The narrator notes that the Bottom has virtually disappeared. The black families that used to live there have used their new wealth to move closer to the valley, where they’re closer to the Ohio river. Ironically, the white families that, 100 years ago, believed the hills of the Bottom to be inferior to river land, have now changed their minds. Now whites live in the hills, looking down on the valley, and blacks live near the river: exactly the opposite of what used to be the case. This is sad, the narrator notes, because the blacks in Medallion have lost their sense of community in the Bottom.
Morrison shows the absurd arbitrariness of racial hierarchies in America, as the hills switch from being undesirable land to being highly desirable land—all because of the race of the people living there. In the process of all this, the black people not only have to switch locations, but they also lose their old sense of community. Morrison has been highly ambiguous about how much this “sense of community” is worth—is it a refuge from racism and pain, or is it a way for people to accept tragedy as inevitable, and so avoid having to change anything? Perhaps it’s both.
Nel finds that she can’t stop thinking about Eva, and decides to visit her in her old folk’s home in Beechnut. She arrives at the home one afternoon. The building itself is luxurious and beautiful, but Nel notices that the rooms inside are small, like cages. On the third floor, Nel finds a room marked, “Eva Peace,” and goes inside.
In the world of Sula, black women are essentially born in cages and die in cages. Although they try to go out and explore the world in between, they’re often returned to small, claustrophobic community spaces, where they don’t have the freedom to be themselves.
Inside Eva’s room, Nel finds Eva, looking very different from her former self. She seems to have shrunk, and her remaining leg is wrinkled and gray-colored. Nel introduces herself as Nel Greene—to Nel’s surprise, Eva correctly remembers Nel as “Wiley Wright’s girl,” and then demands, “Tell me how you killed that little boy.” Nel is shocked—Eva wants to know about Chicken Little, the little boy who drowned years ago.
Morrison has essentially told the story of Sula as a series of ambiguous, tragic events—Plum’s death, Chicken Little’s death, Hannah’s death, Sula’s betrayal of Nel—and then has shown how these events continue to resonate through people’s lives for years. Chicken Little’s death hasn’t come up in a long time, but it’s clearly been on the characters’ minds for years.
Nel tries to explain herself to Eva. She insists that it was Sula who killed Chicken Little, not her. Eva laughs and says, “What’s the difference? You was there.” Eva tells Nel that she’s been talking to Plum, who tells her things about the living and dead. Disturbed, Nel walks out of the room, ignoring Eva’s calls.
Nel, trying to preserve her own sense of self-righteousness, instinctively blames Sula for Chicken Little’s death. Morrison doesn’t bother to correct or verify Eva’s statement about Plum speaking to her from the grave—it’s just one of those vaguely fantastical elements of the novel that could hypothetically be explained, or could truly be something supernatural.
Outside the nursing home, Nel pictures Sula, swinging Chicken Little and then letting go of him. It occurs to her that Eva has a point: Nel was watching when Chicken Little fell. Furthermore, Nel remembers feeling a “good feeling” when Sula’s hands slipped. For years, Nel had been proud of her calm, controlled behavior—as a result, she was secretly happy whenever Sula’s wildness and energy got her in trouble. As Chicken Little’s body fell into the river, Nel felt joy, she remembers: the joy of knowing that she—Nel—was good, and Sula was wicked.
Nel herself only now seems to realize the true source of what she’s been feeling guilty about for all these years. In the moment when Sula dropped Chicken Little to his death, Nel felt happy—happy that Sula had made a mistake, thereby proving that she, Nel, was the “good” one in their friendship. Nel has always felt distanced from Sula, and now we come to understand the truth: she ended her friendship with Sula not only because of Sula’s affair with Jude, but also because there was always that element of competition and jealousy in the women’s relationship, and Nel never truly felt comfortable with it.
Nel walks away from the nursing home toward a nearby cemetery. There, she finds the graves of the Peace family. As Nel scans the names of the people she’s known for her entire life, she feels that she’s not looking at dead people, but only words. For years, Nel had believed that she, and she alone, understood Eva—even understood why Eva refused to attend Sula’s funeral. Nel believed that Eva had refused because she couldn’t bear to watch “the swallowing of her own flesh.” Now, Nel believes what everyone has always said about Eva: that she’s a mean, spiteful old woman.
At the close of the novel, Nel changes her view of Eva, in what seems to be yet another tragic misunderstanding of a complex, ambiguous character. Nel seems to be casting Eva as a villain because she can’t stand to face her accusations about Nel’s complicity in Chicken Little’s death, but as usual there is an inexplicable element to Nel’s pessimistic conclusion. It seems more likely that Eva’s fear of watching “the swallowing of her own flesh” was more of the reason for why she killed Plum than for why she didn’t attend Sula’s funeral. It’s assumed that Nel and Eva will never meet again, and so Nel will never reach a better level of understanding for the old woman.
Nel remembers the day of Sula’s death—she was found in Eva’s house, with her mouth wide open. When the neighborhood found out about Sula’s death, some people cheered and danced. It was Nel who called the doctors to take Sula away—no one else could be bothered. Then, at the funeral, Nel was the only black person present. The only other people there—the gravediggers—were white.
Nel seemingly never forgave or reconciled with Sula before her death, but their strong bond was also never broken—Nel was the only one to arrange the details of Sula’s funeral and go to it. Nel now fears dying alone and unmourned just as Sula was.
Nel tears herself away from the Peace graves, and walks back to her home. As she walks in the road, she passes by Shadrack, who is still dirty and scruffy. As Nel passes Shadrack, Shadrack has the strange sense of having seen Nel before. But “the act of recollection was too much for him and he moved on.”
We see how far apart Nel and the rest of her community have grown, as Shadrack remembered Sula when he saw her body, but this isn’t the case with Nel. Morrison leaves us with yet another poignant image of misunderstanding and lost connection here.
Nel continues walking, thinking about Shadrack. Suddenly, she stops at the edge of the forest near the cemetery. Staring up at the trees, she whispers, “Sula?” Nel then admits the truth: for years she’s believed that she misses Jude, but in reality, she’s been missing Sula, her oldest, best friend. Nel cries Sula’s name again and again. The book ends, “It was a fine cry, loud and long, but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
The tragedy of Nel’s life is that she’s been taught that she needs to find a husband—that she can only be happy if she finds a man and has children. And yet the search for a husband hasn’t brought her any happiness, and has only left her feeling frustrated and purposeless. The only relationship that seemed to bring Nel real happiness—her friendship with Sula—is gone now, thanks to years of betrayal and jealousy. This final scene, however, is a kind of reconciliation for the two—as Sula died thinking of Nel, and Nel finally seems to forgive Sula—but only of the most tenuous and unsatisfying kind. There is no “moral” or “happy ending” to Morrison’s plot, just an account of various tragedies, relationships, and misunderstandings—events circling outward and never truly resolving.