Sula

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Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene Character Analysis

One of the two protagonists of Sula, Nel Wright is an orderly, proper young woman who tries to find peace in the face of jealousy and sexual danger. Like her mother, Helene Wright, Nel believes in the importance of virtue and following the rules. When, as a young child, she befriends Sula Peace, a girl who’s as wild and unpredictable as Nel is proper, Nel secretly fears and resents Sula’s vivaciousness, and even smiles when Sula accidentally kills a young child, Chicken Little. In spite of her love for rules, Nel is capable of great feats of empathy—for instance, she comes to understand Eva Peace when no one else in the Bottom will do so. In the end, however, Nel finds herself alone in the world—she gives up on Sula and Eva, and tries unsuccessfully to find a new husband. Only when it’s too late does she realize that she should have ignored her instinct to remarry, and instead stayed close with Sula, her oldest and best friend.

Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene Quotes in Sula

The Sula quotes below are all either spoken by Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene or refer to Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage International edition of Sula published in 2004.
1920 Quotes

He was a seaman (or rather a lakeman, for he was a ship's cook on one of the Great Lakes lines), in port only three days out of every sixteen. He took his bride to his home in Medallion and put her in a lovely house with a brick porch and real lace curtains at the window. His long absences were quite bearable for Helene Wright, especially when, after some nine years of marriage, her daughter was born. Her daughter was more comfort and purpose than she had ever hoped to find in this life.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene, Helene Sabat Wright, Wiley Wright
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we meet Helene Wright and her husband, Wiley Wright. Helene marries Wiley when she's still a young woman, despite (or really, becauseof) the fact that Wiley is a sailor, and spends all his time sailing around the Great Lakes. Helene seems not to want much contact with a man--perhaps because she's had so much experience as a child with male aggression and sexuality (she was born in a brothel), or perhaps because she just prefers to be alone and independent. So it suits her fine to marry a man who's never home.

It's worth asking why Helene bothers to marry anyone--if she's disgusted with men, why bother? In the unstable, racist society of the 1920s, Helene knows that she needs a man to support and protect her; she also wants the approval and attention of her peers. In general, though, the passage makes it clear that we're going to be reading a novel about women, first and foremost: the men in the novel (with one or two major exceptions) are largely peripheral to the plot.

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It was on that train, shuffling toward Cincinnati, that she resolved to be on guard—always. She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way. That no midnight eyes or marbled flesh would ever accost her and turn her into jelly.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene, Helene Sabat Wright
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we get our first insight into the mind of Nel Wright, the troubled daughter of Helene Wright. Nel is only a small child when Helene takes her to the American South to visit her childhood home in Louisiana. On the train, Nel watches as Helene is accosted by a white man, who bullies her. Helene tries her best to cooperate with the man, and smiles deferentially at him--but then she faces the clear contempt of the black men on the train.

Even as a young girl, Nel feels a strange mixture of pity and contempt for her mother—Nel swears to herself that she’ll never allow men to treat her that way; to make her feel submissive and helpless. The passage is also important because it establishes an antagonistic relationship between men and women, in and out of the black community. Furthermore, it suggests that coming of age—here represented by Nel’s promise to herself—consists of the moment in which one becomes conscious of sex and sexual politics.

1922 Quotes

He was smiling, a great smile, heavy with lust and time to come. He nodded his head as though answering a question, and said, in a pleasant conversational tone, a tone of cooled butter, "Always." Sula fled down the steps, and shot through the greenness and the baking sun back to Nel and the dark closed place in the water. There she collapsed in tears. Nel quieted her. "Sh, sh. Don't, don't. You didn't mean it. It ain't your fault. Sh. Sh. Come on, le's go, Sula. Come on, now. Was he there? Did he see? Where's the belt to your dress?"

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Shadrack (speaker), Sula Peace, Chicken Little
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial section, Sula crosses paths with Shadrack, the World War One veteran who now lives in a cabin and fishes all day long. Sula, along with her friend Nel, has just witnessed the death by drowning of a young boy named Chicken Little. Sula feels enormously guilty for what she’s done—she feels that she’s responsible for a child’s death. Sula staggers into Shadrack’s cabin, where she’s shocked to see Shadrack smiling knowingly. Although Sula doesn’t ask Shadrack for details, she’s surprised to hear him say, “Always”—a word that, in her mind, proves that he’s been watching her, and knows she was partly responsible for Chicken Little’s death.

This is one of the most important moments of the novel, and yet it’s impossible to understand fully—at least right now. The scene has a strange, elliptical quality—there’s even a sexual element, symbolized by Nel’s question, “Where’s the belt to your dress?” (Given what Morrison has let us know, it’s not difficult to imagine Shadrack attempting to sexually molest Sula.) For the time being, however, we should recognize that a single word—“Always”—changes Sula’s life. The word makes her believe that she’s always watched, and always guilty.

1927 Quotes

She was not only a little drunk, she was weary and had been for weeks. Her only child's wedding—the culmination of all she had been, thought or done in this world—had dragged from her energy and stamina even she did not know she possessed. Her house had to be thoroughly cleaned, chickens had to be plucked, cakes and pies made, and for weeks she, her friends and her daughter had been sewing. Now it was all happening and it took only a little cane juice to snap the cords of fatigue and damn the white curtains that she had pinned on the stretcher only the morning before.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene, Helene Sabat Wright
Page Number: 79-80
Explanation and Analysis:

Helene Wright presides over the wedding of her child, Nel Wright. Helene has spent her entire adult life immersing herself in the social life of a married, “classy” woman. She does all the right things—goes to church, hosts dinner parties, befriends her neighbors, etc. Now, Helene is about to experience the defining part of her life as a well-off wife: the wedding of her daughter. She spends a huge amount of time preparing for the wedding—she knows perfectly well how important it is, both for her daughter and for her “image” in the community.

And yet the description of the wedding is strangely bitter and melancholy. Helene’s entire life has been building up to this scene—and it's quite the anticlimax, despite Helene's cathartic drunkenness during the celebration itself. Morrison seems to be critiquing the stereotypes of domestic, female life, a life that's overly concerned with the material trappings of success and happiness, and yet neglects real happiness and real emotional connections. (Helene is never shown to be particularly close to Nel—she seems to love being perceived as a good mother more than she loves her own daughter.)

1937 Quotes

"But Jude," she would say, "you knew me. All those days and years, Jude, you knew me. My ways and my hands and how my stomach folded and how we tried to get Mickey to nurse and how about that time when the landlord said... but you said... and I cried, Jude. You knew me and had listened to the things I said in the night, and heard me in the bathroom and laughed at my raggedy girdle and I laughed too because I knew you too, Jude. So how could you leave me when you knew me?"

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Jude Greene
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Nel Wright discovers that Jude has been having an affair with her best friend, Sula. Jude has been married to Nel for many years—they have children together, and consider each other close friends as well as lovers. As the quotation makes clear, Nel interprets Jude’s decision to leave her as an attack on Nel's very identity. If Jude knows Nel so completely, how could he abandon her? Only if he has decided that Nel isn’t worth knowing. The passage is a good example of how Morrison’s female characters internalize their own mistreatment—in other words, instead of blaming Jude for being an adulterer, Nel concludes that she is the problem, and essentially blames herself for her husband’s misdeeds.

"The real hell of Hell is that it is forever." Sula said that. She said doing anything forever and ever was hell. Nel didn't understand it then, but now in the bathroom, trying to feel, she thought, "If I could be sure that I could stay here in this small white room with the dirty tile and water gurgling in the pipes and my head on the cool rim of this bathtub and never have to go out the door, I would be happy. If I could be certain that I never had to get up and flush the toilet, go in the kitchen, watch my children grow up and die, see my food chewed on my plate... Sula was wrong. Hell ain't things lasting forever. Hell is change."

Related Characters: Sula Peace (speaker), Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker)
Page Number: 107-108
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Morrison shows us the fundamental divide between her two female protagonists, Nel and Sula: Sula craves constant change, while Nel craves sameness and stability. By this point in the text, Sula has seduced Nel’s husband, Jude, resulting in Jude’s decision to walk away from Nel and break up their marriage.

Without fully explaining why Sula chooses to sleep with her best friend’s husband, Morrison suggests that Sula is more interested in the thrill of sudden change than she is in the constancy of friendship, let alone marriage. Sula’s desire for adventure and excitement seem to stem from the way she was raised—like her grandmother, Eva Peace, she’s comfortable when she’s “on the road,” in the process of doing many things at once. Nel, on the other hand, thinks of change as a kind of hell. Like her mother, Helene, Nel is afraid of the world’s inevitable changes—death, impoverishment, etc. She’s been raised to conceive of life as a constant process of decay. It’s partly for this reason that Nel chooses to marry Jude in the first place—Jude, a husband, represents some peace and relief from the world’s unpredictability. In a way, Nel and Sula represent two sides of femininity: unending life force and timid domesticity.

1940 Quotes

I know what every colored woman in this country is doing."
"What's that?"
"Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I'm going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world."
"Really? What have you got to show for it?"
"Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me."
"Lonely, ain't it?"
"Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely."

Related Characters: Sula Peace (speaker), Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Nel visits Sula, who is slowly dying of a mysterious disease, and Sula gives an interesting justification for her actions--for sleeping with Jude, traveling across the country, putting Eva in a home, etc. Sula explains that she's spent her adult life trying to fully "live in this world." In order to escape the fate of many black women (being silenced, oppressed, etc.), Sula has always aimed to be strong and independent.

Nel points out the obvious flaw in the way Sula has lived her life: it's lonely being strong and independent without anyone else. By choosing to travel the country and be free with her sexuality, Sula knows full-well that she's condemning herself to a life of loneliness (most people in her life will think of her as a "bitch"). But Sula places more value on freedom and independence than she does on community. Where Nel and Helene Wright think of community and connection as the highest good, Sula concludes that personal freedom and personal experience are the only things worth living for.

She was not breathing because she didn't have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead. Sula felt her face smiling. "Well, I'll be damned," she thought, "it didn't even hurt. Wait'll I tell Nel."

Related Characters: Sula Peace (speaker), Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this surreal passage, Sula seems to die and then briefly awake from death. Almost amusingly, Sula tells herself that she needs to talk to Nel as soon as possible--she can't wait to tell her old friend about what it feels like to die.

The passage is a good example of Morrison's magical realism (see quotes above for more details). But it's also a surprising reminder that in spite of her arguments with Nel, Sula has always considered Nel her best and closest friend--even after Sula slept with Nel, and Nel came to hate Sula. The passage, therefore, is poignant and tragic: it's the last sentence of the chapter, and afterwards, Sula and Nel never speak again (because Sula is dead). Morrison doesn't offer Nel and Sula the happy reunion they both seem to crave, but at the same time she reaffirms their constant connection, which lasts even unto death.

1965 Quotes

What did old Eva mean by “you watched?” How could she help seeing it? She was right there. But Eva didn't say, “see,” she said “watched.”
"I did not watch it. I just saw it." But it was there anyway, as it had always been, the old feeling and the old question. The good feeling she had had when Chicken's hands slipped. She hadn't wondered about that in years. "Why didn't I feel bad when it happened? How come it felt so good to see him fall?"

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Eva Peace (speaker), Sula Peace, Chicken Little
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Nel takes her leave of Eva Peace, now a bitter old woman. Eva tells Nel that she knows everything about Chicken Little's death--an event that happened years and years ago, when Nel and Sula were just children. Eva accuses Nel of watching as Sula's hands slipped and Chicken Little fell into the water.

Everything in the passage hinges on the difference between seeing and watching. Seeing is passive--we have eyes, so we can't help but see things around us. Watching is entirely different: to watch something is to choose to pay attention to it, and even be entertained by it, yet not act. As Eva suspects, Nel did not see Chicken Little's death; she watched it. Eva has always been a little afraid and a little jealous of Sula's sense of freedom and liberation--as a result, she got an unwilling thrill of satisfaction when she saw Sula make a mistake and drop Chicken Little into the water. For years, Nel has been denying the truth to herself: she was pleased to watch Chicken Little's death because she wanted Sula to fail.

"All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude." And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. "We was girls together," she said as though explaining something. "O Lord, Sula," she cried, "girl, girl, girlgirlgirl." It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Sula Peace, Jude Greene
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final sentences of the novel, Nel comes to realize that her greatest friend and companion in life was always Sula, not Jude. For years, Nel has been telling herself that Sula is her enemy--Sula slept with Jude, Nel's husband, and broke up Nel's marriage in the process. And yet in spite of everything, Nel has never had a friend who knew her as well as Sula did. Nel's realization matches Sula's final words in the novel, "Wait'll I tell Nel," suggesting that in spite of their arguments and rivalries, the two continue to love each other and be bound by something stronger than all their differences.

In no small part, Nel and Sula have been pushed apart by the racism, sexism, and intolerance of their society. Nel has been content to live a docile, domestic life--Sula, on the other hand, has refused to live so passively. As a result, Sula has spent most of her life being free and experimental with her sexuality--a lifestyle that Nel was always unable to understand.

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Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene Character Timeline in Sula

The timeline below shows where the character Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene appears in Sula. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1920
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After being married to Wiley for nine years, Helene gives birth to a daughter, Nel, whom she adores. Secretly, Helene is happy that Nel is a plain child—she doesn’t want... (full context)
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...of returning war veterans. Nevertheless, she decides to return to keep her grandmother company, bringing Nel with her. Helene doesn’t tell Wiley that she is going—she only leaves him a note... (full context)
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Helene and Nel board a train bound for New Orleans. When they board, they make a mistake by... (full context)
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The chapter shifts to Nel’s perspective. On the train to New Orleans, Nel witnesses her mother, Helene, fumbling with her... (full context)
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As Nel and Helene travel down to New Orleans, the conditions on the train get worse and... (full context)
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In New Orleans, Nel and Helene make their ways to Cecile’s house (until this moment, the narrator hadn’t made... (full context)
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Rochelle asks Helene if Nel is her only child, and compliments her for being pretty like Helene was. Rochelle speaks... (full context)
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Nel and Helene travel back to Medallion from New Orleans. When they return to their house,... (full context)
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The narrator says that Nel is about to meet Sula, a girl whom she sees in school but never plays... (full context)
1922
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It is 1922, and Sula and Nel are walking through the Bottom. They’re going to the local ice cream parlor, Edna Finch’s... (full context)
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The narrator jumps back to describe how Nel and Sula meet. They attend Garfield Primary School together. Both are lonely and quiet as... (full context)
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Sula and Nel become friends very suddenly when they are twelve, for reasons neither of them can describe.... (full context)
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...four Irish boys come to Garfield to tease the schoolchildren. Sula, who is standing near Nel, pulls a knife out of her coat and points it at the boys. Instead of... (full context)
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After scaring away the Irish boys, Sula becomes good friends with Nel. They are adventurous, and love to be distracted by new things—the smell of tar pouring... (full context)
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In the summer of 1922, Sula and Nel become conscious that there are “beautiful boys” all around them. They decide to find some... (full context)
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Nel and Sula walk toward the river. They play with twigs and grass and wait for... (full context)
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Nel and Sula look nervously at the water. They can’t imagine where Chicken Little could have... (full context)
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...can finish her question, however, Shadrack says, “Always.” Sula panics and runs outside, back to Nel. Nel tells her “it ain’t your fault,” and asks her where the belt on her... (full context)
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A funeral is held for Chicken Little. The choir sings hymns, and Nel and Sula, both in attendance at the funeral, can’t bear to look at each other.... (full context)
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Chicken Little is buried in the Bottom’s cemetery, next to his aunt and his grandfather. Nel and Sula watch his burial, holding hands. They sense that they’ll never be able to... (full context)
1927
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...to be drinking. Helene Wright, who now walks with a cane, drinks until she’s tipsy. Nel, her daughter, has just been married, and Helene has invested all her strength and intelligence... (full context)
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...succeed in getting work on the road, his ambitions compel him to get married to Nel. Jude imagines growing old with Nel—as he tells himself, “The two of them together would... (full context)
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...for their men. Now that he’s newly married, Jude believes this to be true of Nel—she’s very gentle, and submits to him at all times. Jude notes that when he was... (full context)
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...art of continuing to think like children, and so they still look like children. Meanwhile, Nel and Jude think about making love that night—they’re both ready to go. Nel looks into... (full context)
1937
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Sula reunites with Nel, and makes a point of stopping by to see her in the afternoons. Nel notes... (full context)
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Nel asks Sula to tell her about the last decade of her life—Sula hasn’t written or... (full context)
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Sula continues telling Nel about Eva’s family situation. After Plum and Hannah died, Eva collected large amounts of life... (full context)
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Before Sula and Nel can say anything more, Jude arrives—he’s home from work—and greets his young children. Jude looks... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The narrator reveals that Nel has caught Jude having sex with Sula one afternoon. When Nel catches them doing this,... (full context)
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Nel sits alone in her house, having just discovered that her husband was having an affair... (full context)
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In the coming months, Nel grieves for her husband’s sudden absence. Her children—two boys—ask her to sleep with them one... (full context)
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Nel tries to understand what she’s supposed to do with the rest of her life. In... (full context)
1939
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...responsible for sending her grandmother there. This information—along with the knowledge that Sula slept with Nel’s husband—makes Sula despised in the Bottom. People remember the plague of robins that accompanied Sula’s... (full context)
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...faith. Nevertheless, the people of the Bottom gossip about Sula’s evil—she betrayed her closest friend, Nel, ruining her life with lust. (full context)
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...New York, Philadelphia, Macon, and San Diego. She only returns to Medallion because she misses Nel—and because she becomes bored with travel. In the cities where she travels, she finds all... (full context)
1940
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The year is 1940, and Nel has heard that Sula is sick. She decides to visit Sula (who is still in... (full context)
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Nel thinks about how her life has changed in the last three years. To support herself... (full context)
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Nel stands outside Eva’s old bedroom, staring at Sula. She asks Sula—just as she’s rehearsed many... (full context)
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Without saying anything, Nel walks out the door to pick up Sula’s prescription. As soon as Nel leaves, Sula... (full context)
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Sula hears Nel coming back from the drug store. Nel enters Sula’s room and pours her medicine. Nel... (full context)
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Nel, still standing over Sula, angrily brings up Jude. Sula laughs and claims that she never... (full context)
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Nel steps outside Sula’s house. She walks through the neighborhood, noticing that nobody else seems to... (full context)
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...dead. Sula smiles—death “didn’t even hurt.” Her last words (or thoughts) are, “Wait’ll I tell Nel.” (full context)
1965
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...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... (full context)
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Nel thinks of Eva—still confined to a nursing home, thanks to Sula. Nel considers the facts:... (full context)
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Nel, now fifty-five years old, considers her life. Her three children are fully-grown now, and take... (full context)
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Nel finds that she can’t stop thinking about Eva, and decides to visit her in her... (full context)
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Inside Eva’s room, Nel finds Eva, looking very different from her former self. She seems to have shrunk, and... (full context)
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Nel tries to explain herself to Eva. She insists that it was Sula who killed Chicken... (full context)
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Outside the nursing home, Nel pictures Sula, swinging Chicken Little and then letting go of him. It occurs to her... (full context)
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Nel walks away from the nursing home toward a nearby cemetery. There, she finds the graves... (full context)
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Nel remembers the day of Sula’s death—she was found in Eva’s house, with her mouth wide... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Nel tears herself away from the Peace graves, and walks back to her home. As she... (full context)
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Nel continues walking, thinking about Shadrack. Suddenly, she stops at the edge of the forest near... (full context)