Sula

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The titular character of Sula, Sula Peace is a wild, resourceful woman, whose friendship with the tame and domestic Nel Wright changes in various complicated ways between the 1920s and the 1940s. From the time that she’s young, it’s clear that Sula is capable great acts of strength and bravery, and seems not to be frightened by even the most horrific sights (such as her mother, Hannah Peace, burning to death). Although Sula remains close friends with Nel for years, Sula begins to long for travel, and after Nel marries Jude Greene, Sula goes off to explore the country. Sula’s disappointment with the “sameness” of America eventually leads her to sleep with Jude Greene himself, ruining Nel’s marriage and the friendship between the two women. While the people of the Bottom tend to regard Sula simply as a “wicked woman,” Morrison makes it clear that there’s much more to her. Unloved by her family, Sula struggles to find an intimate connection with another human being, and refuses to embrace the self-loathing that the other people of the Bottom have come to celebrate. Though she arguably fails to do either of these things, it’s telling that her final words (spoken, indeed, after her death) are about Nel—the woman whom she betrayed, but still loved.

Sula Peace Quotes in Sula

The Sula quotes below are all either spoken by Sula Peace or refer to Sula Peace . 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.
1922 Quotes

Sula was a heavy brown with large quiet eyes, one of which featured a birthmark that spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose. It gave her otherwise plain face a broken excitement and blue-blade threat like the keloid scar of the razored man who sometimes played checkers with her grandmother. The birthmark was to grow darker as the years passed, but now it was the same shade as her gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain.

Related Characters: Sula Peace
Related Symbols: The Birthmark
Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we’re introduced to one of the most evocative symbols in the novel: Sula’s mysterious birthmark. As we’re told, Sula was born with a strange mark above her eye—a mark that gets darker over time, symbolizing Sula’s literal and emotional aging. The birthmark is shaped like a rose with a stem—a shape which, as many critics have pointed out, is both masculine and feminine (the stem could be interpreted as phallic, while the rose is traditionally feminine). In other words, Sula’s birthmark is a sign of her androgynous nature—she embodies both male and female characteristics, as we’ll see very soon. We should also notice that for the time being, the birthmark is pale, reflecting the fact that Sula is still young, and—more importantly—still innocent. As Sula grows older and more sinful, her mark will dark accordingly—it’s a kind of “benchmark” of her soul’s state. (For more on the birthmark, see Symbols.)

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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.

1937 Quotes

"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.

1939 Quotes

When the word got out about Eva being put in Sunnydale, the people in the Bottom shook their heads and said Sula was a roach. Later, when they saw how she took Jude, then ditched him for others, and heard how he bought a bus ticket to Detroit (where he bought but never mailed birthday cards to his sons), they forgot all about Hannah's easy ways (or their own) and said she was a bitch. Everybody remembered the plague of robins that announced her return, and the tale about her watching Hannah burn was stirred up again…

Related Characters: Sula Peace , Eva Peace , Hannah Peace , Jude Greene
Related Symbols: The Plague of Robins
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, as in other passages of the novel, the people of the Bottom become like a single, unitary character. Over the years, Sula acquires a reputation for being a “bitch” and an untrustworthy, devious woman. She sends Eva Peace, her own grandmother, into a nursing home, despite the fact that Eva has been a caretaker to hundreds of children. The townspeople also condemn Sula for sleeping with Jude, Nel’s husband.

Notice the sexism of the townspeople’s comments, however. They condemn Sula for “breaking up the marriage,” but seem not to dislike Jude for cheating on his wife. By the same token, the townspeople seem more interested in attacking women’s reputations than in consistency—they criticize Hannah for being "easy," then criticize Sula for watching her death. Perhaps most tellingly, the townspeople re-interpret an ambiguous sign (the "plague of robins") to rationalize their ideas about Sula. Where before the robins seemed innocent to many, they’re now retroactively made to foreshadow Sula’s wickedness. The point isn’t that Sula is a heroin and the townspeople are wicked; the point is that the townspeople, whether or not they’re right to condemn Sula, traffic in self-righteous stereotypes about women—sexism disguised as morality.

Their conviction of Sula's evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula.

Related Characters: Sula Peace
Related Symbols: The Plague of Robins
Page Number: 117-118
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage (an homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), we learn that Sula’s reputation for wickedness has a strangely positive influence on the Bottom. Because everyone in town thinks of Sula as a demon, they can’t force themselves to treat their own families and friends with animosity—on the contrary, they stop beating their children, love their significant others more deeply, etc. In short, Sula becomes a scapegoat for the Bottom—a “vessel” into which the townspeople pour all their hatred, instead of taking it out on each other. Sula doesn’t seem to deserve the full extent of the townspeople’s anger (see quote above), but because she receives so much anger, her overall effect on the Bottom seems to be positive.

Lovemaking seemed to her, at first, the creation of a special kind of joy. She thought she liked the sootiness of sex and its comedy; she laughed a great deal during the raucous beginnings, and rejected those lovers who regarded sex as healthy or beautiful. Sexual aesthetics bored her. Although she did not regard sex as ugly (ugliness was boring also), she liked to think of it as wicked. But as her experiences multiplied she realized that not only was it not wicked, it was not necessary for her to conjure up the idea of wickedness in order to participate fully.

Related Characters: Sula Peace
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Morrison tells us about Sula's attitude toward sex. By this point in the text, we know that Sula has had an affair with Jude, the husband of her best friend, Nel Wright. Sula's attitude toward sex is both serious and casual. At first, she regards sex as something wicked and sinful--and all the more enjoyable because it is wicked. But later on, Sula becomes more accustomed to sex. She finds that she can enjoy it on its own terms--that is, without thinking of it as being transgressive or forbidden.

Sula is, in other words, a sexually "liberated" woman. In contrast to the people of her community, she regards sex as a perfectly ordinary thing--enjoyable and yet not special. Morrison isn't trying to excuse Sula's decision to sleep with Jude, but she is trying to explain it. As we can see, Sula doesn't really regard her sexual experiences with Jude as a betrayal of her old friend, Nel--she's so used to thinking of sex as a banal experience that she forgets that Nel doesn't share her point of view.

She lay down again on the bed and sang a little wandering tune made up of the words I have sung all the songs all the songs I have sung all the songs there are until, touched by her own lullaby, she grew drowsy, and in the hollow of near-sleep she tasted the acridness of gold, felt the chill of alabaster and smelled the dark, sweet stench of loam.

Related Characters: Sula Peace , Ajax
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Sula has a strange sexual experience with Ajax, a handsome man whom she befriends after she's left the Bottom altogether. Sula makes love to Ajax and then falls asleep next to him. Unlike most of her sexual partners, Ajax inspires a feeling of levity and excitement in Sula--she imagines Ajax as a being made of gold and loam (rich, fertile soil).

It's important to note that the passage doesn't name Ajax at all--Sula thinks of Ajax as something more basic and elemental than a sexual partner; he's practically a force of nature. In fact, the passage is so abstract that it's difficult to tell what, exactly is going on. Sula seems to embody a feminine sense of youth and vitality, and yet the language of the passage also points to Sula as a penetrating, masculine presence--boring through Ajax (who is portrayed in the traditionally feminine terms of a passive, fertile soil) until she reaches his "dark, sweet" center. Morrison reminds us of Sula's androgynous nature (remember her birthmark). She also suggests that, contrary to what the sexist people of the Bottom believe, Sula is capable of feeling a deep romantic bond with her partners.

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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Sula Peace Character Timeline in Sula

The timeline below shows where the character Sula Peace appears in Sula. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...the Bottom were preoccupied with a man named Shadrack, and with a little girl named Sula. (full context)
1920
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The narrator says that Nel is about to meet Sula, a girl whom she sees in school but never plays with, because Sula’s parents are... (full context)
1921
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Sula Peace lives in a big house. It was “created” and ruled over by her grandmother,... (full context)
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In 1921, Eva’s granddaughter, Sula, is eleven years old. Eva has had three children. By this time, Eva has become... (full context)
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...full of small moments of unhappiness. Hannah married a man named Rekus who died when Sula, their child, was three. Strangely—considering how much Eva hated BoyBoy—all of Eva’s children loved men.... (full context)
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...never lets them spend the night with her—she only has sex during the day. Once, Sula, Hannah’s daughter, comes home from school to find her mother having sex with a man.... (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,... (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 children, and... (full context)
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Sula and Nel become friends very suddenly when they are twelve, for reasons neither of them... (full context)
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In 1922, 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... (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... (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... (full context)
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Nel and Sula walk toward the river. They play with twigs and grass and wait for boys to... (full context)
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Nel and Sula look nervously at the water. They can’t imagine where Chicken Little could have fallen. Frantic,... (full context)
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Shadrack has just entered his shack, where Sula is standing. He smiles, and Sula tries to ask him if he’s seen what just... (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. Nel can... (full context)
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...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 forget the... (full context)
1923
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In the summer of 1923, Sula is thirteen years old, and her birthmark is darkening. It is peach-picking season, and the... (full context)
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...to her. The red gown in Hannah’s dream symbolized fire, clearly. Finally, Eva remembers seeing Sula standing near Hannah’s burning body—“just looking.” When Eva tells her friends about Sula, they say... (full context)
1927
Race and Racism Theme Icon
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...that when he was wooing Nel, he was struck by how close she was with Sula. Nel and Sula acted as if they were one person, not two. In this way,... (full context)
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...into Jude’s eyes and smiles. Out of the corner of her eyes, she can see Sula walking away. The narrator notes that it will be ten years before Nel and Sula... (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... (full context)
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Eva peppers Sula with questions as soon as she sees her. Eva wants to know when Sula is... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Sula reunites with Nel, and makes a point of stopping by to see her in the... (full context)
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Nel asks Sula to tell her about the last decade of her life—Sula hasn’t written or called at... (full context)
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Sula continues telling Nel about Eva’s family situation. After Plum and Hannah died, Eva collected large... (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.... (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, she sees Jude pulling on his clothes,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
1939
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...gets out that Eva is being sent to a nursing home, and people learn that Sula is responsible for sending her grandmother there. This information—along with the knowledge that Sula slept... (full context)
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In the coming months, Sula begins to have regular “accidents” and misunderstandings. One day, a child named Teapot knocks on... (full context)
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Sula has other misunderstandings with the people in the Bottom. One day, an old man named... (full context)
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The townspeople come to believe that God has sent Sula to do evil in the Bottom. For the time being, they decide not to do... (full context)
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The narrator switches to describing Sula’s experiences during her ten years away from the Bottom (before returning and sleeping with Jude,... (full context)
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Sula then comes back to Medallion and immediately makes the acquaintance of Ajax, the same man... (full context)
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...because he dreams of working on an airplane one day. In the ten years of Sula’s absence, he had heard many stories about her, and how she was famously elusive and... (full context)
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Eventually, Sula does decide to sleep with Ajax. She’s been charmed by his gifts, but the real... (full context)
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Once, while Sula and Ajax are having sex, Sula imagines that Ajax is made out of gold. Beneath... (full context)
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One afternoon, Sula and Ajax meet, and Ajax mentions the disappearance of Tar Baby. Tar Baby has been... (full context)
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In Ajax’s absence, Sula tries to find more information about Ajax. She finds a copy of his driver’s license,... (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 her house) and offer... (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 times—if there’s anything she can do for her.... (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 exhales. She enjoyed sending Nel off to run... (full context)
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Sula hears Nel coming back from the drug store. Nel enters Sula’s room and pours her... (full context)
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Nel, still standing over Sula, angrily brings up Jude. Sula laughs and claims that she never really cared about Jude—she... (full context)
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Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
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Nel steps outside Sula’s house. She walks through the neighborhood, noticing that nobody else seems to be outside. Back... (full context)
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Sula wakes up and finds herself staring at the window—the same window out of which Eva... (full context)
1941
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News of Sula Peace’s death spreads across the Bottom quickly—in fact, it’s the best news the town has... (full context)
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Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
At the same time that Sula dies, it’s announced that the builders of the New River Road—a project that which has... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
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Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...with Teapot that she beats him—causing him just as much pain as he felt when Sula supposedly knocked him down the stairs. Many other mothers—who had previously defended their children from... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
...about the little girl whose belt he owns. The girl (whom we know to be Sula) had a “tadpole” in her eye (her birthmark). To comfort the young child, Shadrack said,... (full context)
1965
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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... (full context)
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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... (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 that Eva... (full context)
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...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... (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 open. When the neighborhood found... (full context)
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...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... (full context)