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Themes and Colors
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sula, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon

In Sula, Toni Morrison examines how the people in the Bottom, most of whom are poor, have been sick, or have lost loved ones prematurely, make sense of their own tragic lives and family histories. One of the most important ways that the people of Bottom cope with tragedy is by developing an identity for themselves, and creating an identity for their community.

The townspeople’s identity as a community is founded on tragedy. There is plenty of this to go around: the Bottom itself is founded on whites’ cynical swindling of African-Americans, and in 1917, dozens of black men in the community are sent off to fight in World War I—a dangerous job that requires these men to die defending their country, yet results in no new rights or respect for the African-Americans who manage to survive. One by one, each of the characters in the book feels a sense of profound helplessness: a sense that no matter how hard they try, they’ll always be ridiculed, treated as inferior, and forced to live in poverty and misery.

Surrounded by misery, the people of the Bottom come to accept a pessimistic outlook on life. The characters come to regard their own lives as painful, misshapen things—they couldn’t imagine living any other way. Paradoxically, acknowledging this fact creates a sense of peace and security—even if it’s impossible to make things better, at least it’s possible to accept things. After that, it’s possible to make light of one’s own tragedy: with music, dance, prayer, or humor. This is precisely the purpose of the annual ritual that Shadrack (a World War I veteran) begins. By accepting National Suicide Day, Shadrack, and later the other townspeople, accept their own fear, depression, and self-hatred— they can try to process it, and even make light of it, by partitioning it off into one day of the year.

Suffering and Community Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Suffering and Community Identity appears in each chapter of Sula. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Suffering and Community Identity Quotes in Sula

Below you will find the important quotes in Sula related to the theme of Suffering and Community Identity.
Prologue Quotes

Freedom was easy--the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn't want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, "Oh, no! See those hills? That's bottom land, rich and fertile." "But it's high up in the hills," said the slave. "High up from us," said the master, "but when God looks down, it's the bottom. That's why we call it so. It's the bottom of heaven—best land there is." So the slave pressed his master to try to get him some. He preferred it to the valley. And it was done. The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter.

Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Prologue, Morrison describes the Bottom, a black community in which the rest of the story takes place. There is a legend about how the area got its name: years before, when the slaves were first being freed, their white owners would promise them "Bottom land," which the slaves assumed meant the good, fertile land in the valley. Later, the slave masters would give their former slaves the arid, useless land high up in the hills--land that was supposedly close to the "bottom of Heaven." In other words, white people used linguistic tricks to force uneducated black people into an inferior position.

The passage is notable because it establishes the importance of names and language for the characters. Powerful characters in the book are shown to have a strong proficiency with language--often, they demonstrate their power by naming babies, or interpreting a complicated word or sign. Controlling language becomes particularly importance, the passage shows, because of the preeminence of racism in the community. White people want to keep black people subjugated, even after the slaves are freed--and controlling words is a way for them to do so. But, as Morrison shows, words are also a way for black people to fight back and affirm their dignity and creativity.


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There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real—that he didn't exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more. In his joy he took the risk of letting one edge of the blanket drop and glanced at his hands. They were still. Courteously still. Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the first sleep of his new life.

Related Characters: Shadrack
Page Number: 13-14
Explanation and Analysis:

Shadrack, a black veteran of World War One, sees his own face in a toilet bowl. He's been deeply disturbed by what he witnessed in the war, probably has PTSD because of it, and wishes he could forget about it altogether. Here, we see Shadrack coping with his own trauma. By gazing at his reflection, Shadrack finds a way to stabilize his anxieties--he keeps coming back to fact that he is Shadrack, and always will be. Notably, he also finds comfort and stability in his blackness. Unlike the racist society he lives in, in this passage Shadrack sees that there is nothing inherently inferior about blackness--in fact it is a color of calm, beauty, and power.

At the same time, of course, Shadrack isn't really looking at himself as he really is: he's looking at himself in a toilet. Shadrack is coming to accept a lesser version of himself, a version that's been tarnished and dirtied both by the savagery of war and the cruelty of U.S. racism. In order to maintain his sanity, he accepts his new "self," but in doing so he also accepts his status as a second-class citizen and an inferior human being. Shadrack's behavior in this passage is the first of many scenes of self-acceptance, in which a character will accept an inferior position in society out of weakness, fear, or sheer exhaustion.

Then Reverend Deal took it up, saying the same folks who had sense enough to avoid Shadrack's call were the ones who insisted on drinking themselves to death or womanizing themselves to death. "May's well go on with Shad and save the Lamb the trouble of redemption." Easily, quietly, Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio.

Related Characters: Reverend Deal (speaker), Shadrack
Related Symbols: National Suicide Day
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

When Shadrack returns to his town, he begins to celebrate a gruesome, made-up holiday called National Suicide Day. On this day, Shadrack walks through the streets, yelling about suicide for all to hear. Although the townspeople are at first shocked by Shadrack's calls for self-slaughter, they eventually begin to accept it, in a grudging, sarcastic way. Here, for example, we see a pillar of the community, the Reverend Deal, joking about how there are many in his community who do practice suicide--albeit the slow, painful suicide of alcoholism or other self-destructive behaviors.

It's crucial to notice that Reverend Deal, though he claims to be joking, is actually being perfectly serious. The townspeople want to dismiss Shadrack's actions as foolish and trivial, but their own lives are so miserable that they secretly sympathize with Shadrack's behavior. Over time, the townspeople will come to accept National Suicide Day as an ordinary part of their calendar--a brief but powerful reminder of the misery in their own lives (paralleling Shadrack's cynical acceptance of his reflection in the toilet bowl, discussed above).


Slowly each boy came out of whatever cocoon he was in at the time his mother or somebody gave him away, and accepted Eva's view, becoming in fact as well as in name a dewey—joining with the other two to become a trinity with a plural name... inseparable, loving nothing and no one but themselves. When the handle from the icebox fell off, all the deweys got whipped, and in dry-eyed silence watched their own feet as they turned their behinds high up into the air for the stroke.

Related Characters: Eva Peace , The deweys
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage—a good example of Morrison’s style of magical realism—we’re introduced to the deweys, a group of children. When they’re young, the children are all given the same name, Dewey. Over time, the name “Dewey” itself becomes a literal, powerful bond between the boys—they do everything together, simply because of their common name. Even when one of the Dewey children is punished, the other boys accept the punishment, too. Strangest of all, the deweys stop growing—after a certain point, they never get any bigger or taller. Morrison conveys the unity of the children by spelling their common name in the lowercase—“deweys,” not “Dewey.”

There are a couple of key points here. First, note that Morrison never presents the peculiar solidarity of the deweys as magical or supernatural, even though it seems to be—as in many works of “magical realism” (the literary style with which Morrison is often associated), supernatural events are presented as perfectly ordinary. Second, notice that the deweys lack any individual identity. Each dewey child is exactly the same—they’re even punished for the same crimes. Perhaps Morrison intends the deweys to be a symbol for the struggle for individualism in the black community. Persecuted by white America and brought up in poverty and misery, it’s easier for the deweys to be a group than for them to be individuals—they’re so frightened that they can't help losing their identities.


Four white boys in their early teens, sons of some newly arrived Irish people, occasionally entertained themselves in the afternoon by harassing black schoolchildren. With shoes that pinched and woolen knickers that made red rings on their calves, they had come to this valley with their parents believing as they did that it was a promised land—green and shimmering with welcome. What they found was a strange accent, a pervasive fear of their religion and firm resistance to their attempts to find work. […] In part their place in this world was secured only when they echoed the old residents' attitude toward blacks.

Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Morrison describes the way that the Irish community in the novel bullies the black community. As we’re told, there’s a small community of Irish people who live near the Bottom. The white, native-born American community denies the Irish employment, spits on them, and generally treats them like second-class citizens—in other words, treats them almost as badly as they treat black people. And yet instead of befriending blacks, the Irish bully them just as much—in fact, more—than white Americans do.

The tragic irony of the passage is that even though the Irish have a lot more in common with black people than they do with native-born white Americans, they try to ingratiate themselves with white Americans by persecuting blacks. In a broader sense, the tragedy of the passage is that while many minorities face similar struggles, it's often human nature to turn on one other rather than unite against a common oppressor. The white Irish are considered inferior to the white Americans, but they feel that they can at least maintain a decent place in the hierarchy of society by emphasizing their superiority to black Americans.

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.


"I built that road," he could say. How much better sundown would be than the end of a day in the restaurant, where a good day's work was marked by the number of dirty plates and the weight of the garbage bin. "I built that road." People would walk over his sweat for years. Perhaps a sledge hammer would come crashing down on his foot, and when people asked him how come he limped, he could say, "Got that building the New Road."

Related Characters: Jude Greene (speaker)
Related Symbols: The New River Road
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jude—the new husband of Nel Wright—fantasizes about his future. Jude’s greatest aspiration is to build a road—specifically, the New River Road that is to link the Bottom to the surrounding community. For Jude, getting work building the New River Road is more than just a job—it’s a way of giving meaning and dignity to his life. Jude plans to measure every stage of his life—his youth, his middle-age, and even his painful old age, in which he can barely walk—in relationship to the road and his work.

Unbeknownst to Jude, however, the New River Road is a sham—a lie, designed by the white establishment to inspire false hope in young, ambitious black people like Jude. Jude is ambitious, but he’s too eager to define success in the terms the white community gives him. Because of such a flaw in his personality, Jude is ultimately a tragic character—a strong young man who becomes more cynical and more hopeless with each passing year.


"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.


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.


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.


It dazzled them, at first, and they were suddenly quiet. Their hooded eyes swept over the place where their hope had lain since 1927. There was the promise: leaf-dead. The teeth unrepaired, the coal credit cut off, the chest pains unattended, the school shoes unbought, the rush-stuffed mattresses, the broken toilets, the leaning porches, the slurred remarks and the staggering childish malevolence of their employers. All there in blazing sunlit ice rapidly becoming water.

Related Symbols: The New River Road
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the people of the Bottom arrive at all that exists of the New River Road. For decades, black people in the area have thought of the New River Road with a deep optimism. The Road will connect their community to the rest of the world, and for some, like Jude, it will provide steady employment for years to come, and a sense of accomplishment at having built something lasting.

And yet all the people's optimism has been in vain. As everyone can now see, the Road was never meant to be completed--it was an elaborate scheme, designed to keep the black community poor and uneducated. Whenever the white establishment in the area chose to deny the Bottom money or resources (school funding, new roads, etc.), it could offer a simple excuse: the money is going to pay for the Road. It's clear, now, that the people with power in the area have been lying all along: the people of the Bottom have been suffering for years, for nothing.


Nobody colored lived much up in the Bottom any more. White people were building towers for television stations up there and there was a rumor about a golf course or something. Anyway, hill land was more valuable now, and those black people who had moved down right after the war and in the fifties couldn't afford to come back even if they wanted to. Except for the few blacks still huddled by the river bend, and some undemolished houses on Carpenter's Road, only rich white folks were building homes in the hills. Just like that, they had changed their minds and instead of keeping the valley floor to themselves, now they wanted a hilltop house with a river view and a ring of elms. The black people, for all their new look, seemed awfully anxious to get to the valley, or leave town, and abandon the hills to whoever was interested. It was sad, because the Bottom had been a real place.

Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the novel, we return to a larger historical view of the Bottom. Ironically, the Bottom--the high, dry land where a black community suffered but also thrived--has now become extremely desirable to white people, since it offers a beautiful view of the surrounding valley. So now, black people have been "bought out" of the Bottom, and forced to live near the river (which is precisely where their ancestors wanted to live 100 years ago, but were prevented from living).

In a sense, the black community has gotten exactly what it always wanted: land near the river. But of course, the land is no longer valuable--because the white establishment says it's not valuable. The passage is a surprising reminder that the only real power is the power of naming--being able to say which parts of the town are and aren't worth living in. Morrison also uses the passage to mourn the decline of the strong, close black community in the area. Even in the 20th century, when society becomes less segregated, the black community continues to suffer and be exploited by whites, and doesn't even have a close-knit community to fall back on. (Morrison isn't trying to say that life was better when black people were forced to live in the same place; she's trying to suggest that some supposed "progress" for the black community isn't really progress at all).

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.