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 her help to her old friend. It’s been three years since Nel has seen Sula—she hasn’t been able to force herself to look at the woman who slept with her husband.
Sula’s affair with Jude has destroyed both her own friendship with Nel and Nel’s marriage to Jude—and these rifts have lasted for decades. We can’t help but wonder just what kind of purpose Nel has found in her life, in the absence of both Jude and Sula.
Nel thinks about how her life has changed in the last three years. To support herself and her children, she’s had to work as a maid, in addition to collecting the seaman’s pension her parents still live on. She’s thirty years old, and is taking care of herself. She’s even had time to be with her children, who are still in school.
Nel seems to have grown into the very image of her mother. Like Helene, she devotes herself to her children, and tries to fill her life with a sense of order and careful control.
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. Sula immediately replies that Nel can pick up her prescription from the drugstore. As Sula speaks, she can feel pain building up inside her—the painkillers she’s been taking for her illness just aren’t that effective.
The “lateness” of Nel’s scene with Sula is made clear right away. Nel has rehearsed her question many times already, and Sula seems to be past the point where medicine can do anything to save her life. The two women have been putting off this confrontation for a very long time now.
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 errands for her—especially because the drugstore is located exactly where the old ice cream parlor—where she and Nel used to go—once stood. Sula wonders why Nel came to see her, and wonders if Nel came to gloat at her pain. She remembers protecting Nel, years ago, from the Irish boys. Even though she hurt her own finger, Sula thinks, her actions earned Nel’s disgust, not her admiration.
Sula is no saint, even if she’s no demon, either. She seems to enjoy manipulating Nel into doing her bidding, and giving her painful reminders of their old friendship. But even in these cases, there’s an element of friendship in Sula’s behavior: she’s trying to bring Nel back to the place where they first became close with each other. Sula’s efforts seem to come too late, however, as by this point, she’s already decided that she and Nel are too different to be close again. Nel is obsessed with control and order, the very things Sula rejects.
Sula hears Nel coming back from the drug store. Nel enters Sula’s room and pours her medicine. Nel asks Sula what’s wrong with her. Sula says that there’s no point in talking about it. Nel suggests that Sula would be happier in a smaller place, where someone could take care of her. Sula laughs and says that Nel has forgotten what kind of person she is. Nel, getting frustrated with Sula’s arrogant manner, yells out that Sula isn’t a man—she’s can’t keep pretending that she’s independent. Sula tells Nel that at least she “sure did live in this world,” and “at least I got my mind.”
The differences between Sula and Nel become clearer in this scene. In a way, both friends have found their own ways to make peace with the world. Nel adopts a strategy of rigid control, while Sula continues searching for freedom and independence, even if doing so involves hurting other people. Sula refuses to embrace the self-hatred and pessimism that infects the rest of the Bottom. This pessimism is obvious when Nel berates Sula for acting like a man: in Nel’s mind, women have no business trying to be free or curious. Sula, however, has no patience for such a view.
Nel, still standing over Sula, angrily brings up Jude. Sula laughs and claims that she never really cared about Jude—she tried to never care about a man. Nel demands to know if Sula cared about her—if she knew how her actions would ruin her old friend’s life. Sula pauses, and then says, “I didn’t kill him, I just fucked him. If we were such good friends, how come you couldn’t get over it?” Sula adds that, although she’s hated in the Bottom for now, the people will come to love her one day. Nel, disgusted with Sula, turns to leave. She says, “I don’t reckon I’ll be back.”
Sula’s question, “If we were such good friends, how come you couldn’t get over it?” has a grain of truth in it. As we’re coming to see, Nel always resented Sula in some ways—in spite of their friendship, there were always big differences between the two women, differences which Sula’s affair made apparent, rather than caused. Sula also shows an awareness of her conflicted role in the community: she is hated, and yet this common hatred of her makes her crucial to the stability of the town.
Nel steps outside Sula’s house. She walks through the neighborhood, noticing that nobody else seems to be outside. Back in her room, Sula takes more medicine. She falls into a delirious sleep, during which she dreams about the Clabber Girl Baking Powder lady (the beautiful white mascot for the popular product). In her dream, the lady breaks up into a fine dust, which feels coarse and painful against Sula’s body.
We’re reminded of how heavily Sula’s personal insecurity is shaped by the racism of American society. Sula, like most American minorities, has been taught that whiteness is the only standard for beauty or success. Sula has tried to rebel against these directions, but doesn’t know what to put in their place. Unlike even the other people of the Bottom, she has no strong community to support her: she’s always tried to figure things out for herself, moving from one lover to the next. In the end, however, Sula’s aspirations to freedom and independence collapse into “dust.”
Sula wakes up and finds herself staring at the window—the same window out of which Eva jumped years ago. She then turns her head so that she can’t see the window. Suddenly, Sula realizes that she’s no longer breathing. Yet she doesn’t feel any need for oxygen—she’s dead. Sula smiles—death “didn’t even hurt.” Her last words (or thoughts) are, “Wait’ll I tell Nel.”
In a way, Sula has always “turned away from the window”—in other words, avoided commitments to other people, especially to her family. In one of the most overtly “magical realist” parts of the book, Sula speaks from beyond the grave. Morrison doesn’t describe this event as fantastical or even particularly unusual—and it’s especially telling that Sula still immediately thinks of Nel as her closest confidante, despite their years of separation.