Sula Sula “Sula” by Tony Morrison is the story of a friendship between Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who are opposites in the way of relating to other people, to the world around them, and to themselves. Nel is rational and balanced; she gets married and gives in to conformity and the town’s expectations. Sula is an irrational and transient character. She follows her immediate passions, completely unaware of the feelings other people might have. However, Nel and Sula are able to function well only when they are together because they complete each other as opposites.

However, as separate entities, Sula and Nel are vulnerable and isolated from the rest of world; Sula because she is impulsive and disregards the feelings of other people, and Nel because she overlooks her own. The personalities of Nel and Sula form as a result of their childhood family atmosphere. Sula’s unusual exorbitance results from an eccentric upbringing that openly accepts and welcomes transience. The narrator describes Sula’s house as a “throbbing disorder constantly awry with things, people, voices and the slamming of doors . .

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.” (52), which suggests a family accustomed to spontaneous disruptions and fleeting alliances. Sula decides that “sex is pleasant and frequent, but otherwise insignificant.” (44) Sula grows up in the atmosphere of an emotional separation between mothers and daughters in her family. The mothers provide only the physical maternal support but lack in the emotional attachment to their children. Sula overhears her mother, Hannah, say, “I love her [Sula]. I just don’t like her, that’s the thing.” (57) Hannah’s words act as a determiner of Sula’s defiance.

Hannah and Eva, her mother, are also alienated. “Under Eva’s distant eye, and prey to her idiosyncrasies, her own children grew up steadily.” (41) This dissatisfaction causes Hannah to ask Eva, “Did you ever love us?” (67) “I know you fed us and all. I was talking ’bout something else. Did you ever, you know play with us?” (68) Eva leaps out of the window to “cover her daughter’s body with her own” (75) to save her from a fire; she raises her children single-handedly and even sacrifices her leg to get an insurance because she does not have enough money to feed her children. Proud of keeping her children alive through the roughest times, Eva does not realize that she needs to be more than a physical caretaker.

An unrestricted household such as the Peace family, with little emotional attachment and moral responsibilities, causes Sula to become impetuous and independent. Nel’s household, however, is very conformist and proper, but also lacks in emotional attachments. Nel’s parents marry out of convenience, rather than love. For Nel’s mother, the absences of her husband, a sailor were “quite bearable.” Nel is raised in an atmosphere of “oppressive neatness” (29), a strict and organized household that instills society’s rules in her. Nel’s mother constantly attempts to destroy Nel’s spirit and imagination. “Under Helene’s [Nel’s mother’s] hand the girl became obedient and polite. Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.” (18) “Don’t just sit there, honey, you could be pulling your nose” (28) This emotional vacuum compels the girls to seek their missing components in each other’s company. During their friendship, Sula and Nel do not have the feeling of detachment they acquire after their parting.

In their friendship as girls, they “had clung to [each other] as the closest thing to both an other and a self” (119). They have an interest and curiosity in life and they are absorbed by everything they do. Together they can relate to other people better when they are together. “Humor returned. Nel’s love for Jude, which over the years had spun a steady gray web around her heart, became a bright and easy affection.” (95) When they are together, their characters balance out to make a complete, fulfilled, and self-contained person, a duet (97).

To Nel, Sula’s return to Medallion is like “getting the use of an eye back, getting a cataract removed” (95). Sula’s thoughtlessness, irrationality, and transience are rounded out by Nel’s sobriety, solicitude, and commitment to people and things. “[Sula and Nel] found relief in each other’s personality. Nel seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted on sustaining any emotion for more than three minutes.” (53) Their friendship was based on sharing, not dividing, as they “shared the affection of other people”. However, when Sula leaves Medallion and Nel gets married, their separation causes each to become vulnerable and lonely. Sula is alienated from other people, and does not view their feelings to be as real as her desires.

She sleeps with Jude, Nel’s husband, and leaves him soon afterward for another man. Even on her deathbed she refuses to recognize that she hurt Nel. Nel says to Sula, “What did you take [Jude] for if you didn’t love him and why didn’t you think of me?” (144) Sula “puts [Eva] out” (99) into an asylum, completely insensitive to Eva’s condition there or the town’s opinion. Sula and Nel both suffer a loss of an anchor without each other. After her marriage, Nel becomes a conventional, settled down woman.

Her life when Sula is gone is much like her life in the “oppressive neatness” (29) of her mother’s house. She loses her true unique self after Sula is gone. She realizes this when Sula comes back to Medallion. “Nel felt new, soft and new. It had been the longest time since she had had a rib-scraping laugh.

She had forgotten how deep down it could be. So different from the miscellaneous giggles she learned to be content with these past few years.” (98) Jude leaves Nel after meeting Sula because he is tired of the monotony of life with Nel, while Sula is something new and fresh to him. Jude thinks about Sula that she “had an odd way of looking at things, aˆ¦ [had a] wide smile. A funny woman, he thought, not that bad-looking.” (104) Without Sula, Nel becomes extremely dependent on Jude, and when he leaves her, she devotes the rest of her life to melancholy and virtue, “her only mooring.” This loneliness is “somebody else’s lonely. Made by somebody else and handed to [Nel].” (144) Without Sula, Nel needs to adhere to another people, she does not have desires and motives of her own.

Nel is Sula’s connection to other people, while Sula is Nel’s connection to herself. Neither has a firm footing without the other. Without Nel, Sula becomes alienated from other people by acting extremely eccentric, and Nel looses her individuality and does what is expected of her without Sula. “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male they had set out about creating something else to be.” (52) In “Sula,” Toni Morrison dwells on the dream of a new, strong, African American woman. She challenges conformity and traditional rules of society.

If old restrictions are never defied, new and better rules would never come. In this book, this image is contained in Sula and Nel together; each of them is a part of the image. By splitting the qualities of a whole and complete personality into two, Toni Morrison stresses how necessary both components are to the image of the new, strong African American woman.


Many works of contemporary American fiction involve one individual’s search for identity in a stifling and unsympathetic world. In “Sula,” Toni Morrison gives us two such individuals. In Nel and Sula, Morrison creates two individual female characters that at first are separate, grows together, and then is separated once more. Although never physically reconciled, Nel’s self discovery at the end of the novel permits the achievement of an almost impossible quest – the conjunction of two selves.
Morrison says she created Sula as “a woman who could be used as a classic type of evil force” and that she “wanted Nel to be a warm, conventional woman.” She says “there was a little bit of both in each of these women… if they had been one woman… they would have been a rather marvelous person. But each one lacked something the other had.” Morrison, thus, creates two completely different women yet allows them to merge into one. The sustainment of the two selves as one proves difficult and Morrison allows them to pursue different paths. But the two women’s separate journeys and individual searches for their own selves leads to nothing but despair and Sula’s death. Nel’s realization that they were only truly individuals when they were joined as one allows them to merge once again.
Morrison portrays Sula and Nel as binary opposites at the beginning of the novel. In our first view of Nel she is as conventional and conforming as a young lady can be: Under Helene’s hand the girl became obedient and polite. Her mother calmed any enthusiasms that Nel showed until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground. (p.18) In this passage Nel is merely an extension of her mother with no autonomy of her own. Helene’s hand is the iron fist of authority from under which Nel cannot release herself. Morrison makes it clear here that Nel is a calm and unimaginative girl who conforms completely to her mother’s strict orders. Sula, on the other hand, comes from a totally different background. She is her own person as she has “none of her mother’s slackness” (p.29) and, unlike the “oppressive neatness”(p.29) of Nel’s house, lives in a woolly house, where a pot of something was always cooking on the stove; where the mother, Hannah, never scolded or gave directions; where all sorts of people dropped in; where newspapers were stacked in the hallway, and dirty dishes left for hours at a time in the sink, and where a one-legged grandmother named Eva handed you goobers from deep inside her pockets or read you a dream. (p.29)
Where Nel is confined, Sula is free. Where Nel has been raised to be an extension of her mother, Sula has surprisingly few ties to hers. Nel’s imagination has been so restricted that the messiness of Sula’s house along with its strange inhabitants and many visitors must seem like an absolute dream world. Similarly, the tidiness of Nel’s house compared with the disorderliness of her own allows Sula to “sit still as dawn.” (p.29) Morrison makes it clear in these instances that “each one lacked something the other had.” That “something” is neither small nor insignificant. It is the fundamental make-up of each girl’s character. Morrison deliberately portrays Nel and Sula in this manner to illustrate emphatically how entirely different they originally are. They are so different, in fact, that they are two facets of the same being – Nel conventional and orderly; and Sula unconventional and unsettled. The comfort each feels in the other’s home demonstrates their initial and subconscious desire to merge into one being. Morrison intimates, in these instances, that the two facets cannot thrive individually and hints that they will soon become one. This merger takes place most dramatically with Sula’s accidental murder of Chicken Little. Looking back on this incident Nel recalls that: All these years she had been secretly proud of her calm, controlled behavior when Sula was uncontrollable, her compassion for Sula’s frightened and shamed eyes. Now it seemed that what she had thought was maturity, serenity and compassion was only the tranquillity that follows a joyful stimulation. Just as the water closed peacefully over the turbulence of Chicken Little’s body, so had contentment washed over her enjoyment. (p.170) This passage reveals that the original binary opposite characters a… no longer very different. During this incident Nel, the former calm and orderly girl, has as little control over her emotions as Sula usually has. And it is Sula, the supposed “type of evil force” and figure of disorderliness, who has the presence of mind to run after Shadrack. Nel realizes that “maturity, serenity, and compassion,” all qualities forced upon her by her mother, were not the emotions she felt at that moment at all. Nel was as wild and excited as Sula was. The water closing over Chicken Little’s body represents the subtle merging of Nel and Sula. The turbulence each girl felt in their lives as opposite individuals is washed over peacefully by the contentment of being one. Nel’s conscience here reveals the guilt she feels over this incident years later. Just because she did not throw Chicken Little into the river does not mean she is not at fault because, as Eva points out, “You watched.” The lines of good and evil merge here as both girls are at fault for the accident. As the lines of good and evil merge, so do the individual selves of Sula and Nel. After this incident, Nel, in the presence of Sula, can now affirm the individuality her mother had tried to suppress. And Nel, to Sula, becomes the “closest thing to both an other and a self.” (p.119) They each grow so alike that they have “difficulty distinguishing one’s thought from the other’s.” (p.83) For Nel, “talking to Sula had always been like having a conversation with herself.” (p.95)
This close-knit relationship breaks down, however, when Nel elects to recreate a similar relationship with a man instead of maintaining this one with Sula. Instead of Nel and Sula being joined to create one person, Nel and Jude “together would make one Jude.” (p.83) Both Nel and Sula’s conjoined personalities return to what they once were – individual. Both individual personalities, thus, become more assertive because Nel felt she needed to be “needed by someone who saw her singly.” (p.84) After the separation, Nel becomes sexually repressed, her life becomes drab, and she struggles harder to be the conventional woman she once was as a child. Nel “settles for a safe, unimaginative life and thrives on community approval, the prize she wins through unremitting efforts to win respectability.” On the other hand, Sula becomes unsettled, disordered, and adventurous when Nel’s imposition of orderliness and restraint is no longer apparent. Without Nel, Morrison makes clear, Sula no longer has a complete self: She was completely free of ambition, with no affection for money, property or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments – no ego. For that reason she felt no compulsion to verify herself – be consistent with herself. (p.119) Sula then has frequent sex, becomes a pariah, and craves “for the other half of her equation.” (p.121) Without each other, both women are incomplete souls. Morrison demonstrates through these relationships with men that sexual relationships destroy the combined relationship of Nel and Sula and fragments their individual identity where friendship creates a whole person out of the two parts. Nel and Sula lose their common identity when men come along and their closeness can only be revived if they can recover their common identity.
Nel and Sula gain a bond which no married couple can ever achieve in this novel – one that creates one person out of two individual selves. The loss of this bond leaves each woman completely fragmented and leads to SulaOs death. NelOs recognizes this fact at the end of the novel: “All the time, all the 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.” (p.174)
Nel and Sula were not just girls together at the same time; they were girls together as one. Nel explains this to herself in this passage because it is what she never understood before. Nel misses the oneness she felt with Sula, not the relationship she never could recreate with Jude. Nel’s recognition of this lost bond reunites the two women on a spiritual level and reconciles their lost self. The repetition and conjunction of the word “girl” allows Nel and Sula to become what they once were – one girl.


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