Sula Summary and Analysis

1922

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Summary

Sula and Nel become close and fast friends. They spend ample time together daydreaming and going on adventures. Both girls experience a curiosity about men at the same time. While walking down Carpenter’s road to Edna Finch’s Mellow house for ice cream the girls enjoy the interested stares of men. They are especially pleased when Ajax shouts “pig skin” after them one day.

In addition to bonding over a curiosity about men and sex, the girls are also joined by common issues with parents and a sense that they will be denied things since they are neither male nor white. They defend each other when four white boys, the sons of Irish immigrants, begin to bully Black people in the Bottom. When Nel becomes the victim of their bullying, she and Sula begin to take a longer route home in order to avoid them. The girls avoid them successfully until one day Sula decides that they will take the short route. Hesitantly, Nel agrees. When the bullies confront the girls, Sula scares them away by cutting her own finger and threatening to cut them as well. Frightened by her boldness, the boys run away without bothering them.

One afternoon, Sula overhears her mother discussing motherhood with some local friends. She is pained to hear Hannah say that the loves Sula but does not like her. However, Nel’s beckoning calls from downstairs distract Sula from her sadness. That afternoon Sula and Nel go out to play by the river. They are lost in play when a young boy named Chicken interrupts them. Nel begins to tease Chicken, but Sula defends him and offers to teach him to climb a tree. After climbing the tree, Sula playfully spins Chicken around in a circle by his hand. He accidentally slips out of her hands and into the water, where he drowns.

Panicked, Sula goes to Shadrack’s nearby shack for help. She finds the shack empty, but is shocked by the peace and order of the house. She is so engrossed in the neatness of his home that Sula does not hear Shadrack enter behind her. When he arrives, she begins to retreat, but not before Shadrack can say “Always” to Sula though she asks nothing of him. Tearful, Nel and Sula leave the place where Chicken drowned. Sula is unable to find her belt before they leave.

Later that day a white bargeman finds Chicken’s dead body. The bargeman is disgusted, assuming that his own parents killed the child. He mutters some judgments about black people. Because the body is that of a child, he decides not to leave him in the water but instead puts him in a sack. He reports what he finds to a sheriff in Porter’s landing but when the sheriff says that the body must be taken to Medallion they both consider placing the body back into the water instead of making the long trip.

However, a ferryman agrees to return the body to Medallion. When Chicken’s body is returned, he is unrecognizable. His own mother is struck mute by his gruesome appearance for seven hours. His body is embalmed and a funeral is held.

After Chicken’s death, there is a silence between Nel and Sula. Nel is fearful that the Reverend or Sheriff knows what happened and expects them to convict her. Sula cries throughout the entire service. At Chicken’s burial, the silence between the girls is broken and they find some peace as they walk out of the cemetery hand in hand.

Analysis

Sula and Nel become fast friends. They complete each other, playing together, daydreaming together, and going on adventures. There is a tone of predestination embedded in their friendship. The two girls apparently meet while daydreaming, both about mysterious lovers. In a sense, they knew each other before they ever encountered each other. Around Sula, Nel feels more secure and is less affected by her mother’s criticisms.

The two girls begin to assume roles in their friendship. Nel considers herself more controlled and calm. She views Sula as the spontaneous and irrational one. This characterization is reinforced when Sula cuts her own finger to ward of a group of white bullies that arrives in the neighborhood. Nel again feels her moral superiority after she watches Chicken Little be thrown into the water. She does not yet recognize her complicity in the murder.

Just before Chicken’s death, the two girls play an interesting game by the river. This game can be interpreted to symbolize their loss of innocence and entrée into womanhood. While playing the two girls dig a hole and begin to fill it with twigs and sticks. The scene is sexually charged and the whole can be interpreted as a symbol of sexuality. Still in innocence, their latent sexuality is always already confused by the preconceptions and standards established by society. As a symbol of sexuality, this scene also predicts the later antagonism between Sula and Nel which results from a sexual act that Nel considers betrayal. When filling the hole the girls play alone, not together. The sexual symbol is the one thing that can divide them.

Ironically, Sula attempts to protect Chicken Little from Nel’s teasing just before he falls to his death. She offers to teach him how to climb a tree. In fact, he falls from her hands while she is playing with him. When the girls realize that Chicken will not re-emerge from the water, Sula is distraught. Nel tells Sula that they should just go home, nobody saw Chicken fall. Afterwards, Nel views her reaction to Chicken’s death only as proof of the controlled calm she believes Sula does not possess. Not until much later does she realize the role she played in the tragedy.

Just after Chicken’s death, Sula runs to Shadrack’s hut to seek help. As she is leaving, he whispers one word to her, “always.” The word “Always” is meant to give Sula a sense of permanence. Shadrack perceives that she is sad because things have changed and to appease her he offers her this word, this promise. Sula leaves as soon as she hears it, wondering what unasked question Shadrack is answering for her. Ironically, Sula’s idea of “always” has already fallen away. In fact, Chicken Little will never again live, and her childhood innocence will not be restored.