Sula

Sula Summary and Analysis of 1939

Summary

The townspeople begin to gossip nastily about Sula when they discover that she sent Eva to a nursing home and slept with her best friend’s husband. She is called mean names and the rumor about her watching her mother burn to death resurfaces. The men in the neighborhood accuse Sula of sleeping with white men, which is considered one of the nastiest insults. Blacks living in the Bottom thought any intimacy between a black woman and a white man was an instance of rape and were therefore just as against integration as their White neighbors.

After her affair with Jude, Sula moves on to other partners. Discarded, Jude buys a bus ticket to Detroit and becomes an absent father. Seeming disinterested in the gossip and unfriendliness of her neighbors, Sula carries on her life of independence. One day a 5-year-old boy named Teapot, the son of a drunken woman named Betty, knocks on Sula’s door asking for bottles. She tells him that she has none but as the boy goes to leave, he trips down her steps. Trying to help the fallen child, Sula bends over him. When Betty passes by and sees Sula leaning over her child, she assumes that Sula pushed Teapot down the steps. Concerned for the first time about the welfare of her son, Betty takes Teapot to the hospital and discovers that he has acquired a fracture from the fall. Afterwards Betty begins a life of sobriety and responsibility and the townspeople look on Sula with increased scorn.

Sula is indirectly involved in another person’s harm when Mr. Finley chokes on a chicken bone upon seeing her in front of his porch. Following these events, the neighbors begin to call Sula’s birthmark “Hannah’s Ashes,” in reference to her mother’s tragic burning. The women grow increasingly less fond of Sula, as she continually disrespects their church traditions and sleeps with their husbands. Men who are taken as lovers by Sula are also offended when Sula discards them after only one night.

The people begin to suspect that Sula is evil. They remark on her youthful looks despite being 30 years of age and claim that she has never experienced things common to a human life like childhood sickness, scarring, or belching. One woman, Dessie describes an encounter between Shaddrack and Sula that confirms her and others’ suspicions of her devilry. The two encounter each other by the water well and Shadrack, who usually does not show kindness to anyone, makes the gesture of tipping his hat at Sula. Frightened, Sula runs up the road away from him. After witnessing this Dessie reports that a sty immediately grew upon her eye. This mark represents to her and the other women proof that both Shadrack and Sula are evil.

Meanwhile, Sula feels betrayed and disappointed by Nel’s anger. Having never been married, she does not understand why Nel is so pained by her affair with Jude. Instead, Sula feels that Nel has abandoned her and become like all the other women in the town who are possessive and afraid of losing their husbands. She is upset that Nel behaves as all the other women do towards her despite their close friendship. She is especially hurt because Nel was one of the reasons she decided to return to Medallion.

Sula finds that she does not enjoy sex for any pleasure it gives her but rather that she enjoys the “misery” and “deep sorrow” it brings her. She commonly cries to herself afterwards and relishes in the private moments after her partner falls away from her. This changes when she meets Ajax. Nine years apart, the two begin a love affair one day when he brings her empty milk bottles. After this first visit, Ajax begins to come regularly bringing Sula various gifts.

Ajax has only two loves in life: his mother, a conjure woman, and airplanes. He enjoys Sula for her independence and the way she reminds him of his mother. Ajax is also drawn to Sula because he does not suspect that she will try to make him her husband. Sula is most pleased by the fact that Ajax converses with her as an equal. When Sula and Ajax are alone in the house the Deweys come asking for money because they are sick. Begrudgingly and not without teasing them, Sula gives them money for medicine.

On another visit, Ajax tells Sula that Tar Baby is in jail. This surprises Sula, who had not noticed Tar Baby’s absence from the house. Ajax announces that Tar Baby was arrested on Saturday afternoon after a woman, trying to avoid the man drunkenly stumbling on the new River Road, swerved and crashed into another car. The police arrested, stripped, and beat Tar Baby after discovering that the woman involved was the Mayor’s daughter. Ajax and two men from the Bottom went to the station to check on Tar Baby but are punished by the police as well and told to report to court the following week.

Concerned for Ajax and his continual struggles, Sula begins to stroke his hair to comfort him when his story ends. However, this gesture alerts Ajax to the increasing coziness of his relation with Sula. He notices all the signs that they are becoming a couple and is frightened by them. That night he decides he will leave for Dayton, Ohio without Sula.

After Ajax leaves, Sula is shocked by his absence and she begins to wonder whether he ever actually existed. She finds his license, which proves to her that he did in fact exist, but the license, also contains another piece of information. The name printed on the license is ‘A. Jacks’ thought the entire time she knew him, Sula believed his name to be ‘Ajax’. The discovery that she never knew the man’s true name casts Sula into emotional turmoil and she falls asleep thinking of the gold, alabaster, and loam she imagined existed beneath Ajax’s black skin.

Analysis

After she sends Eva to a nursing home and sleeps with Jude, the inhabitants of the Bottom come to hate Sula. They begin to perceive events as having deep significance about Sula’s nature. Each sign makes them increasingly convinced that Sula is evil. A young boy trips on the stairwell, acquiring a fracture, and a man chokes on a chicken bone, both while Sula is in their midst. The people view this as an omen and an indication of her bad nature.

The people are most convinced of Sula’s evil when she elicits a polite response from the usually rowdy and rude Shadrack. They believe that the two are devils in cahoots. The neighbor who sees the exchange experiences a sty on her eye just after witnessing it. After this point, the neighbors are convinced of Sula’s devilry.

Sula’s opinions on domesticity and conformity are explained in this chapter. She believes that Nel’s anger is a betrayal to their friendship. Nel is no longer an ally of Sula’s but is instead just like the rest of the women in the Bottom, overprotective and afraid of having their man taken from them. She disdains the lives of mothers and wives and relishes in her ability to sleep with many men. Nevertheless, Sula does not enjoy sex. It brings her “pain” and “sorrow,” and she is drawn to the solitude that follows once her partner falls asleep. The women of the Bottom dislike the way Nel treats their men. She sleeps with them once time and then discards them. In an attempt to soothe the men after Sula abandons them, the wives become more attentive and compassionate than usual towards their husbands.

Sula experiences her first long-term affair when she becomes involved with Ajax, a man nine years her senior who she knew in her girlhood. Ajax enjoys Sula’s independence and the way she reminds him of his mother. In her relationship with Ajax, Sula shows signs of domesticity. She begins to sleep only with him and eventually treats him the way a wife might treat a husband, showing concern for his well-being and seeking to bring him solace. Ajax is frightened by this and runs off to Dayton, becoming yet another absent male.

When Ajax leaves, Sula again suffers with impermanence. She thinks that he may never have existed to begin with and searches for signs of his existence. When she finds his license and discovers that it says A. Jacks, not Ajax, Sula decides that she never even really knew the man because she did not know his name. At the end of the chapter, Sula falls asleep and in the next chapter, she contracts a serious illness.