Sula Summary and Analysis of 1940


When Sula falls ill, Nel goes to visit her to see if she can do anything to help. She rehearses the proper tone before visiting so that she can convey a controlled sympathy without revealing her pent up anger for Sula. The two women had not seen each other or spoken since that day Nel found Sula sleeping with her husband. However, when Nel arrives, they skip salutations and Sula immediately sends Nel off to fill a prescription for pain medicine. Nel discovers that Sula has no money and is forced to pay for the prescription with her own earnings.

When Nel leaves, Sula imagines her making the trip alone down the road they used to walk together as girls. She wonders why Nel came to visit her at all but soon remembers that Nel had always been helpful in times of crisis. When Nel returns with the medicine, she tells Sula that she shouldn’t be alone. Offended by Nel’s opinions about men, marriage, and a meaningful life, Sula begins to quarrel with her.

After arguing for a time, Nel asks Sula why she slept with Jude. However, Sula cannot give Nel a satisfactory answer and Nel becomes exasperated. Sula tells Nel that one day all of the people in Medallion will love her. Frustrated, Nel begins to leave. While walking out of house Nel is struck by the silence of it. She wonders where all the people who once stayed in that big house have gone.

At Nel’s departure, Sula again mourns the loss of her friend. She regrets that Nel has completely forgotten the deep bond the two once shared. Memories of her friendship with Nel lead Sula to remember other images from her life including the image of her mother burning in the back yard. Sula remembers looking on her mother with fascination but without meaning harm. She merely wished for her mother to continue moving the way she had while aflame.

Sula then falls asleep and has a dream she remembers having before. In the dream, Sula sees a woman she calls the “Clabber Girl Baking Powder Lady” approach her. As she gets closer, the lady becomes dust. Sula begins to place the dust into the pockets of her coat. However, in her pursuit Sula becomes covered by powder and wakes up choking and smelling smoke.

Awake from her dream, Sula experiences an agonizing pain and fatigue. The pain is so extreme that she is unable to yell out or move. She considers turning over to cool her head but decides not to because she does not want to turn away from the window that Eva jumped from the day Hannah burned.

This window brings Sula great peace. To Sula it is a representation of true solitude and freedom. Only beside this window does Sula believe she can give in to death. Just before dying, Sula remembers the word “Always” which Shadrack spoke to her the day Chicken drowned. She is too exhausted to remember who spoke this promise to her but it brings her comfort in her final moments. Sula dies painlessly. When she stops breathing and her heart stops beating the first thing she thinks is to tell Nel that death does not hurt.


The friends are reunited when Sula falls ill and Nel decides to visit her. Thinking herself virtuous she goes to assist Sula but not before practicing the perfect tone to use when offering her help so as not to sound too pained or contemptuous. The women continue to act as perfect complements to each other. Greetings are not even necessary before Sula asks Nel to fill a prescription for her.

The theme of conformity and tradition reaches a climax during this meeting as the two argue over each other’s opposing views. Sula is proud of the way she has lived and tells Nel that unlike the other women who chose to be mothers, wives, and obedient daughters, those women who were dying “like a stump,” she was dying a life of her own choosing, she was “going down like one of those redwoods”. Exasperated by the conversation and Sula’s answers Nel leaves with dramatic finality. She leaves Sula on her deathbed saying, “I don’t reckon I’ll be back”.

Just before dying Sula has a dream about the “Clabber Girl Baking Powder Lady.” Proximity to the woman brings her to ruin and leaves Sula scrambling to collect an unattainable powder. The dream directly follows Sula’s memories about watching her mother die in the fire. She remembers being fascinated by the fire death dance but says she did not mean any harm and that “I never meant anything”. Sula awakes from the dream choking and smelling smoke.

The theme of smoke is significant because it references prior deaths and burdens of motherhood. Eva smelled smoke in her hair after killing Plum, and Sula smells it just before dying. The image of the Clabber Girl is related to Sula’s relation to her mother and her own proximity to death. Interestingly both Sula and Hannah have dreams that foreshadow their deaths.

Sula dies and immediately remembers her friend. The strength of their friendship transcends death and their antagonisms seemingly disappear when Sula enters death thinking only “’Wait’ll I tell Nel.”