Sula Summary

Morrison’s Sula is a story of motherhood, friendship, and love. It follows two girls, Nel and Sula, from childhood to adulthood and describes the way their deep bond is tested by societal norms. Set in a mostly black town in Ohio, the story explores the relationship between women in the segregated and patriarchal South. Nevertheless, the novel champions the many strong female characters it features as leaders, mothers, and property owners.

The narrator describes the town in which Sula is set by first announcing its destruction. Before it describes all that existed in the Bottom, the novel is already lamenting its loss. Shadrack, a veteran of war, who is physically injured and scarred by war, returns to Medallion a drunk and a rabble-rouser. His concentration on death leads him to found National Suicide Day, a holiday to be observed annually on January 3. On this day Shadrack parades down Carpenter’s Road with a cowbell and tells the people that they may kill themselves or one another.

Helene and her daughter Nel travel to New Orleans to visit a dying relative. They experience the difficulties of the segregated and discriminatory South while traveling. Helene and Nel meet Helene’s mother in New Orleans, who did not raise Helene on her own because she was a prostitute. When the two return Helene is glad to be separated from her shameful past and Nel is determined to one day be “wonderful.” She begins this venture by befriending Sula against her mother’s wishes.

Sula and the Peace family descend from the matriarch Eva Peace. When she arrives in Medallion, Eva is accompanied by her husband BoyBoy and her three children: Hannah, Pearl, and Ralph (Plum). They move to Medallion when BoyBoy is offered a job assisting a white carpenter. However, BoyBoy eventually abandons the family and Eva is forced to raise the children on her own. Exhausted and impoverished, she leaves the children with a neighbor for eighteen months and returns with a mysterious new prosperity and a missing leg. Eva uses her money to build a large home on Carpenter’s Road where she accepts boarders and takes in children.

Sula and Nel become incredibly close friends in their youth. They do almost everything together and complete each other’s sentences. The girls also come to share a dark secret when they participate in the accidental death of a young boy named Chicken Little. Nel and Sula keep their involvement in Chicken’s death a secret and after his funeral, their friendship continues as before.

Chicken’s death is accompanied by a few other deaths of major characters. Plum, returns from war with a drug addiction. He regresses and behaves like a child. Eva, wanting her son to die a man if he could not live like one, sets Plum on fire. Hannah is the next to die, burning alive after accidentally setting herself aflame while trying to do laundry.

As Sula and Nel grow up, they remain close. Sula even plans most of Nel’s wedding when she marries Jude Greene. However, after her wedding night the girls do not see each other for another ten years, when Sula returns to Medallion after attending college and visiting other American cities.

When Sula returns, she has Eva placed into a nursing home. She enjoys reuniting with her childhood friend and reminiscing about the past. However, after Sula has an affair with Nel’s husband, she is no longer able to speak to Nel, and she spends her life in Medallion hated and judged by the people of Medallion. Sula has a brief love affair with Ajax, an older man she knew of in girlhood. Ajax leaves, however, when Sula shows signs of becoming committed. Sula is saddened by his departure and shortly afterwards she falls ill.

Sula’s illness brings the two women back together, although they had not spoken since Jude left Nel. They argue, and Nel becomes frustrated again by Sula’s attitude toward conformity and tradition. After she leaves, Sula dies alone in the home on 7 Carpenter’s Road. After Sula’s death, the people of Medallion are pleased but they behave differently. In her absence, they abandon their righteous indignation and become slack in their roles as mothers, and daughters.

Sula’s death also changes Shadrack, who no longer wants to celebrate National Suicide Day. However, he decides to carry his rope and bell for one more year. That January 3, many neighbors marched alongside Shadrack until they arrived at the construction site that had long been forbidden to black workers seeking jobs. Frustrated, some of the people begin to destroy the Tunnel, and they are killed when it collapses on them.

The story ends in the year 1965. Nel is 55 years old, and all of her kids have grown up. She visits Eva in the hospital and is forced to reflect on her role in Chicken’s death. Nel realizes that she was complicit in his death and that she enjoyed watching him fall. At the novel’s end, Nel also realizes that she has harbored a deep pain and sorrow about losing her friend Sula. She cries Sula’s name into the air in an expression of grief and realization.

When she conceived of the book in the late 1960s, Morrison was surrounded by feminist discourse that encouraged woman to unite with each other instead of competing. She wanted to show an example of the culturally acceptable sisterhood that she remembers from growing up in a black neighborhood, while also showing how that sisterhood can be strained by external forces.