Sula Study Notes
The Bottom is a mostly black community in Ohio, situated in the hills above the mostly
white, wealthier community of Medallion. The Bottom first became a community when a
master gave it to his former slave. This "gift" was in fact a trick: the master gave the
former slave a poor stretch of hilly land, convincing the slave the land was worthwhile by
claiming that because it was hilly, it was closer to heaven. The trick, though, led to the
growth of a vibrant community. Now the community faces a new threat; wealthy whites
have taken a liking to the land, and would like to destroy much of the town in order to
build a golf course.
Shadrack, a resident of the Bottom, fought in WWI. He returns a shattered man, unable
to accept the complexities of the world; he lives on the outskirts of town, attempting to
create order in his life. One of his methods involves compartmentalizing his fear of
death in a ritual he invents and names National Suicide Day. The town is at first wary of
him and his ritual, then, over time, unthinkingly accepts him.
Meanwhile, the families of the children Nel and Sula are contrasted. Nel is the product
of a family that believes deeply in social conventions; hers is a stable home, though
some might characterize it as rigid. Nel is uncertain of the conventional life her mother,
Helene, wants for her; these doubts are hammered home when she meets Rochelle,
her grandmother and a former prostitute, the only unconventional woman in her family
line. Sula's family is very different: she lives with her grandmother, Eva, and her mother,
Hannah, both of whom are seen by the town as eccentric and loose. Their house also
serves as a home for three informally adopted boys and a steady stream of borders.
Despite their differences, Sula and Nel become fiercely attached to each other during
adolescence. However, a traumatic accident changes everything. One day, Sula
playfully swings a neighborhood boy, Chicken Little, around by his hands. When she
loses her grip, the boy falls into a nearby river and drowns. They never tell anyone
about the accident even though they did not intend to harm the boy. The two girls begin
to grow apart. One day, in an accident, Sula's mother's dress catches fire and she dies
of the burns.
After high school, Nel chooses to marry and settles into the conventional role of wife