Literature Study GuidesSulaPart 2 1939 Summary

Sula | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Sula | Part 2, 1939 | Summary



Sula becomes a pariah in the Bottom because not only does she take Jude from Nel, but she soon leaves Jude for a string of different lovers. People think she is a horrible person because she has put Eva in a nursing home full of white people and taken possession of her house. The worst thing about Sula, though, is something unforgiveable: it is said that Sula sleeps with white men. The one thing that is absolutely unthinkable to people in the Bottom is that a black woman would ever desire a white man. Any contact between them could only be rape. Everyone starts to do things such as salt the steps to their porches to keep the evil Sula away. Bad things begin to happen to people, and Sula is blamed. Teapot, a little boy, falls down the stairs with Sula behind him, and he breaks his leg. Teapot's Mamma is furious, but the real reason his leg breaks is malnutrition. She has been neglectful up to that point, and she resolves to become a more responsible mother after this encounter with Sula.

The fact that Sula doesn't seem to age makes her akin to a devil, and Dessie, a town gossip and a big deal around the Bottom, says she saw Shadrack tip his hat to Sula and Sula's reaction was to run away from him. The sty she develops in her eye right after this incident is all the evidence Dessie needs to believe that Sula is evil. However, the people just leave Sula alone, like all the other troubles and tribulations they can't control in the Bottom. Strangely, Sula's presence seems to cause everyone to become kinder, more responsible, more protective of each other. They "band together" against what they believe is a devil.

For Sula, the loss of Nel is confusing. Sula does everything in her life as a sort of game to see what will happen. It is all to suit her own pleasure. She thought that Nel would not be upset by her indiscretions with Jude because as girls they shared everything. Sula is disgusted that Nel is possessive of Jude simply because she is married to him, but Sula doesn't understand love or marriage. In her household growing up, men were viewed as playthings. She and Nel used to think women were jealous because they feared they would lose their "jobs" of being their husband's sexual partner. The men would then realize that their wives were nothing special. But Sula discovers that she and Nel are different in this way, when she had thought they were "one and the same thing." She sadly realizes that Nel has become just like all the other women in the Bottom. Everyone there, she believes, is afraid of "free fall," of taking chances, and she has no way to do this in Medallion without dangerously affecting others. The narrator describes her as an "artist with no art form." Sula has an abundance of energy and ambition, as well as a desire to experience the world intensely, but the world doesn't allow her to do this. The expectations of a woman are similar everywhere she goes, and she finds out that no matter how many relationships with men she has and no matter how many different lives she tries on, she is still bored and friendless. None of the excitement of new experiences lasts for Sula, and while she's away, she never finds anything as rewarding as her friendship with Nel. When she returns, that reward seems to have disappeared along with Nel's personality.

Sula sleeps with other men at first because she thinks sex is somehow wicked, but it turns out she doesn't need such thoughts to enjoy it. She sleeps around because it is "the only place where she could find what she is looking for: misery and the ability to feel deep sorrow." Casual, unloving sex does not assuage her loneliness; it reinforces it. Her partners think that she cries afterward because the experience is so good, but they are wrong. This all changes when Ajax shows up at her door with two bottles of milk. Thus begins an affair that continues so intensely for Sula that she becomes even meaner to the Deweys, throwing shoes at them to keep them out of the bedroom and sending them off with money to buy bottles of cold remedy to drink. Ajax captivates her, and she begins to imagine he is gold under his skin, then alabaster, then loam. She truly enjoys being with him; they have real conversations so unlike those she has normally had with other men.

Sula begins to think about things she has never thought about before, like whether or not she is pretty. She cleans the house for Ajax's expected arrival and puts a green ribbon in her hair. The look on her face as well as the tone of her voice when Ajax finally arrives after a few days away makes him nervous. He realizes it's only a matter of time before she starts to question him about where he has been, and Ajax refuses to let any woman possess him. The only woman Ajax really loves is his mother. He leaves Sula, and she begins to see his absence in everything in the house. She discovers his driver's license in a drawer, proof he had actually been there, and finds out that his real name is Albert Jacks. This discovery is even sadder—she didn't know the real name of the man she wanted to possess. She crawls into bed, thinking to herself that she has "sung all the songs there are."


Sula has always detached herself from other people, from their feelings and opinions of her, but it is difficult to avoid negative feelings when everyone avoids her and views her as a pariah. The difference now is she has to deal with all of this without Nel by her side. Sula came back to Medallion for Nel, bored without her and wanting the comfort, kindness, and common sense of her best friend. She is willing to tolerate living in a town she hates to regain the love of her closest and only real friend.

Sula's immaturity is evident in thinking that Nel would willingly share her husband with Sula. This idea of sharing without understanding the pain it might cause Nel is also evidence that Sula must do these things to make herself feel something, to fill up the emptiness and whisk away the boredom, unfortunately without ever considering the consequences. It never occurs to her that Nel has feelings for Jude that have nothing to do with the intimacy of their friendship.

The theme of friendships and bonds between women is explored in this chapter, as well as the ways a friendship can change with time. Sula is sad because she realizes that Nel is not like her after all. This demonstrates how complex a friendship between adult women can be after the intimacy of childhood experiences is gone and how the most intense relationships can shatter when individuality and change are not respected or even acknowledged. Sula is still living in their childhood friendship, wanting no separation from Nel. She can't avoid the realization that taking her friend's husband is seen by Nel as a grievous betrayal of their friendship. Instead of blaming herself, Sula blames Nel for having become like the other women in Medallion, caretakers and apologists for their men. In her self-centered world, Sula believes she can only lie to Nel because she cares about her. She has no problem telling the truth, no matter how damaging or shocking, to people she doesn't care about because she doesn't care what they think or how they feel.

The affair with Ajax is the first time that Sula has a relationship with a man with whom she converses, with whom she cares about, and who makes her feel as much a friend as a lover. But she finds that her relationships with men can never replicate the closeness of her friendship with Nel. A strong theme appears in this chapter and others: the idea that there are unique qualities in strong friendships between women that are not found in relationships between men and women. Morrison also shows how substituting a sexual relationship for a friendship ends up backfiring for Sula, who starts to realize how it feels to want someone to stay and remain monogamous. This possessiveness is exactly the thing about Nel that she fears and avoids at all costs.

As it turns out, Sula's bad behavior is a unifying force that causes others in the community to protect each other and treasure what they have. The impulse to view evil as necessary for the community's survival returns, and the Bottom becomes an even closer-knit community.

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