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Course Hero. "Sula Study Guide." June 29, 2017. Accessed November 13, 2018.


Course Hero, "Sula Study Guide," June 29, 2017, accessed November 13, 2018,

Sula | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1

The novel begins with an explanation of the joke people tell about the origins of the small, rural, black community called the Bottom and how Medallion, the town in the valley, became white-controlled property and houses and shacks up in the hills became known as the Bottom. A white farmer fooled his ex-slave into thinking that the hills were the Bottom lands and were somehow more fertile than the valley, giving him a piece of property there so he wouldn't have to give up his truly fertile farmlands in the valley. The narrator refers to this as a "nigger joke," which white people tell so that they have someone to look down on and African American people tell to hide their pain about how they have been corralled into a segregated neighborhood with land that doesn't support farming.

New Year's Day is closely followed on January 3rd by National Suicide Day in the Bottom. Shadrack started this in 1920, a man whose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from World War I makes him crazy enough to have to live as a hermit in a shack away from other people. Shadrack fishes in the river near his home and sells his fish on Tuesdays and Fridays. The rest of the time, he is obnoxious and drunk, but the fact that he doesn't actually accost anyone makes him the kind of crazy that becomes an accepted part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Even residents acknowledge National Suicide Day in some way in conversation every year.

Nel and Sula, two extremely close friends, come from different backgrounds, though their families both end up in the Bottom. Nel's mother, Helene, is the daughter of a prostitute, raised by her grandmother and determined to raise Nel in the same strict, socially acceptable, religious fashion that she herself was raised. Sula's family is much more chaotic, run by Eva, her grandmother, whose abusive husband left her with babies to feed and three beets. Rumored to have gone off and sold one of her legs to get money to feed her family, the one-legged Eva runs the show from her room on the third floor of the house that she had built in stages. Hannah, Sula's mother, is promiscuous but protected by the men she has slept with. She takes care of Eva and all of the orphans and vagrants that Eva shelters, including her brother Plum, who is addicted to heroin. Eva is tolerant of the mistakes of all the other residents of the house but can't stand to see Plum regressing into a childlike helplessness, so she burns him to death late one night in 1921, to "save" him from his addiction.

Nel loves being at Sula's house because it is so relaxed and so unlike her own strict home. Nel and Sula grow up together, discovering boys such as Ajax, who is dangerously handsome and attracted to them both. It's 1922; the girls are now 12 years old and growing more interested in boys. Sula tries to be protective of Nel when white boys attack her, slicing off her own fingertip to scare them, which ends up scaring Nel, too. Nel is by far the more level-headed and reasonable of the two. The accidental death of Chicken, a little boy whom Sula plays with and unintentionally drowns, cements the girls' friendship. Sula tries to get help from Shadrack to save the boy, but his unwanted attentions unnerve her, so she runs away. The boy does drown, and Nel comforts her. Later, they attend the funeral together.

Tragedy strikes Sula again in the fall of 1923 when her mother, Hannah, almost burns to death in a fire in their barn caused by blowing, burning trash. Sula watches her mother burn rather than run for help, while Hannah's mother, Eva, throws herself out of her window to try to save Hannah. Both women are taken to the hospital; Eva survives, but Hannah dies from her injuries. Eva is convinced that Sula actively chose not to help her mother. As always, Nel comforts Sula.

Four years later in 1927, after Nel and Sula graduate from school, Nel ends up marrying Jude Greene, a man who desperately wants to work in construction but is stuck waiting tables at a local restaurant. To solidify his manhood, he decides to marry Nel because he needs someone to care about him when he is hurting. Sula is the bridesmaid, and for the first time the Bottom celebrates a wedding with a ceremony and a big party. Sula leaves after the wedding and stays away for 10 years.

Part 2

Sula comes back in 1937 to the Bottom after 10 years away at college and the experiences of life in several big cities. Along with Sula comes "a plague of robins"—a bad omen—which is no surprise to her grandmother, Eva, who now hates Sula for having returned without saying where she has been all the years she was away and for not trying to save her mother, Hannah, from burning. Sula picks a fight and decides to take guardianship of her grandmother and quickly has her committed to Sunnydale. She goes to see Nel, who is horrified she has put Eva in such a place and realizes that Sula can't make important decisions without messing them up. When Jude, Nel's husband, comes home and meets Sula, he thinks she's a mouthy woman who is looking for trouble. It turns out he's right, but he's part of the trouble, as Nel catches her husband and Sula making love. Jude gets dressed and immediately says he's leaving Nel. All this devastates Nel. She becomes deeply depressed, having lost not only her husband but her best friend.

Sula soon leaves Jude for other men and, unlike her mother, earns a bad reputation from the men of the Bottom as well as the women. By 1939 most folks in the Bottom have decided that Sula is evil because bad things happen when she is around. However, her evil causes everyone else in the town to behave better than they ordinarily would. For example, she is thought to have caused the little boy named Teapot to break his leg. As a result his neglectful mother becomes more protective and responsible. Sula does everything for her own pleasure. She learned from her mother's dislike and disapproval that she couldn't count on people to love her, and she learned from her own irresponsibility with Chicken at the river that she can't even count on herself to be good and do the right thing. She becomes a pariah in town, and although she knows she is becoming ill, she tells no one. She ends up sleeping with Ajax, who shows up at her door one day. The relationship is intense, at least for her, and she finds herself falling in love. Ajax doesn't want to be possessed by anyone, though, so as soon as he realizes she needs him, he leaves her. Sula, now without a lover and friendless, takes to her bed, depressed. She has lost everyone and has become deathly ill.

Nel shows up when she hears Sula is sick, offering to help her get her medication and take care of her. She tells Sula she shouldn't be alone, but Sula wants solitude. Nel asks her why she took Jude away, and she says she just wanted to fill "empty space." Nel is flabbergasted that Sula didn't even love Jude and wants to know if Sula ever thought of how she would feel. Sula replies she wants to know why Nel thought it was such a horrible thing given that their friendship was so close. Nel leaves, saying she won't be coming back, and Sula wonders to herself why Nel can't realize that Jude was nothing compared to the closeness of their friendship. When she dies, she realizes, in a bittersweet moment, that she feels no pain and thinks to herself, "Wait'll I tell Nel."

That year the harvest is terrible, and people in the Bottom begin to treat each other badly again. The winter is bitter and cruel to everyone, and even Shadrack can't muster the energy to give National Suicide Day his all, clanging his bell with no heart. But slowly, as he goes down the road into town, people begin to join him. They angrily march down to the tunnel being built at the river, a tunnel whose building crews are all white. They start destroying the construction materials, and part of the tunnel collapses, killing several people.

Fourteen years later, in 1965, the Bottom has fallen apart, with most of the original residents having moved down into the valley and many black workers having been accepted into white-controlled factories and businesses. White people control the hills again, creating a golf course and building big homes. Nel goes to Sunnydale to visit Eva, now senile but, remarkably, still alive. During their short visit, Nel discovers Eva is truly a spiteful and unkind woman, just as Sula had always said. Eva keeps mistaking her for Sula, telling her she knows Nel or Sula killed Chicken by throwing him in the river. Nel begins to realize it was not Sula's fault that the Bottom had become filled with spite after Sula died. Eva's spitefulness in accusing Nel of murder brings to mind for Nel all of the times that people in the Bottom had said and done things merely out of spite before Sula came back to the neighborhood. In a final revelatory cry, Nel realizes that the emptiness she had felt in her heart for years was not because she had been missing Jude; it was because she missed Sula and that part of herself that Sula had brought to life.

Sula Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Shadrack starts National Suicide Day in the Bottom.

Rising Action

2 Helene takes Nel to a funeral and sees her mother.

3 Nel and Sula are best friends despite Hannah's reputation.

4 Eva takes in Tar Baby and the three Deweys but kills Plum.

5 Sula defends Nel and hurts herself to scare some white boys.

6 Sula accidentally drowns Chicken.

7 Hannah catches fire, Sula watches, and Hannah dies.

8 Jude marries Nel; Sula throws a big party for everyone.

9 Sula comes back after 10 years and commits Eva to a home.

10 Sula visits Nel and talks with Jude about black men.


11 Nel catches Sula and Jude making love; Jude leaves Nel.

Falling Action

12 Sula falls for Ajax; he leaves her because she needs him.

13 Sula, now a pariah, is ill; Nel visits, and Sula dies.

14 Shadrack and his neighbors try to destroy the tunnel.


15 Nel visits Eva; Nel realizes she misses Sula, not Jude.

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