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Toni Morrison's novel Sula is about two young black girls that become close friends, but eventually split up and take different paths through life. Sula decides to go against social conventions and live a more independent, reckless life, while Nel on the other hand decides to marry and settle down. In the end both girls are nearly the same, even though they lived their lives very differently.
Both girls grew up in a majority black neighborhood known as the Bottom. This neighborhood is located up in the hills of Ohio, looking down on the wealthier white town of Medallion. The Bottom got its name from a time when a slave owner, disliking the land, persuaded one of his slaves that it was "the bottom of heaven- best land there is"(5). Ever since then more people chose to live in the Bottom and it became a thriving community.
Sula and Nel came from very contrasted families. Sula's mother was widowed, and "had a steady sequence of lovers, mostly the husbands of her friends and neighbors"(42). She did not have many woman friends, because most of them disliked her for her attitude towards her relationships. Growing up in an environment where her mother had so many different men taught Sula that "sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable"(44). Nel's mother on the other hand, strived to be the pillar of the black community. She was a woman who "won all social battles with persistence and a conviction of the legitimacy of her authority"(18). She was a woman who tried her hardest to fit into an ideal social mold, and she taught her daughter the 'right' way to live.
The two girls became friends while they were in primary school, and they preferred the other's home life. Sula liked the "oppressive neatness"(29) while Nel "preferred Sula's wooly house"(29). They became inseparable, understanding the other's thoughts and actions, one completing the other. "They found relief in each other's personality"(53). Nel was always the calm one, in control, while Sula was uncontrollable. To save Nel from harassing boys, Sula once cut the tip of her finger off to scare them away, and when Sula accidentally threw a neighborhood boy into the water, Nel remained calm after they watched him drown.
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Once they grew older, Nel and Sula drifted apart. Nel chose the more conventional path and married a popular young man. Her attentions focused on him and "greater than her friendship was this new feeling of being needed by someone who saw her singly"(84). Sula decided to go away to college and explore the city life. She became more independent, focusing only on herself and not wanting to conform to social expectations.
When Sula returned to the Bottom, the two girls were almost as opposite as their mothers were. Nel was with her husband and children, taking on the role of wife and mother. Sula was too involved in herself and what she wanted to raise a family. She said to Eva, "I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself"(92). Eventually Sula was labeled as being evil, because of her actions. She put Eva in an old folks home for no reason, she slept with Nel's husband, who soon after left her and her children, and it was rumored that she slept with white men. The people of the town began to hate her, blaming her for everything wrong in their community, even though it made them better. Wives treated husbands better and mothers took better care of their children, careful not to become one of Sula's victims. But Nel was a victim of Sula's selfishness and the two were separated, one having wronged the other.
It would be three years until the two friends were reunited. Nel went to visit Sula while she was on her death bed. After a half-hearted reconciliation, Sula asked Nel which one of them was the good one. She said "maybe it wasn't you. Maybe it was me"(146). Although it doesn't seem like she was the good one on the surface, there is some truth to the statement since her actions actually bettered many of the people around her. Nel disregarded the statement and did not see her friend again.
Nel did not realize how much her friend meant to her until later when she went to visit Eva in the hospital. Eva brought up the time when the two girls watched the neighborhood boy drown. Nel, thinking that Sula was always the bad one, said that it was all Sula's fault and that she didn't have anything to do with it. Eva said to her, "Just alike. Both of you. Never was no difference between you"(169). Not until then did Nel realize how much alike they really were, and that everything that she prided herself in, the calmness and control, were just another way of expressing the same emotions that Sula expressed more openly.
What really drove Nel and Sula apart was the pain that Nel felt after her husband left her. What she thought she was feeling for her husband, missing him, she was really feeling for Sula. The two completed each other, but their upbringings and choices in life caused them to never really realize this. Nel was taught to conform to social conventions, thereby believing what everyone else thought was good or evil. Sula was taught to do what she pleased, not ever really seeing a difference between good and evil. They did not go by what was in their hearts, just in their minds, and that is why the value of their friendship was not realized until it was too late.