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Toni Morrison’s novel Sula is rich with paradox and contradiction from the name of a community on top of a hill called "Bottom" to a family full of discord named "Peace." There are no clear distinctions in the novel, and this is most apparent in the meaning of the relationship between the two main characters, Sula and Nel. Although they are characterized differently, they also have many similarities. Literary critics have interpreted the girls in several different ways: as lesbians (Smith 8), as the two halves of a single person (Coleman 145), and as representations of the dichotomy between good and evil (Bergenholtz 4 of 9). The ambiguity of these two characters allows for infinite speculation, but regardless of how the reader interprets the relationship their bond is undeniable. The most striking example of their connection occurs right before the accidental death of Chicken Little. In the passage preceding his death, Nel and Sula conduct an almost ceremonial commitment to one another that is sealed permanently when "the water darkened and closed quickly over the place where Chicken Little sank" (Morrison 61):
Together they worked until the two holes were one and the same. When the depression was the size of a small dishpan, Nel’s twig broke. With a gesture of disgust she threw the pieces into the hole they had made. Sula threw hers in too. Nel saw a bottle cap and tossed it in as well. Each then looked around for more debris to throw into the hole: paper, bits of glass, butts of cigarettes, until all the small defiling things they could find were collected there. Carefully they replaced the soil and covered the entire grave with uprooted grass. Neither one had spoken a word. (Morrison 58-59)
The image of the girls working together to dig holes in the dirt begins with each girl digging her own hole, but symbolically the two separate holes become one, representing the merging of Sula and Nel into a deep and meaningful relationship. The imagery of a "hole" is used to describe the "whole" of Sula and Nel, indicating the completeness of the two when they are together.
When the girls concurrently throw their twigs into the hole it is as if they are throwing themselves into each other’s consciousness, making a permanent connection with one another. Each twig represents their independent selves being joined with the other when they are thrown together into the hole to be buried.
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"Close Reading of the Two Holes Passage of Toni Morrison's Sula." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Aug 2018
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They continue by throwing other "defiling" objects into the hole. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word "defile" as "to violate the chastity of." This subtle, yet key word links the burying of these objects to the end of the girls’ innocence. [It also suggests the association of the hole with a vagina, as some critics have argued.] These symbolic objects along with the representative twigs are buried in the hole that the narrator emblematically calls a "grave," stressing the finality of the girls’ independence from each other, and their girlhood innocence. They cover the "grave" with grass, which emphasizes their commitment to one another, and also offers a premonition of things to come. The entire ceremony is done silently, stressing the deep understanding and closeness between the girls. It is as if each of them knows what the other is thinking.
Immediately following this passage the girls accidentally kill Chicken Little, which does indeed end their innocence and mark the beginning of a lifelong secret between them. They cover up Chicken Little’s death, just as they covered their grave with grass. The secret they share concerning his death seals the unspoken commitment they made in the dirt.
The ceremony remains significant throughout the novel because it affirms the importance of Sula and Nel’s relationship. Sula and Nel are at their best when they are together. Although portrayed differently, especially as adults, each possesses characteristics of the other. [This point needs a few examples of characteristics.] They impart a sense of balance for one another. When their friendship dissolves over Jude and Sula’s affair, there is a significant change in Sula. Morrison describes Sula’s demeanor without Nel when she writes, "she had no center, no speck around which to grow" (119). Similarly, at the end of the novel Nel realizes it was Sula she missed following the affair: "All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude" (Morrison 174).
[Here you might tie in Nel's "gray ball" image that begins after the Jude/Sula episode and evaporates at the end of the novel. That resembles the things buried in the hole.]
The hole digging ceremony and subsequent death of Chicken Little gives the reader an insight into the silent commitment between two friends. These events create a bond between Sula and Nel that is not broken by community, marriage, family, or each other. It marks the important link between two girls whose ambiguous relationship is often deep and complicated, but always connected by the hole in the dirt.
The American Heritage Dictionary. 2nd ed. New York: Dell, 1983.
Bergenholtz, Rita. "Toni Morrison’s Sula: A Satire On Binary Thinking." African American Review 30.1 (1996): 1-9.
Coleman, Alisha. "One and One Make One." CLA Journal 37.2 (December 1992): 145-156.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. 1973. New York: Plume, 1982.
Smith, Barbara. Toward A Black Feminist Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Out & Out Books, 1982.