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As a young girl, Nel travels with her mother back to her mother's hometown to see her dying great-grandmother. This trip is the most exciting event of her young life, and it has a great impact on her. She returns home intent on seeing the world some day, but we learn that she never gets this chance.
Soon after this, Nel befriends Sula, which will change the course of her life.
Although she isn't the one who accidentally drowns Chicken, the memory of the accident never goes away. When she thinks about it as an adult, she learns some pretty surprising things about herself.
Nel gets married when she's eighteen to a man named Jude. She seems content with her life (her marriage, her kids, her home), but when Sula returns after a ten-year absence and has an affair with her husband, everything changes. Nel becomes a single mother, she never has another lasting relationship with a man, and she directs all of her love and attention to her children.
When Nel hears that Sula is sick, she goes to visit her after not speaking with her for three years. The visit starts out well enough (if a little tense), but when the women really start talking about what happened with Jude, Nel fails to hear the explanation or apology she's hoping for. She leaves Sula and tells her she won't be back.
Many years later, Nel visits Sula's grandmother Eva in the nursing home. Eva brings up the incident with Chicken Little, which throws Nel into a tailspin. She realizes that she had found some sort of enjoyment in watching the little boy drown. She goes to Sula's grave and is overcome by a feeling of sadness for her dead friend. As she leaves the cemetery, she finally cries for Sula. This is the image that serves as the novel's conclusion.