Nel seems to be a simple, straightforward character. But as we learn more about her, especially as she becomes an adult, she surprises us. Just like Sula, Nel challenges us to rethink the characters' roles in the novel. It's easy for us to consider her the "good" one, the victim of her friend's betrayal. We certainly don't fault her for being furious with Sula when she sleeps with Jude.
But is it possible that Nel isn't as good as we think? Might she and Sula resemble each other more than we realize? And does Nel's sorrow at the end of the novel tell us something about always doing what's expected of us? Sula asks Nel, "How you know it was you [who was good]? . . . Maybe it was me" (1940.83-10.84). The interesting thing about a character like Nel is that we have to dig a little deeper with her.
Nel is the product of an overly-strict upbringing. We learn that her mother, Helene, has succeeded in "[driving] her daughter's imagination underground" (1920.5). Nel never gets the chance to just be a kid; she's raised in a hyper-clean, hyper-quiet, hyper-orderly home. While Sula loves the order of Nel's home, Nel "prefer[s] Sula's wooly house" (1920.75). She loves all the noise, the people, and the fact that Hannah doesn't pay much attention to her and Sula. (The grass is always greener, right?)
As an adult, Nel is pretty orderly and proper herself, but as a kid she enjoys escaping from those roles. In many ways, Nel the child reminds us of Sula the adult. After taking her first and last trip out of Medallion on the train, Nel declares her self-identity in much the same the way Sula does when she returns to the Bottom. As a young Nel looks in the mirror, she tells herself, "I'm me. . . . Me" (1920.68). So it's possible that the "glory" in the epigraph could be applied to Nel, too. At this moment, she is in complete control of her young life and her identity. This streak of independence isn't something we usually associate with Nel, but it's there. That's important to remember, because it pops up in surprising ways.
As an adult, Nel is the complete opposite of Sula. She has gotten married, stayed in the Bottom, and had children. She attends church and is aware of the societal expectations to which she's subject as an African-American woman.
On the surface, Nel seems pretty uncomplicated, but a lot changes when Jude leaves her for Sula. It turns out that she's much stronger than we imagined; for instance, she supports her children as a single mother. And the big, gray ball that appears right after she finds Sula and Jude together suggests that her psyche is more complex than we probably guessed. There's nothing orderly or neat about a big, imaginary mass of dirt and hair and string that won't go away.
As the life she's built for herself unravels, so too does her façade of control. Nel is an interesting character; we can't think of her in such simplistic terms as "good" or "bad." Chicken's accident is a good example. As Nel thinks back to that day – of her self-control and her ability to calm Sula down – she realizes that "what she had thought was maturity, serenity, and compassion was only the tranquility that follows a joyful stimulation" (1965.58). We are shocked to learn at the end of the novel that Chicken's drowning had excited and intrigued her. She had always seemed so contained and controlled, and perhaps this is why she finds the drowning exciting: because she can't control it.
When it comes down to it, Nel and Sula are equally devoted to each other. As kids, they cling to each other, learn from each other, and balance each other out. When Nel finds out about Sula and Jude, what upsets her the most is her inability to talk to the one person she would normally turn to. She convinces herself that it's Jude's absence from her life that is most painful, but when she cries for Sula at the end of the novel, it's clear that her relationship with Sula was the most important in her life.
We don't blame Nel for not forgiving Sula while she was still alive, but her sadness at the end of the novel, when it's too late for her to patch things up, says a lot about regret. Nel's character is never fully resolved for us because she doesn't get any closure. The novel is open-ended, not providing us with a clear-cut resolution. It's up to us to decide what happens to Nel, and what it has all meant, and we think that's a sign of great literature.