Sula is really complex and hard to understand at times, but we think that's what makes her such a cool literary character. We sometimes feel sorry her, sometimes appreciate her courage, and sometimes hate her for being so insensitive to other people's feelings. She's anything but boring, and she challenges us as readers to think about how we might respond to a person like her. Are we supposed to like her, to root for her? Are we supposed to see her as a villain? Or does she somehow serve as the voice of reality in the novel, speaking the truth that no one else dares to do?
We first encounter Sula as a child living in a chaotic household run by some pretty strong-willed women. Because her surroundings are so noisy, messy, and busy, she prefers the quiet and neatness of Nel's house. This tells us something about her character. Although Sula is consistently positioned as the wild, emotional, irrational one, she can "sit on [Helene's] red-velvet sofa for ten to twenty minutes at a time – still as dawn" (1919.75), just taking in the calm around her. It's easy for us to forget this about Sula, especially as we follow her into adulthood, but one of her great contradictions is that she craves the order she never gets in her own home.
What does this mean? We can't say for sure, but it's interesting to think about the impact of Sula's environment on her as she grows up. How do we reconcile the girl who loves calmness and quiet with the one who cuts off the tip of her own finger in order to stand up to the boys who bully her best friend? Is it possible that deep down Sula is calm, but that this gets misconstrued as something else?
We get hints that this might actually be the case when Sula is on her deathbed and starts remembering the past. She thinks about the roles she and Nel fulfilled when they were kids, and she recalls trying to be like Nel:
When Sula imitated her, or tried to, those long years ago, it always ended up in some action noteworthy not for its coolness but mostly for its being bizarre. The one time she tried to protect Nel, she had cut off her own fingertip and earned not Nel's gratitude but her disgust. From then on she had let her emotions dictate her behavior. (1940.14)
So it seems that Sula turns into the emotional person we encounter as an adult after attempting as a child to be logical, cool, and rational and getting the complete opposite reaction from what she had hoped for.
Sula the adult is just as complicated as Sula the child. As soon as she returns to the Bottom, she confronts Eva in a heated argument that gives us a good deal of insight about her. Eva accuses Sula of just standing by and watching while Hannah was on fire, and Sula shoots back that Eva set her own son on fire. When Eva berates Sula for not being married or having kids, Sula declares, "I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself" (1937.21). And when Eva tells Sula that she has "hellfire" inside her, Sula responds that, "Whatever's burning in me is mine" (1937.41).
All of these statements tell us a lot about Sula's desire to create and control her own identity, her own life. She doesn't care about what she should do, and she doesn't want anyone else determining who she is. Remember the epigraph about the rose tattoo and the glory that no else knows? It seems pretty relevant here as Sula, with the rose-shaped birthmark on her face, claims her independence and total lack of interest in doing what's "right." Sula controls her own "glory."
We learn much about Sula through her relationship with Nel. As children, both girls experience "loneliness . . . so profound [that] it intoxicated them" (1922.6), and they are drawn to each other in profound ways. Sula quickly emerges as the tougher, braver, and more adventurous of the two – or at least it seems that way; we later learn that the truth is more complex. When she returns from her ten-year absence, not much seems to have changed. Nel has stayed in the Bottom and gotten married and had kids, just as she's expected to do, and Sula quickly sets out on a life unconcerned with all of these expectations. She starts sleeping with married men, just as Hannah did, and feels no remorse or concern when she starts sleeping with Nel's husband, Jude.
This is where things get really complicated for us as readers. We probably feel that Sula should know better, that she should understand that her best friend's husband is off-limits. And when she doesn't seem at all sorry, we probably don't like her. But we also have to remember that Sula grew up in a household where this type of behavior was considered normal. She saw her mother having sex with married men, and she is so secure in her friendship with Nel and the fact that they have always shared everything, including boyfriends, that she doesn't think Nel will be angry. Her deepest affection is for her friend, and she assumes that that trumps everything else. When it doesn't, Nel's reaction leaves her confused and saddened.
Although the two spend years apart after the affair, when Sula dies, her last thought is of her friend. She can't wait to tell Nel about death, and we realize that despite what we might consider her great faults, and despite all evidence to the contrary, Sula is loyal and devoted to Nel until the day she dies.