Study Guide

Sula 1940

By Toni Morrison


  • It's now 1940, and Nel visits Sula after hearing that she is very ill. It's been three years since Nel has seen her friend, and we learn that Nel has had to work as a cleaning lady and chambermaid after Jude leaves in order to take care of her kids.
  • Other people in the Bottom think that Sula's sickness is "retribution" (1940.6) for all the horrible things she's done, but Nel goes to visit her out of a sense of "virtue" (1940.6).
  • When Nel gets to Sula's house, she asks if there is anything she needs, and Sula tells her that she has a prescription for pain medicine that she needs filled.
  • When Nel starts to ask Sula for money to pay for the medicine, "Something in [Sula's] eye right there in the corner stopped her from completing her question" (1940.13). She realizes that Sula probably doesn't have the money to pay, or simply doesn't want to, but she heads to the drugstore anyway.
  • While she's gone, Sula starts to wonder why Nel has come. She's not sure if she's there because she wants to be friends again or to simply "gloat" (1940.14) at the fact that Sula is ill.
  • Once Nel returns with the medicine, she tries to engage Sula in some polite small talk, but Sula wants none of this.
  • So the two start to have an honest conversation about their lives and all that's happened between them. Nel tells Sula that, as a Black woman, she "can't be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever [she] like[s], taking what [she] want[s], leaving what [she] don't" (1940.39).
  • But Sula disagrees. She doesn't think she needs a husband or kids, and she doesn't see the point in trying to "keep" a man. Talk eventually turns to Sula's affair with Jude, and Nel finally gets to ask Sula for an explanation. The one she gets doesn't make her feel any better.
  • Sula says, "Well, there was this space in front if me, behind me, in my head. Some space. And Jude filled it up. That's all. He just filled up the space" (1940.67).
  • Nel can't believe what she hears: that Sula stole her husband when she didn't even love him. She struggles to understand how Sula could do such a thing when Nel had always been so "good" to her (1940.70), but Sula tells her that that doesn't mean anything. Being good is "risky" she tells her, because "you don't get nothing for it" (1940.71).
  • The two keep going back and forth, Nel getting more and more upset with Sula's complete unwillingness to accept any responsibility, until Nel finally decides to leave and tells Sula that she won't be visiting her again.
  • Sula thinks about the fact that Nel seems to have forgotten that they "were [once] two throats and one eye" (1940.87).
  • After falling asleep, Sula has a dream about the Clabber Girl baking powder lady (baking powder is one of the gifts Ajax brought her. In the dream she tries to get close to the lady, but she always "disintegrated into white dust" (1940.91) that overtakes Sula, causing her to wake up "gagging and overwhelmed with the smell of smoke" (1940.91).
  • Sula's pain becomes unbearable, but she can't yell for help. She lies in bed in what was once Eva's room and looks at the window Eva threw herself out of in order to save Hannah all those years ago. Suddenly, Sula realizes that she's no longer breathing, that "her heart had stopped completely" (1940.93).
  • She realizes she is dead, and she can't wait to tell Nell that "it didn't even hurt" (1940.94). Her final thought is of the friend she has lost.

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