The Bottom is a mostly black community in Ohio, situated in the hills above the mostly white, wealthier community of Medallion. The Bottom first became a community when a master gave it to his former slave. This "gift" was in fact a trick: the master gave the former slave a poor stretch of hilly land, convincing the slave the land was worthwhile by claiming that because it was hilly, it was closer to heaven. The trick, though, led to the growth of a vibrant community. Now the community faces a new threat; wealthy whites have taken a liking to the land, and would like to destroy much of the town in order to build a golf course.
Shadrack, a resident of the Bottom, fought in WWI. He returns a shattered man, unable to accept the complexities of the world; he lives on the outskirts of town, attempting to create order in his life. One of his methods involves compartmentalizing his fear of death in a ritual he invents and names National Suicide Day. The town is at first wary of him and his ritual, then, over time, unthinkingly accepts him.
Meanwhile, the families of the children Nel and Sula are contrasted. Nel is the product of a family that believes deeply in social conventions; hers is a stable home, though some might characterize it as rigid. Nel is uncertain of the conventional life her mother, Helene, wants for her; these doubts are hammered home when she meets Rochelle, her grandmother and a former prostitute, the only unconventional woman in her family line. Sula's family is very different: she lives with her grandmother, Eva, and her mother, Hannah, both of whom are seen by the town as eccentric and loose. Their house also serves as a home for three informally adopted boys
and a steady stream of borders. Despite their differences, Sula and Nel become fiercely attached to each other during adolescence. However, a traumatic accident changes everything. One day, Sula playfully swings a neighbourhood boy, Chicken Little, around by his hands. When she loses her grip, the boy falls into a nearby river and drowns. They never tell anyone about the accident even though they did not intend to harm the boy. The two girls begin to grow apart. One day, in an accident, Sula's mother's dress catches fire and she dies of the burns. After high school, Nel chooses to marry and settles into the conventional role of wife and mother. Sula follows a wildly divergent path and lives a life of fierce independence and total disregard for social conventions. Shortly after Nel's wedding, Sula leaves the Bottom for a period of 10 years. She has many affairs, some with white men. However, she finds people following the same boring routines elsewhere, so she returns to the Bottom and to Nel. Upon her return, the town regards Sula as the very personification of evil for her blatant disregard of social conventions. Their hatred in part rests upon Sula's interracial relationships, but is crystallized
when Sula has an affair with Nel's husband, Jude, who subsequently abandons Nel. Ironically, the community's labelling of Sula as evil actually improves their own lives. Her presence in the community gives them the impetus to live harmoniously with one another. Nel breaks off her friendship with Sula. Just before Sula dies in 1940, they achieve a half-hearted reconciliation. With Sula's death, the harmony that had reigned in the town quickly dissolves. In 1965, with the Bottom facing the prospect of the white golf course, Nel visits Eva in the nursing home. Eva accuses her of sharing the guilt for Chicken Little's death. Her accusation forces Nel to confront the unfairness of her judgment against Sula. Nel admits to herself that she had blamed his death entirely on Sula and set herself up as the "good" half of the relationship. Nel comes to realize that in the aftermath of Chicken Little's death she had too quickly clung to social convention in an effort to define herself as "good." Nel goes to the cemetery and mourns at Sula's grave, calling out Sula's name in sadness.
Sula is a novel about ambiguity. It questions and examines the terms "good" and "evil," often demonstrating that the two often resemble one another. The novel addresses the confusing mysteries of human emotions and relationships, ultimately concluding that social conventions are inadequate as a foundation for living one's life. The novel tempts the reader to apply the diametrically opposed terms of "good and evil,"
"right and wrong" to the characters and their actions, and yet simultaneously shows why it is necessary to resist such temptation. While exploring the ways in which people try to make meaning of lives filled with conflicts over race, gender, and simple idiosyncratic points of views, Sula resists easy answers, demonstrating the
ambiguity, beauty, and terror of life, in both its triumphs and horrors.
Cecile is Helene's strict, religious grandmother. She raised Helene from birth, and arranged Helene's marriage to Wiley Wright, Cecile's grand-nephew. When Cecile dies, Helene takes her 10-year-old daughter Nel to New Orleans for the funeral.
Chicken Little is a neighborhood boy. One day, Sula playfully swings him around by his hands. She accidentally loses her grip, and he falls into the river and drowns.
The Deweys are Eva's three informally adopted children, all of whom she named Dewey. They quickly became inseparable from one another. Although they look completely different, people have trouble telling them apart. They never grow into full adult size.
Old Willy Fields is an orderly at the local hospital.
Mr. Finley is a resident of the Bottom. Not long after Sula returns to the Bottom after a ten year absence, he chokes to death on a chicken bone.
Jude Greene is Nel's husband and works as a waiter in the Hotel Medallion.
Ajax (Albert Jacks) is the oldest of his mother's seven sons. Ajax has many lovers who often fight over him in the streets. He is always nice to his lovers, but he finds them uninteresting. The only true loves of his life are his mother, a conjure woman, and airplanes. At age twenty-one, he is a beautiful, graceful "pool haunt." Other men envy his "magnificently foul mouth." It is not that he curses often, but he has a way of infusing the most ordinary words with power.
Nel is the daughter of Helene, in adolescence she develops an intense friendship with Sula. Nel marries Jude, and is later abandoned by him.
BoyBoy Peace was Eva's husband. He abandoned her when their three children were small.
Eva Peace was abandoned by her husband, BoyBoy, when their children were young. She struggled to keep her family away from starvation, but she succeeded only through the kindness of her neighbours. Eva later became the vibrant matriarch over a busy household, which included Hannah, Sula, Ralph, Tar Baby, the Deweys, and constant stream of boarders.
Hannah Peace is Eva's oldest child. She moved back in with her mother after her husband, Rekus, died when their daughter, Sula, was three years old. Like her mother, Hannah loves "maleness." She has frequent, brief affairs with the men who take her fancy. Many women resent her, but they don't hate her. Men don't gossip about her because she is a kind and generous woman. They often defend her against the harsh words of their wives.
Pearl Peace is Eva's second child. She is actually named after Eva, but Eva gave her the nickname "Pearl." Pearl married at age 14 and moved to Flint, Michigan. She occasionally writes unremarkable letters about the everyday details of marriage and motherhood.
Ralph Peace, nicknamed Plum, is Eva's youngest and best-loved child. He fights in World War I, returning home with troubling memories and a heroin addiction.
Sula Peace is Hannah's daughter. She has a birthmark over one of her eyes. Depending on their perception of her, people think the birthmark looks like different things: a stemmed rose, a snake, or Hannah's ashes. When they are young girls, Sula and Nel become close friends.
Rekus was Hannah's husband and Sula's father. He died when Sula was three years old.
Rochelle is Helene Wright's mother. She is a Creole prostitute in New Orleans. Rochelle played little part in Helene's upbringing.
Shadrack is a World War I veteran from the Bottom. He spends two years in a hospital after he suffers a traumatic experience in the War. He has a terror of unexpected death, so he institutes National Suicide Day. Every year on January 3, he marches through the Bottom declaring that people should commit suicide or, if they want, kill each other.
Mr. and Mrs. Suggs are Eva's neighbours. Not long after BoyBoy abandoned her, Eva left her children with them, promising that she would return within a few hours.
Tar Baby is a white alcoholic who lives in Eva Peace's home. She gave him his nickname as a joke.
Teapot is a neglected, malnourished child living in the Bottom.
Helene Wright is the daughter of a New Orleans Creole prostitute, Rochelle. Helene's strictly religious grandmother, Cecile, raised her until she was safely married off to Wiley Wright at age 16. Helene lives a comfortable middle class life in the Bottom. After nine years of marriage, she gave birth to her only child, Nel.