Early in Nel's life, she watches as her mother is humiliated by a train's white, racist conductor; she sees the personal indignity of her mother's having to squat in a field to urinate while in full view of the train's white passengers; and in New Orleans, she realizes her mother's shame at her own Creole mother's life of prostitution. These earth-shattering events in Nel's young and impressionable mind cause her to vow never to lose her own individuality: She will gather power and joy by becoming wonderful. In large part, she accomplishes this goal through her friendship with Sula Peace, a friendship which Nel's mother does not approve of.
Nel's "me-ness," the qualities she vowed to hold onto forever, begins to erode when she marries Jude. In marrying Jude, she is chosen; she does not do the choosing. Acquiescing to his marriage proposal, she hopes that Jude's dreams will become hers. In reality, though, she gives up her own dreams by adopting and authenticating her mother's — and the black community's — traditional ideals about happiness: marriage, motherhood, and religiously sanctimonious piety.
When Jude leaves her, Nel is hollow and suffers under her heavy veil of sacrifice and surrender. She had looked for someone else to design her life and define her dreams; without Jude and Sula, she is spiritless and lost. Morrison hints that Nel's emotional and psychological well-being is close to breaking after Jude abandons her and she abandons Sula, for Nel is left with "no thighs and no heart just her brain raveling away." Stylistically, the lack of any punctuation between "heart" and "just" emphasizes Nel's now-disordered world.
Twenty-five years after Sula's death, Nel realizes that she has wasted all of her opportunities for self-discovery and happiness. In Nel's final moments with Sula, Morrison calls into question the priority of Nel's marriage over her friendship with Sula, for Sula asks of her having sex with Nel's husband, "If we were such good friends, how come you couldn't get over it?" One of the keys to this novel is that friendship supersedes even marriage. Nel finally understands this truth years later when she visits the graveside of her soul mate: "All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude . . . O Lord, Sula . . . girl, girl, girlgirlgirl."