After an absence of ten years, Sula returns to the Bottom. Looking like a movie star, in a foxtail stole and a black crepe dress splashed with color, she climbs homeward, up to the Bottom. Earlier that same day, the Bottom suffered a bizarre plague of robins, and because of the townspeople's long concern with signs of nature as representing omens, they see Sula's return as a portent of evil, a parallel to the plague of robins.
Sula's reunion with her grandmother, Eva, is extremely confrontational. Sula accuses Eva of burning Plum to death, which causes Eva again to recall seeing Sula's own passive complicity in Hannah's burning to death. Amidst this frenzy of accusations, Sula threatens to douse Eva with kerosene some night while the old woman sleeps. Terrified of Sula's threat, Eva decides to keep her bedroom door locked as long as Sula is in the house.
By April, Sula has assigned herself as Eva's guardian and has committed Eva to a nursing home. The black community is stunned; no one commits family to a nursing home. Now, more than ever, the townspeople are convinced that Sula is evil personified.
Nel and Sula slip back into their friendship with ease, humor, and a deeply satisfying pleasure. Nel questions Sula's decision to place Eva in a nursing home. She tries to understand Sula's fear of the old woman and gently coaxes her to find a better solution for her grandmother. Nel's husband, Jude, is intrigued by Sula's unpredictability and odd philosophy about life.
When Nel discovers Sula and Jude naked together, she realizes that her marriage is destroyed and that Sula has irreparably ruptured their friendship. Jude abandons his marriage, and Nel suffers deep, emotional trauma over the loss of both her husband and her best friend. Nel's relationships with both Sula and Jude always meant, for her, a fusion of each of these strong, independent personalities with her own timid, less-secure identity; with Sula — and with Jude — Nel was able to create one significant person. After the breakup of her marriage to Jude and her friendship with Sula, she is emotionally shattered and, for a while, seems to be on the verge of emotional despair.
In contrast to the other people living in the Bottom, Sula is oblivious to the omens and superstitions that accompany her return. Traditionally, robins are thought of as birds of harmony, bringing peace and the rush of new life and fresh air. Ironically, however, when they are associated with Sula's return, they symbolize her perceived threat to the black community's psychological identity even as their droppings encrust everyone's shoes and the streets of the Bottom. What was once good — robins — has become evil — and all because of Sula. Like the defecating robins, Sula threatens the community's well-being. The girl who left town ten years ago has returned, and her peculiar ways are no longer adolescent whims. They seem like sinister oddities.
In her vicious confrontation with Eva, Sula pulls no punches; her body language positions her on the offensive, and she turns her buttocks to the aging Eva, spitting fire and water at her grandmother's call for pregnancy and blissful "settling." Sula lashes out that she doesn't want to make "somebody else": She wants to make herself. By refusing to settle for the traditional black woman's stereotypical lot in life — wife, mother, and caretaker — Sula inspires Eva's wrath and the community's rancor. Unaffected by the community's condemnation, however, Sula does the unthinkable: She commits Eva to a nursing home, an unacceptable option in the black community.
Why has Sula returned to the Bottom? She has returned out of boredom with the many big cities she traveled through, and because she craves Nel — "the other half of her equation" — and yearns for their girlhood's soulful friendship. Neither Nel nor Sula, however, are girls any longer. Nel is a solid, dependable wife and does what is expected of her. Sula is fluid, spontaneous, and instinctual. On the surface, they seemingly compliment each other and support one another, but Nel senses the atmospheric changes that swept in with Sula even though their friendship seems to bond them as one.
Both Nel and Sula are sexual women now, and, like the change in the atmosphere, Sula's birthmark begins to change, acting as a metaphor for Sula's shifting appetites. Nel notices that the birthmark has darkened, and Jude sees the defining feature on Sula's face not as a rose but as a copperhead, or a rattlesnake, both poisonous snakes that recall the serpent in the garden of Eden, which symbolizes sinful behavior. The easy rhythm of these three characters' lives is about to shatter into discord and chaos.
After Nel discovers Jude and Sula "down on all fours naked," the narrative voice shifts from third-person to a dramatic, first-person revelation of Nel's personal disintegration. Nel talks to Jude's "absence" after he leaves, and her pain seems like distilled martyrdom. She has done everything right — she made the conventional sacrifices — but she is left with only loss: "Now her thighs were really empty." Nel thinks that without Jude, her life and sexuality are useless. She agonizingly cries out for someone to confide in, but Sula is no longer available for companionship, and Nel cannot cry as she would like to. She has lost everything that she holds valuable — even her own self-identity.
The images that Morrison uses when describing Nel's inability to cry foreshadow their identical use at the end of the novel. Here, in this chapter, four images dominate Nel's struggle: shifting mud, stirring leaves, the smell of "overripe green things," and a ball of fur. Perhaps most important of these images is the ball of fur, which symbolically hovers just out of Nel's sight — she can see it and touch it if she wants to, but she is afraid of what will happen if she were to focus directly on it. At the end of the novel, these four images are present again, but this time the small ball of fur "broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze," and Nel is finally able to cry out: "O Lord, Sula . . . girl, girl, girlgirlgirl."
What, then, does this odd ball of fur represent for Nel? One possible explanation is that the ball symbolizes the pent-up emotions that Nel has for Sula. Remembering that these two best friends were once inseparable — both physically and, more important, emotionally — while growing up together, when Sula repudiates Nel's friendship by having sex with Jude, Nel is left fragmented; she has lost half of her identity. Only at the end of the novel, when Sula is dead, does Nel come to understand the deep rift in her life without Sula. She finally expresses her repressed feeling for Sula — the ball of fur "broke and scattered" — and realizes that it wasn't Jude she was longing for; it was Sula. Nel is able to cry once again.
foxtails a stole made of several fox tails linked together.
Big Mamma a southern term for "grandmother."
iceman . . . icebox People kept perishable items in a wooden icebox that contained large chunks of ice purchased from an iceman.
dropsy refers to the modern-day medical term "edema," which is the accumulation of water in the body's tissues or in the body cavity, giving the body a sagging look.
The closed place in the water spread before them. Morrison uses this phrase repeatedly to refer to death; the phrase recalls Chicken Little's drowning in the river: "The water darkened and closed quickly over the place where Chicken Little sank."
hunkies a disparaging term for a person, especially a laborer from east-central Europe. Here, it includes all white immigrants.
copperhead a poisonous North American snake with a reddish-brown body and darker crossbands on its body.
Gabriel Heatter a radio newscaster.