Embodying freedom, adventure, curiosity, unpredictability, passion, and danger, Sula takes little from others and gives even less. She is not ruthless; rather, she is spontaneous and unable to moderate or temper the sudden impact her actions might have on her community. She often seems perpetually stuck in a kind of childlike impetuosity. Morrison tells us that Sula "had no center, no speck around which to grow"; her life is like an open rainbow for experimental freedom that often touches the edges of danger.
Sula must experience events in order to reflect on them: She watches her mother burn, she commits her grandmother to a nursing home, and she has a sexual affair with her best friend's husband. As flawed as Sula is, however, she never surrenders to falseness or falls into the trap of conventionality in order to keep up appearances or to be accepted by the community. As Morrison notes of her, "She was completely free of ambition, with no affection for money, property or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments — no ego."
Faced with a racist world and a sexist community, Sula defends herself by creating a life, however bizarre, that is rich and experimental. She refuses to settle for a woman's traditional lot of marriage, child raising, labor, and pain. The women of the Bottom hate Sula because she is living criticism of their own dreadful lives of resignation. Their resentment of her is foreshadowed in the novel's epigraph, from Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, which hints at the independent nature of Morrison's title character. In Williams' play, Serafina delle Rose, an Italian-American woman, mourns for the recent death of her husband, Rosario, who, Serafina's gossipy and cruel neighbors claim, was having an extramarital affair before his death. None of the play's characters understands Serafina's fierce commitment to her dead husband's memory; her questioning his love for her would effectively negate the pride — the glory — she has for herself. Her shallow neighbors think that Serafina has "too much glory," just like the Bottom's black community despises Sula because she has an independence that contrasts to the community's own small-mindedness.
Described by one critic as a "cracked mirror, fragments and pieces that we have to see independently and put together for ourselves," even Sula's birthmark over one eye is perceived differently by different characters. What shape people perceive the birthmark to be says more about them than about Sula. To Shadrack, whose livelihood is catching and selling river fish, Sula's birthmark resembles a tadpole, a symbol of Shadrack's earthy nature and his psychological metamorphosis throughout the novel. To Jude, it looks like a poisonous snake, which recalls the serpent in the biblical garden of Eden and symbolizes the carnal sin that the married Jude commits when he has a sexual affair — however brief — with Sula. To others, including the narrator, the birthmark is a stemmed rose, adding excitement to an otherwise plain face. This stemmed-rose imagery is a positive symbol of Sula's persevering character. She remains true to herself, which Morrison, by linking Sula's birthmark to the image of the traditionally beautiful rose, emphasizes as the most important virtue of a spiritually beautiful person.
As girls, Sula and Nel make up their own rules and define the dimensions of their friendship; together, they are just outside what the community perceives as acceptable behavior: "In the safe harbor of each other's company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perceptions of things." Of the novel, Morrison has said that her motivation for examining female friendship was because too little had been written about women as friends. "If you really do have a friend," she says, "a real other, another person that complements your life, you should stay with him or her. You'll never be a complete person, until you know and remember . . . what life is without that person."
However, as with any relationship, disagreements can occur that test the resiliency of friendship. For Sula and Nel, their separation offers us a chance to see the strength and beauty they find in each other's personality. Sula's sexual encounter with Nel's husband causes a void, a gap, an absence in the women's relationship and allows us to examine what happens when a close friendship is severed. At the time of her death, Sula suffers no limitations; she never betrayed who she is. Nel, however, realizes that she betrayed the "me-ness" of herself in order to have a respectable social position within the Bottom's black community. Any sparkle or vivacity of life she experienced was with and through Sula, and the novel ends with Nel weeping for all of the years she lost while thinking that she was mourning her husband~Jude's absence when, in truth, she was mourning for her lost, wonderful friend, Sula.