Summary and Analysis
The black community rallies to defend itself against Sula. She has done the unthinkable: She has put her grandmother, Eva Peace, in a nursing home — for this, she is labeled "roach." In addition, she has had some type of sexual encounter with her best friend's husband and then moved on to other lovers — for this transgression, she is labeled "bitch." Everyone remembers the plague of filthy robins associated with Sula's returning to the Bottom, and they resurrect the old anecdote about Sula's passively watching her mother burn to death; they decide once and for all that Sula's birthmark is really Hannah's ashes. But the most heinous of her crimes is that she has slept with white men. The strong damnation of such an indictment is derived from the racism under which the entire community has suffered. Subtleties of institutionalized racism, coupled with the accepted Jim Crow laws of segregation, remind everyone of the separation of the races. Sula's alleged interracial affairs are perceived as an affront to all of the black people living in the Bottom.
Sula's every move becomes suspect, and even random occurrences of bad luck are attributed to her. Her apparent defiance of physical and moral laws galvanizes the black community against her. Sula is unnatural: she doesn't age, has lost no teeth, never bruises, refuses to wear underwear at church suppers, has never been sick, and doesn't belch when she drinks beer. When she bewitches Shadrack into tipping his imaginary hat to her, the community is convinced that Sula is both the devil and evil personified. Fully aware that she is the town's pariah, Sula does as she pleases, when she pleases.
At the age of twenty-nine, Sula is reunited with Ajax, who, at thirty-eight, becomes her lover. Ajax has heard all of the stories about Sula but is not uncomfortable rebelling against public opinion. The two lovers are drawn to each other's free-spirited independence. For the first time in Sula's life, she realizes that she can express love in terms of permanence and possession.
Sensing a change within Sula as she begins sliding into easy domesticity, Ajax leaves her. Afterward, Sula discovers his driver's license and learns that his name is Albert Jacks — A. Jacks — Ajax. She begins to crumble under the realization that she never really knew him. She crawls into bed holding the crumpled license and dreams a melody, one that states that Sula has sung all of the songs there are to sing.
The mounting evidence for Sula being the embodiment of evil is contrived, but this belief gains credibility because Sula refuses to conform to the black community's social norms and tacit laws of acceptable behavior. Despite her two shocking transgressions — placing Eva in a nursing home and committing adultery with Jude — it is Sula's perceived promiscuity with white men that garners the loudest and foulest damnation: She has broken the laws of racial segregation. In contrast, Ajax is accustomed to being contrary to the order of things; as a man, he has license to act as he does without fear of retaliation by the black community. However, as a black woman, Sula's lawlessness alienates and frightens the community, and she is branded accordingly.
Paradoxically, the community-versus-Sula relationship is symbiotic. The previously factional community bands together, defining itself in the face of Sula's shocking behavior. Her rebelliousness unites the community as it moves to protect its own black honor. By identifying Sula as the evil within, the community copes with her the way it has coped with bigotry, misfortune, and oppression — through the collective strength of tradition and a unified sense of neighborhood.
In the midst of the community's swarming and buzzing around this so-called bewitched pariah, Sula takes Ajax as a lover. Never before has she opened her soul so freely to a man. Her lovemaking in the past titillated her "sooty" side and spoke to her wickedness, but for the most part it was lonely and not fulfilling. In the past, she would wait impatiently for her partner to finish and go, to leave her "to the postcoital privateness in which she met herself, welcomed herself, and joined herself in matchless harmony." However, although she finds such psychological singleness powerfully intoxicating, she soon learns that this singleness is actually "soundless-ness," a horrible void of nothingness that renders her powerless and, even worse, forces her to confront the possibility of a purely mortal and non-eternal existence.
To combat her fear of loneliness, Sula begins loving Ajax. They meld together into one whole person, much like Nel and Sula used to complement one another. Ironically, Sula's subtle toying with possession and constancy — those value standards that the community treasures and that usually lead to marriage, fidelity, and responsibility — drives Ajax away. Her flirtation with domesticity raises every hackle in his being: Sula is behaving exactly as she earlier condemned Nel for behaving, as a spider "whose only thought was the next rung of the web."
Ajax is in love with Sula's irresponsibility, spontaneity, rebelliousness, and unpredictability — all traditionally masculine qualities. When Sula begins femininely wrapping herself in cologne, Ajax fears that the noose of marriage is waiting in ambush for him, and he takes flight. He moves on, leaving Sula to mourn the loss. Her brief attempt at nesting has accumulated only a crumpled piece of paper with a name on it that she doesn't even recognize. Mother-like, she soothes herself with a lullaby.
So they laid broomsticks across their doors at night and sprinkled salt on porch steps. evidence of superstitions; both counter-measures are believed, by some people, to ward off evil.
big Daughter Elk an important member of the ladies' auxiliary of the Elks, a men's fraternal order.
bid whist a card game similar to bridge.
pariah anyone despised or rejected by others; a social outcast.
postcoital after sexual intercourse.
meal-fried porgies A porgy is a fish; meal-fried means that the fish is fried with a cornmeal coating in hot lard.
Jell-Well a gelatin dessert.
Old Dutch Cleanser a widely sold household cleanser in the 1930s.
Tillie the Toiler a popular comic strip character.
bottles of milk At that time, milk was delivered to homes in bottles with paper lids and left on doorsteps. Ajax steals the bottles of milk that he gives to Sula from a white family's doorstep.
working roots using roots and rites from the occult to gain mystical powers.
conjure woman one who deals in the "spirit" world, or the occult, and works with roots to render spells.
Van Van, High John the Conqueror, Little John to Chew, Devil's Shoe String, Chinese Wash, Mustard Seed and the Nine Herbs These are all ingredients used by conjurers to create spells and tell fortunes.
catarrh inflammation of the mucous membranes, especially of the nose or throat.
chamois a soft leather made from the hide of the chamois, a goat-like antelope native to Europe's mountainous regions.
alabaster Originally, alabaster was a marble used by craftsmen to create beautifully lustered statues; today, alabaster is a granular form of the mineral gypsum, a colorless, white, or yellow mineral. White alabaster is the most highly prized.
marcelling irons irons used to create a hairstyle consisting of a series of even waves put in the hair with a hot curling iron.
loam a rich mixture of moist soil, clay, and sand.