Summary and Analysis
Nel rehearses what she will say to the critically ill Sula, whom she hasn't seen for three years. Motivated by a friendship that once bound them as one, she will visit Sula. Today, she will look down at the stemmed rose on the forehead of her old friend, at the same face that Jude kissed.
The reunion is not extraordinary; minutes later, Nel is off to the pharmacy to fill Sula's prescription, and after Nel returns, the two women settle into a conversation seasoned with innuendoes of what constitutes good and bad, right and wrong. Finally, Nel asks the question that has been tearing at her ever since Jude left: She wants to know why Sula slept with him, an act that severed and destroyed their friendship. Neither repentant nor apologetic, Sula tells her that Jude simply "filled up the space." Nel is crushed that Sula didn't even love Jude. She protests that she has always been "good" to Sula, but Sula points out to Nel the difficulty in separating good from evil. She whispers a final haunting and ambiguous question to Nel, asking her to consider which of them is good and which one is bad. Sula suggests that perhaps she was the good girl, and that Nel was bad: "I mean maybe it wasn't you. Maybe it was me." Shaken, Nel leaves.
Riddled with pain and drifting into a narcotic limbo of past and present, Sula curls up in her grandmother Eva's bed. Images of Tar Baby and of her mother, Hannah, dance gently within her semi-consciousness, but fatigue grips her. Fetus-like, she draws her legs up to her chest, puts a thumb in her mouth, and remembers that someone once said "Always" to her, but she can't recall who.
Sula stops breathing, and, in this quiet lifelessness, she realizes that she is dead. She thinks of Nel and smiles: Death doesn't hurt.
The chapter begins with Nel's exaggerated perception of herself as a "good woman." Since Jude's abandonment of her three years earlier, Nel has lived a hard life, working to support her children and maintain her home. She has done what was expected of her as a deserted wife and mother, and has taken her place with the rest of the women in the community. In the same way that she has been a "good woman," she is, again, a good friend to Sula, whom she never betrayed; Sula betrayed her. Now, she will break the silence and close the gap between Sula and herself.
For the most part, the sickroom conversation between the two women is driven by Nel, who really doesn't know what to say or how to deal with Sula's ambiguity and arrogance. They are at odds, still opposites who, together, form a whole. Nel extols the virtue of hard work; Sula rejects it. Nel blusters about Sula's man-like independence; Sula acknowledges it with pride.
Sula's candor is confrontational as she still refuses to conform — even in dying — to "what every colored woman in the country is doing." They are all, she says, "dying like a stump," while she is "going down like one of those redwoods." Nel, however, clings to what she knows and retorts that Sula has nothing to show for her life but loneliness. Sula's rebellious spirit is fueled by her freedom; any loneliness she has felt is hers alone because she paid the price for her adventures. If Sula is lonely, her loneliness is hers. In contrast, Nel's loneliness is made from and dictated by other people; according to Sula, Nel's loneliness, compared to Sula's, is a "secondhand lonely."
As Sula dies, she explores her life one last time. She remembers watching Hannah burn: There was no spite or vengeance within her; she was simply "thrilled" by the sight. The image of her memories scattering like dandelion spores foreshadows the scene at the end of the novel, when Nel finally realizes her love for Sula: "A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze."
Sula's final sensory revelation reinforces the theme of friendship. During her final freefall, her thoughts are on Nel. She can hardly wait to tell Nel that dying doesn't hurt.
sucked her teeth a disrespectful sound made by children to show disapproval of an adult request.
Lindbergh (1902–1974) Nicknamed "Lucky Lindy," Charles Lindbergh was the heroic American aviator who, in 1927, made the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. His golden life was tarnished by the brutal kidnapping and murder of his baby son in 1932.
Bessie Smith (d. 1937) An American singer famous for her jazz and blues singing in the 1920s, she was known as the Empress of the Blues.
Norma Shearer (d. 1983) A famous actress of the 1930s, she won an Academy Award for best actress in 1930 for The Divorcee.
Stepin Fetchit the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Perry (1902–1985), a black comedian famous for playing the buffoon.
Clabber Girl Baking Powder 1930s baking product with a picture of a white girl with blonde hair on the package.