Summary and Analysis
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed. Nel takes stock of the many changes in the community. Blacks are now working in jobs once available only to whites, but Nel is aware of a diminished vitality in people, the same people who previously drew collective strength from their hard times together. The community has spread out and changed, so much so that even the prostitutes seem pale and lifeless compared to the tough, fat, laughing women of forty years ago.
Nel reminisces about the twenty-five years since Jude left. She has spent her life in a tiny sphere of children and work — without love, without marriage. Nel is fifty-five years old, and the future seems to be anywhere but up in the Bottom; blacks are anxious to move to the valley, and whites are erecting television towers and building golf courses up in the Bottom.
Nel visits Eva in the Sunnydale nursing home and is saddened to find a pale, confused miniature of the magnificent Eva Peace she remembers. Their disjointed conversation swings from Eva's non sequiturs to her up-front confrontation about Nel's involvement in Chicken Little's death. Nel pushes the blame for the boy's death solely on Sula, but Eva insists, "You. Sula. What's the difference?" Eva then drifts between the present and the past, but her many references to Nel and Sula being "just alike" haunt Nel, who finally acknowledges that she indeed shares Sula's guilt; perhaps she and Sula really were two halves of the same person.
As Nel leaves the nursing home, Eva calls after her, "Sula?" and Nel hurries away, searching her memory for that day on the riverbank when Sula was swinging Chicken Little. She recalls the good, satisfying feeling she had when she saw his hands slipping away from Sula's, and she remembers feeling proud that she remained calm and controlled while Sula became hysterical.
Nel's walk takes her to the cemetery, where Sula is buried alongside Plum, Hannah, and Pearl. She remembers the day of Sula's death: No one came running at the news of her death, and it was Nel who finally called the mortuary. Besides Nel, only white people came to bury Sula, not like the hordes of black people who showed up for Hannah's funeral. Even Eva refused to come.
Leaving the cemetery, Nel passes Shadrack, who stops and tries to remember where he has seen her. The events of the day well up in her; her eye twitches, and she gazes up at the trees. The breeze carries Nel's whisper, "Sula?" and finally she releases a deep, instinctual cry for her long-lost, beloved friend and soul mate.
The narrative has circled back on itself to a time before the prologue was written. Here, the golf course is only a rumor. This final chapter in the novel begins ironically: "Things were so much better in 1965." However, the next sentence reads, "Or so it seemed," and we realize immediately that things are not really better. The Bottom's sense of community is gone — in part because various advancements of the civil rights movement have fractured the community's unity. Now black people live in the valley in "separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones" — emphasizing the private and individual space that is so very different from the closeness and the sense of one communal family previously felt in the Bottom.
The narrative then focuses on the current practice of putting old people in nursing homes. Nel also realizes that the Bottom's new prostitutes are "pale and dull," suggesting that blacks have blindly accepted the white community's norms and values. Her uneasiness with these changes foreshadows her move to a new and shocking self-awareness by the end of the day.
Eva, despite her dementia, provides the final revelation of the Nel/Sula friendship theme. She forces Nel to confront her guilt and involvement in Chicken Little's death. For years, Nel has enveloped herself in good works and has done the right things; it was Sula, the bad girl, who let Chicken Little sail toward the river and drown. But Eva insists that there is no difference between Nel and Sula. She draws a vivid parallel as she makes Nel realize that her watching Chicken Little drown — and feeling good as she witnessed the tragedy — parallels Sula's watching Hannah burn and marveling at her mother's flaming, dancing movements.
When Nel is able to remember the scene on the riverbank so long ago, she finally accepts her dark complicity in the little boy's death. She questions herself about why it felt so good to see Chicken Little disappear under the water and drown. Later, as she stands beside Sula's grave, she discovers that she has denied this perversity all her life. Her own act of cool, evil composure at the river balanced Sula's anguished goodness, and, afterward, all the rest of Nel's charitable deeds balanced Sula's so-called acts of evil. In spite of death, she and Sula are bonded forever — and the novel closes with Nel keening for Sula.
During the war Here, the reference is to World War II (1941–1945).
milk-dull eyes eyes dull with age and, quite possibly, with cataracts.
so shocked by the closed coffin At most funerals in the Bottom, coffins would be open. However, at the funerals of Hannah and Chicken Little, the coffins are closed because of the bodies' mortification. In each case, the closed coffin is mentioned, indicating that a coffin's being closed was not a common occurrence.