Sula by Toni Morrison is the official literature text for IJMB Literature from 2021 – 2024, IJMB students are advised to study this summary after they read the book.
Summary Of The Book Sula by Toni Morrison
The story unfolds in the neighborhood of Bottom, situated in Medallion, Ohio. Once a prosperous black community, it has now transformed into a golf course exclusively for wealthy white individuals. In the early 1900s, a man named Shadrack resides in Bottom. In 1917, he enlists to fight in World War I, where he witnesses immense violence.
When Shadrack returns to Bottom, he is emotionally shattered. Consequently, he suggests a peculiar holiday for the community known as National Suicide Day. Each year, Shadrack walks through the streets, ringing a bell and shouting, and eventually, this day becomes an accepted part of the town’s calendar.
Another prominent figure in Bottom is Helene Wright. Born in New Orleans, Helene is raised by her grandmother, who instills in her strong religious and moral values. Helene marries Wiley Wright, a cook, and they settle in Bottom. Together, they have a daughter named Nel. Helene swiftly earns a reputation as a highly respectable woman, and she imparts the same principles to her daughter.
When Nel is a young girl, Helene takes her on a trip to New Orleans to visit her great-grandmother, Cecile. During their train journey, a racist conductor hurls insults at Helene, but she responds with an enchanting smile, refusing to let his remarks affect her. However, Nel observes the disapproving glares of other black passengers who find Helene’s deferential behavior disconcerting.
Determined not to be subjected to such judgment, Nel vows never to allow any black man to treat her in a similar manner. Upon their arrival in New Orleans, Nel and Helene discover that Cecile has already passed away. They briefly encounter Rochelle, Helene’s mother, who works as a prostitute and displays no affection or concern for Helene or Nel.
In the early 1920s, another resident of the Bottom emerges: Sula Peace, a young girl with a peculiar birthmark resembling a stemmed rose on her face. Unlike Nel’s orderly household, Sula lives in a large, chaotic home teeming with people. Raised primarily by her grandmother, Eva Peace, a one-legged woman, and her mother, Hannah Peace, Sula’s upbringing differs greatly from the conventional. Eva’s husband, BoyBoy, abandoned her after their three children—Hannah, Pearl, and Plum—were born. Eva dedicates herself to raising her children, even though she disappears for several months during one winter and returns with only one leg but a substantial sum of money (rumors circulate that she intentionally sacrificed her leg to collect an insurance payout). Plum, Eva’s youngest child, enlists in World War I and returns disheveled, seemingly addicted to heroin. Overwhelmed by love and grief, Eva douses Plum with kerosene while he sleeps and sets him on fire, tragically ending his life. Hannah, Eva’s eldest child, always suspected Eva’s responsibility for Plum’s demise.
By the year 1922, Sula and Nel have formed a deep friendship at the age of twelve. Sula protects Nel from bullies in their town, and their shared sense of loneliness brings them closer. One day, while near the Ohio River in search of boys to flirt with, they encounter Chicken Little, a young boy. Sula challenges Chicken Little to climb a tall tree with her, and hesitantly, he joins her. Upon descending, Sula playfully swings Chicken Little by his hands, causing him to laugh. Suddenly, as Nel watches in horror, Sula loses her grip, and Chicken Little is propelled into the river and disappears beneath the water’s surface.
Filled with terror and guilt, believing they may have caused Chicken Little’s death, Sula and Nel rush for help and search for witnesses. They find themselves at Shadrack’s shack, the nearest dwelling. Inside, Sula encounters Shadrack and attempts to ask him if he witnessed the accident on the river. Before she can complete her question, Shadrack utters the word “Always,” which Sula interprets as confirmation of his observation.
Sula rushes out of the shack, and Nel comforts her, noticing that Sula’s belt is missing. A few days later, Chicken Little’s body is recovered from the river. Sula and Nel are consumed by guilt and fear of punishment for their involvement in the tragic incident.
In 1923, Hannah Peace perishes in a mysterious fire, leaving everyone bewildered about the circumstances. Before her death, Hannah confronts Eva about Plum’s demise. Eva does not deny her responsibility but explains that she couldn’t bear to witness her beloved child’s suffering. Shortly after their conversation, Eva sees Hannah standing outside the house, her dress engulfed in flames.
Without hesitation, Eva hurls herself through the second-story window, attempting to shield Hannah from the fire, and plummets to the ground below. Both Eva and Hannah are rushed to the hospital—Eva survives the fall, but Hannah succumbs to her burns. Before being taken away for medical treatment, Eva notices Sula silently watching her own mother burn, and this event breeds deep resentment within Eva towards Sula.
In 1927, Nel enters into a marriage with a handsome man named Jude Greene. Jude dreams of working on the New River Road, a major highway that white contractors promise will eventually connect the Bottom with neighboring communities. At their wedding, Nel and Jude are deeply in love, eagerly anticipating starting a family together. Following the wedding, Sula departs from the Bottom and remains absent for a decade. During this time, Jude and
Nel has several children. Meanwhile, Sula attends college and embarks on travels to various American cities in search of love, but only encounters men who desire her sexually.
When Sula returns to the Bottom in 1937, she visits Eva Peace. Sula accuses Eva of self-amputating her own leg to secure an insurance policy. A few weeks later, Sula contacts officials from a nearby nursing home, leading to Eva’s removal from the Bottom. Sula reunites with Nel, who remains married to Jude but no longer feels the same happiness she once did.
Nel is overjoyed to reconnect with her old friend. However, Jude becomes immediately infatuated with Sula upon meeting her. Soon after, Jude and Sula engage in an affair. One afternoon, when Nel returns home, she discovers Jude and Sula in bed together. Jude informs Nel that he is leaving her and departs for Detroit without Sula. The people of the Bottom grow to despise Sula, aware of her involvement with Jude and her role in Eva’s separation from her family.
In 1940, Sula falls seriously ill. Despite years of separation, Nel, having not seen Jude or Sula in a long time, decides to visit her old friend. Nel confronts Sula, demanding an explanation for her actions that led to the dissolution of their marriage and friendship. Sula asserts her strength and independence, declaring that she can do as she pleases. She questions Nel’s inability to move past their troubled past if they were truly such good friends. Furious, Nel departs from Sula, who passes away shortly afterward.
Following Sula’s death, the Bottom experiences a frost followed by an epidemic. In January 1941, Shadrack walks through the streets, commemorating his annual National Suicide Day. Reflecting on the past, he recalls a young girl with a “tadpole” birthmark (revealed to be Sula) who sought refuge in his shack. Shadrack remembers taking the girl’s belt and whispering “Always,” a comforting word suggesting that the girl would be alright, despite her unusual mark.
To Shadrack’s surprise, numerous people join him, cheering and shouting in support of National Suicide Day. Together, they march toward cliffs overlooking the river, where they survey what is believed to be the “New River Road”—a mere mound of bricks that will never fulfill its grand promises. Disgusted by the hypocrisy of white businessmen, the residents of the Bottom hurl stones at the road. Suddenly, a section of the cliff crumbles, causing dozens of people to plunge to their deaths in the river below.
In the final chapter, set in 1965, Nel has matured into a middle-aged woman. She visits Eva Peace, who still resides in a nursing home. Eva questions Nel about her role in Chicken Little’s death. Shocked, Nel vehemently denies responsibility, insisting that it was Sula, not her, who caused the tragedy. Distressed, Nel rushes out of the nursing home and encounters a cemetery. Among the graves of the Peace family, including Sula’s resting place, Nel realizes that she has missed Sula all these years, mistaking her longing for her husband. She cries out for her old friend, but her words go unheard.