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The book charts the friendship of Sula and Nel, particularly the moral alternatives Nel and Sula face after Chicken Little's death, Hannah's death, and Nel's marriage. Sula, a complex character, presents some ideas that others have a hard time accepting; even Nel often finds Sula, her good friend, disturbing.
: Sula and Nel, two Black women who live in The Bottom, are the protagonists of the novel. Although they are best friends through most of the book, they are very different. Unconventional, "wild", and complex, Sula is often a disturbing character who sometimes seems to be driven by negative qualities. Nel, on the other hand, is a more conventional character, possessing many attributes that make her seem somehow better, nicer, or more respectable than Sula. Both women are searching for themselves and meaning in life during the course of the novel.
For both Sula and Nel, the antagonist is accepting life and themselves. As friends, they help one another to grow and formulate opinions about themselves; when they become enemies, they also teach one another about life.
The climax for both women occurs when Nel, out of her "goodness," visits the dying Sula, who has been judged an evil woman by the entire town, including Nel. Sula has accepted that her life has been sad and wasted; but on her deathbed, she warns Nel not to be so certain of her goodness, a thought that haunts Nel until she finally comes to grips with who she really is.
The story ends in tragedy for both Sula and Nel. Sula dies a painful death, never feeling love, knowing that Nel and the entire town think poorly of her, and judging herself to have no value. Nel also comes to the realization, after visiting Sula's grandmother and Sula's grave, that she is not such a good person either. What Sula has told her from the deathbed is really true. In the end, Nel acknowledges that she has an evil heart and that Sula has truly been her best friend and a good person. She sees that all Sula's evil deeds have been a result of her friend believing she had no other fate. Nel is truly filled with sorrow over the way that she allowed both her and Sula's lives to progress, each believing one thing about themselves when the other was true.
When Sula was alive, she represented a part of Nel that she could not even admit she had. Now that Sula is dead, Nel must live with the loss of her friend and the guilt over how she has treated her. She mourns the years of missed happiness caused by her own misunderstanding and hypocrisy.