The best way to sum up Nel and Sula lies in a quote from the novel Sula. Morrison tells the reader that two very different black girls grew up in the Bottom. The first speaks of Nel, described by the narrator as one whose parents had succeeded in rubbing her down to a dull glow any sparkle or sputter she had (24). A townswoman describes when Sula drank beer she never belched (136). Obviously these two characters are extremely diverse. Sula felt no regret, and Nel was a nobody. Through different settings, conflicts, and diction both Sula and Nels conflicts of finding and accepting their selves arises and makes them who they are (McClain 366).
In keeping with the idea that Sula and Nel are compliments to one another, it is fitting that the meaning of their names symbolically compliment each other. Nel, knell, connotes the long dreary sound that a bell makes announcing the death, or tragedy of someone. On the other hand Sula, Solyman, means The Magnificent (Mickelson 315). The meanings of their names are not a coincidence. Morrison wrote the novel Sula in the core of the revived feminist movement (Smith 324). Therefore Morrisons name choice had a great deal to do with her views on femininity. The author greatly admires the way that Sula embraces life and does not look back. Where as she looks down upon Nels follow-the-leader living style. Morrison seems to be motivating the audience to consider a more non-conformist view of life (Mickelson 316)
In the literary world the end of most women that rebel end in death. This destiny does not spare Sula. Even on her death bed she holds her position of rejecting the Christian definition of goodness. She believes that only life matters; it alone must serve her whims, and that immortality becomes too high a price to pay for duty and suffering (Mickelson 316). Sula leaves the bottom and embraces the world. She only returns when her appetite for the world if satisfied. Nel on the other hand confirms to the Christian idea that perseverance and commitment will in the end have a greater outcome than earthly joy. Nel does just exactly what everyone expects of her. She marries, has kids, and spends her life caring for others and not thinking of herself.
An individuals job must be to embrace their whole person-the good, the bad, the fears, the regrets, and even hope and loss. If an individual can not blend two conflicting components of identity together, he then cannot become one. The individual cannot react in certain situations and thus must mimic someone on how to feel. A weak self can surrender totally to the will and power of a stronger self, or the weak self can part of the stronger self, almost as a possession. In a crisis Nels calm and quiescent nature surfaces (Schapiro 307). But all of Sulas being explodes into a mighty and even ferocious action (Mickelson 315). Morrison describes the two being so close that they themselves had difficulty distinguishing ones thoughts from the others (75). Each of the girls must seek their own self through seeking the other. In this blurring of selves they instead of becoming more distinguished in their own being, they worked until the two holes were one and the same (58).
Morrison used Sula and Nel as representations of rebellion and conformity rather than as individual characters with their own minds and motivation. Anne Mickelson writes that Sula:
Exceeds boundaries, creates excitement, tries to break free of encroachments of external cultural forces and challenges destiny. Believing that an unpatterned, unconditioned life is possible, Sula tries to avoid uniformity by creating her own kind of life (315)
But the author does not just leave the reader to think that Sula made the decision to rebel with out having due cause.
She steps in with an armload of explanations distributed over several pages. Sula had inherited her grandmothers arrogance and her mothers self-indulgence; she had never felt any obligation to please someone unless their pleasure pleased her; she was as willing to receive pain as to give it; she had never been the same since she overheard her mother explain that she loved Sula but did not like her; the boys Chicken Little drowning had closed something off in her (316)
Literary criticizer does not mention Nel. Maybe she feels that her conformed so much that it explaining it isnt necessary and especially not as interesting as Sulas defiance.
So at the end of the novel who wins? Each one of them never truly found what they sought for individually. But what they had all along was one another. Together Sula and Nel were a whole person. But Sula probably never knew it. Nel did not see it until it was too late. Sulas life exemplifies that of a defiant gesture which in her mind liberates her to an extent, and keeps her from pitying herself. Her pride steers from the fact that she walks through life with no blinders on. Yet no happy ending comes for Sula. She dies in loneliness, not in freedom (Mickelson 316). The town does not even do anything about her death for three days. But Nel is left with a fine cryloud and longbut it had no bottom and it had no to, just circles and circles of sorrow (Morrison 174). So in the end each of them prove that the do need love, and each other. They are part of one another.