Toni Morrison's Sula is a novel that has a theme about the nature of evil. The story follows the lives of two black female friends who present differing views on evil. On one hand, we have society's conventional view of evil represented by the character of Nel and also seen in the Bottom's disapproval of Sula. The other view of evil is seen through the character of Sula and through her actions, which conflict with traditional society. The friendship of Sula and Nel is how the author conveys her message about evil in the relationship. In the relationship the two different conceptions of evil mix and create an essentially neutral mixture. By looking at Nel's and Sula's friendship and the two different views of evil that they have, the author shows us the subjective and relative nature of evil and how friendship can overcome any evil.
In the Bottom, the dominant view of evil is society's conception. Its guidelines for good and bad behavior can be seen through society's reaction to Sula. Her return to the Bottom after being gone for ten years is greeted with the same way one would greet a pest, a plague or an illness. The novel shows society's negative view of her when it describes how Sula arrived "accompanied by a plague of robins" (Morrison 89). Her time spent in the Bottom is grouped with other evils the "floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance" (Morrison 90) and her stay in the town is called the "evil days"(89), because the town views Sula as an evil force. The reason the town saw her as evil is because of her sexual habits. Sula herself knows that the townspeople "despised her and ... framed their hatred as disgust for the easy way she lay with men"(122), because being faithful in a marriage is one of the town's most important principles. Even worse is the one "unforgivable thing", the accusation that "that Sula slept with white men"(112), offending the town's racial pride. Not only are the residents horrified by her sexual openness, but they are also offended by her directness. To annoy her neighbors, Sula "came to their church suppers without underwear" (114) and even more, "they believed she was laughing at their God" (115). Once again, we see through the town's disapproval of Sula what it holds dear. If that wasn’t enough, she angers the town even more by openly mocking their beliefs. Sula's crime is not only her actions, but also the fact that she is not even slightly ashamed of them; she is evil because she has defied society's laws and has openly mocked them by refusing to even recognize their rule over her.
Absorbed in this conception of evil her whole life, it is Nel who becomes the embodiment of the town's moral code when she gets married and is "one of them" (120), meaning a member of mainstream society. Instantly, her views become the same with those of the town and she "belonged to the town and all of its ways" (120). She is especially offended by Sula's behavior, because Sula sleeps with her husband. While Nel has used the town's moral code, Sula is in open defiance of it, and Sula is caught off guard by Nel's "possessiveness" (119), not really knowing that "marriage...had changed all that" (119), referring to their earlier tendency to "share the affection of other people" (119). Nel's outrage at Sula's actions is similar to the town's anger at Sula and we see the personal hurt that Sula's inconsiderate actions have caused.
While society's view of evil is really based on the disapproval of anything that would break down way society works, Sula's view of evil is based on a different goal and she acts according to a different set of standards. In other words, "Sula was distinctly different" (118). Sula "had been looking all along for a friend" (122) and that is the goal she is really trying to reach. In sleeping with many men, she is sort of looking for a release for her "misery and...deep sorrow" (122). She is trying to find a friend who she can confide in. In her search for some relief of the "loneliness" (123) that she feels and her search for a friend, she commits many acts that are harmful to others, such as sleeping with Jude. The only evil action would be one that is not directed towards friendship. She is not so much trying to find the "sadness that she yearned for" (122), as she is trying to share it with someone such as Nel. As long as Sula tries that, she can’t judge herself to be evil, even though her sexual behavior makes her seem evil to society. Sula believed that, "as her experiences multiplied she realized that not only was it not wicked, it was not necessary for her to conjure up the idea of wickedness in order to participate fully" (122).
Toni Morrison makes a powerful statement about evil through the friendship between Nel and Sula. When Sula sleeps with Jude, a direct conflict between their different conceptions of evil surfaces. Sula feels no shame, because her conception of evil includes only actions not directed towards friendship, while her sleeping with Jude was an attempt at forming a friendship. However, Nel is hurt, because Sula "had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude" (119). Before "they had always shared the affection of other people" (119), things have changed since they parted. Nel had just gotten married, while Sula left for the city. During this time their views became more and more different, as Sula became promiscuous and rebellious, Nel adopted society's morals. Because of this time apart and a change in values Sula was "ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she felt close to" (119). However, the two begin to discuss their differences, and Nel tells Sula her problem with her by saying, "You can't be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like" (142), to which Sula says, "It matters, Nel, but only to you" (144). This is the basic conflict between their two views of evil: Nel thinks that Sula's independence is evil, while Sula doesn't think that she hurt anybody except for Nel, and only because she was reacting from society's viewpoint, without understanding Sula's. To end their conversation, Sula asks an important question, "About who was good. How do you know it was you?... I mean maybe it wasn't you, maybe it was me" (146). This states the concept of evil as something relative and subjective, while their eventual reconciliation shows the issue of friendship.
Sula's question raises the important issue like, whose definition of evil is right? In provoking this debate, I believe the author wants the reader to reach the conclusion that nobody's definition is really correct and that the concept of evil is relative and subjective. For example, while Sula is considered as an evil force by society, her own conception of evil prevents her from being seen as evil. So evil cannot be a concept agreed upon by everyone, because Nel and Sula each disagree on its meaning. The fact that two people disagree on the same topic shows how subjective and personal a definition of evil is. For both characters, it is based on their own experiences. Sula could even be viewed as good instead of evil, because it is her actions that make the people of the Bottom "protect and love one another. They began to...in general band together against the devil in their midst" (117-118). Toni Morrison is proving that evil is a concept that is different for everyone, and that no one person has a right over its definition. But besides all the talk about the differences between good and evil, there is a stronger force at work in the novel.
For Nel and Sula, and all their trials together, they last because of their deep friendship. The concept of evil is raised in their friendship. Despite their different views on what evil is, Sula and Nel reconcile in the end, as Nel realizes that what ultimately matters is their friendship. At the end of the novel, Nel feels a sense of sorrow. However, she realizes that "all the time, I thought I was missing Jude" (174), when in fact she was missing Sula, her closest friend for almost her whole life. Ignoring her opinion about Sula's actions with Jude, she longs for the Sula saying, "We was girls together. O Lord, Sula, girl, girl, girlgirlgirl", a cry with "circles and circles of sorrow" (174). Nel realizes that what mattered wasn’t really how she and Sula differed but rather it was the strength of their friendship which overcame any conflicting conceptions of evil that they might have had.