Toni Morrison's Heroines Sula and Nel as Two Halves of One Whole

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Toni Morrison's novel 'Sula' demonstrates the bond between the two main characters. It’s both implicit and silent, as though the two girls can read each other’s minds. Through the unspoken actions between the two main characters, Morrison introduces one of the main themes of the novel, that though the girls have completely different personalities and familial backgrounds, yet together they are two halves of one whole but different person.

The passage begins with Sula lifting her head, which suggests that as she had been looking down, she hadn’t been watching Nel and so was merely responding to her own sense of Nel’s actions. Morrison refers to the activity in the passage as “grass play”, suggesting that the girls routinely engage in other types of play and have a implied understanding of any rules. This idea is being reinforced by the next two words, “in concert”, which bring up other nonverbal senses of listening and hearing. The two girls are behaving as if they were in a concert, Nel being the conductor while Sula follows her lead “without ever meeting each other's eyes”. In the same sentence, Morrison describes more nonverbal communication, this time with obvious sexual connotations; “they stroked the blades up and down, up and down”. Here the idea of sex becomes an important topic that that signifies the end of the girls’ innocence. This implied sexuality continues in the following sentence when Nel finds a “thick twig” to use as a tool. The twig symbolizes a male’s genitalia, which Nel uses in a masculine way, poking it “rhythmically and intensely into the earth”, stripping it of its bark, “until it was stripped to a smooth, creamy innocence”. Sula follows her lead and continues to “undress” her own twig. These lines continue to foreshadow the girl’s own impending loss of innocence.

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After stripping the twigs, Nel goes on a tear up a patch of earth of its grassy covering. Morrison sets up the dichotomy of Nel’s action by describing the clearing she makes as “generous”, using a positive adjective to describe a destructive act. Sula uses her twig as a sort of paint brush “trace[ing] intricate patterns in [the bare spot of earth] with her twig”. Nel follows Sula’s lead “at first”, and grows impatient “poke[ing] her twig rhythmically and intensely into the earth”. It’s intensity and rhythm evolks obvious sexual connotations, as it makes the “small neat hole that grew deeper and wider with the least manipulation of her twig”. Nel’s actions feel automatic, almost instinctual. Because Nel was raised in a very strict and religious environment, and this behaviour suggests a rebellion on her part against the repressive attitudes of her family and society. Sula’s family is the opposite of Nel’s, with little structure or care for societal expectations. But Sula copies Nel, and together the girls dig two small holes. But then something causes Nel to dig more strenuously, “and, rising to her knee, was careful to scoop out the dirt as she made her hole deeper”. Her actions here are both careful and aggressive. Morrison implies that Sula again follows Nel’s lead, stating that “they worked until the two holes were one and the same”. The holes the girls create also have a sexual symbolism, only this time it’s a feminine sexuality instead of masculine. This combination of masculinity and femininity reflects the sense of the girls broken identity, that neither is whole without the other.

Even without an understanding for the reason of their actions, together they have dug a small grave in total silence. The final line of the passage stands alone, disattached to the rest of the paragraph, further emphasizing the bond between the two main protagonists. Morrison writes that “Neither one had spoken a word”. Nel and Sula might have had different familial structures and expectations, but their shared experiences, along with their ability to understand each other without speaking a word, set them apart from everybody else in the world. Together they become two halves of a person that is simultaneously both and neither of them. They are stronger together than they were as individuals, and only together can they be ready.

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Toni Morrison’s Heroines Sula and Nel as Two Halves of One Whole. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
“Toni Morrison’s Heroines Sula and Nel as Two Halves of One Whole.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
Toni Morrison’s Heroines Sula and Nel as Two Halves of One Whole. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
Toni Morrison’s Heroines Sula and Nel as Two Halves of One Whole [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from:

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