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The major theme of the novel is the question of right versus wrong or good versus bad; but the conventional ideas of good and evil are turned upside in Sula. Throughout the book, Sula is judged to be bad by the society that surrounds her, while Nel is thought to be the picture of goodness; as a result, Sula sees herself as evil, while Nel judges herself to be good. At the end of the novel, however, Nel reveals that she has an evil heart, while Sula's heart is really much purer.
The novel explores the importance of the presence or absence of family and friends. Sula hurts greatly from the lack of attention she receives from her mother; in contrast, Nel feels somewhat smothered by Helene and determines she will not become like her. In truth, both girls turn out just like their mothers. The importance of friendship is also explored through the relationship that exists between Sula and Nel. Although they appear to be best friends through much of the novel, they betray one another. Sula sleeps with Nel's husband, causing the break-up of the family; Nel, in her goodness, judges Sula to be evil and unworthy, refusing to help her friend put her guilt behind her. If the two women had truly acted as faithful friends, some of the tragedy of the story could have been avoided.
Although the novel has a very serious message and theme, the mood of the book is very varied -- sometimes playful, sometimes serious, often reverent, and occasionally sarcastic. The story is told from the point of view of a wise narrator, who is amongst the characters, celebrating their lives in a positive way. Although the details of the story are sometimes sad or upsetting, the narrative voice always gives the benefit of the doubt and tries to find the good in a situation or at least be objective.