Summary and Analysis
Part 1: 1920
Morrison now turns to another resident of Medallion: Helene Wright, whose first sixteen years were spent in New Orleans with her grandmother, Cecile, in a home filled with strict rules and force-fed religious conventionality, and watched over by the authoritative household statue of the Virgin Mary. In contrast, Helene's mother, Rochelle, lived in the Sundown House, a red-shuttered whorehouse, and Cecile watched her granddaughter constantly, ready to squash any evidence that she had inherited her mother's wild blood.
One day, Cecile's great-nephew, Wiley, knocked on her door and met the teenage Helene. He was enchanted with her, married her, and took her North, where they settled into a solid, respectable life in the Bottom.
In this chapter, Helene is taking her daughter, Nel, by train to New Orleans, hoping to arrive before the very old and gravely ill Cecile dies. Although Nel is only ten years old, she is painfully aware of the simmering hate that seethes within the other black passengers on the train as they watch Helene's all-too-eager, ready-smiling attempts to please and appease the loud-mouthed, hostile, white conductor.
Helene and Nel arrive too late; Cecile has already died. Unexpectedly, Nel meets her grandmother, the infamous Rochelle, presumably still a prostitute and still working and living in the Sundown House. The exchange between Helene, her mother, and Nel is very brief, but the trip to New Orleans and the image of her grandmother greatly affect Nel, who appears to gain a stronger sense of self from the experience.
After Helene and Nel's return to the Bottom, Nel befriends a young girl named Sula. At first, Helene is opposed to the girls' friendship — she doesn't respect Sula's mother, Hannah; however, Helene soon grows accustomed to Sula's playing with Nel.
In an effort to distance herself as far as possible from what she perceives as her mother's shameless life, Helene marries the right ("Wright") man, keeps a perfect house, and worships in the most conservative black church in the Bottom. Much of her energy is spent trying to smother all signs of creativity and spontaneity in her daughter, Nel. Seemingly, Helene is a model mother and citizen.
When a return to New Orleans to see her dying grandmother seems inevitable, Helene has great misgivings about going south. She's keenly aware of the strict rules of segregation, both written and unwritten. Her best protection, she thinks, is an elegant dress, but when distraction leads her, by accident, into a train's Whites Only car, not even her beautiful brown wool dress can save her from being humiliated by the jeers of the white, racist conductor. Later, she is further humiliated: Because there are no toilets for black people on the train, Helene must substitute fields adjacent to train stations for bathrooms and leaves for toilet paper.
Whereas Helene was able to transform herself successfully into a rigid model of religious and moral respectability in Midwestern Ohio, the South slowly strips her of all her protective veneer. This degeneration begins the moment she steps into the train, when the white conductor addresses her as "gal," a demeaning, stereotypical label that negates Helene's personal identity. The word immediately reminds her of her past, of the whorehouse's red shutters, which symbolize her mother's morally disordered life and behind which Helene was born. She is so personally shaken by this memory — "All the old vulnerabilities, all the old fears of being somehow flawed gathered in her stomach . . ." — that she physically trembles.
During the trip south, Nel sees the exterior of her once-powerful mother slowly disintegrate, and she realizes that, underneath, her mother is weak and vulnerable. She vows that she herself will never be reduced to emotional custard. Declaring that she is a separate and wonderful person, Nel resolves to develop her "me-ness," a transformation that will begin to take shape when she becomes friends with an odd, independent-minded girl named Sula Peace.
creole In New Orleans, many of the residents are Creole — that is, of mixed black, French and Spanish, and Portuguese ancestry; the Creole language contains a blend of multilingual phrases.
dolesome sorrowful; filled with grief.
a victorious swagger in the legs of white men Armistice Day is celebrated annually in November; in Medallion, even though two years have passed since the end of World War I, this military victory is still foremost in the minds of the town's veterans.
[Helene] joined the most conservative black church During slavery, blacks usually adopted the Baptist church of the slaveholders, infusing their church with Africanisms. After slavery, in an attempt to distance themselves from the spirited, animated black Baptist churches, upwardly mobile blacks sought spiritual refuge in the more refined and quieter Catholic church. Because there isn't a Catholic church in the Bottom, Helene joins the most conservative black church available.
gal a derogatory term for a black woman; it corresponds to the term "boy" for a black man.
Colored Only This chapter underscores the South's strict adherence to the laws of segregation. When Helene breaks one of these laws by walking through the Whites Only car of the train, she is sternly reprimanded and could have been arrested had she not apologized profusely and flashed a blindly subservient smile.
placket V-shaped, overlapping fabric on a blouse, dress, or skirt; the front of a typical rugby shirt has a placket design at the neck.
custard custard-colored; a mulatto color. It also means something soft and insubstantial, not firm.
direc'lin directly, or right away.
yonder over there.
head rag a length of cloth, often matching the fabric of a dress, that is bound and tied around the head.
wrecked Dorics Morrison likens the white men hanging about the fronts of train stations to the ruins of Doric columns on Greek temples. The men are silent and unmoving, unfunctional and passive watchers.
shotgun house a very narrow house that faces the street, each room opening behind it in a straight line into another room, so that if you fired a shotgun in the front door, the bullet would pass through all of the rooms and exit through the back door.
Come, chere Come here, darling.
Comment t'appelle? What's your name?
pulling your nose In an effort to make Nel's nose look narrower, sleeker, and more Anglo, Helene tells her to snap a clothespin on it.
folded leaves The reference is to the leaves that Helene has to use instead of toilet paper.
read you a dream interpret a dream.