Summary and Analysis
Part 1: 1922
The setting of this chapter opens on a cool note — cool weather, a cool wind, and Edna Finch's Mellow House, the town's ice cream parlor — in stark contrast to the ending of the previous chapter, when Plum died in the flames of a kerosene fire, in the heat of Eva's flames of love.
Nel Wright and Sula Peace have become friends, a friendship that will last throughout their lifetimes. In one another, the girls discover their other half; they seem mystically tied to each other's thoughts and feelings. Nel comes from an orderly, tidy home; Sula, from disorder and chaos. Nel's mother is custard-colored; Sula's is sooty. Nel's lighter skin is likened to wet sandpaper; Sula's skin is heavy and brown.
Three events presented in this chapter bond the two girls. When a gang of white, threatening Irish boys confronts Sula and Ned on the girls' way home from school, Sula defiantly cuts off the tip of her forefinger, unnerving the boys and dispersing them. Later in the chapter, the two girls metaphorically explore their inner kindling of early adolescent sexuality by stripping twigs of their bark, peeling out the exposed pulpy center, and then rhythmically digging into the earth with them to create wide, deep holes, which they fill with collected debris and then cover with dirt. Immediately following this scene, a young black boy named Chicken Little joins the girls, and Nel watches as Sula playfully swings Chicken Little around in a wide circle until her hands slip, letting the boy's small body sail through the air and into the river. Chicken Little disappears under the water and drowns.
When Sula sees Shadrack, the mentally unstable war veteran who founded National Suicide Day, on the river's far bank, she runs to his house, hoping to find out if he saw Chicken Little drown. Once she comes face to face with Shadrack, however, she is too frightened of him to say anything. Shadrack's only comment to Sula is the cryptic-like word "Always," which prompts Sula to flee Shadrack's house and seek comfort in Nel's embrace.
Telling no one what really happened to Chicken Little, Nel and Sula sit through Chicken Little's funeral.
Friendship with Sula offers Nel a more positive perception of herself. She no longer feels it necessary to "pull her nose," a habit her mother insists that she do in an attempt to make Nel's nose look more sleek and slender, and less broad like her father's. Around Sula, Nel feels thoroughly accepted, especially when the two girls walk the gauntlet of leering young and old black men whom they must pass by on their way to the ice cream parlor. Much to the girls' secret delight, Ajax, one of the young men, sensuously pronounces that the girls are "pig meat." The Bottom's black males are now beginning to view Nel and Sula as young women and no longer as children.
An even greater concern to Sula and Nel than the young black males is the band of white, Irish Catholic boys who continually harass them. As children of newly arrived immigrants, these white Catholic boys are themselves victims of ethnic harassment. Because the town's white Protestants treat them with contempt, they in turn harass Sula and Nel in order to feel superior. However, Sula has had enough; she intends to confront them.
As opposite halves of one another, Nel acts passively, and Sula acts spontaneously and aggressively, always doing the unexpected. Whereas Nel's behavior is solid and consistent, Sula's is unpredictable and disturbing. For example, when Sula slices off the tip of her forefinger as a warning to the gang of white Catholic bullies, the act is not born out of desperation or fear: It is a result of Sula's on-the-spot decision to end, once and for all, her and Nel's victimization by these boys.
Later, when Sula accidentally causes Chicken Little to drown, she is able to cry at his funeral, but she feels no guilt. Nel, on the other hand, feels as though her legs have turned to granite; she feels convicted. Ironically, Nel, the more mannered of the two girls because of her strict upbringing, was the first to harass Chicken Little, and Sula was the one who attempted to protect him by telling Nel to leave him alone.
Sula and Nel's complicity in Chicken Little's death greatly shakes their childhood innocence, although whether or not the two girls are aware of any change in themselves is questionable. Twice after Chicken Little drowns, Morrison writes that there is now "something newly missing" in the girls. Although Morrison never states directly what this "something" is, we come to understand that it is Sula and Nel's innocence, their youthful feelings of invincibility and immortality. Shadrack tries to assure Sula of her permanence when he says "Always" to her, but she is too young and frightened to comprehend his meaning. And Morrison does not completely clarify what Shadrack's "Always" means until the chapter titled "1941," in which she writes that Shadrack said "Always" "to convince [Sula], assure her, of permanency." Nel will finally understand Shadrack's meaning when, at the novel's close, she thinks she hears Sula's spirit blowing through the trees and smells "over-ripe green things," an image of abundance and fruition.
This theme of permanence and immortality is emphasized in the chapter's closing image of butterflies, and Sula and Nel's wondering "what happened to butterflies in the winter." Here, Morrison presents the young girls behaving almost whimsically, as though Chicken Little's death has not affected them in the least. She uses "trotting" and "a summer day" to create an almost idyllic feeling in the girls, who do not know what happens to butterflies in the winter. But we know: The vast majority of butterflies die in the winter. Before they die, however, they lay their eggs so that the species will continue and not be completely wiped out. In this way, butterflies ensure their own permanence and immortality, just like Sula does when Nel feels her presence at the novel's end.
Camels wrappers Camels was a popular brand of cigarettes in this era and one of the few brands available.
gabardines trousers made out of gabardine, a sturdy fabric of cotton, wool, or twill.
voile sleeves puffed-out sleeves made from a light, transparent-like fabric.
mulatto a person of mixed black and white ancestry.
keloid scar an abundance of scar tissue, common to black skin that is injured.
knickers puffy pants that gather just below the knees, exposing the calves.
Ham's sons The reference is to Ham, one of Noah's sons. According to the biblical story, which is often used to justify the persecution of blacks, Noah drank so much wine that he passed out, naked. His son Ham, which in Hebrew means dark or swarthy, discovered him and called on his two brothers to cover their father. Averting their faces by walking backwards toward their father, Ham's brothers covered Noah's nakedness with a cloak. On waking, Noah cursed his son Ham for having seen him while he was naked — nakedness being synonymous with Adam and Eve's Original Sin, according to the Old Testament — and proclaimed that all of Ham's descendants would be slaves. Thus, when the bargeman refers to Ham's sons, he's denigrating all blacks.