Summary and Analysis
Part 1: 1923
One night, the wind begins to roar through the Bottom, shaking houses and felling trees. The community waits for rain, but they wait in vain: The intense, unrelenting wind sucks all of the moisture out of the hills, leaving an oppressive heat wave in its wake.
The next day, Hannah asks her mother if she loved her, Pearl, and Plum when they were children. Eva irritably answers that, as a wife and mother deserted by her husband, she had no time to indulge in loving play with her children: She was too busy nursing them through deadly winters, worms, and contagious diseases, as well as trying to find enough food to keep them alive.
Hannah then asks Eva about Plum's death, and Eva explains that when Plum returned home from the war, he became childlike again. After reliving the painful memory of that bone-chilling winter night when she stood in the outhouse and saved Plum's life by digging out his impacted bowel, Eva then describes how drugs reduced Plum to a baby who wanted, more than anything else, to escape from this fearsome world by crawling back into his mother's womb. Eva decided that before drugs completely destroyed her son, she would relieve his pain by killing him: She first held him close and then set fire to him so that he could die while he was, to some degree, still a man, not a childish, dazed drug addict.
Later that day, Hannah takes a short nap and dreams of a red bridal gown. The next day, she tells Eva about her dream. Eva briefly ponders the dream's significance, but she is preoccupied thinking about Sula's odd behavior of late. Moving her wagon to the window, Eva sees Hannah bending to light a fire in the yard; moments later, Hannah is engulfed in flames. With difficulty, Eva hurls herself out of her wagon and through the second-floor bedroom window, hoping to smother the blaze that consumes her daughter. A neighbor who sees Hannah flailing wildly in flames calls an ambulance. When the ambulance arrives, Hannah and Eva are lifted inside it. Hannah dies on the way to the hospital.
Recuperating in the hospital from the injuries she sustained from jumping out of her window, Eva remembers seeing Sula merely standing on the boardinghouse's back porch, calmly watching her mother perish in the conflagration of flames.
This chapter focuses on the importance of omens to the people living in the Bottom. Morrison baits our curiosity by beginning the chapter, "The second strange thing . . ." The second? We don't yet know what the first strange thing is, but by the end of the chapter Morrison's lengthy list of odd occurrences gives us valuable insights into the intensely superstitious beliefs in the Bottom. These strange things include a choking dry wind; Eva's missing comb, which previously has never been out of place; Hannah's fiery red dress in her wedding dream, superstitiously believed to foretell a death; and Sula's sullen, shifting mood and her shadowy, changing birthmark.
Morrison purposely presents events out of order to highlight the disordered nature of the Bottom. Nothing is the way it should be. Eva identifies the source of this disorder, this evil, in her haunting, matter-of-fact recollection of Sula's passivity as her mother burns to death. She condemns Sula for watching as Hannah is consumed by flames rather than seeing her mother as the woman who gave birth to her — and trying to put out the fire that ignites her flesh. Eva implies that Sula has a disturbing, unnatural curiosity about her mother's burning body. All the signs were evident — the dreams, the omens, the coincidences — that prefigured Hannah's tragedy. And, according to Eva, the source of the disorder lies in Sula.
Hannah's death on the way to the hospital is ostensibly the result of fire, but Morrison adds the doubt-raising phrase "Or so they said," which suggests that Eva's maternal altruism might have resurfaced: Rather than have her daughter live out the rest of her life painfully and grotesquely disfigured, Eva, who was placed in the same ambulance as her daughter, might have smothered Hannah. Order and nature are askew here. Recalling the ambivalence surrounding Plum's death, what is evil — Eva's possibly suffocating her daughter — may be good, and what appears to be good might well be called murder — or evil.
After Hannah's death, the community never completely trusts or accepts Sula the way it accepted her mother. The chorus of community women mourn Hannah as a communal treasure; they weep for her "as though they themselves had been her lovers." Hannah may have had sex with their husbands, but she was never threatening or boastful. She was merely unconventional, and, like Shadrack, the community knew what to expect of her. While Hannah was in the natural order of things, Sula is not; Sula shatters order. Eva must face this truth about her granddaughter. Sula did not help her mother; she did not try to rescue Hannah from the fire. She simply stood by and watched her mother die.
Kentucky Wonders a climbing variety of green beans; the ends of the beans are snapped off by hand and then the beans are snapped in half before cooking. People accustomed to this chore soon acquire speed and proficiency and can snap the pods with rhythmic precision, deftly with one hand.
"Give me that again. Flat out to fit my head." When Hannah asks Eva if she had ever loved her children, Eva is so stunned by the question that she pretends not to understand. She sarcastically asks Hannah to repeat the question in clearer, simpler terms.
"You gone can them?" Eva asks Hannah if she is planning to can the beans. "Canning" is a term used for the storing of cooked fruits and vegetables in sterilized jars that can be kept indefinitely for future use.
peck . . . two bushels A peck is one-fourth of a bushel, or eight quarts; a bushel is four pecks, or thirty-two quarts.
stepping tall acting cocky and impertinent.
"we float eggs in a crock of vinegar" Submerging hard-boiled eggs in vinegar is one way of pickling them for future use. Sarcastically, Eva is chiding Hannah: There were no eggs available for eating while Hannah was growing up, let alone any available for pickling.
TB Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by the tubercle bacillus bacteria and characterized by fever, night sweats, and a productive cough. Also called "consumption," it was one of the leading causes of death in the United States until the 1940s, when drugs were discovered to combat it.
heifer a young cow; here, it is a cutting, insulting term.
"That straw'll tickle your pretty neck to death." Before the advent of home freezers, ice was delivered in an ice wagon. The ice was insulated using straw, which would slow the ice's melting. The ice wagon driver warns Mrs. Jackson not to eat the ice so fervidly lest she choke on a piece of straw that might be clinging to it.
spigot a faucet.
the number was 522 Playing the numbers was a popular gambling activity. People in the Bottom look for "signs" that tell them which lucky number to play.
her nature was coming down The reference is to Sula's first menstrual period.
Somebody else ran to Dick's Fresh Food and Sundries to call the ambulance. So few people had telephones in their homes that, in emergencies, one had to go to a place of business in order to use the telephone.
the colored ward of the hospital Because of strict segregation laws at the time, black patients were separated from white patients in all areas of the hospital, including the emergency room, regardless of the severity of a patient's injuries.