Summary and Analysis
Part 1: 1927
The novel now leaps forward four years to Nel's marriage to Jude Greene. Just twenty, Jude, a waiter at the Hotel Medallion, craves a job that will allow him to work with his hands and sweat while doing it. When he learns that Medallion is planning to build a new road down to the river, Jude is excited about the prospect of working with other men and establishing a sense of camaraderie with them. Daily, he goes to the job site hoping that he will be picked to work, but the foreman chooses only men who are not black. Enraged, Jude sees his dreams of hard work and male friendship crushed. Nel responds to his vulnerabilities by accepting his marriage proposal.
As the wedding reception begins to wind down, Nel sees Sula leave the party. Although Nel does not know it at the time, Sula is leaving the Bottom and will not return for ten years.
Beneath all the chaos and gaiety of the wedding scene is an atmosphere of loss and resignation. One of Morrison's typical reversal scenes, the wedding reception masks the disappointment and rage Jude harbors because bigotry keeps him from his true dream of a better job.
Jude marries Nel not out of love for her but rather out of anger at not getting the road work. Morrison writes of Jude, "So it was rage, rage and a determination to take on a man's role anyhow that made him press Nel about settling down." Nel accepts his choosing her and thus fulfills her mother's dream of hosting an elaborate wedding and the community's expectation that Nel will assume the traditional female role of wife and mother. With Nel to smooth the rough edges and "shore him up," Jude will shelter her, and "the two of them together would make one Jude." Nel has taken her mother's counsel to heart: She will be good and rub away any glow or sparkle of unpredictability in herself, which the oppressively predictable black community — including Nel's mother — wants her to do.
In marrying Jude, Nel conforms to the community norms and values of social purpose. However, Morrison hints that her conforming as she does actually hurts her; she loses the strong, personal identification — the "me-ness" — that she valued while growing up and befriending Sula. One possible reason that Sula leaves the Bottom immediately following the wedding is that she and Nel can no longer be the inseparable friends they once were. After all, Sula is unpredictable, and Nel has now acquiesced to society's demand that women must marry, have children, and serve their men. Symbolically, Nel's wedding veil is too heavy for her to feel Jude's kiss, suggesting a smothered imagination and eclipsed dreams. Nel has broken the girlhood promise she made to herself to always chase the power and joy and be "wonderful."
Although Sula leaves Nel at the end of the chapter, Nel, whether rightly or wrongly, still feels incredibly attached to her best friend. Morrison writes, "Even from the rear Nel could tell that it was Sula and that she was smiling." Perhaps in the midst of her wedding day's happiness Nel does not realize the significance of Sula's leaving, for she obviously still assumes that she has an almost telepathic link to Sula. However, the chapter ends with Morrison writing that Sula and Nel's next meeting would be "thick with birds," and when we read the opening lines of the next chapter, we find that Sula's returning to the Bottom is accompanied by a plague of robins, certainly not a good omen for Sula, Nel, or the black community.
cane liquor home-brewed liquor made from sugar cane; possibly the cane was barged upriver as a trade item.
Black Draught (pronounced "draft") a heavy salt concoction sold to poor people, who mixed it with molasses and used it as a tonic and laxative.
the Victrola a record player, powered by a hand crank.
Bert Williams In the late 1800s, Williams was a popular black comedian on the vaudeville circuit; he was the first black entertainer to become a major Broadway attraction.
tea roses roses having a scent resembling tea; they were introduced from China to Europe in 1867. In this country, they have been widely hybridized. The Peace rose is probably the most popular tea rose today.