The chapter begins, “It had to be as far away from the Sundown House as possible.” This chapter is told from the perspective of a woman named Helene Sabat. Helene is born in a New Orleans brothel called the Sundown House, to a “Creole whore.” Helene is raised by her grandmother, and is told to reject her mother’s “wild” way of life.
Once again, Morrison begins the chapter inscrutably, and takes her time letting us get our bearings. Nevertheless, we begin to get a sense for the pattern of the novel now, as each chapter begins in a new year, and details a character’s turbulent life. From the beginning, the dominant theme of Helene’s life is control—she’s told to be good, moral, and pious, and her own mother is held up to her as a “bad example.”
When Helene is a young woman, a seaman named Wiley Wright comes to New Orleans to visit his Great Aunt Cecile (Helene’s grandmother). During his visit, Wiley becomes enamored with Helene. He proposes marriage to her, and Helene agrees. Wiley takes Helene to live with him in his home in the Bottom, near Medallion, Ohio. Wiley spends most of his time working as a cook on a ship that sails the Great Lakes. Helene doesn’t mind Wiley being gone for so long—in fact, she prefers it this way.
Helene has lived among women all her life—whether as a young girl in a brothel or with her grandmother. She seems highly uncomfortable with men, and thus prefers a husband who’s barely at home. For the rest of the novel, Wiley Wright won’t have a single line—he’s a negative presence in the novel: the father of a main character, but seemingly not an influence on her at all.
After being married to Wiley for nine years, Helene gives birth to a daughter, Nel, whom she adores. Secretly, Helene is happy that Nel is a plain child—she doesn’t want Nel to have to experience the unwanted attention of men, as Helene herself has. Helene excels as a mother. In the Bottom, she is regarded as a pious and impressive woman—she regularly attends the conservative black church, and organizes banquets for black veterans of the war. Nevertheless, the people of the Bottom refuse to call Helene “Helene”—she is always “Helen” to them.
By coming to the North, Helene takes a gamble. On the plus side, she has new freedom, and the laws aren’t as overtly racist as those in the South. But she also loses her New Orleans culture and her sense of connection with the land—represented by the dropping of the “e” in her name. Like Shadrack and most of the people in the Bottom, Helene makes the most of an imperfect situation by aspiring to respectability.
In November 1920, Helene receives a letter from Henri Martin, explaining that Helene’s grandmother is ill. Helene is nervous about returning to New Orleans, since women at the time—both black and white—are increasingly prey to the advances of returning war veterans. Nevertheless, she decides to return to keep her grandmother company, bringing Nel with her. Helene doesn’t tell Wiley that she is going—she only leaves him a note for when he returns from the Great Lakes.
Morrison has portrayed the helplessness and trauma of returning black veterans, but here she also shows the war’s affect on citizens who are even more powerless: black women. Blacks are seen as inferior to whites, and women as inferior to men, so women like Helene have no real, secure protection from black or white men in American society.
Helene and Nel board a train bound for New Orleans. When they board, they make a mistake by accidentally walking into the “Whites only” car. Instead of walking out and going to the “Colored only” car, they try to walk through, only to be yelled at and called “gal” by the white conductor. This terrifies Helene—it reminds her of how vulnerable and afraid she felt in New Orleans.
In the 1920s, a black woman on a train car would have had no way of defending herself from an angry white conductor—he has total power over her, to use or abuse as he might wish. Helene’s fear, then, is very real: she’s forgotten, if only for a moment, the rigidly institutionalized racism of the South. The “colored only” sign and the condescending term “gal” are more examples of how the interpretation of a few simple words can have a huge impact on peoples’ lives.
The chapter shifts to Nel’s perspective. On the train to New Orleans, Nel witnesses her mother, Helene, fumbling with her tickets when the white conductor comes to collect them. Helene, afraid of being yelled at again, smiles a beautiful smile at the white conductor. Nel looks around the “colored only” car, and sees a group of black veterans glaring at Helene. When Helene finds her ticket, she tries to find a place to set her suitcase. Not a single black passenger helps her with her heavy bag. Nel feels ashamed of her mother—she can feel the hatred directed at her. In this moment, Nel resolves to “always be on guard”: to make sure no man ever looks at her the way the veterans look at her mother.
Morrison makes an interesting choice in switching perspectives here so that we see the scene from Nel’s point of view. Helene had seemed to be the protagonist of this chapter, but in reality Morrison moves seamlessly between characters and their unique perspectives. Even as a little girl, Nel quickly becomes conscious of the complicated struggle she will face as a black woman growing up—being overly deferential to whites might appease them, but such submissive pleasantness can also be seen as traitorous to black men, who likewise hold power over her.
As Nel and Helene travel down to New Orleans, the conditions on the train get worse and worse. Black passengers aren’t allowed to use the toilets—they are made to rush out of the train when it is stopping to refuel, and urinate in the grass. After many long hours they arrive in New Orleans.
The conditions on the train mirror the status of black communities in America—the farther South Helene travels, the fewer social and legal rights she has, and the more she is treated like an animal.
In New Orleans, Nel and Helene make their ways to Cecile’s house (until this moment, the narrator hadn’t made it clear that Wiley’s Great Aunt Cecile was also Helene’s grandmother). When they arrive, they’re saddened to see that Cecile has just died: they’re too late. Inside the house, they meet a woman in a yellow dress. The woman and Helene coldly stare at each other, and Helene says that this is Rochelle, her own mother—Nel’s grandmother. Nel is confused (she thought Cecile was her grandmother), but Helene explains that Cecile was Nel’s great-grandmother. Nel says that Rochelle looks too young to be her grandmother. Rochelle laughs and says that she’s forty-eight: “an old forty-eight.” Helene tells Cecile that Nel is now 10 years old.
Here we meet Helene’s mother, the “Creole whore” Helene has rebelled against her whole life by being so proper and chaste. Clearly Helene and Rochelle are not close at all, as Rochelle and Nel don’t even know of each other’s existence. Rochelle looks young because that is part of her job, and because 38 years is an unusually short gap between two generations of the family. Rochelle’s cynical statement that she is “an old forty-eight” suggests that she has lived through many struggles and experienced much suffering.
Rochelle asks Helene if Nel is her only child, and compliments her for being pretty like Helene was. Rochelle speaks to Nel in Creole, but Nel doesn’t understand. She switches to English, asks Nel’s name, and introduces herself. Rochelle and Helene then have a terse, chilly exchange about Cecile’s house. Helene is clearly angry that she came all this way only to miss seeing her grandmother and to find only Rochelle, “that painted canary who never said a word of greeting or affection.” Rochelle hugs Nel quickly and leaves. Nel tentatively remarks on how Rochelle smelled good and her skin was soft. Helene responds that “much handled things are always soft.”
It’s clear that Helene considers Cecile to be her true mother, as Rochelle never showed her any affection or concern, and continues in a profession Helene finds shameful and sinful. Nel is mystified by all this, but can sense the tension between her mother and Rochelle. Helene’s statement is pithy but also wise, and a rather tragic view of how great suffering or callousness is often hidden beneath (but also the cause of) a façade of beauty or delicacy.
Nel and Helene travel back to Medallion from New Orleans. When they return to their house, they find Helene’s note in exactly the same place where Helene left it. Nel thinks about her travels. She remembers having to squat in the grass to urinate while traveling on the train. She remembers her fear of the soldiers who glared at her mother. She realizes, as if for the first time, that she is “different.” She goes to look in the mirror, and whispers at her own reflection, “I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me.” She repeats the word “me,” and each time she feels more powerful—but also more afraid. Nel falls asleep, dreaming of all the places she wants to visit one day. The narrator notes that she will never leave Medallion, Ohio again.
Wiley Wright’s absence from his family’s life is made especially clear here, as he hasn’t even come home since Helene left for New Orleans. In this section, we see Nel facing a similar struggle to Shadrack, and, like him, finding clarity by looking at her own reflection. Nel has now become more conscious of the fact that as a black woman, she is considered less valuable and even less human than whites and men—and the only way she can protect herself from internalizing this into depression, self-hatred, and an inferiority complex is to focus on herself alone—the truth she sees in front of her, in her reflection. The narrator briefly takes an omniscient view of Nel’s life to show the tragic contrast between her youthful dreams and the mundane reality of her life.
The narrator says that Nel is about to meet Sula, a girl whom she sees in school but never plays with, because Sula’s parents are supposed to be “sooty.” The first time Sula visits Helene’s house to play with Nel, Helene falls in love with Sula—Sula is well-behaved, and nothing like her mother. Nel feels comfortable around Sula, and even prefers Sula’s dirty house to her own. Sula’s mother, Hannah, is a woman unlike Helene—she never scolds or yells. Sula also lives with her grandmother—a one-legged woman named Eva, whom Nel finds fascinating.
In this coda to the chapter, Morrison alludes to the events of the future, and also gives an early glimpse of the contrast between Sula and Nel, the novel’s two main protagonists. Nel is orderly, and seemingly the perfect image of her strict, respectable mother. Sula, on the other hand, is anything but orderly: she’s independent and eccentric, and has a family that is similarly strange and fascinating.