Sula Peace lives in a big house. It was “created” and ruled over by her grandmother, Eva Peace, one of the oldest people in the Bottom. Long ago, Eva had two legs, but now she’s left with only one—nobody ever speaks about the disability in front of her. Behind her back, people invent fanciful stories about how she lost her leg—it “ran away from her,” for example. Others say Eva deliberately allowed a train to run over her leg so that she could collect a large insurance policy. Eva sits in a low, wagon-like structure that allows her to move around, so that she’s no higher than most children.
Eva, deprived of one of her legs, is seemingly imprisoned in her own body, to the point where she can barely move where she wants to go. And yet Eva doesn’t seem like a prisoner at all. She “rules” her house, and seems to command great respect over the people of the Bottom.
Eva commands respect from the people in the neighborhood. Everyone knows that she married a man named BoyBoy, and had three children: Hannah, Eva, nicknamed Pearl, and Ralph, nicknamed Plum. BoyBoy was an abusive husband—he drank too much, and took out his anger on his family. He left Eva—who had both legs at the time—so that she had to take care of the children alone, and he showed no signs of ever returning. Eva threw herself into raising her children, refusing to collapse into anger or frustration.
BoyBoy’s story is a good example men maintaining power over women: women are confined to a domestic sphere, while men have more agency to escape responsibility and travel independently. This also shows another way people cope with suffering and tragedy—Eva centers her life around her children as a way of dealing with her husband’s abandonment.
Years before, when Eva was first taking care of her three children by herself, she depended upon the kindness of her neighbors, such as the Suggs family and the Jackson family. She often thought back to her marriage to BoyBoy. BoyBoy worked for a white carpenter, with whose help he built a cabin for his family. When they were first married, Eva was very much in love with BoyBoy.
BoyBoy’s name—especially given his relationship with a powerful white employer—was probably given to him by a white man, who condescendingly called him “Boy” until the name stuck. BoyBoy’s very name is thus a sign of his social inferiority to whites, and also a reminder of the power of naming.
During Eva’s first winter as a single mother, she sacrificed her own happiness and health for her children, giving her last bites of food to Ralph (Plum), who was only a baby at the time. Eva then left her children with the Suggs family, saying she’d be back soon. When she returned, 18 months later, she had only one leg. Eva, apparently well-off, gave the Suggs family ten dollars for their troubles, took her children, and proceeded to build them a large house. She made money by renting out BoyBoy’s old cabin.
Morrison has written, “Black women seem able to combine the nest and adventure.” Here, we see Eva being adventurous—going out into the world and even losing a leg—and yet also being a highly capable mother. Eva subverts the clichés of femininity: she takes care of her children, and yet doesn’t confine herself to the “nest.”
Some three years after leaving, BoyBoy returned to Medallion, and went to see Eva and his children. Eva prepared lemonade for BoyBoy’s visit, not knowing if she’d scream at her husband, embrace him, or attack him. BoyBoy arrived, dressed in beautiful, prosperous clothes. He greeted Eva warmly, and Eva greeted him back, smiling. They conversed easily, talking about BoyBoy’s experiences. BoyBoy didn’t ask about his children at all. As Eva listened to BoyBoy talk, she remembered her hatred. BoyBoy said goodbye to Eva, and as she waved to him, Eva knew that she would hate him forever.
In this scene, we see the real difference between Eva and BoyBoy. It’s not so much that BoyBoy is worldly and Eva is domestic—rather, it’s that Eva is capable of responsibly acting the part of a complete human (she can travel and care for her children) while BoyBoy can’t handle responsibility, and remains a “boy.” Eva doesn’t confront BoyBoy to his face—her hate wells up inside her, setting the tone for her character.
Following BoyBoy’s visit, Eva continued taking care of her family alone. She allowed her cousins to visit her house, where she provided them with generous lodgings. She also took in many visitors, including young children who had nowhere else to go.
We get the sense that Eva takes on more responsibilities to prove to herself that she’s more of an adult than BoyBoy—it’s her way of avenging his betrayal and proving her own strength.
In 1921, Eva’s granddaughter, Sula, is eleven years old. Eva has had three children. By this time, Eva has become the resident “namer” in the Bottom: all the women bring their babies to Eva to be named. Eva raises many eyebrows when she names multiple children “Dewey,” and some of the mothers in the neighborhood think she’s losing her mind. But over time, Eva’s names become “true”—all the children named Dewey, for instance, become friends with each other, and love “nobody but themselves.” The deweys (written in lowercase throughout the rest of the book) become a close-knit group: even though they’re different ages, they start school at the same time, and when one of them is bad, they’re all punished.
Here we see the importance of names for the community as a whole. Eva is old and respected, and so she’s given the authority of naming the children. It’s also here that we get an extreme, almost fantastical example of why names are important, and how something’s name affects the very character of that thing. For the deweys, their name is like a self-fulfilling prophecy: by giving children the same name, Eva ensures that the children are forever bound together. The danger of this kind of collectivism (i.e., a group of children all being “the deweys”) is that none of the children in the group can ever be an individual, and therefore none of the children can ever really grow up.
In 1920, the narrator remembers, Eva had given a name to an adult who was new to the Bottom: Tar Baby. The man was handsome and pale-skinned, and Eva immediately recognized that he was completely white. Tar Baby was a “mountain boy,” and had no friends. He was a heavy drinker, and couldn’t pay his rent. But he had a beautiful singing voice, and was always the loudest singer in the churches. In 1921, he became the first person in the neighborhood to try to join Shadrack’s National Suicide Day.
It’s not clear if Eva is right or not—Tar Baby could be half-black, or a particularly pale-skinned black man—but it’s the interpretation that matters. Race is an infamously fluid concept, and even if Tar Baby is genetically black or part-black, the fact that the community perceives him as white means that on one level he really is white. We get the sense that Tar Baby has come to the Bottom because he is depressed, as if he’s drawn to the general misery of the community.
The narrator gives more information about Eva’s children. Pearl married at age fourteen and moved to Michigan—she had a quiet marriage, full of small moments of unhappiness. Hannah married a man named Rekus who died when Sula, their child, was three. Strangely—considering how much Eva hated BoyBoy—all of Eva’s children loved men. Although Eva herself was very old, she “had a regular flock of gentleman callers.” They don’t make love to her, but they “tease” and “peck.” In public, Eva encourages all women to be loyal to their husbands—preparing their meals and ironing their shirts, etc.
The novel has the texture of a family saga—in order to tell the story of one character (this chapter, it had seemed, was supposed to be about Sula), the narrator has to tell the stories of half a dozen other characters. Eva recognizes that BoyBoy isn’t representative of all men, and ultimately seems to advocate social stability at all costs: control, balance, and harmony between men and women (even if this means women being submissive).
Eva’s daughter, Hannah, “ripples with sex.” After her husband Rekus dies, she has many admirers. Hannah is an expert at making men feel good about themselves. She has sex with many men, but never lets them spend the night with her—she only has sex during the day. Once, Sula, Hannah’s daughter, comes home from school to find her mother having sex with a man. From this episode, Sula learns that sex is “pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable.”
The fact that Sula catches Hannah having sex will be important later on in the book. Because of what she sees, Sula already seems to view sex dispassionately, but also as a very common, even central thing—and this is precisely why she finds it so unremarkable. Sex is important and ever-present, but not sacred, sinful, or strange.
The narrator briefly describes Eva’s youngest child, Plum. Plum fought in the war in 1917, and returned to the U.S. in 1919. He didn’t return to Medallion until 1920, however, and spent the intervening year visiting New York, Chicago, and other large American cities. When he returned after the end of the year, Plum was quiet and dirty looking. His family wanted to hear about his time in the cities, but he never spoke about this period in his life. Plum didn’t eat much, and spent all his time alone in his room, on the bottom floor of Eva’s house. Hannah discovered that Plum used a bent spoon, and passed on this information to the rest of the family.
Plum experiences the same things as Shadrack: the agonies of World War I, and then the return to a society that offers him no thanks, help, or comfort. But whereas Shadrack finds a tragic compromise in his miserable Suicide Day ritual, we can surmise from Morrison’s description that Plum has turned to drugs, presumably heroin (he doesn’t eat anything, and uses a spoon for cooking).
One night in early 1921, Eva walks downstairs to see her son in his room. When Eva enters Plum’s room, she finds him lying in bed. Near him there is a glass of what looks like strawberry crush (an icy drink). Plum wakes up and finds his mother standing over him. He whispers, “You so purty, Mama.” Eva begins to cry. She turns and drinks from the glass, only to find that it isn’t soda at all—it’s water tainted with blood. Plum whispers for Eva to leave him alone, claiming he is all right.
Eva clearly loves Plum—she was willing to sacrifice her own health to make sure that he survived as a baby—and there’s some ominous foreshadowing of how that fierce love will try and cope with Plum’s new, miserable state. The glass of watery blood may be some part of Plum’s heroin ritual, but it also suggests, on a more symbolic level, the “water and blood” of giving birth. This is an apt symbol, given that later on in the book, Eva will describe what she does next as an alternative to giving birth.
That night, Plum, still sitting in bed, feels a strange, “warm light” pouring all over his body. As he enters a state of delirium, Eva stands over him, soaking him with kerosene. Then she takes a piece of newspaper, lights it on fire, and throws it onto Plum’s body. Immediately Plum is engulfed in flames. Eva turns and uses her crutches to climb back to her room.
In this frightening scene, Eva murders her own son, seemingly the child she loved most. It’s impossible to fully grasp why Eva would do such a thing—the complexity of motives behind the act is too great—but even here, there’s an element of harsh mercy in her behavior. She knows that Plum is in pain, and she can’t stand to see him that way. It’s also slightly comforting that we see this from Plum’s perspective, and recognize that he feels his death as something pleasant and welcome. This scene introduces fire as an important symbol in the book: something simultaneously comforting, purifying, and destructive. It also foreshadows another tragic scene of a mother killing her child out of mercy—the central act of Morrison’s famous novel Beloved.
A short time later, Eva hears the shouts of Hannah and “some child” coming from outside her room. Hannah rushes to Eva’s door, screaming that Plum is burning. Eva replies, “Is? My baby? Burning?” The two women—mother and daughter—looked at one another, silently. After a long time, Hannah closes her eyes and runs away from Eva.
We can sense that Hannah knows what Eva did, though it’s not clear how. Eva’s ambiguous act of harsh love (or deferred responsibility) will have repercussions for years, as it affects every member of the family, not just Eva and Plum.