Sula

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Sula 1923 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In 1923, Hannah Peace walks into her mother’s room with an empty bowl and a pile of beans, and asks, quite abruptly, if Eva ever loved her children. Eva has been sitting in her room, yelling at the group of rambunctious deweys outside her window. Eva asks Hannah to repeat her question. Hannah does so, and Eva replies that she doesn’t think she ever did. She demands to know why Hannah is asking, and berates Hannah for being so ungrateful to her mother—if Eva hadn’t sacrificed her own health and happiness for her children, Hannah wouldn’t be alive at all. Hannah is apologetic, and tries to drop the issue. Eva isn’t finished yet, though—she tells Hannah a story she’s repeated many times, about how in 1895 she fed her three children beets, the only food she could find for them.
Morrison begins her chapter on an abrupt note: it seems that Hannah has been thinking about whether or not her mother loves her for some time (in the previous chapter, we learned that she doesn’t love Sula—perhaps Hannah is trying to understand her own feelings by talking to her mother). Eva’s answer isn’t surprising, despite all the sacrifices she made raising her children and the tortured love she seemed to feel for Plum. Morrison gives the sense that something broader and more complex than just love motivated Eva to raise her children so devotedly: a mixture of strength, revenge, and ambition.
Themes
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
We switch from Eva’s perspective to Hannah’s. Hannah has filled her bowl with beans. Now, she takes the bowl and asks Eva one more question, “What’d you kill Plum for, Mamma?” Eva is quiet. She remembers long ago, when Plum was only a baby, and very sick, and she had to take care of him by giving up her own food.
It seems that this confrontation scene will not be the only one of the book, as it appears so early and anticlimactically. It is now made clear that Hannah knew from the start why Plum died—and perhaps Eva even knew that she knew.
Themes
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
After a long period of silence, Eva replies to Hannah’s question. She says, “He give me such a time. Such a time.” Eva explains that Plum never had much desire to be alive—when he was a baby, he almost died, and when he was an adult—just a quiet, overgrown baby—he showed all the signs of wanting to return to Eva’s womb. Eva concludes, “I birthed him one. I couldn’t do it again.” Eva begins to cry as Hannah watches her. Hannah turns and leaves the room without saying a word, and Eva, now sitting alone, calls Plum’s name.
Eva’s explanation is consistent with the imagery surrounding Plum’s death, particularly the cup of blood and water and Plum’s childlike, drugged state. Eva couldn’t stand to see Plum the addict regressing to infancy: she loved him so much that she didn’t want him to go through pain for years, especially because she would be going through pain, too. It’s a mixture of love and selfishness that’s stronger than either love or selfishness would be by itself.
Themes
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Before Hannah’s strange conversation with her mother, another strange thing had happened. The night before their conversation, there was a large storm, during which there was no rain or lightning, but only wind. On Thursday, the narrator claims, Hannah told Eva that she’d had a dream about a wedding, in which she wore a red bridal gown. Hannah’s dream, Eva remembers later, was the third strange thing that happened that week.
This section is filled with omens, but we don’t know what these things are omens of, yet. Morrison never reveals whether there’s anything to these “signs” or not, but the fact that people believe in them—and change their actions because of their interpretation of them—suggests that even meaningless coincidences can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Themes
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In the summer of 1923, Sula is thirteen years old, and her birthmark is darkening. It is peach-picking season, and the people of the Bottom pick peaches for canning. Another strange thing that happens to Eva at this time is that she loses her comb, and has no way to straighten her hair.
Anything can seem like an omen when one is looking for it. This section again brings up the theme of signs and their interpretations, as superstition is already starting to work against Sula and the community’s perception of her.
Themes
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
On the day that she loses her comb, Eva goes to her window and sees her daughter, Hannah, burning. She is standing outside, and her dress is on fire. Eva immediately rushes, in her wooden frame, to push herself out of the window, onto her daughter. She pushes herself out and falls to the ground below, twelve feet away from where Hannah is burning. Eva drags herself toward Hannah and tries to cover her body, putting out the flames. Before she can do so, the neighbors, Mr. Suggs and Mrs. Suggs, rush to Hannah and pour a bucket of water on her. Hannah lies on the ground, horribly burned.
We now see what all the “omens” were supposedly predicting. Hannah’s death is one of the most ambiguous events of the novel, and it’s never explained: whether it was an accident, or Hannah lit herself on fire, or if someone else (even Sula) was involved. In light of this, Hannah’s question to Eva has an elegiac tone, and her fate also echoes that of her brother Plum. We see just how far Eva is willing to go to save her daughter from fire (even after killing her other child with fire), Eva’s desperate actions show that no matter her feelings of affection (or the lack thereof), she does truly care about her children deeply and fiercely.
Themes
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
A group stands around Hannah as she lies on the ground, screaming in pain. Hannah then whispers, “Help me, y’all.” Someone has called an ambulance, but before the ambulance can get her to a hospital, Hannah has died from her burns. After the ambulance drives away, Eva, grief-stricken, crawls off toward the trees. She’s bleeding from her fall, so the crowd calls an ambulance to take her to the hospital as well. At the hospital, Old Willy Fields, an orderly, tends to Eva, ultimately saving her life. For the next 37 years of her life, the narrator notes, Eva would curse Willy for saving her, and she would have continued cursing him afterwards, except that by then she was 90, and too old to remember what had happened.
Morrison jumps around with the timeline, to dazzling effect. Here, she flashes forward more than four decades to show us that Eva continues to live a long life. We begin to realize that Eva isn’t actually that old in the 1920s, even if she is one of the oldest people in the community. Eva already killed one of her own children, but somehow, she couldn’t stand to have another one die for reasons beyond her control. In a way, control has always been Eva’s goal (this is oddly similar to Helene, though the two women go about gaining control in totally different ways)—Eva is willing to sacrifice her own body to tend to her children, because doing so gives her a sense that she has purpose and can control her own life. To live without this purpose is agonizing for her.
Themes
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Eva lies in her hospital bed, trying to understand what has happened. She remembers Hannah’s dream of a wedding, and notes that weddings always mean death to her. The red gown in Hannah’s dream symbolized fire, clearly. Finally, Eva remembers seeing Sula standing near Hannah’s burning body—“just looking.” When Eva tells her friends about Sula, they say that this is natural—Sula was probably struck dumb by the sight of her own mother burning. Eva, however, secretly believes that Sula was “interested” in watching her mother burn.
As soon as we understand one mystery—why Eva killed Plum—another one unfolds in front of our eyes: we don’t understand exactly what happened with Sula. Even if there is some truth in the omens of Hannah’s death, Morrison suggests, there is so much unexpected tragedy in the Bottom that interpreting omens is a never-ending process. Sula’s strange fascination with Hannah’s burning body is another kind of “sign” that can be interpreted in different ways—and it starts to alienate Sula from Eva and the rest of the community.
Themes
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon