It is 1922, and Sula and Nel are walking through the Bottom. They’re going to the local ice cream parlor, Edna Finch’s Mellow House, even though it’s a little too cold for ice cream. As they walk, men—sitting on stoops and front porches—notice them walking. Some of the men tip their hats, while others open and close their thighs. One 21-year-old man, whose name is Ajax, watches Sula and Nel and says, “Pig meat.” Sula and Nel are secretly delighted to have attracted the attention of the men. They enjoy walking through town and exciting the men—whom they still don’t entirely understand.
Sula and Nel are young, but they’re already viewed as sexual objects by many men. For now, the girls are excited by this new attention, as they haven’t experienced anything concrete that could give them a negative view of patriarchy and masculinity. Ajax seems like a sexist, brutish man here, but he appears as a more complicated character later on in the novel.
The narrator jumps back to describe how Nel and Sula meet. They attend Garfield Primary School together. Both are lonely and quiet as children, and like to fantasize about meeting a “prince” one day. Nel lives in a very orderly house, presided over by her mother, Helene. Sula’s house, on the other hand, is always chaotic when she is growing up. Yet Nel and Sula have a lot in common: they both have “distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers,” and in 1922 they are both twelve years old. Nel is light-skinned, almost mulatto—if she’d been any lighter-skinned, some of the “truebloods” in the Bottom would have bullied her. Sula’s skin is dark brown, and she has a strange birthmark above her eyebrow, which is shaped like a stemmed rose. Every year, her birthmark grows darker.
Nel and Sula have only the most naïve understanding of men, based on storybooks and fairy tales. Ironically, even though Nel and Sula seem to come from opposite households, their lives are very much the same. It’s also in this chapter that we’re given the first description of Sula’s appearance. The most important aspect of this is the birthmark. It’s important to note that Sula’s birthmark seems both stereotypically feminine (the rose) and stereotypically masculine (the long, phallic stem). The mark’s gradual darkening will come to symbolize many things, as we’ll see.
Sula and Nel become friends very suddenly when they are twelve, for reasons neither of them can describe. They become friends when a group of Irish immigrants come to Medallion to bully the black schoolchildren. The Irish had moved to Ohio from Ireland, hoping for a land of opportunity. Instead, they found a country full of racists who hated all immigrants. The Irish then tried to prove that they were white, too, by bulling the blacks in Ohio.
Racism often creates an inferiority complex in its victims, and this only results in more racism—as those who are victimized turn against each other, instead of uniting against a common oppressor. Irishmen are mistreated by white Americans, and so the Irish try to prove their own “American-ness” and superiority by mistreating blacks, asserting their place on the totem pole by making sure at least someone is beneath them.
In 1922, four Irish boys come to Garfield to tease the schoolchildren. Sula, who is standing near Nel, pulls a knife out of her coat and points it at the boys. Instead of trying to attack the Irish boys, however, Sula cuts the tip of her own finger, spurting blood everywhere. Sula whispers, “If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?” Sula’s tactic works, and the Irish boys run away.
Sula’s behavior, much like her mother’s, is a subversion of stereotypical femininity. Sula is clearly capable of acts of violence, and she can intimidate older, stronger people. And yet her acts of violence are directed at herself, not really at others. In a way, this is Sula’s version of the compromise of life in the Bottom: instead of fighting back against the racism of others, she embraces her own persecution, and finds a way to use it to her advantage.
After scaring away the Irish boys, Sula becomes good friends with Nel. They are adventurous, and love to be distracted by new things—the smell of tar pouring in a road, for example. Sula inspires Nel to disobey her mother’s orders—although Nel is supposed to “pull her nose” with a clothespin (something that would supposedly make her nose look prettier as an adult) and straighten her hair every Saturday, Sula convinces Nel to avoid these tasks whenever she can.
Helene seems to want Nel to look as “white” as possible by straightening her hair and trying to pinch her nose. This is similar to Helene’s smile in the face of the train conductor’s racism—openly submitting to discrimination (in this case racist standards of beauty), and seeming to acknowledge that whiteness is superior to blackness. This might be practically useful in the short term (white people will actually treat Nel better if she looks whiter, or smiles like her mother), but it could have dangerous effects on Nel’s inner life. Helene is basically teaching her daughter to be ashamed of her blackness, and thus of her very self—that she would be prettier and even better as a person if she looked different. Sula, then, represents the kind of embracing of blackness that Morrison advocates.
In the summer of 1922, Sula and Nel become conscious that there are “beautiful boys” all around them. They decide to find some “mischief” down by the river, where the boys like to swim. Sula leaves her house to go to the river in the afternoon. As she leaves, she hears two of Hannah’s friends, Patsy and Valentine, talking about how they made the mistake of having their children far too early. Hannah laughs and tells her friends that a parent will always love her own children—she just won’t “like” them. Hannah then admits to not liking Sula. Sula is shocked by this pronouncement, and runs away from the house.
Sula and Nel’s naiveté is ominous, and we know that they’re in for more than just “mischief” if they flirt with too many men—especially after the brutal way Ajax referred to them as “meat.” This is also an important section because it confirms that Hannah doesn’t feel love, per se, for Sula: she’s motivated to raise her children by an emotion more akin to duty. Much the same could be said of Eva: in no small part, she raised her children because it was the only thing to do, and she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it.
Nel and Sula walk toward the river. They play with twigs and grass and wait for boys to arrive at the river’s bank. Before long, they see a boy walking toward the river, picking his nose. Nel yells at the boy, whose name is Chicken Little, to stop picking his nose, and Chicken Little yells backs at Nel to leave him alone. Sula is gentler, and offers to show Chicken Little how to climb a tree. Together, Sula and Chicken Little climb up a tall tree and slide out on the branch. At first, Chicken Little is afraid, but Sula teases him until he’s laughing. Nel calls for them to come down, and they climb down the tree. Sula then starts to swing Chicken Little around by his hands as he laughs delightedly. Suddenly he slips from Sula’s grip and flies out into the water. To Nel and Sula’s surprise, Chicken Little doesn’t bob to the surface of the water—he seems to have been lost in the river.
The name Chicken Little, while childish, also suggests a bad omen: Chicken Little was, after all, the character who announced that the sky was falling. So it’s tragically appropriate that here it’s Chicken Little who falls into the water. Morrison will return to this brief scene again and again (like the moment of Plum’s death), studying it from different characters’ points of view. Here, it’s hard to say that Sula is “guilty” of killing Chicken Little: she’s only a child herself, and let go of Chicken Little entirely by accident. But in a broader sense, this scene represents the moment when Sula stops being a child and becomes an adult—that is, a woman with adult pains and worries.
Nel and Sula look nervously at the water. They can’t imagine where Chicken Little could have fallen. Frantic, they turn and run to the nearest shack, which belongs to Shadrack. Sula bangs on the door and walks inside the shack, but finds that no one is inside. In the midst of her terror, Sula thinks about everything she knows about Shadrack—he’s wild, drunk, and sometimes shows his penis in the street. Suddenly, she hears a noise—Shadrack is standing right behind her.
Sula and Nel went to the river to encounter sexuality, part of “coming of age.” And in a way, Sula and Nel do come of age in this scene, but not in the sense they’d imagined. They’re exposed to some of the horrors of adulthood: first the horrors of death and guilt, and here, the horror of sexual predation. Shadrack’s intimidating manner frightens Sula—we’ve seen things from his perspective, but he clearly seems very different in the eyes of others.
Shadrack has just entered his shack, where Sula is standing. He smiles, and Sula tries to ask him if he’s seen what just happened out on the river. Before she can finish her question, however, Shadrack says, “Always.” Sula panics and runs outside, back to Nel. Nel tells her “it ain’t your fault,” and asks her where the belt on her dress has gone. Sula can only shake her head—it seems that her belt came off in Shadrack’s shack.
From Sula’s perspective, Shadrack has witnessed her drop Chicken Little into the water, and says “always” to mean that he always sees what happens on the river. It’s not clear what happens to Sula’s belt, as we only witness the scene (for now) from her panicked perspective—we might even think that the traumatized Shadrack is sexually frustrated and tries to molest Sula. Morrison will return to this scene at the end of her novel, and we’ll see it in a different way—the word “always,” in particular, will show how the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of a single word can shape someone’s life.
The narrator describes what became of Chicken Little: a day later, a bargeman on the river noticed Chicken Little’s body. The bargeman would have left the body had he not noticed that it belonged to a child. It takes three more days before anyone can move Chicken Little to the embalmer, and by that time, even his own mother can’t recognize his body.
Morrison’s description of the process of collecting Chicken Little’s body paints a dark picture of life in the Bottom. One interesting point is that we’re not told if the bargeman is black or white. Assuming that he’s white, we can surmise that the white community in Medallion places little to no value on black lives. But if the bargeman is black, Morrison’s point is even darker: death and misery are so common in the black community that everyone accepts these things as unchangeable facts of life.
A funeral is held for Chicken Little. The choir sings hymns, and Nel and Sula, both in attendance at the funeral, can’t bear to look at each other. Nel can feel that she’s going to be arrested for killing Chicken Little at any moment. Sula simply cries. As the funeral proceeds, Reverend Deal, the head of the church, proceeds with a sermon in which he praises Jesus, and reminds his congregation to come together, remembering that most of the families in the Bottom have lost loved ones in tragic ways.
Morrison again shows how a group copes with tragedy and draws closer because of it, as Deal unites his congregation specifically through their shared pain and loss. It’s as if being a member of the Bottom means having lost someone in a horrific way. The danger of this approach to grieving is that it encourages people to lose hope and to think of themselves, first and foremost, as miserable people.
Chicken Little is buried in the Bottom’s cemetery, next to his aunt and his grandfather. Nel and Sula watch his burial, holding hands. They sense that they’ll never be able to forget the sound of Chicken Little’s childish laughter. Then they turn and walk home, still holding hands.
The chapter ends with Nel and Sula holding hands, but this event with Chicken Little is the tragedy that starts to tear the two apart. They are both haunted by a shared sense of guilt, and this will affect them for the rest of their lives.