The year is 1927, and there is a great dance going on in Helene Wright’s house in the Bottom. Old folks dance with children, and everyone seems to be drinking. Helene Wright, who now walks with a cane, drinks until she’s tipsy. Nel, her daughter, has just been married, and Helene has invested all her strength and intelligence in planning the wedding. Now that the wedding party is underway, she’s too weary to care about rules or plans anymore—as a result, she does nothing when guests spill alcohol on the carpet or scratch the drapes.
The last chapter ended on a note of weary finality: Eva giving up after losing two of her children. We sense the same tone in this chapter: Helene has spent her entire life trying to control her environment, and now, at her greatest moment of triumph, she can’t enjoy her own control. It’s as if she’s past the prime of her life, and is going to spend her remaining years in a state of exhaustion.
Helene has arranged for her daughter to be married in an actual church—a very expensive wedding, and thus rare in the Bottom. The groom is a handsome, popular man named Jude Greene. He’s a singer in the choir, as well as a waiter. Jude wasn’t in any position to get married (he didn’t have enough money to take a wife), but it was announced that a new road, the “New River Road” would be built, and Jude thought that he could get work there. (The narrator notes that ten years later, the New River Road still isn’t completed.)
The New River Road is like a will-o-the-wisp, always tempting the people of the Bottom to run toward a supposedly bright future. And yet, as the narrator cynically steps back and reveals, the road is also something of a lie: it’s still not completed ten years later, even though people seem desperate to begin working on it.
The narrator continues to describe Jude Greene. Jude longs for a challenging physical job—he wants to work on the New River Road. He also craves the camaraderie of working alongside people who are like him. He even has ambitions of developing a limp during his time on the road—a limp of which he’ll always be able to say, “Got that building the New Road.” Even though Jude doesn’t succeed in getting work on the road, his ambitions compel him to get married to Nel. Jude imagines growing old with Nel—as he tells himself, “The two of them together would make one Jude.”
We see the extent to which the New River Road has gripped the minds and souls of the people of the Bottom: Jude is willing to essentially base his life around the road. Jude even looks forward to developing a limp—another instance of the people of the Bottom embracing pain and misery, and making it a natural part of their lives. Jude’s ambitions seem especially tragic once we learn the truth about the New River Road—it is another trick whites are using to exploit the people of the Bottom.
In the months leading up to his marriage, Jude thinks about what Ajax had told him at the Pool Hall: all women want to die for their men. Now that he’s newly married, Jude believes this to be true of Nel—she’s very gentle, and submits to him at all times. Jude notes that when he was wooing Nel, he was struck by how close she was with Sula. Nel and Sula acted as if they were one person, not two. In this way, Jude was able to flatter Nel by paying attention to her and only her.
In this section, Morrison establishes a tension between heterosexual relationships like the one between Nel and Jude, and close female friendships, like that between Nel and Sula. In this book, at least, neither kind of relationship is ever complete and fulfilling: too much time spent with Sula, for example, makes Nel want to compete with her, and so she is more eager to find a husband.
At the wedding party, a dance begins. The deweys—still one solid unit—dance together. Though they’re now adults, they’re only about four feet high—they’ve mastered the art of continuing to think like children, and so they still look like children. Meanwhile, Nel and Jude think about making love that night—they’re both ready to go. Nel looks into Jude’s eyes and smiles. Out of the corner of her eyes, she can see Sula walking away. The narrator notes that it will be ten years before Nel and Sula see each other again, and when they reunite, their meeting is “thick with birds.”
We begin to see the power of naming in a new way. In Morrison’s semi-fantastic (and almost magical realist) world, being named a certain name can define one’s life. The deweys never grow up because they cling too tightly to each other, and can never break apart into individuals. Much the same is true of the community of the Bottom: there’s no sense of maturation or growth over time, because the people of the Bottom cling a little too tightly to their own misery and pain. The bird imagery that ends the chapter again brings up the idea of bad omens, especially as associated with Sula.