Literature Study GuidesSulaPart 1 1920 Summary

Sula | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Sula | Part 1, 1920 | Summary



Helene Wright was raised by her religious grandmother because her mother was a prostitute living in a brothel. In 1920 Helene returns to New Orleans because her grandmother is ill. She has married her grandmother's nephew, Wiley Wright, and they have a child named Nel, now 10 years old. Helene sews herself a beautiful dress and takes Nel with her on a train down to see her grandmother, but they are too late. The funeral is being arranged by a Mr. Henri Martin.

The train ride gets off to a bad start, as Helene walks with her daughter through the white car to get to the "Colored Only" car and a conductor chides her for it. Black soldiers around her say nothing but are horrified when she smiles broadly at the conductor. He is rude to her and calls her "gal," what men often call whores. Nel sees the soldiers' horrified looks and worries that her perceptions of her strong, upright mother, and of herself, are mistaken.

When they arrive in New Orleans, they are greeted by Rochelle, Helene's mother. Helene is forced to introduce Nel to Rochelle, and Nel is impressed by how young Rochelle looks. She wants to know the meaning of the Creole words Rochelle uses, but her mother silences her and won't explain. When they get home to Medallion, the whole experience resonates with Nel, and she realizes she is her own person. She dreams of being "wonderful" and leaving Medallion. However, she becomes friends with Sula, a schoolmate, even though Helene advises her to stay away from Sula because Sula's mother, Hannah, is "sooty." However, stern, proper Helene actually comes to like the rebellious Sula.


In this chapter readers learn that Helene raises her daughter, Nel, similar to her own strict upbringing away from her prostitute mother. Helene's grandmother raises Helene in a somber home, with images of several Virgin Marys meeting her gaze throughout the house. The home was as much a church as a home, both in appearance and behavior. Not only does Helene grow up in a strict religious atmosphere, but her relatives shuttle her away to Medallion, Ohio, to marry a distant relative, safely removed from her mother's influence.

The themes of racism, family, and community are quite apparent throughout this chapter. Nel's mother, highly respected for her strict mothering and strong religious and moral convictions, is not always treated with deference outside the Bottom. Nel witnesses a much more vulnerable woman on their way to New Orleans. The white train conductor is rude, but Helene uses her beauty and her coquettish smile to get out of trouble, which disgusts the soldiers and horrifies Nel. Nel realizes that no matter how strong her mother is and no matter how respected she is in the community, once they are outside Medallion, Helene is subject to the same indignities facing all black women. Her "bright" smile underlines her position of social weakness vis-à-vis the white conductor. Nel fears she might become the same way and, instead of confronting rudeness, male arrogance, and racism, she too will be like "custard," soft and vulnerable.

Nel's self-awareness deepens when she gets home and realizes she is her own person, separate from being a daughter. She sets aside her obedience to her family when she becomes friends with Sula, whose mother has a reputation for sleeping with other women's husbands and being what Helene refers to as "sooty." However, Sula behaves well and remains at Nel's house for the afternoon, so Helene ends up liking her. Nel's effort at rebellion doesn't exactly work, but her friendship with Sula feels like an escape from the order and repression she lives with at home. The theme of friendship begins at the end of this chapter, showing how these two girls begin to complement and complete each other.

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