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Sula | Part 1, 1923 | Summary



This chapter relates a number of events that Eva believes are strange, all of which serve as omens for the tragedy that occurs. It begins with Hannah snapping beans and asking Eva if she loved her children. The question infuriates Eva. She begins to insult Hannah, calling her a "heifer" and thick-headed. Eva lists all of the food they are preparing and have access to and tells Hannah that in 1895 there was nothing but three beets. Hannah says she has heard this story, but she keeps pressing Eva about whether she played with her children. Hannah doesn't seem to realize that when a mother is this desperate to keep her children alive, playing with her kids is the last thing on her mind. But Hannah's question stems from what she has seen Eva do to Plum; she wants to know why Eva killed her brother. Eva tells Hannah that Plum had begun to act like his baby self, so much so that he was completely helpless and was crawling back into her womb in her dreams. Eva says that she couldn't give birth to him again. The only recourse she felt she had was to end his life quickly so that he could die "like a man." She cries as she says, "But I held him real close first."

Hannah washes the vegetables and, in the terrible heat, lies down to rest, dreaming of a red wedding gown. The day before, there was a strange wind that blew through everyone's yards but brought no rain. When Hannah tells Eva about her dream, they both know which numbers to give Mr. Buckland Reed, who comes by to collect the numbers they play. Meanwhile, Sula is being obnoxious and churlish, threatening the Deweys with a bath, which they hate. Hannah tries to ignore everyone and keeps canning the vegetables. Eva, who is upstairs, notices that her comb is gone, which she finds strange. She looks out the window and sees Hannah setting the yard fire. The next time she looks out the window, she sees Hannah's dress catching fire. Eva, realizing she can't get down the stairs fast enough, throws herself out of her window to try to put out the fire with her own body. She misses and tries to drag herself toward Hannah, but Hannah is flailing and burning. The Suggs, who are canning in their front yard, throw a bucket full of water and tomatoes onto Hannah, which just causes her to steam as she burns. Other neighbors rush to the scene and finally remember to look after Eva, who is calling Hannah's name and still dragging herself across the yard.

Both Eva and Hannah are taken to the hospital, Eva bleeding profusely, blinded by the blood in her face but smelling burnt flesh. Hannah dies along the way, and because many in the hospital have never seen such a bad burn case, the attention is off Eva until Old Willy Fields notices that the floor is bloody under Eva's hospital gurney and saves her from bleeding to death. (She will curse Willy for this until she is 90 years old and forgets who he is.) Eva realizes in the hospital that the incident is a "judgment against her," her firstborn child burning to death after she burns her son to death. Eva also remembers seeing Sula standing on the porch, just looking, interested in how Hannah is jumping up and down but not running to help. Everyone thinks that Sula was just numb from the trauma, but Eva secretly thinks that isn't true. The women of the community wash Hannah's body to prepare it for the closed-casket funeral, and they mourn the loss of her beauty as if she had been a lover to them as well as to their husbands.


The symbol of fire and the theme of family return in this chapter. Eva thinks it is almost as if she were being punished for having burned her son, Plum, to death that she now loses her firstborn child, Hannah, to fire. In addition, she had just had a conversation with Hannah about whether or not she ever loved her children and what that love looked like, and she realizes that Hannah questioned her love because she killed Plum. Eva also realizes, having been saved herself, that she has to live with this knowledge for the rest of her life. Morrison has described this novel as a spiral: each event comes back refracted through the present event being told. Hannah's burning is a perfect example of this spiral; it is different because she is the child Eva first gave birth to, the one she risks her life to save because there is "time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there," so she tries to save Hannah by putting out the flames with her own body. Fire, whether set intentionally by Eva or spread unintentionally by Hannah, destroys the people she loves.

Eva's glimpse of Sula on the porch also reveals what Shadrack had promised: Sula would no longer be afraid of anything. Sula just stands on the porch, interested in how her mother looks as if she were dancing as she burns. Morrison uses this glimpse of Sula, as well as Eva's recognition of what is truly behind it, to show how detached Sula is from other people and her lack of empathy that would connect her to others.

The community can't do anything to really help Hannah, but they gather around anyway and call the ambulance, cover her, and wash the body for the funeral, all of the things neighbors are supposed to do in this community. Their washing of Hannah reflects how, even when someone has done wrong, people in the Bottom are compelled to look past the sins, because anything else would be "beneath them." The individual is not the most important thing; the community is. Hannah has been a part of the community even though she sinned repeatedly, so she is treated with kindness when she dies. Sula's rejection of community will be reflected in how she is treated later in the novel.

Morrison also uses figurative and descriptive language in the scene describing people waiting for the ambulance. The people stand "as helpless as sunflowers leaning on a fence," which gives the reader the image of heads bowing down, unable to move. The cats are more active than the people. There is a "profound silence," and it breaks only with a girl vomiting. The women talk to God and amongst themselves, not hearing Hannah's whisper for help. There is no mention of the men saying anything, and the absence of their voices serves as a silent commentary on who does the caretaking in this neighborhood.

Morrison makes use of glimpses into the future and the past in this chapter to reveal more about Eva and the women of the Bottom community. The glimpse into the past occurs when Eva remembers Plum and realizes she is being punished for what she did to him. There is also the remembrance of what Hannah looked like before she was burned, mourned by the women whose husbands benefited from her beauty. Readers glimpse the future by discovering that Eva will curse Willy for most of the rest of her life for saving her. She will think about this tragedy and her part in it for 37 years, until she loses her memory. The fact that Eva would have preferred death in this case reveals the bond that the women in this family maintain with each other while they are able to survive the loss of a man.

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