by Toni Morrison
Sula 1922 Summary
- Sula and Nel are twelve years old in this chapter, and this is the year they discover boys. They start going to Edna Finch's Mellow House for ice cream just so they can walk past men on the street. Most are older men who seem pretty harmless, but there is one named Ajax, just twenty-one, who has a "sinister beauty" about him (1922.3). One day he calls Sula and Nel "pig meat" (which is apparently some sort of sexual reference), and this "delights" the girls (1922.3).
- The chapter shifts gears a little here, and we learn that both Sula and Nel used to dream of having a friend to help them deal with their lives at home, to share their hopes and dreams. So, "it was in dreams that the two girls had first met" (1922.6).
- We learn a little bit more about what the girls look like. Nel is rather light-skinned, "the color of wet sandpaper – just dark enough …" (1922.9), and "Sula [is] a heavy brown with large quiet eyes" (1922.3). Both girls are African-American, but there is a distinct difference in the color of their skin.
- We also get to know their personalities a little better. We learn that "Nel seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted on to sustain any emotion for more than three minutes" (1922.10). So Nel is the more stable of the two and Sula seems a little flighty.
- We witness more instances of overt racism in this chapter. Irish immigrants have come to Medallion, and they experience discrimination from the wealthier whites who already live there. The one thing they can agree on, though, is their disdain for the black residents. The Irish kids start bullying the black kids, and one day Nel becomes the unfortunate object of their attention.
- On her way home from school, a group of Irish boys grabs Nel and "push[es] her from hand to hand until they grew tired of the frightened helpless face" (1922.11). She does everything she can to avoid them after this, including taking the long way home. Sula at first accompanies her on these long walks home, but one day she decides that they're not going to hide anymore: "Let's us go on home the shortest way" (1922.11).
- They encounter the boys, of course, who step in front of them to stop them from passing. This is when Sula shows us her tough side. She pulls out a knife, which at first doesn't scare the boys, but then she cuts off part of her own finger. "If I can do that to myself," she tells them, "what you suppose I'll do to you?" (1922.14) That does the trick, and the boys take off without touching the girls.
- We then jump to the summer, "the summer of their twelfth year, the summer of the beautiful black boys" (1922.24), when Sula has a pretty traumatic moment with her mother, Hannah. She overhears a conversation between Hannah and some other women who are all complaining about their kids. When one woman says she doesn't really love her daughter, Hannah corrects her: "Sure you do. You love her, like I love Sula. I just don't like her, that's the difference" (1922.33). Sula hears this and is pretty devastated. (Imagine being twelve years old and hearing this from your mom.)
- Sula and Nel run off after this and find a patch of grass surrounded by trees. We don't know exactly what the following scene means, but it's clear that it's an important exchange between the two girls.
- They start playing with grass and twigs and then they both dig large holes in the ground, into which they toss all the trash they can find in the area. The act seems almost ceremonial, as they bury "all of the small defiling things they [can] find" and then "carefully … replace … the soil and cover … the entire grave with uprooted grass" (1922.40). They don't speak the whole time, but it seems that the girls both feel that there are bad things that need to stay far underground.
- As they finish up this "funeral," a boy named Chicken Little comes along. At first, Nel picks on him, but Sula's a little nicer and tells him she'll climb a tree with him. Sula and Chicken share a nice moment up in the tree, looking across the river, but once they climb back down things go horribly wrong.
- Sula picks Chicken up and starts swinging him around. He's having so much fun and "shrieks [with] frightened joy" (1922.70), but he "slip[s] from her hands and sail[s] away out over the water" (1922.70), where he drowns. As the girls wait for Chicken to reemerge (he doesn't), they realize that Shadrack has seen the accident, so Sula runs to his house, even though she's terrified of him.
- She knocks on the door and, when Shadrack doesn't answer, she lets herself in. As she's looking around she realizes that Shadrack "was there in the doorway looking at her" (1922. 76).
- She quickly gets ready to leave but wants to ask him if he really did see the accident. Before she can ask, though, he looks at her with "a great smile, heavy with lust and time to come" and tells her "Always" (1922.79).
- Sula runs back to Nel and starts to cry. She tells Nel what Shadrack said to her, but it's hard to tell what her reaction really means since we learn that the "promise [of his answer] licked at her feet" (1922.85). Maybe she's intrigued by him.
- Chicken's body eventually surfaces and a white bargeman finds him. He isn't going to bother with the body since the person is black, but then he sees that it's a kid, so he brings Chicken onto his boat.
- Racism rears its ugly head again as the bargeman assumes that Chicken's mom and dad have killed him on purpose. He calls black people "those people" and thinks that they are "fit for nothing but substitutes for mules" (1922.86). When he realizes how hot it is and that Chicken's body might start to smell, he ties Chicken to the side of the boat and drags his body through the water.
- The bargeman reports the death at his next stop, but no one can be bothered with the body of an African-American kid. (The sheriff even questions why the bargeman picked up the body in the first place.) They eventually convince the ferry driver to take the body back to Medallion, three days after Chicken dies.
- Chicken's body is so disfigured and bloated by now that his mother isn't sure it's him, although she eventually realizes that it is. When she first sees Chicken's body, "her mouth [flies] wide open . . . and it [is] seven hours before she [is] able to close it and make the first sound" (1922.88).
- Nel and Sula attend Chicken's funeral with the rest of the town, but they can't "touch hands or look at each other" (1922.91). Nel is worried that she'll get caught, even though she wasn't the one who accidentally threw Chicken into the river. And Sula just cries and cries, without making a sound.
- The sermon makes the adults in the church think of their own deceased children, of their childhood long since gone, of the power of "God's will" (1922.94), and "they dance . . . and scream" (1922.94).
- Chicken is buried "in the colored part of the cemetery" (1922.95), and butterflies fly around his fresh grave. At the gravesite, Sula and Nel hold hands and think about how Chicken's "bubbly laughter and the press of [his] fingers in [Sula's] palm [will] stay aboveground forever" (1922.96). As they head home from the cemetery, "their fingers [are] laced in as gentle a clasp as that of any two young girlfriends trotting up the road on a summer day . . ." (1922.96). They haven't forgotten about Chicken, but they are more "relaxed" (1922.96).
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