Study Guide

Sula 1921

By Toni Morrison


  • This chapter is all about Eva: Hannah's mom and Sula's grandma. We learn that Eva has only one leg, and no one really knows how she lost the other. Eva tells scary stories about her missing leg, and there are rumors that she lost it on purpose in a train "accident" to make some money. But the mystery of the missing leg is never solved.
  • However, "the remaining [leg] was magnificent" (1921.3). Eva also wears stockings and a "black laced-up shoe that came well above her ankle" (1921.3), and she doesn't try to cover up the missing leg. Instead, she makes sure that her good leg can always be seen (pretty cool).
  • Because of her missing leg, Eva is confined to a wheelchair, so people literally "had to look down at her" (1921.3). Despite this, everyone "had the impression that they were looking up at her" (1921.3). Eva commands a lot of respect from the people around her, and she's pretty tough (as we soon learn).
  • At some point, Eva is married to BoyBoy (whose name speaks to his maturity and sense of responsibility), and they have three kids. One is Hannah (Sula's mom), one is Eva (everyone calls her Pearl), and their son's name is Ralph (nicknamed Plum).
  • Eva's marriage to BoyBoy is pretty short-lived, and he's really a horrible guy. He drinks, abuses her, and cheats on her. When he finally takes off, he leaves her with $1.65 and their three kids to take care of.
  • At first Eva depends on help from her neighbors to feed the kids. But they're just as poor as she is and she knows she can't count on them forever. Her life is really hard, and the last straw is when Plum gets sick.
  • He can't eat or go to the bathroom, and he cries and cries because of the pain. After days of this, Eva "resolved to end his misery once and for all" (1921.6).
  • This almost sounds like she's going to kill him, but instead she gives him an enema and then "clears him out" with her own fingers. This actually does the trick, and Plum finally starts to get better. This is a pretty graphic scene, and we might not want to hear all the details, but it shows us what Eva has to resort to in order to care for her family. This episode finally does it for Eva and she declares to herself, "Uh uh. Nooo" (1921.3).
  • She drops her kids off with a neighbor and says she'll return the following day. She doesn't come back for a year and a half, and when she returns she's lost a leg but gained some money. (This is probably when the rumor about the train "accident" begins.) She uses that money to build a house for herself.
  • A few years later, BoyBoy returns to see Eva. She doesn't know what to expect, how she'll react to seeing him, or what she'll do: "Would she cry, cut his throat, beg him to make love to her?" (1921.9)
  • When he arrives, he looks like he's done well for himself. And because he's such a classy guy, he's brought another woman with him, whom he leaves waiting outside while he talks with Eva.
  • Their visit is quick and BoyBoy expresses no desire to see his kids (he just keeps getting more or more charming, right?) When he leaves, he walks over to the woman waiting for him and says something that makes her laugh a "high-pitched big-city laugh that reminded Eva of Chicago" (1921.18). It's this woman's laugh that makes Eva hate BoyBoy, and we learn that she hates him "long and well" (1921.19).
  • Eva starts taking in boarders, including neighborhood children. She names the first one Dewey. When the next kid comes, she names him Dewey, too. And third one she names Dave. (Just kidding, she names him Dewey.)
  • The three Deweys look really different. The first "was a deeply black boy with a beautiful head and the golden eyes of chronic jaundice." The second one "was light-skinned with freckles everywhere and a head of tight red hair." And the last Dewey "was half Mexican with chocolate skin and black bangs" (1921.26). As different as they sound, everyone comes to view them as a single entity.
  • Another tenant in the house is Tar Baby, who rarely talks to anyone and is "intent solely on drinking himself to death" (1921.32). Hannah realizes that "he simply wanted a place to die privately but not quite alone" (1921.33), so everyone just leaves him to himself. And remember Shadrack's National Suicide Day? Well, Tar Baby "became the first one to join" (1921.33).
  • We learn that the "Peace women loved all men. It was manlove that Eva bequeathed to her daughters" (1921.35). This remains as true for the elderly Eva—who enjoys a steady stream of men who "want […] to see her lovely calf" (1921.35)—as it is for Hannah, who "simply refused to live without the attentions of a man" (1921.39).
  • Hannah has sex often and with many different men. It makes no difference to her if they are married, and, in fact, the majority of them are "the husbands of her friends and neighbors" (1921.39). But she is careful about whom she actually sleeps with (as in falls asleep with after the deed). This "implied for her a measure of trust and a definite commitment" (1921.40), which she doesn't offer as readily as she does sex.
  • Not surprisingly, Hannah's attitude about sex influences Sula, who begins to see it as "pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable" (1921.40). (This will become pretty important in a few chapters.)
  • We shift back to Plum, now an adult and back from World War I. War has obviously changed him, and it turns out that he has become addicted to what we gather is heroin. Plum starts to steal from his family, barely eats, and spends most of his time alone in his bedroom.
  • Eva leaves her youngest child alone at first, but one night she decides to leave her bedroom and wheelchair to go to him. She uses the crutches she hasn't used in years and slowly makes her way to his room. When she gets there, he is obviously high, but Eva just sits next to him on the bed and holds him tight.
  • The rest of the scene is pretty heart-wrenching. Eva looks around at Plum's filthy room and thinks about his childhood. She starts to cry as she holds her barely-conscious son. When she takes a sip of what she thinks is strawberry soda, she realizes "it was blood-tainted water" (1921.47).
  • Plum tells Eva to go back to sleep and assures her, "I'm all right. Go on, now" (1921.47).
  • Eva does leave, and suddenly Plum starts to feel a change come over him: "Some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought" (1921.49). He "imagine[s] […] the great wing of an eagle pouring a wet lightness over him" (1921.49), and it tells him that, "Everything is going to be all right" (1921.47).
  • It's hard to tell exactly what happens after this. It seems like Plum dies, but it could be that he just falls asleep. Either way, Eva comes back to Plum's room, douses him in kerosene, and lights him on fire. She heads back to her room while everyone else in the house tries frantically to save Plum.
  • When Eva encounters Hannah on the stairway, Hannah screams that Plum is on fire, and Eva replies, "Is? My baby? Burning?" (1921.52). She looks right at Hannah when she says this, and Hannah seems to realize what has happened, since "the eyes of each were enough for the other" (1921.52). Eva continues to head back to her room and Hannah continues to try to save her brother.