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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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This section opens with a flashback and a description about Sula’s colorful family, starting with her grandmother Eva. Eva’s husband Boy Boy abandoned her and their three young children, leaving her with nothing. For a few months, she and the children managed to survive on what little was left in the house; when the supplies ran out, Eva grew desperate. She left her children with a neighbor for eighteen months and went away; when she returned, she had ten thousand dollars and only one leg. It was rumored that she cut off her leg intentionally in order to collect the insurance money so she could feed her family. Upon her return to Medallion with the money, Eva built a house for herself and the children. She chose to live on the top floor of the house, spending most of her time in a makeshift wheelchair made from a rocking chair and a red wagon.

In the present time of the novel, Eva is known for taking in boarders of all kinds, including newlywed couples and three odd boys whom Eva calls “the Deweys.” The three boys are well-behaved and run errands for Eva; in return, she feeds them and sends them to school. At school, the Deweys are all called Dewey King. Even though they look different, no one can really tell them apart, so they simply call all of three of them the same thing. Strangely, the mothers of these stray boys do not object to Eva's "adoption" of the children. Tar Baby is also a boarder; he is a chronically depressed alcoholic who has come to Eva’s house to die. Tar Baby sings at the church and is well known for his sweet voice that all admire.

Eva’s three children are Pearl, Hannah, and Plum. Pearl marries and moves away to Michigan. Hannah, a widow, and her daughter, Sula, live with Eva. Hannah has a reputation for engaging in sexual relationships with local married men; but she never falls in love or encourages any kind of attachment. Plum, Eva’s only son, also lives in the house. He has returned from the war depressed and hopelessly addicted to painkillers. He steals from the family in order to buy his drugs and sleeps in his room for days with the record playing on. Like Tar Baby, Plum seems destined to die young.

One night in late 1921, Eva goes into Plum’s room to confront her son about his miserable life and his addiction to painkillers. He is barely conscious because of the drugs. She sits on the bed crying and holding Plum for one last time. Eva then pours kerosene on Plum’s bed, lights it, and returns to her room. When Hannah wakes and comes to tell Eva what is happening, the two women look into each other's eyes with full realization of what has happened. The neighbors help put out the fire, but Plum is already dead.


This section establishes the family history of Sula in much the same way Nel’s family was introduced in the previous section. Her grandmother (Eva), her mother (Hannah), and her brother (Plum) all live in Eva’s house with Sula, and she is influenced by them all, just as Nel has been influenced by her family. Sula’s relationships with men, women, and children are all shaped by her family ties.

Morrison goes beyond an explanation of Sula’s family to the black community and their family structures at large. When the men leave (and in this book they are always leaving), the women are always strong enough to put together a life for themselves and their children. If the men stay, they are often cared for by the women, who seem to expect little from them. Although Eva’s situation was desperate when her husband left, she found a way to cope; in order to gain money to raise her children, she bravely cuts off her leg for an insurance check in the amount of $10,000. It is a sad commentary on the plight of poor blacks. Hannah fairs better than her mother, for she and her daughter live with Eva; but she still fights to survive after losing her husband. She covers up her misery by having petty affairs with all the married men in town; but she is afraid to have any kind of permanent relationship with a male. In spite of her loose behavior, she is well liked by the females in town because of her liveliness. Sula is greatly influenced by the fight for survival that she sees in her mother and grandmother.

The males presented in the chapter are much weaker than the females. The Deweys are a commentary on lack of identity. People refuse to see them as different and call them all the same name; they never fight back for their own identity. Tar Baby is hopelessly depressed and alcoholic; his only redeeming characteristic is his beautiful voice, which he shares in church. Plum, Sula’s brother, is the weakest of all the males presented. He lives his life in a drugged stupor, often not coming out of his room for days. Since Plum cannot control his own life, the strong-willed Eva takes charge. To save her son from a life of misery, she sets him on fire and allows him to burn to death. Hannah knows and understands what her mother has done, for she is also a survivor. Sula also is shaped by her relationship to these weak males, just as she is shaped by the strong women in her life.

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