Chapter 2: 1920 Summary and Analysis
Cecile: great aunt to Wiley Wright and grandmother to Helene; took Helene from the Sundown House and reared her in New Orleans
Helene Sabat: daughter of a Creole prostitute; born behind the red shutters of Sundown House
Wiley Wright: nephew of Cecile; resided in Medallion, Ohio; married Helene Sabat, when she was 16; a seaman in port only three days out of every 16; served as cook aboard the ship
Nel: the daughter of Helene and Wiley after their ninth year of marriage
Henri Martin: New Orleans resident who writes to Helene to tell her of her grandmother’s illness
Porter: the colored man who points Helene and Nel to the coach
Conductor: the white man who calls Helene “gal” and who questions Helene’s and Nel’s presence in the white section of the coach
Black woman and her four children: passengers who boarded in Tuscaloosa; the woman shows Helene and Nel the field that is used for a restroom
Rochelle: Helene’s mother and Nel’s grandmother
Eva: Sula’s grandmother
Hannah: Sula’s mother; Eva’s oldest child
Helene Sabat was born in Sundown House in New Orleans; her mother was a prostitute. Her grandmother Cecile took the child to rear. Young Helene married Wiley Wright and returned with him to Medallion, Ohio. Wiley was a seaman who was home only three days out of every 16. His job aboard the ship was to cook. After nine years, Wiley and Helene had a baby girl, whom they named Nel.
Helene received a letter from Henri Martin. The letter said that Cecile was sick. Armed with her manner, her bearing, and a new dress, Helene decided to return to New Orleans. She and her daughter traveled by train in November of 1920.
On the train they made a mistake and entered the wrong car. The conductor talked demeaningly at the pair, and Helene did the unthinkable: she smiled! The smile brought the contempt of all the black men in the car. Nel saw her mother turn to custard. Nel resolved never to bring this look on herself.
The trip south took two days. Helene and Nel left behind the areas where the restrooms were marked “White” and “Colored” and entered an area where the restroom for them was just a field of grass.
Helene and Nel arrived too late to see Cecile; Cecile had died shortly before their arrival. Nel met Rochelle, Helene’s mother. Nel made a discovery on this trip—her first and last from Medallion. Nel found that she was herself—not anyone else.
Nel formed a bond of friendship with Sula. Each preferred the home of the other. Nel’s mother was a manipulator of others and kept her home oppressively neat. Sula’s home was quite different; her mother, Hannah, never scolded or manipulated. Guests were frequent in Sula’s home and dirty dishes remained in the sink. Eva, Sula’s one-legged grandmother, read dreams to the girls and gave them peanuts from her pockets.
This chapter is rich with contrasts; the author uses antiphonal characteristics to make the characters and settings more vivid. Morrison describes the contrasting homes and families of Sula and Nel in detail. Medallion and New Orleans were unlike in many ways; Morrison notes some of these differences. Nel discovers marked contrasts as the train approaches the South.
Diction is an important part of constructing the characters for the reader. Morrison records Rochelle’s Creole carefully for the reader: “‘I don’t know what happen to de house. Long time paid for. You be think’ on it? Oui?’” The words of the black woman who had boarded the train in Tuscaloosa reflect the speech of the...
(The entire section is 934 words.)