Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1220

Hazel Motes is sitting on a train, heading to Taulkinham. He is twenty-two years old and dressed like an elderly country preacher, including a new suit with the tag still stapled to his sleeve. Across from him sits Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, a fat woman who tries to chat with...

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Hazel Motes is sitting on a train, heading to Taulkinham. He is twenty-two years old and dressed like an elderly country preacher, including a new suit with the tag still stapled to his sleeve. Across from him sits Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, a fat woman who tries to chat with the uncommunicative Motes. He has an army duffel bag at his feet, and she assumes he has been recently discharged. It is his eyes, deep-set and brown like pecans, which the woman finds so compelling. Motes avoids eye contact with her; instead, he watches intently the Negro porter down the aisle as he begins making up berths.

Motes finally approaches the man, telling him he is from Eastrod but is going into the city. The porter is terse and tells Motes he is from Chicago as he wrenches the seats to create a bed and then brushes past. Motes smirks at him, knowing the porter is lying; he recognizes him as a member of the Parrum family from Eastrod, a place which consists only of several houses and a few Negro shacks.

After Motes returns to his seat, the woman continues bothering him with the story of her life, and he finally tells her he is going to the city; despite the fact that he does not know anybody there, he says, he is “going to do some things.” When the woman chatters on about people she knows, he tells her the porter was raised in the same place as he but now claims he is from Chicago. Hitchcock continues to talk until Motes says, suddenly and unexpectedly, that she probably thinks she has been redeemed. Blushing, Mrs. Hitchcock has nothing more to say. She asks if he wants to go to the dining car with her.

The dining car is full. Motes remains silent as Mrs. Hitchcock chats endlessly to the woman next to her for the half hour they wait to be seated. When the waiter finally calls them in, Mrs. Hitchcock and the other woman are seated, but there is no room for him. Motes is mortified because everyone stares at him. He tries to leave, but there is a long line behind him, and he cannot get through. Finally, one woman inside the dining car leaves, and the waiter beckons him to her seat.

Three women in brightly colored clothing are sitting at the table, smoking after their meal. Their conversation stops when he arrives. Motes points at the first thing on the menu and then watches them uncomfortably. Suddenly he blurts out that if they have been redeemed, he would not want to be. He leans in toward one of the women and says he would not believe in Jesus even if he were right here on this train. The woman replies that no one told him he has to. Motes swallows his dinner quickly as the women watch him eat. He pays the bill as fast as possible and leaves the dining car. He stops between cars for some air and a cigarette.

Motes gets ready for bed and then looks around for the porter to help him into his upper berth. He finally finds him and demands the porter come help him; the porter sets the ladder for the young man. As he climbs it, Motes tells the porter he knows his father was a black man named Cash Parrum and that Cash has died—he got cholera from a pig. The porter insists he is from Chicago, and his dad worked for the railroad. When Motes laughs, the porter jerks the ladder away and leaves. Motes grabs his blanket to avoid falling from his bed; he feels somewhat sick.

His berth is small, almost completely dark with just a crack of light from under the curtain. In a state of half-sleep, Motes imagines he is in a coffin. The first coffin he ever saw was his grandfather’s. He was a “waspish” itinerant preacher, and as a boy, Motes figured his grandfather would never let anyone close the lid on him. Eventually the coffin was closed, and his grandfather was buried.

The next two coffins he had seen were his younger brothers’: one small for a newborn, the other for his seven-year-old brother who died in a mowing machine accident. Motes ran to open up the second coffin after it was closed. Everyone thought he did it because he was heartbroken, but Motes was imagining they could be shutting it on him. Motes finally sleeps; he dreams of his father’s funeral. His father’s body had been placed on his hands and knees in the coffin; he had believed no one could close the lid on him in that position. Once the coffin was in the ground, though, the body fell and the lid closed.

There are no more Motes in Eastrod; the town was dying when the army called Hazel to serve at age eighteen. He wanted to be a preacher like his grandfather and almost shot himself in the foot to avoid going to war. He remembers his grandfather as a fiery preacher who called the people at his meetings “stones” who had hardened their hearts to God. He often pointed to Motes, whom he detested, and said Jesus would have died ten million deaths even for such a sinner. The boy had been redeemed, his grandfather said, and Jesus would never, ever let him forget it. The preacher had often ridiculed Motes because the boy reminded him of himself.

Motes went into military service for four months and stayed for four years. He intended to avoid temptation by telling everyone he was from Eastrod, Tennessee, and he would not let his heart be damned by anyone. When his fellow soldiers invited him to a brothel, he took out his mother’s glasses and his Bible and said he would not let them corrupt his soul. They claimed he had no soul; it took four years for Motes to believe them. When he took shrapnel to the chest, the army doctors said they removed it, but even now he feels it, rusting and poisoning him. He was sent to another desert, and the army forgot him. Motes realized he was missing home, not Jesus, and returned uncorrupted to Eastrod.

His family's house was just a skeleton, but he slept there one night—a board from the roof fell and cut his face. The only thing still in the house was his mother’s chiffarobe. He was surprised no one had stolen it yet. He took some rope and tied a sign around it, warning anyone who took it that he would hunt him down and kill him.

Motes is sure his mother would be proud of him for taking care of her chiffarobe. He can still see her face as he saw it through a crack in her coffin when he was sixteen. Now sleeping in his berth, he sees her face in his dream. It appears to him as a terrible, huge bat, and he feels his surroundings closing in. He screams for the porter to let him out, but the man just watches him, unmoving. When Motes uses Jesus’ name in vain, the porter says, “Jesus been gone a long time.” His voice is sour and triumphant.

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Chapter 2 Summary