It is July 1976, and nine men in Oklahoma enter an isolated place called ‘the Convent’. It is just before daybreak and there is waist-high mist outside. The men intend to “stampede or kill” (3) the five women inside. They have been to the Convent before to purchase the peppers or barbecue sauce the women produce, but they have never been so far inside. They expect to “expose its filth to the light” (3). They are armed for their mission with guns, handcuffs, Mace, and a palm leaf cross, among other items.
Despite their preparation and determination, the men are caught off-guard by how out of place they feel in the Convent; they did not anticipate the coolness inside the stone mansion, nor the loud noise they would make on its marble floors. They are also startled by the mansion’s luxuriousness: before it was a Convent, it belonged to an embezzler, who built it as his short-lived playground. After the embezzler, it fell into the hands of nuns, and the omniscient narrator hints at the Convent’s past as a boarding school where “stilled Arapaho girls once sat and learned to forget” (4). Though the nuns attempted to scrub the mansion of its elaborate fixtures, it was too expensive to remove them all, and so hints of the Convent’s former decadence remain.
The youngest of the men looks back at a woman they have shot. He feels as though he is in a dream, one with colors he has “never before dreamed in… imperial black sporting a wild swipe of red, then thick, feverish yellow. Like the clothes of an easily had woman” (4). The leader of the group gestures for the men to split up, reserving the cellar - where they expect to find the most evidence of debauched living - for himself, his brother, and the youngest.
Two men enter the windowless kitchen. The scene is one of interrupted domestic life: chopped scallion, simmering stock, peeled potatoes, rising bread loaves. Seeing an old hen, one of the men speculates that it is “cherished… for delivering freaks - double, triple yolks in outsize and misshapen shells” (5). He reflects on the size and amenities of the Convent relative to the house in which he was born. From this, we learn about the town where the men reside - an all-black town named ‘Ruby’ - and its predecessor, Haven. Founded in 1890 and flourishing in its initial decades, Haven was reduced to a ghost town by the 1940s. The sons of Haven returning from war – including people in this group now raiding the Convent - decided to start anew, naming their new town ‘Ruby’. When they moved to the new town, the one item that these new founders were sure to bring with them was the huge Oven of brick and iron that the Old Fathers had constructed as soon as they arrived at the spot where they founded Haven. The Oven features a mysterious slogan that “seemed at first to bless them; later to confound them; finally to announce that they had lost” (7).
Two other men inspect the bedrooms, where they spot objects which confirm for them their belief that the Convent women have been living in sin: name cards written in lipstick, hammocks rather than beds, astrology charts, letters written in blood, baby shoes and teething rings, and the absence of any Christian crosses. They find other rooms that are normal, though messy. One of the men, though disgusted as he expected to be, is surprised to find he feels a “whip of pity flicking in his chest. What, he wonders, could do this to women? How can their plain brains think up such revolting things: revolting sex, deceit and the sly torture of children?” (8.) The revulsion he feels for the women of the Convent, he reflects, is almost enough to make him “question the value of almost every woman” (8) he knows. There are no “slack or sloven” (8) women in Ruby, he reflects, because the town has always been fiercely protected; besides, women who transgress are swiftly dealt with.
Another two men, father and son, broach the Convent’s chapel. They do not smile, but they “feel like [smiling] because it was true: graven idols were worshipped here. Tiny men and women in white dresses and capes of blue and gold… holding a baby or gesturing” (9). They reflect on their satisfaction at being correct, especially given the doubts of a man named ‘Reverend Misner’. Though there are a number of different congregations in Ruby, citizens across the groups have agreed that the leaders of Ruby should do as they must concerning the Convent: “neither the Convent nor the women in it can continue” (10). Once the Convent had been “a true if aloof neighbor” (10), in the early days of the town. Around that time, the town had a celebratory horse race to commemorate the creation of its first named street. A seven-year-old boy won the race; that boy was now the youngest of the men in the group destroying the Convent. Over the past year rumors have grown that the Convent is responsible for changes and ill fortune in the town: a callous daughter knocking her mother down stairs, an upshot in venereal diseases, the birth of four incurably ill children in the same family, insolent daughters, and disappearing brides.
Twin brothers approach the cellar. Though once identical, they no longer look as alike as they once did. They reflect on how Ruby’s isolation has never meant its total safety, and on their roles as protectors of the town. They are described as having unfailing memory, and they recollect the journey to found Ruby: “they have never forgotten the message or specifics of any story, especially the controlling one told to them by their grandfather… a story that explained why neither the founders of Haven nor their descendants could tolerate anybody but themselves” (13). This story is one of continual rejection, most stingingly by other black people, for being “too poor, too bedraggled-looking” (14). They recollect the truly communal atmosphere of Haven, how its inhabitants gathered at the Oven to cook and socialize together. Even when the town began to fail, the Oven remained lit. When the brothers returned from war to find Haven increasingly deserted, they had no illusions about what still lay “Out There,” “where your children were sport, your women quarry, and where your very person could be annulled” (16). And so they instigated the mission to found Ruby, taking the Oven with them.
The youngest member of the group, the twins’ nephew, remembers the death of his mother, and how the town, Ruby, was named after her. He is still distracted; as the men gather in the old schoolroom, he sees the last three women fleeing and can think only of track: “four-hundred-yard dashers or even the three-mile runners” (18). The women are running as hard and as fast as they can. The men aim their guns at these “bodacious black Eves unredeemed by Mary” (18), for the sake of Ruby.
This chapter features the book’s noted opening line, “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” In a single moment Morrison both foregrounds the theme of race and allows it to recede, because never in the novel do we find out which of the women is white. It hints at the racial tensions at work in Ruby: for whatever reason the men feel it is important to shoot the white woman first. This may be because she is considered the most dangerous, or it may be because she is incidental collateral, signifying that the men’s real focus is on the black women in the Convent.
This first chapter is written from and grounds us in the point of view of the men of Ruby, a point of view that is presented as concrete and factual but which is gradually destabilized as the novel goes on. They patrol the house “alert to the female malice that hides here” (4). The women, as far as we can perceive, are definitively evil, and the narrator reports matter-of-factly their certainty that objects they find in the Convent confirm their earlier suspicions. Everything in the house is tainted by the men’s pre-formed beliefs. One man sees a hen and, though there is no sign that the hen is in any way unusual, immediately presumes that it produces freakish, deformed eggs. Because Oklahoma is principally Protestant, one man enters the chapel and mistakes the Catholic iconography there for “graven idols” (9), confusing figures of Mary and Jesus and bowls of holy water for objects of devil worship.
Morrison introduces us here to one of the driving forces behind the founding of Ruby and an important theme of the novel: the ways in which men perceive and control women. The men have strong and volatile feelings about the proper decorum of women that are easily disturbed by the eccentricities of the Convent women. One man reflects that his disgust at what he encounters in the Convent is almost enough to poison his feelings about women in general. For him, it is hard to separate the behavior of one or some women from women as a whole group. He muses that there are no “slack or sloven” (8) women in Ruby and suggests it is because in Ruby women are well protected: it is male protection, he believes, that ensures (as well as demands) female virtue. To these men, the Convent women are less than human: they are described as “detritus,” “throwaway people” (3).
Though the men are described as graceful and determined, they are simultaneously portrayed as feeling uneasy and out of place - they have not dressed correctly or anticipated the noise that they would make in the Convent’s cool, silent interior. This is a hint that not all is right with the men and their mission. The chapter is pervaded by a sense of dreamlike unreality, most strongly demonstrated by the sensation of the youngest man that he is literally in a dream, filled with colors of a vividness he has never seen before - colors described as “wild,” “imperial,” and “feverish” (4). The feelings of the youngest suggest that it is not clear that the men fully understand the gravity of what they are doing; the waist-high mist outside reflects the cloudiness of their purpose.
That the men do not fully understand what they are doing is also suggested by the various ironic images and juxtapositions that Morrison deploys. There is a stark contrast between the men and their easy companionability and what they are at the Convent to do. The tenor of moral hysteria necessary to justify their mission is undercut by quiet domestic imagery: they are “alert to the female malice that hides here,” but also the “yeast-and-butter smell of rising dough” (4). Shooting the first woman is described as calming their giddiness in the way that butter becomes clarified: “the pure oil of hatred on top, its hardness stabilized below” (4). Sometimes the men cannot seem to remain consistent in the vitriol that motivates them: wandering around the kitchen, one man “turns the fire off under the stockpot” (5), an oddly considerate gesture. The men pause to make “friendly adjustments in the grip of rifles and handguns” (4): “friendly adjustment” is a strange and striking turn of phrase for a murderous rampage. At least one man, too, is surprised by the pity that he feels for the women, against his own will.