When Helene Wright hears that her grandmother, Cecile Sabat, has fallen ill, she decides that she and her daughter Nel will travel from Medallion to New Orleans to see her. The trip is difficult for Helene who is hesitant to return to painful memories she left in New Orleans but she decides she must go to honor the woman who raised her.
Twenty-five years earlier, Cecile had rescued Helene from the Sundown House, the center of prostitution where she was born. With discipline and religion, Cecile raised Helene to avoid the example set by her mother, a Creole prostitute. When Helene turned sixteen, Cecile also arranged the marriage of Helene with her great-nephew Wiley Wright so that she could begin a life far away from the Sundown House.
When Helene has a daughter of her own, nine years after marrying Wiley, she also raises her in a home of discipline and religion. The two are often on their own since Wiley spends most of his days on the ship. Naturally, when Helene decides to leave for New Orleans she brings her daughter Nel along with her. Wearing a newly sewn elegant dress, Helene hurries to the train station with her daughter. Seeing that the train is ready to leave the two hurriedly jump onto the nearest car which turns out to be for Whites only. A white conductor intercepts the pair on their search for the “Colored Only” car and rudely chastises Helene in front of other passengers. Accustomed to witnessing this interaction the Black passengers initially view the scene with disinterest until Helene sycophantically smiles at the conductor. This action disgusts the passengers and humiliates Nel, who resolves never to let her guard down before any man the way her mother did.
The train ride to New Orleans lasts a total of three days. On the last day, there is a marked change as the women travel further into the South. Most noticeable is the lack of “Colored only” facilities, an absence that forces the women to squat in the open at rest stops. Despite these challenges, the pair finally arrives in New Orleans only to find that Cecile has already died. Upon arriving, they also find Helene’s mother, Rochelle in Cecile’s house. Here, Nel meets the Creole Speaking woman who smells of gardenias for the very first time and is struck by her scent and softness.
A return to Medallion brings joy to Helene who is glad to reestablish the distance between her and her former home. Nel however reflects on the trip with a mixture of fear and fascination. Additionally, a new sense of self is stirred within her. This newfound confidence and individuality prompts Nel to befriend Sula, a playmate she was told to avoid because Helena disliked Sula’s mother. However, Helena’s distaste for the child soon dissipates when Sula proves to be well behaved and mannered.
Helene Wright is born to a prostitute mother from whom she spends the rest of her life trying to distance herself. Her grandmother Cecile Wright raises her in New Orleans until Wiley Wright arrives and is pressured to marry her. Helene’s shame of her mother foreshadows the shame inhabitants of the Bottom will feel towards Sula in later chapters. It is against her mother’s example that Helene defines herself, becoming a woman of high standards and moral rectitude.
Helene passes along the same sense of goodness and superiority to her daughter Nel. Helene “dr[ives] her daughter’s imagination underground” with her discipline and her religion. Nel becomes the vessel through which Helene will redeem her own shameful past. Consequently, Helene makes it a point to manipulate her daughter’s behaviors and actions, even determining whom she can play with at school.
When Cecile falls ill, Helene and Nel go to visit her on her sickbed. They arrive too late and find Cecile dead but the trip there is rife with its own disappointments. On the ride, they incur many instances of discrimination. Helene is chastised by a white conductor for entering the “whites only” car. When she smiles at the conductor, Nel is shamed and is aware of the disgust of the black passengers. This moment helps Nel define aspirations to be different from her mother. She is determined never to receive that gaze.
While Nel is discovering her own identity separate from her mother’s, Helene is also fighting the ties she has to her own mother, Rochelle. Rochelle is present at the house when Nel and Helene discover that Cecile has already died. She speaks in Creole to Helene and ogles at the granddaughter she had never met. Nel is awestruck by Rochelle and her canary-like appearance. Nel is enraptured by that which her mother distastes. In a dramatic show of distance, Helene denies her mother’s language, adamantly saying “’I don’t talk Creole’” and telling Nel “‘And neither do you.’” With this, Helene creates another separation between her and her mother while attempting to relate with her daughter. Because Nel does not speak Creole, Helene roots out the linguistic traces of her past for generations to come.
When they return home from the trip Nel feels empowered by a new sense of individuality and identity. She is “me,” undefined by her parents, defined only by herself. This discovery of self parallels that of Shadrack. It prompts Nel to befriend Sula despite her mother’s disapproval.