After Eva Peace's husband, BoyBoy, abandoned her, it is the kindness of her neighbors that kept her and her three children alive. Her baby Ralph, whom she nicknamed Plum, developed an impacted bowel. After listening to his piercing cries for days, Eva lubricated her fingers with lard and dug the compacted stools out of him, saving his life. Two days later, she left her children with a neighbor, Mrs. Suggs, promising that she would return within a few hours. She returned after 18 months. Over that time, she had mysteriously gained new wealth, but had also lost a leg. Her neighbors speculate that she deliberately placed her leg underneath a train in order to collect on an insurance claim.
When, later, BoyBoy briefly visited, Eva received him without outward signs of animosity. It appeared that he had come into a considerable sum of money. During his visit he never asked about his children, and when he left with his sophisticated, city girlfriend, Eva looks forward to the long-standing hatred she will hold for him.
With her mysterious money, Eva builds the rambling house where she now lives as a respected matriarch with her daughter and granddaughter, Hannah and Sula. The house also serves as home to three informally adopted children, all of whom Eva calls Dewey, and a never-ending stream of boarders. The Deweys become extremely attached to one another and consequently start first grade together despite their different ages. Tar Baby, a white alcoholic, lives in one room drinking himself to death.
Hannah and Eva both love "maleness." Eva enjoys flirting with men although she does not sleep with them. Hannah, on the other hand, sleeps with any man that takes her fancy, but she does not develop long-term relationships with them. When Plum returns from World War I, he is ravaged by his war experience and a heroin addiction. One night, Eva enters his bedroom to rock him in her arms. Afterward, she pours kerosene over him and burns him to death.
The contrast between Sula's and Nel's upbringing is startling. Nel's household is bound by the social standards that define the conventional meaning of "family." Sula's household is built on an unconventional family structure. She lives in a multigenerational household run by women. Whereas Nel's household is static and repressive, Sula's household is vibrant, active, and subject to constant change. A constant stream of boarders complements the long-term residents of her house. The differences in the houses are evident in the physical structures themselves. Nel's house is always in order and well-kept; Sula's house is huge and rambling, as Eva has added on additional rooms piece by piece over time. The houses symbolize the differing potential for growth and change in the girls' families.
Eva's actions in killing Plum, her son, represents the ambiguous power of love. Of all her children, Eva clearly loved Plum the best. This has not changed even with his return from the war as a heroin addict, and Eva's decision to kill him is an expression of her love for him. Because she loves him she is unable to watch as he plummets further into addiction, and so she kills him. On one level, this is a sacrifice: a mother putting her son, whom she loves, out of his misery and thereby losing him. On another level, it is an act of selfishness: because she loves him Eva believes she has the right to decide what is best for him, and belives death is better than addiction. In the relationship of Eva and Plum, Morrison makes the claim that love is far more complicated than the way in which it is usually perceived. Love is not merely a thing of beauty and moral good, Morrison claims, it is rather a forceful amoral emotion that drives people to actions both selfish and selfless, both beautiful and horrid. In fact, as can be seen in Eva's killing of Plum, love is so complex and intricate; it can imbue a single action with both selfishness and selflessness. In other words, love is not subject to morality.