Literature Study GuidesSulaPart 1 1919 Summary

Sula | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Sula | Part 1, 1919 | Summary



Shadrack, a young soldier, sees combat in World War I in December 1919. He witnesses fellow soldiers being blown to bits in front of him, and when he wakes up in a hospital, he hallucinates that his hands are growing. He is terrified and raises a ruckus, so the nurses put him in a straitjacket, for which he is grateful because he can't see his hands. When he is finally released from the hospital, he has clearly lost his mind. He wanders off with his severance pay and his clothes. He gets lost, turned around, and stuck in his own shoelaces and as a result gets arrested for vagrancy and sent to jail.

Shadrack momentarily recovers his sanity when he sees his reflection in the toilet in his cell and realizes he is still intact; miraculously, his hands stay the same size when he looks at them. Meanwhile, the sheriff reads his papers and decides to send him off on a wagon to the Bottom. Shadrack sets up house in a cottage near the river away from the rest of the neighborhood and fishes, selling his catch on Tuesdays and Fridays. Shadrack is drunk, loud, and obnoxious the rest of the time. However, he doesn't bother or frighten anyone in any major way, so the neighborhood, knowing what to expect from him, lets him live his own life.

Trying to cope with his PTSD from the war, Shadrack decides he is going to contain his constant fear by allowing it to surface only one day a year. He calls it National Suicide Day, and he chooses January 3, 1920, as the beginning date. He walks up and down the streets, ringing a cowbell and carrying a hangman's rope, offering everyone the chance "to kill themselves or each other." No one takes him up on it, but it becomes part of the neighborhood's "fabric of life."


Shadrack's treatment in the hospital is such that it doesn't matter whether he is better or not. The hospital considers him a high-risk patient because of his violence and releases him with his pay and his clothes. The racism inherent in the treatment of a black veteran of World War I is clear, especially when he is arrested for vagrancy and drunkenness because he can't tie his shoes with the hands he thinks are growing. In addition, sending him off in a wagon to the Bottom washes the sheriff's hands of any responsibility for him, and he is now left completely on his own.

The theme of community is also evident in the way Shadrack's National Suicide Day becomes part of the annual rhythm of the neighborhood. Everyone acknowledges that Shadrack is crazy. He spends the rest of the year drunk and obnoxious when he isn't fishing, but on this one day, no one sees him as a problem or too crazy to handle. It's just Shadrack doing what he does, and the rest of the neighborhood works their lives around him and his special, solo celebration.

The language that Morrison uses to describe his thoughts is beautiful. Shadrack envisions his little shack before he gets there, with fish in the river and soft voices outside his window. He becomes an almost daily conversation topic, part of the stories people tell, the plans they make, and even the idea of redemption; the Reverend Deal notices that the people who choose not to parade behind Shadrack are killing themselves slowly with other vices. His character develops around his madness and the way he deals with his fear, just as the life of the neighborhood develops around him.

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