Sula Chapter 1: 1919 Summary and Analysis
by Toni Morrison

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Chapter 1: 1919 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Shadrack: a young man with a psychic war injury from World War I; founder of National Suicide Day

Male nurse: the balding man who treats Shadrack in the hospital

Reverend Deal: a minister of the Bottom who accepts National Suicide Day

Every January 3rd after 1920, Shadrack celebrated National Suicide Day. For many years, he was the only one to celebrate. The events of 1917 resulted in his establishment of the holiday.

During World War I, Shadrack, who was barely 20, and his comrades met the enemy on a French field in December of 1917. After seeing his friend killed, Shadrack awoke in a hospital. Even though Shadrack was still hallucinating and violent, the hospital discharged him with $217, his papers, and a full suit of clothes.

Upon his arrival in town, Shadrack’s hallucinations continued. When the police locked him in jail for vagrancy and intoxication, the 22-year-old felt relieved.

After the police officers read Shadrack’s hospital discharge papers with his personal information on them, they return him to the Bottom on the back of a truck. For 12 days Shadrack struggles to order his thoughts.

On January 3, 1920, Shadrack walked down Carpenter’s Road with a cowbell and a hangman’s rope. The people were wary but listened to what Shadrack had to say. He announced on the Charter National Suicide Day in 1920 that this was the only chance for a year for residents to kill others or themselves. Gradually the annual event became a part of the neighborhood.

Morrison uses a limited omniscient style when she takes the reader into the mind of only one character: Shadrack. Her descriptions of Shadrack’s thoughts and feelings enable the reader to see the world through Shadrack’s eyes (Menippean satire). For instance, the narrator describes how Shadrack saw through his tears his own fingers. His fingers seemed to fuse with the fabric of his laces and to move in and out of the eyelets of his shoes.

Morrison also presents the character to the reader through Shadrack’s actions; through the narrator the reader learns that Shadrack sold fish two days a week and “…the rest of the week he was drunk, loud, obscene, funny, and outrageous.”

The reactions of others to Shadrack also reveal his character; for instance, the reader finds that hospital workers bind Shadrack into a straitjacket. Additional information shows the reactions of others to Shadrack after his return from war:
“At first the people in the town were frightened; they knew Shadrack was crazy, but that did not mean that he didn’t have any sense or, even more important, that he had no power.”

The way that others speak to Shadrack shows how they view him; for example, the nurse has no sympathy for Shadrack and asks, “‘Private? We’re not going to have any trouble today, are we? Are we, Private?’”

Shadrack is a dynamic character: one who changes. He is a young boy who enters World War I. When he returns, he is damaged severely from the action on the field in France. Shadrack is also a round character that the reader knows well. After reading the chapter, one knows what Shadrack thinks and feels. For example, “…With extreme care he lifted one arm and was relieved to find his hand attached to his wrist.” One also learns how Shadrack reacts to others; for instance, the reader finds that Shadrack “never touched anybody, never fought, never caressed.”

Shadrack’s appearance also helps reveal him to the reader:

“The sheriff looked through the bars at the young man with the matted hair. He had read through his prisoner’s papers and hailed a farmer….In the back of the wagon,...

(The entire section is 920 words.)