Beginning in 1920 in the Bottom, there is a traditional “National Suicide Day” on January 3. The founder of this day, a man named Shadrack, celebrates it by himself, every year. He fought in World War I, and returned to the Bottom visibly ravaged by the fighting. The narrator recalls what he was like before he left to fight. He was only 20 years old, and popular with the ladies. He was deployed to fight in France, where he had to run through shellfire, and pierced his own foot with a nail. At the close of this battle, Shadrack was knocked out.
It’s typical for Morrison to begin a chapter with a word or phrase that isn’t immediately comprehensible, and to only explain it later in the text. The cryptic introduction of “National Suicide Day” sets the chapter’s tone, and also hooks the reader’s interest to figure out the source of this morbid holiday. In describing a Christ-like black soldier (Shadrack pierces his foot with a nail), Morrison alludes to another William Faulkner novel, A Fable, a story of World War I that’s full of Christian symbols. Again, the implication is that Faulkner has been too quick to exclude blacks from his lofty visions of tragedy and redemption.
After being injured in a World War I battle in 1917, Shadrack wakes up in a hospital. He tries to eat from the food tray that is waiting in front of him, but finds that his hands “grew like Jack’s beanstalk” when he tries to grab a utensil. Shadrack becomes so anxious and frightened by his own hands that he is put into a straitjacket.
Like so many soldiers who witness carnage in battle, Shadrack doesn’t just become frightened of fighting—he becomes frightened of himself. He clearly has severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a condition that was not understood at the time.
Eventually, Shadrack is released from the hospital, and given money and “official looking papers.” As Shadrack walks out of the hospital, he begins to feel anxious about the concrete street beneath him. He walks west, “stumbling and sweating.” Suddenly, he begins to cry. He’s now 22 years old, and has no idea who he is: he has no past, no “language, no tribe.” The only thing Shadrack believes anymore is that his hands are monstrous. He has no idea where he is. He begins to scream. The narrator writes that “they” take him to jail.
Shadrack’s story is rife with Christian overtones—like Christ, risen from the grave, he “goes west.” And yet Shadrack is a Christ-figure who is entirely tragic—he sacrifices himself for the good of his country, but isn’t rewarded or even thanked for his sacrifice. Instead of helping him, the authorities throw him in jail. It’s notable that Morrison never says who “they” are, as Shadrack himself doesn’t likely know who “they” (those who essentially control his fate) are either. We can surmise that “they” represent the racist institutions and government authorities that sent black men to fight for their interests, and then continued to mistreat and oppress the same black men when they came home.
Shadrack sits in a jail cell. Keeping his hands behind his back, Shadrack walks to the toilet in his cell. He looks at his reflection in the toilet water, and sees “a grave black face.” Somehow, the sight of his face gives Shadrack a sense of calmness. He stares at his hands and is surprised to find that they are “courteously still.” He falls into a deep sleep. The next day he is released from jail and driven back to the Bottom, only 22 miles away.
It’s no accident that Shadrack is looking at his own face in a toilet—it’s as if years of abuse and racism have trained him to have the worst possible view of himself. Strangely, Shadrack’s despair and self-loathing calm him down—he seems to be accepting his own misery, and seeing it as something comfortable and familiar. Throughout the novel, other characters will go through similar stages, as Morrison shows how people can cope with great pain, but also how sometimes the coping mechanisms themselves prevent people from ever escaping that pain.
When Shadrack returns to his home, the people assume that he’s gone crazy. His eyes are wild and his hair is long and dirty. On January 3, 1920, he walks through the streets ringing a bell and declaring National Suicide Day. The next year, he does the same thing. By this time, the people have adjusted to Shadrack’s presence in the neighborhood. Shadrack lives in a shack that used to belong to his grandfather. He sells fish to make a living, and although he’s loud, drunk, and obscene, he never attacks or hurts anyone. Although the people continue to regard Shadrack as insane, his Suicide Day becomes an accepted part of life in the Bottom, as much a part of the calendar as New Year’s Day or Christmas.
The overarching theme of this chapter is acceptance: acceptance of racism, acceptance of tragedy, acceptance of one’s own inferiority. By the time Shadrack returns to his home, he’s been conditioned to hate himself and hate his life—his celebration of suicide proves as much. And even though the other townspeople laugh at Shadrack, their eventual acceptance of Suicide Day is a subtle symbol of their own cynical acceptance of their status as second-class citizens in a country governed by racists. More generally, Suicide Day also shows how tragedy can be dealt with by partitioning it off as separate from one’s usual life—condensing it into one day so that it can be processed and even made light of.