News of Sula Peace’s death spreads across the Bottom quickly—in fact, it’s the best news the town has heard since the announcement of work on the New River Road. A polite funeral is held for her, but secretly the townspeople are relieved that she no longer lives in Medallion. They promise themselves that nothing will ever keep them from loving God.
Morrison begins the chapter on a note of bitter irony, which is appropriate for the chapter, as the news of the New River Road turned out to be crushingly disappointing (it’ll never be completed). The people of the Bottom are glad that Sula is gone, and yet her presence in the town was also “useful,” as it united everyone else and encouraged them to behave morally.
At the same time that Sula dies, it’s announced that the builders of the New River Road—a project that which has been deadlocked for years—will finally accept black labor. This is exciting for the people of the Bottom, as they’re sure they’ll get new work opportunities. Another strange piece of news reaches the Bottom: renovation work is being done on the nursing home where Eva now lives. The home is made to be brand-new and up-to-date.
The death of Sula seems like a good omen at first, especially regarding the New River Road—or at least it seems so to the people of the Bottom. They’re so accustomed to interpreting signs to fit their biased outlook that they’re grateful for such a seemingly unambiguous piece of good fortune immediately after Sula’s death.
The pattern of good news in Medallion ends abruptly in October of 1940, when a drought hits the area, killing many crops. In the fall and winter, there’s so much snow that men and women can’t go to work, meaning that the town becomes much poorer. There is a general sense that “something is wrong” in the Bottom. The people become angrier and sadder. Teapot’s mother becomes so angry with Teapot that she beats him—causing him just as much pain as he felt when Sula supposedly knocked him down the stairs. Many other mothers—who had previously defended their children from Sula—now begin beating their children.
The “signs” from the universe become more and more ominous, and suddenly Sula’s death doesn’t seem like such a good thing after all. The point here isn’t that God is punishing the people of the Bottom for their wickedness—the point is that omens only gain power and meaning when people give them power and meaning. Sula’s death proves how important she was to the community: when she’s gone, families become crueler.
Christmas in 1940 is a sad affair—many of the people in the Bottom are sick. On January 3rd, 1941, Shadrack is walking through the streets as usual, celebrating National Suicide Day. And yet this January 3rd is different for him. For the first time since he fought in World War I, he begins to crave human contact. Because he has no friends, he savors the one symbol of human contact in his shack—a child’s belt, which a little girl gave him years ago.
In this fascinating section, we’re brought all the way back to the chapter in which Chicken Little died—an event that none of the characters have discussed for a long, long time. It’s as if the new misery in the Bottom has inspired Shadrack to change his own outlook on life. We also see the strange way he experiences the passage of time, and just how important his brief interaction with Sula (a frightening encounter for Sula herself) was for the lonely man.
On the afternoon of January 3rd, Shadrack thinks about the little girl whose belt he owns. The girl (whom we know to be Sula) had a “tadpole” in her eye (her birthmark). To comfort the young child, Shadrack said, “Always”—meaning that the girl need not worry about the changes of her face. The girl seemed to feel better because of what Shadrack said. When she ran away, she left behind her belt, which Shadrack kept. Shadrack then sees the “little girl” years later, when she’s died. Shadrack curses his fate—whenever he meets a friend, the friend is taken away from him.
We realize what happened between Sula and Shadrack on the day Chicken Little died: Shadrack took Sula’s belt for himself. (Morrison deliberately made this unclear in the earlier chapter.) The birthmark on Sula’s forehead—the final proof that Sula was the “little girl” Shadrack remembers—can be said to look like anything: a rose, a snake, or a tadpole. It’s like a Rorschach inkblot test (a psychological test where patients look at ambiguous inkblots and describe what they see), revealing more about the interpreter than the mark itself. Sula’s error was to think that Shadrack was talking about Chicken Little’s death when he said “always”—in reality, he had no idea what happened to the child, and was only trying to comfort Sula. Sula has been misinterpreting Shadrack’s words for years, and this seemingly simple misunderstanding has had huge repercussions for her entire life. It’s also interesting to note that to Shadrack, the last forty years or so seem not to have happened at all—he thinks of Sula as having “just” become his friend, and laments that she is then “immediately” snatched away from him.
On the afternoon of January 3rd, Shadrack is surprised to find that he has “friends”: people who actually want to join his informal celebration in the street. The deweys, Tar Baby, Valentine, and dozens of other people in the Bottom run out to dance with Shadrack, and laugh and cheer for National Suicide Day. Some, like Helene Wright, refuse to join in, and watch the parade with scorn.
All along, the people of the Bottom have accepted Suicide Day, but now their acceptance has spilled over into actual celebration: they’re celebrating the misery of their own lives. This was the danger of life in the Bottom all along: acceptance of sadness was always in danger of becoming the celebration of sadness. And yet there is also something beautiful about this scene—at some point, the only thing to be done might just be to embrace one’s misery—and even make light of it—as long as that misery continues, and so much of it is out of one’s control. It’s also poignant that the lonely Shadrack suddenly finds the human connection he’s been craving.
Amazed, Shadrack leads his parade through the city down Main Street, toward what has been built of the New River Road, the road tunnel that will one day lead across the river. Together, he and his followers look in silence at the tunnel. The sight of the tunnel affects the townspeople in a profound way. Here, in front of them, is the engineering project for which they’ve made enormous sacrifices in the last thirteen years. Whenever doctors have refused to come to the Bottom, or whenever businessmen come to collect extra rent, the explanation has always been the same: the extra money is needed to build the New River Road. Now, it’s plain to everyone that the project is a myth. It’s not even half-built, and there are no signs that anyone has worked on it for years.
Since the novel’s start, we’ve been given hints that the white establishment in Medallion is still cheating the Bottom. Now, we see exactly how: the whites have been depriving the black people in the Bottom of their health care, their heating, and their happiness by promising them that they’re going to get a bridge one day. This is, of course, a lie: the establishment in the Medallion doesn’t care about the bridge at all. The New River Road has always been a way to keep black people weak yet hopeful—miserable, but not quite miserable enough to make trouble or upset the status quo.
One by one, the people of the Bottom react to the sight of the New River Road in the same way. They pick up rocks and bricks, walk to the cliff where the tunnel is supposed to end, and hurl their missiles at the abandoned project, screaming with hatred and frustration. Suddenly, there’s a loud “crack.” To throw the bricks, the townspeople have had to get very close to the edge of the cliff, and with the extra weight the edge of the cliff collapses. Dozens of people fall into the water and die: the deweys, Tar Baby, Dessie, Valentine, and some of Ajax’s brothers. Only a few of Shadrack’s followers survive. Shadrack himself stands in the cold January air, amazed at what he’s just witnessed.
In this tragic, almost fantastical scene, the black people of the Bottom unleash the rage they’ve been feeling for most of their lives. And instead of directing their rage back at themselves or at each other (as they usually do), they direct it at the symbol of their own manipulation and persecution: the bridge. Tragically, however, even this becomes a self-destructive act: unwittingly, the people of the Bottom kill many of their own in their attempts to lash out at their white manipulators.