Sula

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A prematurely aged, fearsome-looking, and often incoherent resident of the Bottom. Shadrack was once a young, handsome man, but his experiences fighting in World War I left him with deep emotional scars. For the majority of the novel, Shadrack is something of a hermit—living in an abandoned shack near the Ohio River, and fishing to feed himself. Shadrack leads an annual celebration, National Suicide Day, which symbolizes his despair and self-hatred. Yet he’s also capable of acts of surprising tenderness and understanding. Unfortunately, the people of the Bottom tend to misinterpret these acts as spiteful or unkind—because of one such interpretation (of the word “always”), Sula Peace and Nel Wright begin to grow apart, setting in motion most of the events of the novel.

Shadrack Quotes in Sula

The Sula quotes below are all either spoken by Shadrack or refer to Shadrack . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage International edition of Sula published in 2004.
1919 Quotes

There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real—that he didn't exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more. In his joy he took the risk of letting one edge of the blanket drop and glanced at his hands. They were still. Courteously still. Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the first sleep of his new life.

Related Characters: Shadrack
Page Number: 13-14
Explanation and Analysis:

Shadrack, a black veteran of World War One, sees his own face in a toilet bowl. He's been deeply disturbed by what he witnessed in the war, probably has PTSD because of it, and wishes he could forget about it altogether. Here, we see Shadrack coping with his own trauma. By gazing at his reflection, Shadrack finds a way to stabilize his anxieties--he keeps coming back to fact that he is Shadrack, and always will be. Notably, he also finds comfort and stability in his blackness. Unlike the racist society he lives in, in this passage Shadrack sees that there is nothing inherently inferior about blackness--in fact it is a color of calm, beauty, and power.

At the same time, of course, Shadrack isn't really looking at himself as he really is: he's looking at himself in a toilet. Shadrack is coming to accept a lesser version of himself, a version that's been tarnished and dirtied both by the savagery of war and the cruelty of U.S. racism. In order to maintain his sanity, he accepts his new "self," but in doing so he also accepts his status as a second-class citizen and an inferior human being. Shadrack's behavior in this passage is the first of many scenes of self-acceptance, in which a character will accept an inferior position in society out of weakness, fear, or sheer exhaustion.

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Then Reverend Deal took it up, saying the same folks who had sense enough to avoid Shadrack's call were the ones who insisted on drinking themselves to death or womanizing themselves to death. "May's well go on with Shad and save the Lamb the trouble of redemption." Easily, quietly, Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio.

Related Characters: Reverend Deal (speaker), Shadrack
Related Symbols: National Suicide Day
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

When Shadrack returns to his town, he begins to celebrate a gruesome, made-up holiday called National Suicide Day. On this day, Shadrack walks through the streets, yelling about suicide for all to hear. Although the townspeople are at first shocked by Shadrack's calls for self-slaughter, they eventually begin to accept it, in a grudging, sarcastic way. Here, for example, we see a pillar of the community, the Reverend Deal, joking about how there are many in his community who do practice suicide--albeit the slow, painful suicide of alcoholism or other self-destructive behaviors.

It's crucial to notice that Reverend Deal, though he claims to be joking, is actually being perfectly serious. The townspeople want to dismiss Shadrack's actions as foolish and trivial, but their own lives are so miserable that they secretly sympathize with Shadrack's behavior. Over time, the townspeople will come to accept National Suicide Day as an ordinary part of their calendar--a brief but powerful reminder of the misery in their own lives (paralleling Shadrack's cynical acceptance of his reflection in the toilet bowl, discussed above).

1922 Quotes

He was smiling, a great smile, heavy with lust and time to come. He nodded his head as though answering a question, and said, in a pleasant conversational tone, a tone of cooled butter, "Always." Sula fled down the steps, and shot through the greenness and the baking sun back to Nel and the dark closed place in the water. There she collapsed in tears. Nel quieted her. "Sh, sh. Don't, don't. You didn't mean it. It ain't your fault. Sh. Sh. Come on, le's go, Sula. Come on, now. Was he there? Did he see? Where's the belt to your dress?"

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker), Shadrack (speaker), Sula Peace , Chicken Little
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial section, Sula crosses paths with Shadrack, the World War One veteran who now lives in a cabin and fishes all day long. Sula, along with her friend Nel, has just witnessed the death by drowning of a young boy named Chicken Little. Sula feels enormously guilty for what she’s done—she feels that she’s responsible for a child’s death. Sula staggers into Shadrack’s cabin, where she’s shocked to see Shadrack smiling knowingly. Although Sula doesn’t ask Shadrack for details, she’s surprised to hear him say, “Always”—a word that, in her mind, proves that he’s been watching her, and knows she was partly responsible for Chicken Little’s death.

This is one of the most important moments of the novel, and yet it’s impossible to understand fully—at least right now. The scene has a strange, elliptical quality—there’s even a sexual element, symbolized by Nel’s question, “Where’s the belt to your dress?” (Given what Morrison has let us know, it’s not difficult to imagine Shadrack attempting to sexually molest Sula.) For the time being, however, we should recognize that a single word—“Always”—changes Sula’s life. The word makes her believe that she’s always watched, and always guilty.

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Shadrack Character Timeline in Sula

The timeline below shows where the character Shadrack appears in Sula. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...“as early as 1920,” the blacks in the Bottom were preoccupied with a man named Shadrack, and with a little girl named Sula. (full context)
1919
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Eventually, Shadrack is released from the hospital, and given money and “official looking papers.” As Shadrack walks... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Shadrack sits in a jail cell. Keeping his hands behind his back, Shadrack walks to the... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
When Shadrack returns to his home, the people assume that he’s gone crazy. His eyes are wild... (full context)
1921
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...churches. In 1921, he became the first person in the neighborhood to try to join Shadrack’s National Suicide Day. (full context)
1922
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
...could have fallen. Frantic, they turn and run to the nearest shack, which belongs to Shadrack. Sula bangs on the door and walks inside the shack, but finds that no one... (full context)
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Shadrack has just entered his shack, where Sula is standing. He smiles, and Sula tries to... (full context)
1939
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...she doesn’t belch when she drinks, etc. A woman named Dessie reports that she saw Shadrack tip his hat to Sula, in response to which Sula smiled and curtseyed. This, the... (full context)
1941
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
On the afternoon of January 3rd, Shadrack thinks about the little girl whose belt he owns. The girl (whom we know to... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
On the afternoon of January 3rd, Shadrack is surprised to find that he has “friends”: people who actually want to join his... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Amazed, Shadrack leads his parade through the city down Main Street, toward what has been built of... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
1965
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...and walks back to her home. As she walks in the road, she passes by Shadrack, who is still dirty and scruffy. As Nel passes Shadrack, Shadrack has the strange sense... (full context)