Sula

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National Suicide Day Symbol Analysis

National Suicide Day Symbol Icon

After returning from the devastation of World War I, Shadrack founds a new “holiday”—National Suicide Day. On this day, he walks through the streets of Medallion, ringing a bell and yelling about suicide. Although the people of the Bottom initially sneer at Shadrack for celebrating in this way, National Suicide Day eventually becomes an accepted part of their lives: it’s just another day of the year, like Thanksgiving or the 4th of July. National Suicide Day is a disturbing symbol for the way that suffering people come to accept their own suffering—to take it as a law of nature. The danger of this kind of acceptance—seemingly a useful coping mechanism—is that miserable people, in this case the black people of the Bottom, can come to celebrate as well as accept their suffering. This becomes the case in the 1940s, when life in Ohio deteriorates, and the people of the Bottom begin to embrace their own pain, parading through the streets and singing about suicide—a parade that ironically ends in several deaths.

National Suicide Day Quotes in Sula

The Sula quotes below all refer to the symbol of National Suicide Day. 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

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).

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National Suicide Day Symbol Timeline in Sula

The timeline below shows where the symbol National Suicide Day appears in Sula. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1919
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
1921
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...In 1921, he became the first person in the neighborhood to try to join Shadrack’s National Suicide Day . (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
...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... (full context)
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
...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. (full context)