The shell-shocked ex-soldier in Toni Morrison's Sula (1974), is intimately connected with death. Having lost his sanity after his first battle in World War I, in which he saw a fellow private's face blown off, Shadrack believes that his hands have grown to monstrous proportions and he has no sense of self, “no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no bed… and nothing nothing to do.” Following his release from a veteran's hospital, he returns to his home neighborhood, in Medallion, where the novel takes place. He institutes National Suicide Day, in which he walks down the street ringing a cow bell and holding a hangman's rope, thereby offering people a chance to kill themselves in a prescribed period so that death will not be a constant worry to them. The community eventually accepts Shadrack as an eccentric.
After Sula Peace, the novel's protagonist, and her friend Nel participate in the drowning of a young boy, Sula goes to Shadrack's shack near the river to see if he witnessed anything. In the veteran's hospital he had dreamed of a river and a window, and to Sula he simply replies, “Always.” This creates a bond between the two of them, both of whom are viewed as eccentrics by the community. Shadrack remains on the edges of the community physically but is very much a part of it. In an ironic twist, a group of black people follows him on one playful and fateful observance of National Suicide Day. They march out of Medallion and into the white section of town, into an unfinished tunnel on which the black men had been denied work. The tunnel breaks under their weight and they drown—without conscious intent to commit suicide—and Shadrack is one of few survivors. Shadrack, whose name comes from the biblical character who was saved from the fiery furnace by his faith in God, cannot be saved from the madness caused by the catastrophes and inhumanity of men and war.
Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson Weems, Toni Morrison, 1990. Trudier Harris, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison, 1991. Patricia Hunt, “War and Peace:Transfigured Categories and the Politics of Sula,” African American Review 27 (1993): 443–459. Eileen Barrett, “Septimus and Shadrack: Woolf and Morrison Envision the Madness of War,” in Virginia Woolf: Emerging Perspectives, 1994, pp. 26–32.