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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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The novel begins with a short section on the history of the setting, a small valley called Medallion in Ohio. The region in which most of the central characters live is called The Bottom. At the start of the novel, the land known as The Bottom is being leveled. However, the narrative reveals that The Bottom was once a lively community with luscious trees, a pool hall, a beauty parlor, a church, a restaurant, and many black inhabitants. There were music and familiarity among the inhabitants, and laughter could be heard as far away as the nearby valley.

According to legend, The Bottom got its name from a cruel joke played on a slave. A white farmer once promised his slave freedom and rich bottomland in exchange for some very difficult work. On completion of the work, the farmer did give the slave his freedom, but instead of fertile bottomland, he gave him a hilly parcel of land worn away by erosion. The farmer told the slave the hilly land was indeed bottomland, for it was at “the bottom of heaven.” The slave did not know any better so he accepted the land. Before long, the unfortunate slave found out the truth. He had been tricked by his master and given a piece of land that was worthless for farming.

For a long time, The Bottom remained inhabited by the black people in the area; the white people stayed on the rich valley floor. At the start of the novel, however, the white inhabitants have discovered the beauty of The Bottom and have bought up the land, forcing the Blacks to move out. The Bottom, with all its rich history and comfortable familiarity, is being leveled for a wealthy golf course.


In this short introduction, Morrison sets the tone and backdrop for her story. She describes The Bottom, the black section of Medallion, Ohio, in detail, and explains how an area set on a hill gets the name of Bottom. The black community was apparently established in the last half of the previous century, for slavery ended in the 1860s. To paint an appropriate picture of her setting, Morrison uses sharp language and visually acute details to describe the lively community, leading up to the year of 1919, when the story actually begins. The Bottom is characterized as a close-knit community of colorful people who live in harmony and good-natured peace.

The general description of The Bottom ends with a brief note about two characters, Shadrack and Sula. At this point, both are simply noted to be curiously interesting inhabitants of the town, inhabitants whom everyone else is wondering about. The expectation is that both Sula and Shadrack will be important characters in the plot.

It is worth noting that Morrison uses the word "black" to describe African-Americans. In the 1970s, "black" was the preferred term to describe an American of African descent.



Shadrack, one of two characters introduced in the prologue, is a veteran of World War I. He is so traumatized by what he has seen in the war that when he wakes up in a military hospital, he is out of his mind with fear. Even frightened by his own hands, he tries to hide them. He is bound in a straight jacket to try and calm his anxiety. Despite his pitiful condition, Shadrack is soon discharged from the hospital because of overcrowding.

Back in the real world, Shadrack is overwhelmed by the edges of lawns, gates, and walkways. Every minor decision is a major event for him. One day he gets a terrible headache and sits on a curb in a small town. He is thrown in jail for being drunk and vagrant, even though he is neither. While in jail, he sees his own reflection in the toilet bowl of the cell. The image calms him; he sleeps and is no longer afraid of his hands. The sheriff figures out that Shadrack is originally from The Bottom and has him taken there.

Back in his own hometown, Shadrack becomes a colorful, but harmless, local character. Because of his shell shock, he is obsessed with the suddenness of death and dying. One day he announces the institution of a new holiday: National Suicide Day. He proclaims that on January 3 of every year, people who no longer want to live with the fear of death should kill themselves. Eventually the people of The Bottom become used to Shadrack and his antics and refer to him as the local madman. His holiday, National Suicide Day, becomes part of the language and landscape in The Bottom. The sight and sound of Shadrack walking down the street ringing his bells and proclaiming National Suicide Day are quite normal.


Shadrack is an important character in the novel, even though his appearance in the plot is fairly brief. His significance stems from the fact that he represents one of the recurring themes of the novel, which is the need for order. After the war, Shadrack suffers from shell shock, also known as post-traumatic stress disorder. The sudden death of a comrade during the war, as well as the widespread violence and terror he has experienced, has left him cowering and shaking, even when he is away from the battlefield. His mental breakdown is a direct result of his having viewed death constantly and up close.

While he is in the hospital, Shadrack prefers to be in a straight jacket; he needs the order and predictability of confinement instead of the chaos and volatility of life and war. In light of his own fears, it is entirely understandable that Shadrack proclaims a day for suicide. The fact that death can happen anytime seems unfair and unbearable to him. His National Suicide Day gives people the opportunity to choose the day and way of their death. He encourages participation in his suicide day, claiming that suicide defeats the horrible unexpectedness of death. For Shadrack, this “victory” over death is as reassuring as a straight jacket; to know that he can control his own final destiny makes Shadrack better. Such a search for order will characterize many of the characters in the chapters to come.

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