Because of a demand for more rooms in the high-risk areas of the veteran's hospital, and because of his violent behavior, Shadrack, a twenty-two-year-old black World War I veteran, is released from the facility where he is being treated for shell-shock; today, the diagnosis would probably be post-traumatic stress syndrome. Alone and disoriented, he painfully makes his way back to Medallion and then to the Bottom, his old neighborhood.
Back at home in the Bottom, Shadrack creates National Suicide Day, the third day of every new year, when he marches through the community ringing a cowbell and carrying a hangman's rope. He tells the Bottom's residents that only on National Suicide Day should people kill themselves or each other, if that is what they desire. Not surprisingly, the townspeople are suspect of Shadrack's sanity, but they soon come to accept his antics and his National Suicide Day, which becomes "part of the fabric of life" in the Bottom.
Despite the fact that Shadrack is no longer in combat, he is still overwhelmed by visions in which he sees the horrors of war, and he is especially stunned by the brutal suddenness of death in the midst of battle. In order to counter this specter of unexpectedness, he thinks that if only an entire day could be set aside yearly — a day when people could escape "the smell of death" and the fear of it by committing suicide — then during the rest of the year people wouldn't have to fear death and cower from it. Giving death its own day would compartmentalize it the same way that the food on Shadrack's hospital tray is compartmentalized. On the food tray, there is no chaos: Everything is orderly and within borders. The rice doesn't touch the meat, and the meat doesn't touch the stewed tomatoes. The colors of the foods are distinct and do not mix together.
Shadrack believes that people and things need boundaries to provide order in an otherwise disordered world. For example, although we generally associate straitjackets with insanity, when Shadrack is confined in one he feels secure and protected; he is "both relieved and grateful" because he has a boundary around himself. After he is released from the boundaries of the military hospital, he begins to experience panic — pain, fear, and the hysteria of helplessness. The many concrete walkways that lead from the hospital symbolize the many choices — and dangers — available to him now that he is a civilian again, and the lack of order — "There were no fences, no warnings, no obstacles at all between concrete and green grass . . ." — overwhelms him. Not until he comes to a town's "regulated" downtown does he finally feel comfortable enough to sit down. The struggle "to order and focus experience" is one of Morrison's main themes in her novel and affects not only Shadrack but all of the characters, including Sula, Nel, and Eva.
After Shadrack's return to the Bottom, the community accepts him as one of their own in spite of his eccentricities. The community knows that he will sell fish twice a week, occasionally get drunk and outrageous, continue to live alone, and, every year on January 3, celebrate National Suicide Day with a parade. In other words, he will live a very ordered and ritualistic life.
running across a field in France This is a reference to one of many bloody battlefields in France during World War 1 (1914–1918).
bayonet fixed A bayonet is a weapon resembling a short sword or dagger that is attached to the muzzle of a rifle. Shadrack's bayonet is "fixed" — attached to the end of his gun and held forward, ready to stab or thrust into the enemy. During World War I, the U.S. Army used bayonets with 16-inch blades, sharpened along the full-length of the leading edge and along most of the back.
private a noncommissioned soldier in the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps whose rank is below a private first-class.
tetter heads here, teenagers whose heads are pocked with eruptions and itching caused by various skin diseases, such as ringworm, psoriasis, herpes, or impetigo.