Summary and Analysis
Just as Sula's return heralded superstition and ill omens, word of her death is the best news that the people up in the Bottom have heard in a long time. Her death seems to bring prosperity and promise as the foreman constructing the New River Road tunnel declares that black workers will now be used as laborers. Another sign that Sula's dying has blessed the Bottom is the announcement that a new nursing home will be built and blacks can use the facility; old Eva Peace, Sula's grandmother, will be transferred to the new, clean home. Seemingly, all signs point to the Bottom's dark cloud being lifted now that the bewitching pariah, Sula Peace, is dead.
Hope begins to erode, however, when a sudden and unusual frost settles on the Bottom and ice paralyzes the town for days. Crops are lost and livestock are frozen; women can't get down to the valley to work, and they suffer lost wages; disease grips the young, and despair chokes the rest of the Bottom. Silently and ironically, the townspeople begin to miss Sula even though they don't realize it. Without Sula as a negative force to be reckoned with — a scapegoat — women don't know where to put their efforts. They don't have to save their children from her wickedness, their husbands are safe from her sexual advances and don't need cuddling, and the women themselves forget why they enjoyed taking care of old people the way they did when they could compare themselves to Sula, who abandoned her grandmother.
On the eve of National Suicide Day, Shadrack is surrounded by loneliness. He looks around for Sula's purple-and-white belt, the only evidence of his only visitor ever in his house. Years ago, a tearful, frightened girl with a tadpole-like birthmark over one eye came to his house. She looked so scared that he tried to comfort her with some words of reassurance, but he could manage only one word: "Always." Then she ran away, leaving her belt behind. For the first time since he began National Suicide Day, Shadrack wants to stay home with the memory of his one visitor.
This year's National Suicide Day is celebrated by many of the townspeople, much to Shadrack's amazement. Scores of people turn out to follow him, strutting, skipping, marching, and shuffling their way through the town, to the tunnel on the New River Road. There, in a frenzy of mob anger and frustration because the tunnel construction jobs have been given to whites rather than to blacks for so many years, the townspeople scramble over the barricade and plunder the construction site. Their fevered pitch of joy and revenge rages, fed by years of oppression, lost wages, and the poverty they have come to accept as a way of life.
Suddenly the tunnel collapses in a wall of water, ice, and mud, killing many of the townspeople, while Shadrack stands high up on the riverbank, ringing his bell.
The Bottom community is initially sustained by positive signs of good luck following Sula's death: Construction of the New River Road tunnel will be done by black laborers, and plans are being made for a new nursing home. However, the smug and uncharitable jubilation of the townspeople when they learned of Sula's death is soon hushed by a plague of near-biblical proportion. The weather shifts dramatically, and an omnipotent frost deluges the Bottom with disease, poverty, and cruelty.
Without Sula as a measure of evil, mothers begin beating the children they once protected from her; young people stop caring for the old; and forgotten rifts are rekindled. The community needed Sula to keep it in balance; after her death, people have no way of knowing what is bad in order to do what they think is good.
The tunnel, which initially symbolized freedom from the grips of poverty and bigotry, betrays the townspeople. Ironically, Shadrack reluctantly leads those who rejoiced over Sula's death to the quintessential celebration of National Suicide Day. He stands high on the riverbank, like a prophet ringing his bell on Judgment Day, as he beholds a terrified flock of his community in a scene of sacrifice and judgment.
Saffron-colored powder . . . cake of oleo The references are to margarine, a cheap substitute for butter; it was first introduced as a chalk-white pliable substance, with the consistency of lard, that was packaged in a plastic bag with a capsule of reddish-yellow dye. When the capsule was squeezed and broken, it released its colored dye, which spread throughout the white margarine. Kneading the plastic bag resulted in a product that eventually resembled butter.
Tex Ritter the nickname of Woodward Maurice Ritter (1905–1973), a country-western singer.