The people are pleased to find out about Sula’s death. A few people attend her funeral to be sure that she is dead. Some others attend to make sure that those who disliked Sula do not ruin the ceremony. Sula is placed into the ground in the colored section of the Beechnut cemetery. After her death, people begin to feel a new hope which is initially confirmed by a series of events that occur immediately after Sula’s death. Firstly, there is word that Blacks will be hired to work on the construction of a tunnel intended to connect Medallion and Porter’s landing. There is also news that a new nursing home will be built and will be open to blacks like Eva who were forced to stay in the decrepit Beechnut Home.
The hopes are cut short, however, when a storm ices over the entire neighborhood. The frost ruins crops, keeps people from work, and brings sickness to the population. Sula’s absence also causes people to behave differently. While she was living, they fought to uphold all that she stood against. Mothers took pride in holding the role that she scorned. Daughters, disliking how Sula treated her own mother, were sure to treat their own with respect and care. Wives, fearing that Sula would get their own husbands into her bed, were very attentive to their mates. This all falls away when Sula dies. Teapot’s mother beats him and other mothers behave similarly towards their children, daughters become inattentive towards their aging mothers, and wives stop pampering their husbands the way they once did.
The winter is harsh and is marked by low spirits among the people. When four black men are employed by the tunnel project, there is no joy. Even Christmas passes without happiness from the people. The January 1 that follows Sula’s death marks the end of the harsh winter weather and the low spirits.
Even Shadrack does not feel like his usual maddened self as National Suicide Day approaches. On the eve of the day, Shadrack feels lonely and misses people for the first time since wartime. He has stopped drinking as heavily and cannot conjure up the sounds and images of war that inspired his prior madness. For a while, Shadrack has been changing. He experienced loss during the “plague of robins” when one of the robins that had found a way into his home exited through the window. He soothes his loneliness with the purple and white belt that Sula left behind the day Chicken Little drowned. Shadrack treasures this belt as proof that he one had a visitor and hangs it every night near his bedside.
He remembers when Sula came into his house that day, with the mark of a tadpole on her eyelid. He remembers her crying and the word he said to her, “Always,” to try and comfort her with a sense of permanence.
After discovering that Sula, his only visitor, has died, Shadrack begins to realize the futility of National Suicide Day and no longer feels like celebrating. Nevertheless, he decides to carry on the tradition for one final year. Therefore, on January 3, Shadrack conducts his usual fanfare, although it lacks the significance it once held for him.
Not only Shadrack but also the people in the Bottom behave strangely on this day as well. As Shadrack marches down Carpenter’s Road, a contagious laughter spreads throughout the neighborhood. The Deweys go into the street and dance around Shadrack as he marches and neighbors come out of their homes to see Shadrack, though before they had shut their doors to him. Shadrack continues marching despite being frightened by the actions of the people. When Shadrack passes her home, Mrs. Jackson decides to march behind him. People begin to follow her as she follows him, and in time, a parade of people is marching behind Shadrack down Carpenter’s Road.
Not everyone joins in, like Helene Wright, who looks on disgusted. When they reach the end of Carpenter’s Road the parade continues into the white part of town, down the New River Road and up to the construction site of new tunnel. Angered upon seeing the incomplete tunnel that they were never allowed to help build, the people of the Bottom begin to smash the bricks and destroy the tools surrounding the site.
In the chaos, the tunnel collapses and kills many of those who marched down behind Shadrack. Dessie, Tar Baby, and some of Ajax’s brothers die in the collapse. It is said that the Deweys also died that day, since they were never seen again. Shadrack, who has stopped singing and ringing his cowbell, watches the entire incident from above.
The people living in the Bottom initially welcome Sula’s death. They believe it will bring them good fortune, and at first, it does. The fortune falls away however when a frost washes over the Bottom. Extreme nature again heralds in a change in the community. The frost not only ravages the homes and land in the Bottom but also changes its people.
Sula’s death leaves the neighbors without a scapegoat or an example against which they can govern their actions. Sula, as the social pariah of the Bottom, long symbolized everyone’s conception of evil and badness. Her death leaves people without a person against whom they can measure themselves. Consequently, the people in the Bottom begin behaving hostilely towards one another and no longer carry out familial or relational duties with as much care or devotion.
The frost is a metaphor for the low spiritedness in the Bottom. When it breaks at the start of the New Year, giving way to unusually mild weather, the hostility and low spirits also vanish. Shadrack is affected differently by Sula’s death than the rest of the population. Sula’s death reminds Shadrack that there can never be “Always,” and that people he knows will continue to perish. Her death leaves him lonely and unmotivated to celebrate National Suicide Day. He consents to carry on his usual tradition for one more year though and is shocked to find the inhabitants of the Bottom willing to celebrate with him.
This chapter highlights Shadrack’s role as an allegorical character. He shares a name with a Biblical character, Shadrack (or Shadrach) who survives after being thrown into a furnace. Although he is so focused on death, it is possible that Shadrack will never find it. Even as he considers the emptiness of the promise he makes to Sula, “Always,” he resigns himself not to death but to an eternity “sit[ting] forever on his riverbank,” The image of Shadrack leading a mass of people to water may also be a reference to other Biblical characters like Moses and John the Baptist.
The New River Road, which had always been an unfulfilled symbol of economic promise, angers the people as they approach it. The unconstructed tunnel symbolizes years of discriminatory practices and denial. Hating it for what it represented and for what it promised but did not deliver, the people begin to destroy the unfinished tunnel. This action brings death to many of them. Ironically, Shadrack watches from atop a hill as his followers are crushed and drowned on the final National Suicide Day.