While fighting in World War I, Shadrack witnesses the brutal death of a soldier whose body continues moving forward even after his head is severed. This encounter with death and Shadrack’s experiences in war leave him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and later motivate him to found National Suicide Day.
Though he is not fully healed and continues to have hallucinations and outbursts, the veterans hospital decides to release Shadrack to make room for other patients. His illness is compounded when he re-enters the world but is unable to properly perceive it.
Shadrack has many misperceptions and hallucinations. When he looks at his hands, they appear monstrous, and the fingers extend grotesquely. Frightened by this effect, Shadrack is unable to wield or view his hands. When he is released, Shadrack does not initially notice the people bustling about around him and when he does they appear “like paper dolls” to him. Still affected by his experiences with death at war, Shadrack imagines that the people can be easily swayed and swept away. After all, the paper people were not firmly rooted to the ground, as Shadrack remarks, “a good high wind would pull them up and away.”
When Shadrack arrives in the Bottom, the people are initially frightened. They are especially put off by his observance of the self-created holiday, National Suicide Day. National Suicide Day is marked by a march down Carpenter’s Road and encouragement to kill one’s self or one’s neighbor. Though it is resisted at first, within a year, Shadrack’s madness becomes familiar to the inhabitants of the Bottom and National Suicide Day is integrated into the community’s schedule.
The point of view shifts in this chapter. The world is not seen from the eyes of a white man from the valley. Instead, one of the novel’s main characters, Shadrack, provides a glimpse of war and its traumas. Many themes of the novel are introduced in this chapter. Not the least of these is death.
While Shadrack is hospitalized, another theme of the novel emerges, that of racial discrimination. His discharge from the hospital is strongly implied to be the result of the color of his skin rather than of healing from his mental sickness.
At the same time, his hallucinations of the “paper doll” people symbolize the fragility of mortality and human life. He founds National Suicide Day to erase the uncertainty of death for one day each year.