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SECTION TWO, 1919
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.