❮ Poetry & Prose ❮ Books / People
Morrison, T. (1977). Song of Solomon. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc.
In this summary and analysis of Toni Morrison’s 1977 Song of Solomon, I’ll focus on the following:
01. — Key facts & Characters
02. — Synopsis
03. — Analysis
04. — Chapter by chapter
05. — The biblical “Song of Solomon”
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01. — Key facts & Characters
01. — Key facts & Characters
02. — Synopsis
03. — Analysis
04. — Chapter by chapter
05. — The biblical “Song of Solomon”
Fiction; a mix of social commentary, magical realism and bildungsroman (a novel dealing with one person’s formative years and/or spiritual education).
Omniscient narration (a literary technique of writing a narrative in third person, in which the narrator knows the feelings and thoughts of all the story’s characters).
Most of the story unfolds between 1931 and 1963 in an unnamed city in the State of Michigan and in (Part II) the States of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“Milkman” (Macon Dead III) & “Pilate” (Milkman’s paternal aunt — his dad’s sister).
Milkman’s mum witnesses the death of a delusional man — Mr Smith — who thinks he can fly… he jumps from a hospital roof but instead of flying with his homemade blue silk wings, he falls to his death.
Milkman wants to be independent and leave the family home [he wants to ‘fly’] but this is difficult because he’s used to his luxury lifestyle at home.
Wanting to escape his restrictive family home, Milkman plots to rob the gold he thinks his Aunt Pilate has… she doesn’t have gold.
After traveling from Michigan to Pennsylvania, Milkman finds a cave in which there was meant to be gold… there isn’t.
After finding no gold, Milkman focuses on a journey of personal self-discovery. He travels to Shalimar, Virginia, and unearths his family history.
Milkman himself (we are led to think) jumps from a cliff and tries himself to fly… does he live or die? That’s left up to us to decide…
The main protagonist (a.k.a. Macon Dead III), born into a sheltered, privileged life, “Milkman” lacks compassion, is full of self-pity, and alienates himself from the African-American community. However, his discovery of his family history gives his life some purpose.
Milkman’s paternal aunt and the novel’s secondary protagonist. Born without a bellybutton, “Pilate” is physically and psychologically unlike the novel’s other characters. She is fearless and always cares for and looks after others (she as responsible for Milkman’s safe birth — his dad wanted him aborted).
Milkman’s father (a.k.a. Macon Dead II) is obsessed with money and emotionally dead; he dislikes his sister Pilate and is never sexually intimate with his wife.
Milkman’s best mate (in Part I of the novel) grew up in poverty and hates white people — whom he sees as responsible for all evil in the world. In Part II “Guitar” becomes Milkman’s enemy and seeks to murder him.
Pilate’s granddaughter and Milkman’s lover (for a while). “Hagar” devotes herself to Milkman, even though he loses interest and frequently rejects her. Like her biblical namesake — a servant who, after bearing Abraham’s son is thrown out of the house by his barren wife, Sarah — Hagar is used and then abandoned by Milkman (she ends up dying of a broken heart). Her plight demonstrates a central theme in Song of Solomon: the inevitable abandonment of women who love their man too much.
“Macon Dead I”
Milkman’s grandfather (a.k.a, Jake) was abandoned as a small boy when his father, Solomon, flew back to Africa and his mother, Ryna, as a result went insane. Macon Dead I’s story ends up motivating Milkman’s quest for self-discovery.
“Ruth Foster Dead”
Milkman’s mum. “Ruth” feels unloved by everyone except her deceased father, Dr. Foster (she’s accused of being sexually intimate with him) and was also rather fond of breastfeeding Milkman way past the age of three — hence his nickname.
The first black doctor in the novel’s unnamed city (the father of “Ruth”). He was a self-hating racist who called other African-Americans “cannibals” and checks to see how light-skinned his granddaughters are when they were born.
Pilate’s daughter (a.k.a. Rebecca) she has a strong sexual drive but is attracted to abusive men.
“First Corinthians Dead”
Milkman’s sister (a.k.a. Lena).
A maid who worked for the wealthy Butler family and acted as the Midwife to delivered Macon Jr. and Pilate. In her later encounter with Milkman, Circe plays the same role as her namesake in Homer’s Odyssey — the Ancient Greek account of a lost mariner’s ten-year voyage home. Just as Homer’s Circe helps Odysseus find his way back to Ithaca, Morrison’s Circe provides crucial information that reconnects Milkman with his family history.
Milkman’s ‘grandmother’ who helps him connect the missing links of their family history through Solomon’s song.
Milkman’s great-grandfather, who supposedly flew back to Africa but dropped his son Jake (“Macon Dead I”) shortly after taking off. Solomon’s flight is a physical demonstration of the liberation that is felt when a person escapes confining circumstances. However, Solomon’s crying wife, Ryna, and traumatised children (including Milkman’s grandfather) show that such escapism tends to have negative consequences also.
A prostitute with whom Milkman linked up with off and on; demonstrate that the most gratifying relationships are those in which both partners treat each other as equals.
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02. — Synopsis
01. — Key facts & Characters
02. — Synopsis
03. — Analysis
04. — Chapter by chapter
05. — The biblical “Song of Solomon”
Song of Solomon (SOS) is about searching for one’s origins.
Based on the African-American folktale about enslaved Africans who escape slavery by flying back to Africa (in an era before airplanes ✈️ were invented), SOS tells the story of “Milkman,” a young man alienated from himself and estranged from his family, his community, and his historical and cultural roots. He later goes on an odyssey to find these roots; ‘his’ roots.
The moral of this novel seems to be this:
One should know one’s roots, but should not get too fixated on the past at the expense of the here and now.
According to Toni Morrison, SOS is about the ways in which we discover who and what we are. She also suggests that fathers are integral to the survival of black families and the black community, “Fathers need to be physically and emotionally present in their children’s lives.” She points out however, that in contemporary American society, black fathers are often absent, leaving the demanding job of raising children to the mothers. Interestingly, to a certain degree, she depicts these men not as traitors or deserters but as strong, adventurous spirits responding to a powerful urge to move on and be free even if their children must ultimately pay the price for their fathers’ wandering ways [fly away, be free… mothers need not apply].
As Morrison said in a New York Times interview that touched upon SOS:
The fathers may soar, they may leave, but the children know who they are; they remember, half in glory and half in accusation.
Indeed, this is one of the points or main themes of SOS:
All the men have left someone, and it is the children who remember it, sing about it, mythologise it and, make it a part of their identity.
The novel’s narration comprises two distinct sections:
Part I — Chapters 01-09
Set in an unnamed town in the State of Michigan, It traces Milkman’s life from birth to the age of 32 and focuses on his aimless life as a young man. Mailman is caught between his father’s materialistic lifestyle and his Aunt Pilate’s traditional values. These chapters have a number of flashbacks for various of the book’s characters. We read that Milkman’s father, Macon, and Macon’s sister, Pilate, ran away from home after their father was murdered for protecting his land. However, after a disagreement between them, they each went their own way. Although both Macon and Pilate eventually end up in the same unnamed Michigan town, Macon refuses to speak to his sister, whom he feels is an embarrassment to his social position in the town. Part 1 ends with Milkman’s decision to leave Michigan in search of Pilate’s illusory gold — Milkman’s “inheritance” — which Macon is sure his sister hid in one of the many places she lived prior to coming to Michigan [including a cave].
Part II — Chapters 10-15
The second part of the book starts with Milkman’s arrival in Pennsylvania, where his paternal grandfather had built Lincoln’s Heaven, a prosperous farm for which he was killed. Unable to find Pilate’s gold there and prompted by the mysterious stories surrounding his ancestors, Milkman traces his ancestry to Virginia, where he meets his father’s “people” and discovers the true spiritual meaning of his inheritance. The novel’s ambiguous ending centers on Milkman’s “flight” across Solomon’s Leap — does he die like the delusional guy who thought he could fly in SOS’s opening lines… ?
In a nutshell:
Song of Solomon opens with the death of Robert Smith, who jumps of off the hospital roof (that Milkman was born in the following day) believing he could fly… Smith’s attempt at flight and his subsequent death function as the symbolic heralding of the birth of “Milkman.” A crowd of people had gathered to watch the attempted flight, including Milkman’s mother, his two sisters, his aunt Pilate, and his friend, later in life, Guitar.
Milkman is now four years old. He is disinterested in family life and that of the community around him too. Also, at four years of age, Macon is given his nickname, “Milkman.” This is a result of his mother still breastfeeding him at this age — she seemingly gets a form of pleasure and/or escape – when she gets caught in the act, the nickname results.
Discovering at age four that humans cannot fly, Milkman loses all interest in himself and others. He grows up nourished by the love of his mother and his aunt, Pilate. He is taken care of by his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene, and adored by his lover and cousin, Hagar. Milkman does not reciprocate their kindness and grows up bored and privileged. In his lack of compassion, Milkman resembles his father, Macon Dead II, a ruthless landlord who pursues only the accumulation of wealth.
Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead, received his odd name when a drunk Union soldier erroneously filled out his documents (his grandfather’s given name remains unknown to Milkman). Eventually, his grandfather was killed while defending his land. His two children — Milkman’s father and his Aunt Pilate — were irreversibly scarred by witnessing the murder of their father and became estranged from each other. Pilate has become a poor but strong and independent woman; Milkman’s father on contrast spends his time acquiring more and more money.
By the time Milkman reaches the age of 32, he feels stifled living with his parents and wants to escape to somewhere else. Macon Jr. informs Milkman that Pilate may have millions of dollars in gold wrapped in a green tarp suspended from the ceiling of her rundown shack. With the help of his best friend, Guitar Bains, whom he promises a share of the loot, Milkman robs Pilate. Inside the green tarp, Milkman and Guitar find only some rocks and a human skeleton. We later learn that the skeleton is that of Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead I. Guitar is especially disappointed not to find the gold because he needs the funds to carry out his mission for the Seven Days, a secret society that avenges injustices committed against African-Americans by murdering innocent whites.
Thinking that the gold might be in a cave near Macon’s old Pennsylvania farm, Milkman leaves his hometown in Michigan and heads south, promising Guitar a share of whatever gold he finds. Before he leaves, Milkman severs his romantic relationship with Hagar, who is driven mad by his rejection and tries to kill Milkman on multiple occasions. After arriving in Montour County, Pennsylvania, Milkman discovers that there is no gold to be found. He looks for his long-lost family history rather than for gold. Milkman meets Circe, an old midwife who helped deliver Macon Jr. and Pilate. Circe tells Milkman that Macon’s original name was Jake and that he was married to an Indian girl, Sing.
Encouraged by his findings, Milkman heads south to Shalimar, his grandfather’s ancestral home in Virginia. Milkman does not know that he is being followed by Guitar, who wants to murder Milkman because he believes that Milkman has cheated him out of his share of the gold. Milkman finds that Jake’s father, his great-grandfather, was the legendary flying African, Solomon, who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. Although Solomon’s flight was miraculous, it left a scar on his family that has lasted for generations. After an unsuccessful attempt to take Jake, his youngest son, with him on the flight, Solomon abandoned his wife, Ryna, and their 21 children. Unable to cope without a husband, Ryna went insane, leaving Jake to be raised by Heddy, an Indian woman whose daughter, Sing, he married.
Milkman’s findings give him profound joy and a sense of purpose. Milkman becomes a compassionate, responsible adult. After surviving an assassination attempt at Guitar’s hands, Milkman returns home to Michigan to tell Macon Jr. and Pilate about his discoveries. At home, he finds that Hagar has died of a broken heart and that the emotional problems plaguing his family have not gone away. Nevertheless, Milkman accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where they bury Jake’s bones on Solomon’s Leap, the mountain from which Solomon’s flight to Africa began. Immediately after Jake’s burial, Pilate is struck dead by a bullet that Guitar had intended for Milkman.
At the end of the book, Milkman re-enacts his great grandfather Solomon’s escape by choosing to fly [jump off a cliff] — whether his flight is successful depends on whether one judge’s his great grandfather’s escape as successful or mere whimsical myth.
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03. — Analysis
01. — Key facts & Characters
02. — Synopsis
03. — Analysis
04. — Chapter by chapter
05. — The biblical “Song of Solomon”
Themes are the key ideas explored in a given literary work.
Theme #1: Flight as a Means of Escape
While flight can be an escape from difficult circumstances, it may also harm and traumatise those who are left behind.
➥ Solomon’s flight allowed him to leave slavery in the Virginia cotton fields to go back to Africa was to fly Eastward across the Atlantic Ocean, but it also meant abandoning his wife and children.
➥ Milkman’s flight frees him from his depressive home environment, but it is selfish because it causes Hagar to die of heartbreak.
➥ Smith’s flight (or suicidal jump); the metaphorical flight of Pilate, who transcends the arbitrary boundaries of society.
➥ Other allusions include references to birds (hens, chickens, ravens, peacocks) and to characters whose names allude to birds (Singing Bird, Susan Byrd, Crowell Byrd).
*** Song of Solomon’s Epigraph — Morrison’s non-fictional philosophical introduction — seeks to break the connection between flight and abandonment: Pilate is able to fly without ever lifting her feet off the ground, she has mastered flight, managing to be free of subjugation without leaving anyone behind [she does end up being shot dead but, never mind that].
Theme #2: Abandoned Women
The repeated abandonment of women by men in SOS highlights how the book’s female protagonists suffer a double burden: oppressed by racism and paying the price for men’s freedom [their flights of fancy]. e.g., after suffering slavery, Solomon flew home to Africa without warning anyone of his departure… his wife, Ryna, who was also a slave, was forced to remain and raise the children.
*** In Song of Solomon, Milkman is told that black ‘men’ are the unappreciated workhorses of humanity, but the novel’s events demonstrate that black women more correctly fit this description.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Symbol #1: Artificial Roses
First Corinthians and Lena — Milkman’s two sisters — make artificial roses that represent the stifling life of the upper class and the oppression of women. The roses do not bring in much money; the true purpose of the activity is to provide a mindless distraction from their boredom.
➥ Typically in literature, living roses symbolise love, thus the artificial roses symbolise the absence of love in Macon Jr.’s household.
Symbol #2: Gold
Gold represents Macon Jr.’s obsessive pursuit of wealth — he spends a lifetime pursuing gold without any greater goal than getting more of it.
➥ Typically in literature gold is depicted as being irresistible to man. Gold makes them forget right from wrong: Milkman robs his aunt, Pilate, because of Gold; Guitar’s desire for gold motivates him to try and murder Milkman.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Motif #1: Biblical Allusions
Toni Morrison gives her characters biblical names. Various characters in SOS carry with them not only their own personal history as described in the novel, but also the history of a biblical namesake. A good example is the biblical Hagar. She was is Sarah’s handmaiden, who bears Sarah’s husband Abraham a son and is then banished from his sight. In a similar way, Hagar in SOS is used by Milkman.
Motif #2: Names
In SOS, names show the effects of both oppression and liberation. Before Milkman uncovers his grandfather’s true name, he is known as Macon “Dead,” the same name that white oppressors gave his grandfather. When Milkman finds out his grandfather’s true name he begins to feel proud of himself and his family.
➥ “Milkman” shows (1) the connection of the son to the mother — breastfeeding — and (2) that the family live off of the rent of others, they, as landlords, milk others…
➥ “Circe,” for instance, shares her name with an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey who provides Odysseus with crucial help for his voyage homeward. Likewise, Morrison’s Circe directs Milkman toward his ancestral home and allows him to bridge a gap in his family history.
➥ Guitar’s last name, “Bains,” which is a homonym for “banes,” or sources of distress. His name suggests both the oppression he has suffered and his profession as an assassin.
➥ “Pilate” is a homonym for “pilot.” She guides Milkman along his journey to spiritual redemption.
Motif #3: Songs
In SOS, singing and songs are shown to be an important way to link the present with the past in terms of one’s roots and family history.
➥ For Milkman, Solomon’s song contains the secrets to his inheritance, the path back to his “people.”
➥ The songs Milkman hears about Solomon and Ryna inform him of the mysterious fate of his ancestors and keep him on the path to self-discovery.
*** Understanding the significance of Solomon’s song is a key to understanding the novel. This is because it is the language of the song that eventually reveals the secrets of Milkman’s past. Once Milkman understands this he is able to view his life not simply as a series of random, disconnected events but as part of a vital link between the past and future.
Throughout Song of Solomon, characters’ abilities to manipulate language reveal their abilities to cope with reality. Note, for example, Pilate’s language, which incorporates puns, proverbs, parables, and folk sayings, and which flows freely from standard English, to black vernacular, to the poetic/sermonic language of the Bible, as opposed to Macon’s language, which is marked by literal statements, nonstandard English, and racial epithets.
Homeric epithets are compound adjectives, such as “wine-dark sea,” “bright-eyed Athena,” and “rosy-fingered dawn.”
Morrison’s use of Homeric epithets, underscore the message that this story of one young man’s quest for identity is part of the universal quest for identity common to all humanity. Examples used in SOS include: “the cat-eyed boy” and “the baked-too-fast sunshine cake.”
Toni Morrison expects us readers to note not only what is being said but what is left unsaid in Song of Solomon. As she points out in here 1988 essay, Unspeakable Things Unspoken:
Invisible things are not necessarily ‘not there,’ [and] a void may be empty, but it is not a vacuum… Certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves.
➥ Think of Pilate’s missing belly button, which is conspicuous by its absence.
SOS also challenges readers to consider the definitions of concepts such as “success” and “progress.” Although Macon Dead has achieved a certain measure of material success, the drive for success has left him morally and spiritually bankrupt and unable to relate to himself, his family, or his community.
Another key to the novel is the vital role of “the ancestor,” who plays a pivotal role in African and African-American culture. In her essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Morrison defines ancestors as “timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and [who] provide a certain kind of wisdom.” According to her, the role of the ancestor is to render a source of comfort or solace. Consequently, the function of the ancestor in African-American literature is equivalent to “the contemplation of serene nature” in white mainstream literature. Morrison contends that, in order to build and maintain a strong, culturally rooted African-American community, each member of that community must assume responsibility for keeping the ancestor alive; killing the ancestor is equivalent to killing oneself. In Song of Solomon, Pilate is the ancestor who provides solace and guidance for her family and community, and whose wisdom enables Milkman to “fly.”
Throughout the novel, Morrison blends fantasy and reality. But rather than adhering to the conventional belief that fantasy — in the forms of magic, superstition, and voodoo — limits or contradicts “real world” scientific knowledge, she illustrates, through the character of Pilate, that individuals in touch with nature and their own spirituality develop alternate ways of knowing that ultimately enhance their knowledge. In this way, she addresses the issue of “discredited knowledge” among black people. As she points out, blacks were often stigmatised and discredited by racist attitudes that held that blacks were morally and intellectually inferior to whites. Consequently, their knowledge was also discredited. By comparing Pilate’s innate wisdom to Corinthians’ external, academic knowledge — which leaves Corinthians totally incapable of coping with the brutal reality of contemporary society — Morrison stresses the power of knowledge that comes from within and challenges readers to question the value of formal education if that education does not equip individuals with the tools required to survive in the real world.
In the book, Milkman’s spiritual development demonstrates a classic Afrocentric principle: The community is essential to the survival of the individual.
This is contrary to the Western Eurocentric perspective, which emphasises individualism and competition, the Afrocentric perspective emphasises community and cooperation. This concept is illustrated in the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” It is also expressed in the African proverb “I am because we are,” which sharply contrasts Descartes‘ assertion, “I think; therefore, I am.”
In short, although Milkman must ultimately define himself, he is also defined by his relationships. Therefore, he cannot learn his lessons in isolation; he can learn them only within the context of the community.
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04. — Chapter by chapter
01. — Key facts & Characters
02. — Synopsis
03. — Analysis
04. — Chapter by chapter
05. — The biblical “Song of Solomon”
The first chapter of Song of Solomon sets the stage for the rest of the novel and points out its central elements: the theme of flight; the complex interplay of class, race, and gender; the significance of (Biblical) names and main characters.
— Also, the narrative’s unique structure: a mixing of the present, the past, and the future and presents numerous stories from various characters’ perspectives is introduced to us readers. Because the narrator functions only as a detached observer who simply reports things as they happen, the characters tell their own stories, and the community comments on or responds to these characters’ actions. This call-and-response pattern between the characters’ individual voices and the community’s collective voice originates in the African oral tradition.
— Moreover, we readers learn that Morrison demands ‘participatory reading.’ Readers of SOS are expected to fill-in the spaces of the narrative, connecting various seemingly unrelated details as they are revealed. [as a consequence, readers get apparently disjointed fragments of stories that are understandable only in retrospect — by additional information in later chapters.
It is the summer of 1936, and the Dead family is on their ritual Sunday drive through town in their green Packard car. Although the drive affords Macon little pleasure, he enjoys the opportunity to flaunt his affluence and prosperity. Ruth enjoys showing off her family, and Lena and Corinthians like watching the men. For five-year-old Milkman, the trip is “simply a burden.”
As we follow the Dead family on their Sunday drive, we realise that their being “pressed” into the Packard symbolises their being trapped by materialism. Like the Deads’ house, which is “more prison than palace,” the green Packard provides no joy for its owner; like Macon’s ring of keys, the car is strictly a status symbol. The Packard, which is the colour of money, elicits a range of emotions among both passengers and onlookers. Lena and Corinthians fantasise that they are princesses riding in a “regal chariot driven by a powerful coachman”; Milkman views it as a cramped space that inhibits his mobility; Macon is satisfied with the Packard only because it is a symbol of success: “These rides . . . had become rituals and much too important for Macon to enjoy”; and the townspeople name the car “Macon Dead’s hearse,” emphasising the link between material wealth and spiritual death.
By referring to the Packard as a “chariot,” Morrison merges the elements of fairy tale and black culture, much like she did with the golden thread and “Rumpelstiltskin” in Chapter 1. Here in Chapter 2, the image of the “coachman” suggests the royal coach in “Cinderella,” and the term “chariot” alludes to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a spiritual often sung at black funerals. Readers should also note the numerous allusions to flight, including Lena and Corinthians’ perception of “the summer day flying past them,” the Packard’s “silver winged woman” hood ornament, and the car’s “dove grey” seats. Perhaps more important is Milkman’s sensation of “flying blind” — yet another reference to his dulled, unenlightened existence. However, Milkman’s spirits are raised when he is later introduced to Hagar: “He seemed to be floating. More alive than he’d been, and floating.” This new feeling in Milkman emphasises the relationship between flying and living, experiencing life on one’s own terms rather than on someone else’s.
One comment that the narrator makes about Milkman during the Dead family’s ritualistic Sunday afternoon drive is especially important. Because Milkman is only five years old, he is forced to ride between his parents in the Packard’s front seat. However, because he is still small, he cannot see over the front hood and therefore kneels on the front seat and looks out the back window. Coupled with this backward viewing is the short scene in which Milkman, startled by a sound behind him while he is urinating in the woods, turns around and urinates on his sister Lena. Morrison comments, “It was becoming a habit — this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there were no future to be had.” Although Milkman cannot yet know that his grandfather was shot from behind, that threats from behind — the past — affect the future, he learns this important lesson immediately following the car-ride section when he talks to Pilate. Here, Morrison suggests that our actions are somehow influenced or predetermined by our ancestors. The more we learn about our families’ pasts, the more clearly, we can identify our ancestors’ influences in ourselves and thereby gain a better, more spiritual appreciation of our daily lives.
Milkman and Guitar’s visit to Pilate’s wine house provides a striking contrast to the Dead family’s drive. Instead of a meaningless Sunday ritual, we are introduced to the rituals of making wine and boiling eggs, which symbolise fertility, renewed life, and a state of equilibrium.
Unlike the Dead family’s Sunday ritual, in which certain family members — namely, Ruth and Milkman — are ignored or silenced, everyone in Pilate’s house participates in the conversation. Consequently, we experience first-hand the difference between the atmosphere of death that permeates Macon’s household and the vibrancy that characterises Pilate’s.
Spanning a period of ten years, Chapter 3 traces Milkman’s life from age twelve to twenty-two. The chapter begins and ends with conversations between Milkman and Guitar. Milkman works at his father’s real-estate office and likes his job because it gives him more time to visit Hagar at Pilate’s house and to meet people who live in Guitar’s Southside neighbourhood.
As the chapter closes, the friends’ conversation turns to names and naming. After telling Guitar the story behind his family’s surname, Milkman resolves to ask Pilate about Hagar’s last name, which he believes will help him discover his own “real” name.
Chapter 3 establishes the tradition of storytelling as a means of passing on culture and tradition and examines the use of oral versus written language. By introducing Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy, who talks like an “encyclopaedia,” Morrison challenges the concept that Black English is synonymous with poverty. Note that Milkman learns his history from the community, not from school textbooks.
Chapter 3 reveals an important physical characteristic about Milkman: His left leg is half an inch shorter than his right. More important, this physical limitation affects him psychologically. Morrison writes, “The deformity was mostly in his mind. Mostly, but not completely.” Because Milkman has an affected walk and therefore can never be completely like his father, he decides to be different from Macon “as much as he dared.” And while he imagines himself to be as much a part of the Southside community as Guitar is, he is unable to communicate with the Southside men, whose “crisscrossed” conversations elude him. He is effectively separated from both his father and the Southside community.
In the early 1960s, during his last-minute Christmas shopping at a Rexall drugstore, Milkman contemplates how to break off his twelve-year relationship with Hagar. He reminisces about the beginning of their relationship following a domestic crisis involving Reba and one of her male friends. Milkman decides to write Hagar a farewell note rather than face her in person. Rather than buy her a gift, he decides to give her money, which he encloses in an envelope along with the note.
Milkman’s decision to end his relationship with Hagar, his vision of his mother being suffocated by tulips, and his reaction to Freddie’s “white bull” story reveal a number of things about Milkman’s character, his attitude toward women, and his role as a black, middle-class male. Although the three scenes seem unrelated, each illustrates Milkman’s selfish, egotistic approach to life, his lack of respect for women, and his indifference to the pain and suffering of others. These scenes also illustrate Milkman’s refusal to accept responsibility for his life, his inability to make decisions, and his lack of awareness concerning the impact that his actions have on the lives of others.
Milkman’s boredom in selecting a gift for Hagar indicates his general lack of interest in her. That he shops for her on the day before Christmas Eve and limits his purchases to mundane drugstore items demonstrate that he approaches his task as an unpleasant but necessary chore. In the past, he had his sisters select his Christmas gifts for Hagar; now, although he is aware of Hagar’s eccentric taste for unique, impractical items, he inconsiderately decides to give her money, instead. Furthermore, his depiction of their long-term relationship as a cheap sexual affair that has lost its lustre, his use of vulgar language and animal imagery to describe the relationship, and his cruel reference to Hagar as “the third beer” illustrate his insensitivity and disregard for Hagar’s feelings and his sexist, chauvinistic attitudes.
Milkman’s surrealistic vision of Ruth being suffocated by tulips becomes more meaningful when we remember that Ruth wears a cloche, which is a hat, but which also means a covering for delicate plants, and that in Chapter 3, Milkman described his mother as a “frail woman content . . . to grow and cultivate small life that would not hurt her if it died.” Milkman’s indifference toward his mother’s plight also becomes more meaningful if we recall the scene in Chapter 1 in which Ruth, while nursing Milkman, is painfully aware of “his restraint, his courtesy, his indifference.” Given that the discussion of Milkman’s vision of tulips suffocating his mother follows his argument with Guitar over the destructive impact of middle-class values, we can surmise that the vision of Ruth’s tulips sucking up “all the air around her and [leaving] her limp on the ground” symbolises the destructive powers of a racist society that methodically wears down its citizens to the point that they no longer have the will to fight for their personal rights. That Milkman does nothing to help his mother implies that he has become part of that system. He grudgingly admits that Guitar, who chastises Milkman for not helping his mother, is “right — partly. His life was pointless, aimless, and it was true that he didn’t concern himself an awful lot about other people.”
Ruth attempts to express her creativity, but instead of nurturing her vibrant red tulips, she creates lifeless red velvet roses and nourishes the grey suede flower on her mahogany table with “nutritious” glances. In short, she focuses her energies on materialistic rather than spiritual values and dwells on the past instead of dreaming of the future. Consequently, she remains trapped in her limited life, constricted not only by being a black female in a white male-dominated society but by her own spiritual emptiness and lack of faith. Her tulips, however, refuse to be constrained by any boundary. Ruth is obsessed with death, which she views as a “more interesting subject than life.” Even Milkman sees her as welcoming death: She abdicates her role as wife and mother, preferring to play the part of “the dead doctor’s daughter”; she creates lifeless roses out of red velvet; and she passively accepts her role as a helpless, fragile wife. Her inability to nurture her creativity is symbolised by her inability to nurture her son; society’s indifference toward black women is symbolised by Milkman’s indifference toward his mother.
Milkman’s reaction to Freddie’s “white bull” story illustrates his total lack of empathy for others’ feelings. Instead of realizing that Freddie is revealing a painful part of his past by sharing the horrifying vision of his mother’s death, Milkman laughs at his story. Comparing Milkman’s reaction to Freddie’s story with Guitar’s reaction to Milkman’s vision of his mother and her tulips, we realise that Guitar is much more compassionate than Milkman. Clearly, Freddie’s story is no more fantastic than Milkman’s vision; both form a part of each storyteller’s individual reality. But while Guitar accepts the reality of Milkman’s vision, Milkman rejects the reality of Freddie’s story and in doing so assumes the destructive role of the white majority culture, which systematically denies the reality of black existence by refusing to validate the credibility of black experience. Thus, Milkman’s indifference to his mother’s plight echoes the Jacksonville townspeople’s indifference to the plight of Freddie’s mother and to Freddie. Note too that earlier in the chapter, Milkman, listing the many things with which he is bored, thinks to himself, “The racial problems that consumed Guitar were the most boring of all.”
The image of the white bull lends itself to many possible interpretations. Given the theme of broken promises prevalent throughout the novel, we might conclude that “white bull” is a metaphor for the lies and broken promises of whites. In classical mythology, the image alludes to the myth of King Minos of Crete, whose wife, Pasiphae, mates with a white bull sent by the god Poseidon. Their union produces the Minotaur, a monster with a human body but the head and tail of a bull. However, if we consider that Freddie is telling the story as it was told to him as a child, presumably by an adult hoping to shield him from the true horror of the situation, then by placing Freddie’s story in a historical context, we can surmise that the incident he describes occurred in the early 1900s, when the Ku Klux Klan spread its reign of terror across the South, and when many black Americans, still rooted in their African culture, acknowledged the existence of ghosts and spirits. Given that white sheets are associated with both ghosts and Klansmen, we might conclude that the person who told Freddie the story substituted ghosts for the hooded figures of Klansmen. And since no one would provide a home for Freddie because of the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death, we might also speculate that people were afraid to help him for fear of retaliation by the Klan. Because no one can corroborate or dispute Freddie’s story, it remains shrouded in mystery.
Milkman goes to Guitar’s apartment to wait for Hagar, who has stalked him for the last six months, ever since he sent her the Christmas note breaking off their relationship and has threatened to kill him. Having survived her bungled attempts on his life thus far, Milkman has resigned himself to death. As he lounges in Guitar’s bed, he recalls a conversation he had with his mother a week earlier, after he followed her on one of her secretive trips to Fairfield Cemetery to visit her father’s grave.
Chapter 5 presents a series of contrasts and mirror images that reflect the tenuous relationships between various characters and provide conflicting perspectives on love, sex, and survival.
Milkman’s pondering his impending death at the hands of Hagar, his distraught ex-lover, at the beginning of the chapter evokes many similar references to the presence of death throughout the novel. For example, note that Milkman’s picturing his own death as a “spurt of wine-red blood” foreshadows Hagar’s funeral scene at the end of Chapter 13, when a “sympathetic” wino drops his liquor bottle, “spurting emerald glass and jungle-red wine everywhere.” Resigned to let Hagar kill him if she wants to and can, Milkman is almost exhilarated by thoughts of death: “Gradually his fear of and eagerness for death returned.” His death-wish mirrors his mother’s own obsession with death, “a more interesting subject than life.”
The scene in which Milkman criticises Guitar’s efforts to make tea, followed by his joke about being a “soft-fried egg,” recalls the friends’ visit to Pilate’s house in Chapter 2, when she introduced them to the ritual of making a perfect soft-boiled egg. Consequently, even as Milkman feels like a “garbage pail for the actions and hatreds of other people,” we realise that within him lies a seed of spiritual awareness planted by Pilate that has the potential to counter his destructive self-image and overpower his morbid death-wish.
Milkman’s following his mother to Fairfield Cemetery mirrors Hagar’s stalking Milkman through the streets of Southside. This similarity also establishes a contrast between the white community of Fairfield, distinguished by its sheltered suburbs, and the black community of Southside, noted for its bars and barbershops. Additionally, Ruth’s visit to the graveyard, ironically another type of “graveyard” love, highlights the racist practice of establishing separate cemeteries for blacks and whites.
By confronting his mother at the cemetery and demanding to know why she breast-fed him for so long, Milkman hopes to confirm his father’s assessment of Ruth as a “silly, selfish, queer, faintly obscene woman.” Instead, Ruth’s refusal to defend her behaviour prompts Milkman to see his mother in a different light and to grant her a grudging respect. Ironically, whereas in Chapter 3 Milkman emotionally matured enough to view Ruth as an individual rather than only as a mother, for Ruth, Milkman has never been a person; he’s always been a “passion,” a “beautiful toy,” and a “plain on which, like cowboys and Indians in the movies, she and her husband fought.” And later in the chapter, when Ruth confronts her niece, Hagar says to her aunt concerning Milkman, “He is my home in this world.” Ruth’s one-sentence response to Hagar is forceful because of its brevity: “And I am his.” Ruth continues to claim Milkman as a son and not as his own person. Ruth’s not defending her behaviour also forces Milkman to contemplate the connections between love, sex, and violence. Note that Ruth’s question to Milkman, “What harm did I do you on my knees?” echoes Guitar’s question in Chapter 3 when, hoping to persuade Feather to let Milkman “hang out” at his pool hall, he asks Feather, “What harm can he [Milkman] do?”
Morrison’s juxtaposing Milkman’s apathy toward life and his contempt for Hagar — “Die, Hagar. Die. Die. Die.” — with Ruth and Pilate’s passion for him provides a sharp contrast between Milkman’s selfish, egocentric existence and the two women’s relentless struggles to protect him from Macon, from Hagar, and from his own self-destructive tendencies. Morrison notes that although Pilate and Ruth are two different women in terms of skin colour, dress, and education, their similarities are “profound”: Both are “vitally interested” in Milkman, and both have “posthumous communication with their fathers.” Speaking to Ruth, Pilate says of her father, “I tell you he’s a person I can rely on. I tell you somethin else. He’s the only one.” Earlier in the chapter, Ruth spoke very similar words about her own father: “Lots of people were interested in whether I lived or died, but he cared. . . . But he cared whether and he cared how I lived, and there was, and is, no one else in the world who ever did.”
By linking Hagar’s “focused meanness” and Empire State’s empty, mute “graveyard love” with Ruth’s and Pilate’s nurturing love for Milkman and their fathers, Morrison explores the concept of love as a double-edged sword with the power to create or destroy life. She suggests that loneliness and despair are not necessarily linked to external events but often stem from our inability to recognise and accept the pain and pleasure of love as an integral part of life.
Milkman’s confrontation with Ruth parallels Ruth’s confrontation with Hagar: Ruth tells Milkman the stories of his birth and of her father’s death to distract him from his obsessive interest in her nursing ritual; Pilate tells her life story to Ruth to distract her from Hagar’s murderous mission. However, unlike Ruth’s story, which is told mainly in flashback and dialogue, Pilate’s story gradually merges with the main narrative of the text. Essentially, Pilate’s voice supplants the narrator’s voice and establishes her story of birth, awareness, and self-creation as central to the novel’s themes of flight and mercy.
Similarly, Hagar’s mission to kill Milkman sharply contrasts with Pilate’s mission “to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her.” Hagar becomes a “wilderness,” wild and out of control, but Pilate remains calm and rational; Hagar sees her choices as limited and governed by external forces — if she can’t have Milkman’s love, she’ll settle for his fear; Pilate, who “must decide on whether to get to Virginia or settle in a town where she would probably have to wear shoes,” transcends the limiting concept of binary thinking — choosing one of two possibilities, but not both — and decides to do both. And while Milkman’s rejection of Hagar destroys Hagar’s fragile sense of self and compels her to resort to a murderous rage that rivals the “focused meanness of a flood or an avalanche of snow” and the “calculated violence of a shark,” Pilate’s rejection by the men who are terrified of her because she does not have a navel, her “defect,” empowers her and enables her to channel her rage into a more creative, constructive outlet — namely, living. Ultimately, Hagar is devastated by Milkman’s rejection of her and reduced to a “ghost,” but Pilate survives because she has learned to love and value herself, regardless of others’ opinions.
During a Sunday afternoon conversation with Milkman at Mary’s bar, Guitar tells Milkman that he took Hagar home after he found her at his place following her aborted attempt on Milkman’s life. Milkman is uncomfortable talking about Hagar, especially after Guitar asks him what he did to hurt her so badly. To avoid further discussion of Hagar, Milkman asks Guitar about his recent strange, secretive behaviour. Initially, Guitar denies Milkman’s charge that he has been acting strangely, but finally he tells him about his involvement with the Seven Days, a black vigilante group that avenges the murders of blacks by methodically killing whites: Whenever a black man, woman, or child is killed by whites, the man assigned to the day on which the murder occurred is charged with killing a white man, woman, or child in the same manner as the black victim was killed.
Appalled by Guitar’s revelation, Milkman tries to convince his friend that the Seven Days’ actions are just as heinous as the unconscionable crimes committed by racist whites. Guitar counters that the Seven Days is a group of seven brave men dedicated to restoring justice and order to a corrupt, unjust society. Consequently, these men’s actions are motivated by their love for black people, not by their hatred for whites. Milkman points out that there is no justification for murder and argues that if Guitar can arbitrarily kill innocent whites, he is equally capable of killing blacks. Guitar dismisses Milkman’s concerns and accuses him of being worried only about himself. The conversation ends in a stalemate, with the friends expressing concern for each other’s welfare.
Although perceived as a gang of vigilantes by outsiders, the Seven Days is patterned after the secret societies that fulfilled an important role in traditional African societies, such as that of the Ibo people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Among the Ibos, secret societies played a vital part in the community’s traditional social and political structures: They were often called upon to settle community disputes. In important judicial matters, masked “ancestors” might appear and pronounce a verdict. Also, the Seven Days’ practice of naming their members for the days of the week is an ironic reversal of a Jamaican custom in which the name that a child is given at birth depends on the day of the week on which it is born. Based on this premise, we can begin to see how the entire chapter turns on a series of reversals that attempt to establish a sequence of truths.
In debating the mission of the Seven Days, Guitar and Milkman focus on a critical issue that lies at the heart of the ongoing struggle for black civil and human rights: What tactics should African Americans use to secure their rights? In exploring this issue, the two men wrestle with the two opposing views of politics versus economics. Guitar, who has never enjoyed the luxury of a comfortable middle-class life, believes that blacks can win freedom and equality only through aggressive, revolutionary political tactics aimed at dismantling the racist white power structure. Milkman, whose outlook on life has been influenced by his father’s prosperity and materialistic values, thinks that economics is the means necessary for blacks to gain rights: If they can make enough money, they can buy their way into white society. However, in Guitar and Milkman’s debate, which examines some of the key arguments that have been raging among black leaders for decades, each man has only part of the answer. Attempting to resolve the “race problem” requires attention to both politics and economics, as well as to such issues as personal choice, moral responsibility, and respect — including self-respect, respect for black women, and a dedication and commitment to the black community.
The heated discussion between Milkman and Guitar also demonstrates Morrison’s ability to combine disparate elements of form, content, and style to create a new narrative structure. By skilfully combining the rhetorical elements of reason and logic with conflicting views on race, religion, politics, and economics, she crafts an argument that, although riddled with logical fallacies, seems perfectly logical.
Guitar begins by establishing a syllogism — a form of argument used in deductive reasoning — in which he argues that because killing innocent people is murder, and because whites are killing innocent people, therefore all whites are murderers. When Milkman exposes Guitar’s logic as flawed because the Seven Days’ members are emulating the behaviour of white racists by killing innocent people, Guitar changes his tactics. He argues that there are no innocent white people: Because all white people belong to a violent, “unnatural” race, they are all potential murderers. Therefore, they are all guilty and must be stopped before they have a chance to inflict more damage. Here, Guitar’s argument reflects the philosophy of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which holds that the ultimate goal of whites is the annihilation of the black race, a philosophy designed to counter the ignorant white supremacist philosophy that blacks are a genetically inferior people who, even if exposed to the advantages of white society, will eventually revert to their uncivilised ways.
Milkman again points out the flaws in Guitar’s argument. The Seven Days is no better than politically motivated vigilante groups such as the Mafia or hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Guitar argues that the Mafia “kills for money” and the Klan “kills for fun”; the Seven Days, however, kills for love.
Sensing that he cannot make Guitar understand the fallacy of his argument by appealing to his sense of morality, Milkman appeals to his sense of self-preservation. At this point, the debate takes an interesting turn as Guitar, who has thus far espoused the philosophy Malcolm X held prior to the black leader’s renunciation of the Black Muslims, begins to advocate the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When Guitar asserts, “And how I die or when doesn’t interest me. What I die for does,” he is essentially paraphrasing Dr. King: “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important. . . . For if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
Although Guitar advocates his — and Malcolm’s — philosophy of retribution and armed resistance, he espouses Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence and passive resistance. However, when Milkman accuses Guitar of sounding like Malcolm X, Guitar responds that the Seven Days isn’t determined to change “slave names” but to change “slave status,” a response that reveals his misunderstanding of the true mission of both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Although these two black leaders’ tactics were radically different, both fought for the social, political, and economic equality of black people; both advocated self-help as a major step toward black empowerment; and both struggled to promote awareness of the global dimensions of poverty and racism. (Ironically, each man was assassinated at age thirty-nine.) Finally, when Milkman tries to convince Guitar that violence isn’t the answer, Guitar resorts to the logical fallacies of circular reasoning — “The Days are the Days” — and of a priori reasoning, or reasoning based on the assumption that the longer a belief is held, the more valid that belief must be — “It’s been that way a long time.”
Although Guitar displays a brilliant gift for debate and fiery rhetoric, his fatally flawed argument is based not on reason and logic but on ignorance and emotion, accentuated by youthful arrogance. Relying on his own limited life experiences and supported by superficial research, he has gleaned just enough information to substantiate his own biased views. Consequently, he is just as guilty of distorting the truth as are the whites he despises and condemns for their racist, narrow-minded views. Additionally, he reveals that his thinking concerning whites is based on the same flawed premise as Hagar’s thinking concerning Milkman: If he can’t get the respect he wants from whites, he’ll settle for their fear.
The number seven has numerous symbolic connotations. For example, the Seven Days is a reversal of the Creation story in the book of Genesis, in which God creates the world in seven days: Instead of seven days of creation, we have seven days of destruction. And because Guitar’s day — Sunday — is the seventh day, traditionally considered a holy day of rest and reflection, arguably his position in the group is the most radical.
Within the context of African-American history, the number seven designates the conflicting predicament of the black race, especially in America. For example, in his book of collected essays, The Souls of Black Folk, the renowned scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois describes the Negro as the “seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” Du Bois contends that the black man in white America, forced to come to terms with this limiting vision of himself, is “always looking at [himself] through the eyes of others, measuring [his] soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” He concludes that in order to survive, black Americans must reconcile themselves to a dual existence as “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Within the context of the 1960’s Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the number seven assumes yet another dimension. A case in point is the riot at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The riot, which resulted in over a thousand injured people and more than six hundred arrests, culminated in the indictment of eight people — known as the Chicago Eight — on charges of conspiracy to incite. Later, the case of Bobby Seale, cofounder with Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, a black nationalist group that came to be known simply as the Black Panthers, was separated from that of the others; Seale was singled out for special punishment. Consequently, the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven. From this perspective, Guitar’s tirade on self-defence and retribution also incorporates the philosophy of the Black Panthers, best summarised by Newton’s explanation of why the group chose the black panther as its symbol: “The nature of the panther is that he never attacks. But if anyone attacks him or backs him into a corner, the panther comes up to wipe that aggressor or attacker out, absolutely, resolutely, wholly, thoroughly, and completely.”
Note that we learn more information concerning Mr. Smith and his ill-fated flight, and Porter’s drunken tirade. Both men were members of the Seven Days, but the pressure of killing got to both of them — Mr. Smith permanently, Porter only temporarily. Guitar suggests that if a member no longer can psychologically or emotionally handle killing, his only recourse is to kill himself: “And if it ever gets to be too much, like it was for Robert Smith, we do that rather than crack and tell somebody.”
Milkman tries to persuade his father to support him financially for a year so that he can travel and find his own niche in life. In return, he offers to work for free for one year upon his return. Macon dismisses Milkman’s offer, insisting that he needs Milkman to help him run his business.
The opening paragraph of this chapter universalises Milkman’s personal history and explains his yearning to escape — at least temporarily — the demands placed on him by his family and friends. Of the many reasons Morrison suggests for why people leave home and strike out on their own, one — “a wish to hear the solid click of a door closing behind their backs” — is Milkman’s.
Macon’s pleading with Milkman to stay and continue to work in the family business is based on money. He tells his son, “You’ll own it all. All of it. You’ll be free. Money is freedom, Macon [Jr.].” Note that later in the chapter, when young Macon sees the old man’s bags of gold nuggets, he characterises their sparkling colours as representing monetary security. By associating “Life, safety, and luxury” with the vain, ostentatiously bejewelled “tail-spread of a [male] peacock,” Macon acknowledges the consuming greed that will envelop his adult life.
Milkman tells Guitar about his plan to steal Pilate’s gold, and Guitar agrees to help him.
The next day, the friends meet on a street far from their black neighbourhood to plan how to steal the green sack from Pilate’s home. Suddenly, Milkman spots a white peacock in a nearby used-car lot. Temporarily distracted from their mission, Milkman and Guitar initially try to catch the peacock but fail. When the peacock jumps onto the hood of a blue Buick and spreads its tail, they laugh at its ostentatious display. Fascinated with the peacock, the friends forget about planning the burglary and spend the rest of the afternoon fantasising about how they’ll spend Pilate’s gold. Later, when Milkman realises that Guitar has agreed to steal the gold because he wants to use it to support the vigilante activities of the Seven Days, he becomes uneasy but feels he has gone too far to back out now.
The following night, they steal Pilate’s green sack, not realising that the almost-seventy-year-old Pilate saw them.
Guitar’s visions of “little scraps of Sunday dresses” at the chapter’s beginning provide the reason for his willingness to help Milkman steal Pilate’s sack of gold. More important, however, this phrase emphasises the fierce racism that remains as a backdrop throughout the novel. This reference is to the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A bomb, planted by whites protesting school desegregation, exploded and killed four black schoolgirls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson — and injured twenty-one people. As the Seven Days’ Sunday man, Guitar is expected to avenge the four deaths by killing four little white girls.
Milkman and Guitar’s encounter with the white peacock recalls the scene in Chapter 7 in which Macon, upon discovering the sacks of gold nuggets, imagines a life of luxury that “fanned out before him like the tail-spread of a peacock.” Noted for its ostentatious and brilliantly coloured tail, the peacock symbolises pride and vanity. Guitar says of it, “Too much tail. All that jewellery weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” Here in Chapter 8, the peacock, although stripped of its colours, maintains its vanity, suggesting that the white peacock is a fitting symbol of American society, which is marked by arrogance and white-male dominance.
The peacock, with its heavy tail that hinders its ability to fly, symbolises Milkman’s inability to fly. Hindered down by his materialistic values, his family’s expectations, and his own apathy, Milkman is unable to free himself of “the shit that weighs [him] down.” Fearful of his parents’ past “threatening to become his present,” he acknowledges that he avoids commitment and “strong feelings” but can do nothing to change himself. He even characterises the plan to steal Pilate’s gold as a “Jack and the Beanstalk bid for freedom” — a fairy tale attempt.
The references to ginger and spices at the chapter’s end link Song of Solomon to Song of Songs, in which the male lover likens his beloved’s fragrance to that of precious scents, including saffron, cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh. That the “spice-sweet” smell of ginger is strongest in the Southside neighbourhood suggests that Southside residents are more closely connected to their African roots than blacks living closer to white neighbourhoods. The phrase “this heavy spice-sweet smell that made you think of the East and striped tents and the sha-sha-sha of leg bracelets” emphasises a theme that resonates throughout the novel: Black history is world history, which can be traced far beyond the era of slavery in the United States when, for millions of Africans, leg irons replaced their traditional decorative leg bracelets.
To Milkman and Guitar, the spice smell represents “the way freedom smelled, or justice, or luxury, or vengeance.” Ironically, these qualities mirror those concepts which Macon thought of in Chapter 7 when he discussed Pilate’s gold with Milkman: life, safety, and luxury. All three men idolise the gold in worshipful terms. Morrison writes of the green sack at the end of Chapter 8: “It hung heavy, hung green like the green of Easter eggs left too long in the dye. And like Easter, it promised everything: the Risen Son and the heart’s lone desire. . . . Guitar knelt down before it.”
Overwhelmed by the emptiness of her life, Corinthians decides to go to work. However, unable to find a professional position despite having attended college for three years, she finally accepts a position as a maid in the home of Michael-Mary Graham, the State Poet Laureate. Ashamed that she has to do domestic labour, she resolves to hide the nature of her employment from her family and the community.
One day, while riding the bus, Corinthians meets Henry Porter, who works as a yardman — the same Henry Porter who, in Chapter 1, got drunk and threatened people with a shotgun from inside his apartment building, which Macon owns. Although ashamed to be seen with him in public, Corinthians begins meeting him in secret. When Porter invites her to his apartment, Corinthians declines, citing feeble excuses about her father censorious tirades. Realizing that she will always be ashamed of him, Porter decides to end their relationship. However, panicked at the thought of spending the rest of her life alone, Corinthians relents and spends the night with him. Near dawn, as she sneaks back into her house, she hears Milkman and Macon arguing about Milkman and Guitar’s botched burglary of Pilate’s “gold.”
The next day, Milkman thinks about how he and Guitar were randomly stopped by the police after stealing Pilate’s green bag and subsequently arrested. He also recalls how Pilate came to the police station to help them by telling the police that the bag contained her dead husband’s bones. Disgusted with his treatment by the police and overcome by his embarrassment at having his father bail him out of jail, Milkman is especially upset over Pilate’s “Aunt Jemima” act at the police station, which he realises she put on just to save him. Remembering her willingness to humiliate herself in order to ensure his freedom and her love and support in the past, Milkman is overwhelmed by guilt, shame, and self-hatred.
Later, as Milkman leaves his house to look for Guitar, he sees Guitar, Porter, and several other men talking near a grey Oldsmobile parked near Guitar’s house. Recognizing the car as the one he has seen Corinthians getting out of near home, he suddenly realises that the men are the Seven Days and that Porter is one of them. Instead of attempting to talk to Guitar, he walks away and goes on a two-day drinking binge.
As Milkman stumbles up the stairs to his room during the end of this two-day drinking binge, Lena confronts him. In a loud, angry voice, she vents her hatred of him because of his treatment of her, her sister, and their mother. She also tells him that because he told their father about Porter and Corinthians, Macon has forced Corinthians to quit her job, has forbidden Corinthians to see Porter, and has evicted Porter from his apartment. Unable to respond to or defend himself from his sister’s wrath, Milkman merely listens, then continues on to his room. When Lena tells him to get out of her room, Milkman suddenly decides to leave home.
This chapter focuses on two key story lines: the relationship between Porter and Corinthians, and Milkman and Guitar’s failed burglary attempt. Each story, in turn, reveals important information about the characters connected directly and indirectly with each incident.
In the first story line, Corinthians resolves to break free of her stifling existence within the Dead family household and assume responsibility for her own life. Unable to find a professional position despite her impressive credentials, she accepts a position as a maid for Michael-Mary Graham, the State Poet Laureate. Morrison, by drawing comparisons between the two women, parallels the roles of black and white women in 1960s American society. Miss Graham’s inheritance includes her father’s mansion and the legacy of white Southern aristocracy. Consequently, she tries to recreate the tradition of old Southern gentility, with Corinthians as her servant/slave. In short, Morrison contrasts the white woman’s inheritance of wealth and privilege with the black woman’s legacy of poverty and slavery, which forces Corinthians to struggle for economic survival in a white, racist culture that denies her opportunities to pursue her dreams and use her impeccable academic credentials.
Morrison also exposes how whites reap the benefits of black labor and how white women, who are also subject to subjugation by males, are part of the oppressive force that perpetuates racism. By giving Miss Graham the first name “Michael,” Morrison is “signifying” — using the language of an oppressive society to indirectly confront that society — on a tradition common during the Victorian Age of the nineteenth century, when female writers such as Mary Ann Evans, who used the pen name George Eliot, often adopted male pseudonyms in order to get their works published. By hyphenating the names “Michael-Mary,” Morrison also suggests the link between white males and females in perpetuating the subjugation of black Americans and plays on the concept of “hyphenated Americans” (African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans).
Through Corinthians’ story, Morrison roundly indicts the American educational system for failing to provide black Americans with an education that will enable them to function as educated citizens and assume leadership roles in their communities. Her position echoes that of historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), who argued that America’s educational system is designed to enslave the minds of blacks and to perpetuate the myth of black inferiority. Woodson contends in his ground-breaking book The Mis-Education of the Negro, “Taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. . . . When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. . . . The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability to the race. The difficulty is that the ‘educated’ Negro is compelled to live and move among his own people whom he has been taught to despise.”
Corinthians’ contempt for “those women” on the bus and for Porter, who works as a yardman, clearly indicates that she has fallen prey to the type of brainwashing Woodson describes and has become part of the system that routinely discredits the uneducated blacks. Instead of preparing her to assume a leadership role in her community, Corinthian’s Western Eurocentric education has taught her to despise her own people, whom she believes need civilizing, and has alienated her from her African roots. That she is able to break free from her misguided thinking and does not seek refuge in fantasy, like her mother, indicates that Corinthians has managed to liberate herself from the mental chains that bind her to a false sense of reality and a capitalistic society. Note that as she bangs on Porter’s car-door window, images of Mr. Smith’s bloodless death fill her mind. We can surmise, therefore, that the crippling images of Mr. Smith’s “doll-broken body” and of Ruth’s pregnant body confined to a wheelchair give Corinthians the strength to break free from her suffocating lifestyle and “escape the velvet.”
A key element of this section is its sensual language and its explicit description of the sex act as a ritual that involves the man as aggressor and the woman as passive recipient. Also significant is Porter’s note to Corinthians, which recalls Mr. Smith’s note to the community and Milkman’s note to Hagar. In each case, the note indicates the writer’s unwillingness or inability to speak, emphasizing not only the lack of communication among community members but the lack of communication between men and women.
The central image in the second story line is Pilate’s bag of bones, which alludes to the biblical allegory of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1–14). According to this story, the bones were re-clothed in flesh and restored to life, symbolizing the resurrection of the dead, a motif prevalent in the book of Revelations, which focuses on the Last Judgment. Consequently, the bones symbolise the past (memory and experience), which must be reconstructed in order to understand the present.
Pilate’s “Aunt Jemima” act at the police station demonstrates her willingness to swallow her pride to protect those she loves. Ironically, the policemen’s readiness to accept her story indicates that her tale of murder and violence is all too familiar. Also significant is the vulnerability in Milkman’s reaction to having been frisked by the policeman: “The touch of the policeman’s hand was still there [on his body] — a touch that made his flesh jump like the tremor of a horse’s flank when flies light on it. And something more. Something like shame stuck to his skin. Shame at being spread-eagled, fingered, and handcuffed.” The scene alludes to the degrading roles blacks historically have had to assume because of fear for their physical safety.
Guitar’s unwillingness to recognize Pilate’s behaviour as an act of selfless love indicates his inability to view life within the context of individual experience. To him, Pilate’s “Aunt Jemima” act recalls the humiliation and degradation of blacks forced to play subservient roles just to please whites. He appears totally ignorant of the fact that these “acts” were often a matter of survival, a means of people’s masking their true selves. Guitar’s criticism of Pilate’s behaviour also illustrates the inability of young blacks to relate to the hardships suffered by their ancestors and to understand that many of the indignities the earlier generations were forced to endure helped gain the freedoms that the younger generations enjoy today. Consequently, Pilate’s subservient actions at the police station provide a vital link between the past and the present. Interestingly, while disgusted with Pilate’s “mammy,” Guitar seems totally unaware of Macon’s role: that of the black man who can buy his way out of trouble with the law.
Lena’s tirade when she confronts Milkman and accuses him of peeing on her and Corinthians and stunting their growth like that of the dying maple tree outside her bedroom window marks a turning point in her character when she declares to Milkman, “I don’t make roses anymore, and you have pissed your last in this house.” Milkman’s failure to respond to her passionate appeal or to defend himself demonstrates his complete detachment from his family. Consequently, in the next chapter, his leaving home physically underscores the fact that, like Macon, he has always been psychologically absent. Note that Chapter 9’s last sentence, “He closed the door,” recalls one of Morrison’s reasons for why people leave home: to hear the door click behind them.
Chapter 10 (Part II)
As Milkman stumbles through a forest headed toward a “big crumbling house,” he recalls his airplane flight from Michigan to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then his bus ride from Pittsburgh to Danville. He also relives his last conversation with Guitar before leaving home and the series of events that prompted his hunt for Pilate’s gold.
Upon arriving in Danville, Milkman encounters an old, oddly dressed black man, who tells Milkman that Reverend Cooper can help him locate Circe, Macon and Pilate’s caregiver, who, Milkman hopes, will lead him to the cave containing Pilate’s gold.
At Reverend Cooper’s, Milkman receives a warm welcome. He learns that the reverend remembers Macon and Pilate as the children of the town’s local hero, Macon Dead, Sr., the creator of Lincoln’s Heaven, and that Reverend Cooper’s father made Pilate’s brass earring. Milkman meets many of the town’s old black men and listens to their stories of when they were young and personally knew Milkman’s father and grandfather. As he listens to these stories, Milkman begins to feel as if something is missing from his life. For the first time, he is able to visualize his father as a young man and to envision the loving relationships that once existed between his father and aunt and between his father and grandfather. Sensing that the men are hungry for news of Macon and Pilate, Milkman indulges them with his own stories, embellishing the truth to satisfy their curiosity and preserve their cherished memories of Macon Dead, Sr., and his two children.
When Milkman tells Reverend Cooper that he wants to visit the site of his grandfather’s farm, named Lincoln’s Heaven, the reverend’s thirteen-year-old nephew (called “Nephew”) drives Milkman to it, from which Milkman sets out for the old Butler mansion, the house where Circe worked and where she hid Macon and Pilate after their father was killed — ironically, we learn, by the Butlers.
Arriving at the crumbling mansion, Milkman enters through the front door and is assaulted by the stench of animals and decay. Suddenly the stench is replaced by the sweet smell of ginger, and he sees an old woman at the top of a staircase. The woman is Circe, whom Reverend Cooper honestly led Milkman to believe was dead. Circe, mistaking Milkman for his father, embraces him, but when Milkman identifies himself as Macon’s son, Circe quickly loses interest in him. Fortunately, Milkman persuades her to tell him the stories of his grandfather’s murder and of Macon and Pilate’s escape from Montour County.
Through his conversation with Circe, who is living in the mansion with a pack of German hunting dogs, Milkman learns about his father’s parents: Macon Dead, Sr., whose real name was Jake, and his part-Indian wife, Sing. Circe tells him that she has continued to live in the mansion even after the death of the last Butler family member, who committed suicide after she spent all of the family wealth rather than live as a poor white woman. Circe is intentionally letting the dogs destroy the mansion.
Circe gives Milkman directions to Hunter’s Cave, where he secretly hopes to find the gold. However, when Milkman finally locates the cave, he discovers that there is no gold. Realizing that Nephew, who was to drive him back to Reverend Cooper’s, has already come and gone because of how late it is, Milkman hitches a ride back to the Danville bus depot. Hungry, exhausted, and disillusioned, he heads for the freight yard to say goodbye to Reverend Cooper, but the reverend has already left for the day. Then, continuing on his hunt for the gold, he boards a Greyhound bus to Virginia, convinced that Pilate left the gold in Virginia before heading to Michigan.
Analysis: The fairy tale beginning of this chapter, including references to “Hansel and Gretel” and “There Was An Old Woman,” emphasises the illusory world in which Milkman still lives. Completely caught up in finding Pilate’s gold, he is “oblivious” to the “wood life” through which he struggles. Only during the airplane ride to Pittsburgh has Milkman ever felt a “feeling of invulnerability.” Morrison comments about him, “In the air, away from real life, he felt free.”
The episode between Milkman and Guitar prior to Milkman’s leaving for Danville highlights once again the racism faced by blacks — especially black men — in a white-dominated society. Remarking on the herculean demands placed on black men, including those by black women, Guitar explains to his friend how “they” — white men and women, and black women — “want your living life.” His comment “What good is a man’s life if he can’t even choose what to die for?” sheds light on how and why Guitar became a militant member of the Seven Days: When his father was literally split in half working at a sawmill, the white sawmill owner gave Guitar’s mother only forty dollars as compensation for her husband’s life. In other words, to the owner, a black man’s life is worth only forty dollars.
Milkman’s subsequent encounters with Reverend Cooper and Circe also mark a major turning point in his personal development. Like the biblical Prodigal Son, who is welcomed back by his father after squandering his inheritance (Luke 15), Milkman is welcomed by his father’s “people.” His return “home” symbolises the Northern Negro’s return to what author James Baldwin, in Nobody Knows My Name, calls “the Old Country,” a place that Milkman has “never seen, but which [he] cannot fail to recognize.”
During Milkman’s trek through the forest toward Circe’s house and onward toward Hunter’s Cave, his materialistic trappings, including his hat, his Longines gold watch, and his Florsheim shoes, are either stripped away or disfigured. Note also that in crossing the creek, he first slips to one knee and then is completely submerged in the water. Many readers will interpret these actions as symbolic of Milkman’s being re-baptized. Later, he discovers that the bag he has left at the bus depot is now missing — he had told Nephew to pick it up for him, but now he can’t locate Nephew. By the time he leaves for Virginia, he is symbolically stripped of most of the trappings of his old identity.
The episode in which Milkman tells his story to Danville’s old men alludes to a scene in the Odyssey in which Odysseus, at a royal banquet, tells the story of his wanderings. Triggered by Reverend Cooper’s exclamation “I know your people!” the stories function as “links” — Milkman’s own word — that connect the past and present. But whereas Odysseus’ story is the highlight of the banquet, Milkman’s is not. Although his story ignites the imagination of the old men, who look to Milkman to “rekindle the dream and stop the death they were dying,” it is the exchange of stories that fuels the local legend of Lincoln’s Heaven and creates the magic that transforms Macon Dead, Sr., a simple farmer, into a mythical hero akin to High John the Conqueror, a black folk hero. The stories further support Morrison’s use of cultural geography: The old men in Danville tell many of the same stories as those told by the old men in Southside.
The creation of Lincoln’s Heaven, depicted in powerful sermonic language, is a key passage in this chapter. Sermonic language refers to language characteristic of old Negro sermons, which are noted for their vivid imagery, their call-and-response pattern, and their repetition of key phrases. The phrase “We got a home in the rock” recalls the spirituals “I Got a Home in Dat Rock” and “Rock of Ages.” In these spirituals, the “rock” of salvation is Jesus; in the novel, the “rock” is the land. Emphasizing the sacred legacy of the land, the sermonic passage also alludes to Moses’ speech to the Israelites upon their arrival to the land of Moab, following their forty years of wandering in the wilderness: “The Lord your God has now laid the land open before you. Go forward and occupy it in fulfillment of the promise which the Lord the God of your forefathers made you; do not be afraid or discouraged” (Deuteronomy 1:21). But discouraged is exactly what Danville’s old men are: If Macon Dead, Sr., the best of them, can be killed for fulfilling his dream, what hope do the rest have of succeeding?
Milkman’s discovery that there is no gold in Hunter’s Cave marks another major turning point in his spiritual development: Soon after his emergence from the womb-like cave, symbolic of the initial stage of his spiritual rebirth, he discovers that his inheritance is not the gold. Consequently, he learns that the “nothing” he finds in the cave is, in fact, everything. The scene alludes to the biblical story in which Jesus’ followers discover His empty tomb but fail to recognize it as evidence of Christ’s resurrection. In addition, it embraces the Buddhist philosophy that true existence and understanding come from emptiness.
Chapter 10 marks a major turning point in Milkman’s transformation from an apathetic, egotistical over-thirty man to a man who is preparing to assume his role as a culture-bearer for his people. By the chapter’s end, Milkman, like Odysseus, has survived numerous perils, including an encounter with the dead — he thinks of Circe, “she had to be dead” — and a visit to the underworld — the cave. Headed now toward Virginia, where he believes Pilate took the gold, “Milkman followed in her tracks” — tracks both physical and, for Milkman, newly spiritual.
Milkman arrives in Virginia and asks for directions to Charlemagne. After several unsuccessful attempts, he learns that the correct name for the town he is seeking is Shalimar. He buys an old car and continues on his journey, only to have the car break down in front of Solomon’s General Store, where he is welcomed by Solomon, the store’s owner, and discovers that he has reached his destination. Through a brief conversation with Solomon, Milkman learns that Guitar has been there and is looking for him. Although initially alarmed, Milkman reasons that Guitar must be in trouble and that he simply left a cryptic message to inform Milkman of his whereabouts.
After Milkman makes several comments about the town of Shalimar and its women, comments perceived as arrogant and insulting by a group of younger men in Solomon’s store, Milkman is goaded into a fight. Although wounded, he is saved from serious injury when two women intervene and plead with Solomon to stop the fight.
An older man who introduces himself as Omar invites Milkman to go hunting with him and his friends. Milkman agrees to meet the men at sundown. At the designated meeting place, the men (Omar, Calvin Breakstone, Small Boy, and Luther Solomon) outfit Milkman in army fatigues, a knit cap, and a pair of old, sturdy shoes. As they drive to the hunting spot, Milkman notices a car speeding past them; earlier, he had wondered if someone else was meeting them for the hunt, but now he realises that there are no others in the hunting party.
During the hunt, Milkman is initiated into the ways of the hunters, learns the legend of Ryna’s Gulch, and begins to feel connected to nature. After becoming separated from the group, he is attacked by Guitar, who tries to strangle him with a wire. Having sensed Guitar’s presence seconds before the attack, Milkman manages to escape.
The hunters kill a bobcat, and Milkman participates in the ritual of skinning the cat and cutting up the carcass. He also accepts the honour of lifting out the bobcat’s heart from within its ribcage. Later, Omar gives Milkman directions to the home of Sweet, a woman who takes him in, bathes him, and makes love to him.
Chapter 11 marks a major turning point in Milkman’s spiritual growth and depicts marked changes in his cultural awareness, his sensitivity toward others, and his ability to commune with nature. It also illustrates Morrison’s focus on “the transforming power of language.”
Milkman’s arrival in Shalimar, he hopes, will mark his return to a kinder, less threatening world, one that initially appears to be the direct opposite of Southside. Seemingly free of violence, Shalimar is depicted as a friendly, peaceful place where men gather at Solomon’s store, women stroll down the street unafraid and empty-handed, and children sing and play nearby, surrounded by an assortment of docile farm animals. As Milkman enters this idyllic, Edenic setting, blissfully unaware of its social dynamics, he is the proverbial stranger in the village. A Northerner unfamiliar with Southern customs and traditions, he has blindly accepted the myth of Southern hospitality. Consequently, he is surprised to discover that “these people” are not eager to accept him into their midst based solely on the colour of his skin. Instead, they perceive him as an outsider, a white man in black face, and, therefore, a potential threat. What’s more, they resent his arrogance and “city ways.” Determined to test his true identity, the men goad him into a vicious verbal battle that quickly escalates to physical violence, and only after two women intercede on his behalf is Milkman saved from serious bodily harm. Soon thereafter, Omar, one of the men sitting on the store’s front porch, invites him to go hunting. Determined to show the men that he can “play their game,” Milkman accepts. During the ritual of the night-time hunt, he communes with nature and proves himself worthy of acceptance into their brotherhood of men. Thus, like the hero of folklore and fairy tale, Milkman successfully meets the challenges placed before him and is rewarded with the beautiful princess — Sweet.
In Shalimar, the first indication that Milkman is beginning to pay attention to his surroundings and view the world from a different perspective is his ability to appreciate the beauty of the small town’s women, who, unlike the women he is accustomed to, are comfortable with themselves and proud of their African features. Consequently, he is finally able to recognize the beauty of black women within the context of black culture.
Also significant is Milkman’s participation in the black cultural ritual of verbal sparring — “signifying” — with the men at Solomon’s General Store, which indicates his ability to relate to black men and to reconnect with the heart and soul of the black community. In Shalimar, Milkman has matured enough to recognize the verbal challenges, whereas in Southside, he was not even aware that verbal sparring was a form of challenge: “Everybody smiled, including Milkman. It was about to begin.” Unlike his futile attempts to participate in this form of word play with the Southside men, this time Milkman proves himself a worthy contestant in Shalimar.
By playing with the various spellings of words with similar sounds — Solomon/Shalimar/Sugarman/Charlemagne — Morrison explores the vital link between the sounds and meanings of words and between written and oral languages. By focusing on the sounds of the spoken word rather than on the spelling of the written word, she emphasises the primacy of black vernacular and oral tradition over written language and Standard English as they relate to the transfer of black culture. She also lends credence to the saying that language defines who we are. What’s more, she focuses the reader’s attention on words as “codes” or “signals” that can be used to test someone’s identity, a concept that becomes crucial for Milkman as he proceeds on the quest for his inheritance and that alludes to a biblical story in which the pronunciation of a word is literally a matter of life and death. According to the Old Testament (Judges 12:6), the victorious Gileadites devised a simple plan to keep their enemies, the Ephraimites, from escaping by crossing the Jordan River. After setting up barricades, the Gileadites ordered each person seeking passage to pronounce the word “shibboleth.” Unable to pronounce the sh sound, the Ephraimites pronounced it incorrectly as “sibboleth” and were killed.
In order for Milkman to fulfil his mission and decode the meaning of Solomon’s song, he must first learn to listen and to relinquish his sole reliance on external cues such as road maps and written records as primary sources of information. In short, Milkman must learn to focus on orality (sound and pronunciation) rather than literacy (spelling and definition). For example, although Milkman hears the children of Shalimar sing their song, which begins with the line “Jay the only son of Solomon,” he does not listen to the words or display any particular interest in their game. Instead, the song serves only to remind him of his own childhood and the beginning of his friendship with Guitar. Later in the chapter, however, during the hunting episode, Milkman comes to realize the importance of orality. He discerns the hunting dogs’ different barking sounds and the hunters’ responses to them: “The men and the dogs were talking to each other. In distinctive voices they were saying distinctive, complicated things.” Morrison characterises this orally symbiotic relationship as primal, existing before language.
Milkman’s growing spiritual awareness is revealed through the ritual of the hunt, during which his newly acquired ability to “listen with his fingertips, to hear what, if anything, the earth had to say,” ultimately saves his life, enabling him to sense Guitar’s presence just before the attack. Also, the scene in which the hunters give Milkman the honour of pulling out the bobcat’s heart indicates his ritualistic initiation into the tribe — the community of hunters — and his readiness to assume his role as the hero, generally described as a “man with heart.” The image of the cat’s heart falling away from its chest “as easily as yolk slips out of its shell” recalls Pilate’s speech to Milkman in Chapter 2 concerning the perfection of eggs.
Milkman’s growing awareness is also illustrated in the scene between Milkman and Sweet, in which he demonstrates, for the first time, his ability to participate in a mutually nurturing relationship with a woman and to view lovemaking as more than merely a sexual act designed solely for short-lived physical gratification. For example, at no time during his relationship with Hagar would he have offered to bathe her as he does Sweet. Note that the chapter’s last paragraph mirrors the reciprocal relationship between Milkman and Sweet. Morrison begins the sentences in this paragraph with altering masculine and feminine pronouns followed by a verb, the effect of which is a balanced “He did . . . / She did . . .” singsong effect.
Milkman visits Susan Byrd, who tells him only that her father, Crowell Byrd, had a sister named Sing. On his way back to town, Milkman runs into Guitar, who accuses him of trying to cheat him out of the gold. Guitar warns Milkman that he still intends to kill him, but on his own time, and only after Milkman has received the gold, which Guitar believes Milkman shipped from Danville to Shalimar. Milkman is unable to convince Guitar otherwise. He returns to Shalimar, spends the night with Sweet, and dreams of flying.
The next morning, Milkman goes back to Solomon’s store to see if his car has been repaired. As he waits, he listens to the town’s children singing Solomon’s song, which includes the names Solomon, Jay (Jake), Heddy, and Ryna; the song begins to make sense to him — these are the names of his ancestors. Excited, he decides to revisit Susan Byrd for more information.
Analysis: Susan Byrd’s house, with its brick front, white picket fence, and “four little steps painted blue,” evokes the all-American red, white, and blue imagery introduced in Chapter 1. But here again, the American Dream has fallen short of its promise. Susan Byrd’s “people” have all left Shalimar and are “passing” as white because of their light skin. Like Macon, Susan has only the empty trappings of success. Despite the illusions of flight associated with her — suggested by the grey velvet wing-back chair in which Milkman sits — this Byrd is unable to fly. Although Susan is a direct descendant of people who could fly, she has lost those magical powers.
Morrison delights in systematically setting up and demolishing readers’ expectations. We are met with the smell of gingerbread baking, but the “witch” who lives in this gingerbread house prefers pale butter cookies and coffee with both cream and sugar — symbolic of Susan’s relatives passing as white. The smell of ginger recalls the same smell earlier at Circe’s mansion and, at night, in Southside. And although the child’s swing hanging from the cedar tree suggests the presence of children, all children are long gone.
As Milkman learns compassion, he becomes whole. Although he leaves Susan’s house feeling “tired and off centre,” for the first time in his life he feels a genuine, positive connection to his black heritage and to the people of Shalimar. Morrison writes of him, “He didn’t feel close to them, but he did feel connected, as though there was some cord or pulse or information they shared.” And when he sees Guitar waiting for him, he is calm and surprised at the “complete absence of fear” in himself. Milkman is now an adult who faces conflicts rationally rather than emotionally — and rather than running away.
Back in Shalimar, as Milkman listens to the children singing Solomon’s song, he thinks about his past. He sympathises with his mother and her forced twenty-year celibacy; he understands more fully his father, whose materialism Milkman now sees as “homage” to Macon’s own father, the founder of Lincoln’s Heaven; and he becomes ashamed of his treatment of Pilate and Hagar. He also realises that he has no reason to hate his sisters. When he catches a glimpse of himself in the plate-glass window of Solomon’s store, he sees a reflection of himself that is not distorted or fragmented: “He was grinning. His eyes were shining. He was as eager and happy as he had ever been in his life.”
In a flashback to the beginning of Chapter 6, Guitar returns to his home to find Hagar in a state of shock following her aborted attempt to kill Milkman. He carries her outside, then borrows a car to drive her home. During the drive, he tries to console her, but Hagar remains silent and unresponsive. Guitar finds himself mentally comparing Hagar to his own two sisters, who were watched over by the entire community and grew up feeling loved and protected. He concludes that Hagar’s lack of such support has led to her crippling sense of low self-worth.
At home, Pilate and Reba do everything they can think of to support Hagar, who takes to her bed and remains severely depressed. Finally, in an attempt to cheer her up, Pilate gives her a compact mirror. When Hagar sees her dishevelled reflection, she rouses herself from her stupor and announces that she needs to go shopping so that she will appear more beautiful — and desirable — to Milkman. Elated that she has finally emerged from her stupor, Reba pawns her diamond ring to finance Hagar’s shopping spree. However, when Hagar returns home from shopping, rain-soaked, exhausted, and disoriented, and realises that her efforts have been in vain, she succumbs to tears. Burning with fever, she becomes delirious and eventually dies — of a broken heart. Because Pilate and Reba have no more money left for her funeral, Ruth passively coerces Macon to pay for it. The chapter closes with Reba and Pilate’s emotional tribute to Hagar at the girl’s funeral.
Analysis: Hagar’s frenzied shopping spree, followed by her physical death, recalls Milkman’s shopping at a Rexall drugstore in Chapter 4 while contemplating the end of his and Hagar’s relationship. It also illustrates Morrison’s ability to paint a vivid portrait of the tragicomedy of life.
Convinced that Milkman has abandoned her because she fails to meet his expectations, obsessed with her “graveyard love,” and seduced by the promise of consumerism — that the “right” product will magically solve her problems — Hagar resolves to recreate herself into what she envisions as Milkman’s image of an ideal woman. When she realises that her efforts have been in vain, she fixates on the idea that he doesn’t love her because he doesn’t like her kinky hair.
Morrison has said that the concepts of physical beauty and romantic love are two of the most destructive forces in civilization. Here, she illustrates the powers of these destructive forces through Hagar, who not only has been socialized to accept both concepts but has internalized them as primary values that define her identity and self-image. Although Hagar’s obsession with her hair may seem trivial, it symbolises the black woman’s frustrated efforts to meet white standards of beauty, epitomized by blue eyes, fair skin, and long, flowing hair. Thus, when Guitar speculates that Hagar’s low self-esteem stems from her lack of support from the black community, he fails to take into account the damage inflicted on Hagar’s self-image by the beauty myths fostered by white-dominated society and perpetuated by the mainstream media. Like Macon, Hagar is so caught up in trying to create an acceptable image that she has lost touch with herself — with herself. And like Ruth, she tries to cope with reality by escaping into a fantasy world. When she is no longer able to sustain her fantasy and realises that, unlike Sleeping Beauty, she will not be saved by love, she loses the will to live and dies.
Pilate’s plea for Hagar to recognize her own unique beauty alludes to the words of Malcolm X, a powerful advocate of black pride and the “black is beautiful” concept: “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin? . . . Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself . . . [and] to hate . . . what God gave you?” Although Pilate tentatively blames Milkman for Hagar’s immediate despair, she realises that he is merely an agent of the indifferent, impersonal capitalistic system whose perverse perspectives on race, sex, and class have led to Hagar’s physical, emotional, and psychological destruction.
To offset the impending tragedy of Hagar’s death, Morrison interjects humour for comic relief. For example, when Guitar reminisces about his two sisters and recalls “the litany of their growing up,” we can’t help but smile at the snatches of humorous dialogue cast in the language and rhythms of black vernacular. And as we witness Reba’s determination to cheer up her daughter by investigating the “mysteries” of jello-making, we are again temporarily distracted from Hagar’s suffering.
Morrison also depicts the different ways in which men and women cope with crisis, suggesting that while men tend to express their feelings and become angry, women tend to internalize their feelings and become depressed. For example, in Chapter 9, when Milkman panics following the bungled burglary of Pilate’s green sack, he becomes angry, blames others for his feelings, and embarks on a drinking binge. Hagar, however, becomes depressed, blames herself for Milkman’s behaviour, and blissfully believes that shopping will cure her damaged relationship with Milkman. Note, however, that when Hagar loses her purchases while stumbling home in the rain, she has nothing with which to replace her shattered faith in consumerism. However, when Milkman loses his material possessions while sloshing through the shallow river leading to Hunter’s Cave, eventually he is able to replace his distorted values with a spiritual inheritance. Morrison also hints that the hunt for a lover may be just as deadly as the hunt for wild game: Milkman has “ripped out” Hagar’s heart as surely as he pulled out the heart of the bobcat. Thus Hagar, the hunter, has become Milkman’s prey.
In describing Hagar’s funeral, Morrison evokes the African-American funeral service as homecoming ritual, in which the deceased is perceived as going home to Jesus and death is seen as a means of escape from a land of trial and tribulation to a place where there is no more pain and suffering. The bereaved are consoled by eulogies extolling the virtues of the deceased and by sermons denouncing death and focusing on the glory of eternal life in the hereafter. A gospel choir singing inspirational spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away to Jesus” often highlights such a service, emphasizing the release from earthly troubles and depicting the glorious journey “home.” The culmination of the homecoming ritual is generally a moving and highly emotional sermon designed to reassure the bereaved that the deceased has gone to a better place.
But Pilate has no time for sermons or rituals. Placating platitudes and soothing songs cannot console her. She refuses to accept the pat answers to life’s difficult questions offered by organized religion. Ignoring tradition, she bursts through the church door shouting “Mercy!” and begins walking toward Hagar’s coffin, shaking her head as if to deny the reality of Hagar’s death. After Reba joins her in her mournful plea for mercy, Pilate walks up to the coffin and softly sings a lullaby to her granddaughter, as though Hagar were a little girl who had simply gone to sleep. Watching Pilate, we perceive her song as somehow inadequate in capturing the tragedy of Hagar’s death. But when Pilate proceeds to affirm her granddaughter’s life by acknowledging her as “My baby girl,” we realize that she is commemorating Hagar’s memory by singling her out from all others who have died before her.
In describing the funeral scene and the events leading up to it, Morrison uses a number of stylistic devices, including sense impressions, allusions, and colour symbolism. For example, we can hear Pilate’s song, see Hagar laid out in her satin-lined coffin, and feel Pilate’s and Reba’s anguish. Note that Hagar lies in bed, consumed with a burning fever, for three days, after which (like Jesus and Lazarus) she rises and makes one final effort to confront her personal demons. The colours red, black, and green that so dominate the funeral — embodied by the “jungle-red wine,” the “total blackness” of Pilate’s dress, and the “emerald glass” — have replaced the red, white, and blue imagery of Mr. Smith’s death in Chapter 1. In essence, the American flag has been replaced with the Pan-African Liberation flag. Created by Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, the flag reflects the colours of Jamaica’s Rastafarian movement, as noted by Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., in his book The Rastafarians: “The red signifies the blood of martyrs of Jamaican history, including heroes from the time of the Maroons down to Marcus Garvey. The black represents the colour of the Africans whose descendants form ninety-eight percent of all Jamaicans. The green is the green of Jamaican vegetation and of the hope of victory over oppression.” Essentially, Hagar is not only “going home” to Jesus; she is also “going home” to Mother Africa.
In this chapter’s final scene, Pilate is portrayed as a trumpeting elephant, an animal native to both Africa and India. Picturing her as this great, lumbering beast, we are reminded of earlier references to her as a protective cedar. If we consider the connections between these two images, we realize that despite the powerful imagery associated with Pilate, she is, ironically, quite powerless to protect herself or the people she loves. The trumpeting elephant symbolises creature — Pilate — so overwhelmed by grief that words cannot express her pain.
Also significant is the image of Pilate and Reba bending over Hagar like two divi-divi trees, which are native to South America and the West Indies and are noted for their highly astringent qualities. Associating the two women with the healing properties of these exotic trees again underscores the ironic fact that they are powerless to heal Hagar. And considering that divi-divi trees are not native to either Africa or the United States, we can surmise that through death, Hagar, like Mr. Smith, is finally able to transcend the boundaries that limited her physical and emotional life.
— Milkman returns to Susan Byrd’s house to ask her about Jake, and Susan tells him the story of Jake’s father, Solomon, the Flying African. She also tells Milkman that although the townspeople were led to believe that Sing Byrd (whose real name was Singing Bird) left Shalimar to attend a private Quaker school in Boston, she actually ran off with Jake and a wagonload of ex-slaves, supposedly headed for Boston. Since Jake couldn’t read, perhaps he mistakenly took a wrong turn and ended up in Pennsylvania.
— Susan also tells Milkman the story of Solomon’s wife, Ryna, who went mad when Solomon flew off, leaving her behind. As a result, Heddy, an old Indian woman, raised Jake, the youngest of Solomon’s twenty-one children and the only one whom Solomon tried to take with him when he flew away. Heddy was devastated when Sing and Jake ran away, leaving her alone with her youngest son, Crowell Byrd (originally named Crow Bird), Susan’s father.
When Milkman returns to Susan Byrd’s house, he notices that it looks “different”: The white picket fence is flaked, peeling, and in need of repair, and the blue steps leading to the porch are faded into a “watery grey.” Whereas on his first visit he focused on the house with its white picket fence, this time he focuses on the cedar tree standing in the yard and notices that it looks like “the leg of an ancient elephant”; in the previous chapter, Pilate was referred to as being “like an elephant.” The little house, which had initially impressed Milkman with its trappings of success, now appears to him as grey and faded, indicating that he is more aware and critical of the mythological American Dream and is prepared to begin his search for more spiritually substantial values. For example, Milkman’s final disinterest in recovering his gold watch from Grace Long indicates not only that he is willing to give up his material possessions but that he is moving closer to Pilate, who tells time by the sun and, as Guitar notes, is “not a clock person.”
As Susan tells Milkman the story of her grandmother, Heddy, her father, Crowell Byrd, and her aunt, Singing Bird, she reveals her contempt for Jake, whom she refers to as “Jake. Black Jake. Black as coal.” She makes no attempts to hide her colour prejudice. Consequently, when Milkman realises that he is related to Susan through Heddy, he doesn’t reveal his newfound knowledge and lets Susan believe that he is just a stranger and not a “new-found relative who was as black as Jake.” As revealed in Chapter 12, Susan is ashamed of her black and Indian blood and takes pride in the fact that her “people” can “pass” for white. But although she has tried her best to erase her past, her efforts have been in vain: Grace knows the truth, Milkman has discovered her secret, and the cedar tree — symbolic of Pilate — bears witness to her true roots.
The stories of the Flying African and Ryna’s Gulch are two more examples of Morrison’s genius in combining disparate elements of myth and oral tradition to create contemporary fiction. Also, by contrasting the fantastic events that took place in Shalimar, which have not been documented but exist in the memories of the people who learned about them through stories from those who witnessed them, Morrison again contrasts oral tradition — “re-memory” — with recorded “history.”
As we observe Milkman listening to Susan Byrd’s “gossip, stories, legends, [and] speculations,” eventually piecing together a story that makes sense to him, we realise that he is participating in the storytelling process and contributing to the legacy of oral tradition by adding his story to those created by his ancestors.
— After telling Milkman the magical stories of Solomon and Ryna, she demonstrates her disinterest and detachment by commenting that Shalimar is a “dull place”: “There’s absolutely nothing in the world going on here. Not a thing.” Ironically, she’s completely wrong: Life is going on.
— Milkman returns to Shalimar, finds Sweet, and convinces her to go swimming with him in a nearby river, where he excitedly tells her what he has discovered about his ancestors. Then he boards a bus and heads back to Michigan. On the way, he thinks about his experiences and his newfound knowledge and speculates on the meaning of names and on Guitar’s role in his life.
— When Milkman arrives back home, he stops at Pilate’s house. But when he starts to tell her about his discoveries, instead of welcoming his news, Pilate hits him over the head with a bottle and throws him into her cellar. When he regains consciousness, Milkman senses that Hagar is dead and realises that Pilate’s behaviour against him was prompted by grief. He calls out to her and tells her that the bones she has been carrying around are those of her father. Finally, he convinces her to go back to Shalimar with him to bury the bones. Pilate gives him a box filled with Hagar’s hair, which he takes home with him.
— Milkman and Pilate return to Shalimar. After a reunion with the people in the community, Pilate and Milkman go to Solomon’s Leap to bury the bones. Pilate stoops down and drops her earring containing her name into the grave along with the bones. When she stands up, she is shot in the back of her head by a rifle fired by Guitar, and she dies in Milkman’s arms as he sings Solomon’s song to her. As he holds her, two birds circle around them, and one dives into the grave, then flies off with Pilate’s earring.
— [THE END] Knowing Guitar will shoot him as soon as he stands up, Milkman intentionally stands and calls out to his friend, then leaps into the air toward Guitar, who is standing on another flat-headed rock.
— Milkman’s symbolic baptism and rebirth at the river complete his transformation from “Milkman” — the immature, irresponsible youth — to “Sugarman” — the subject of Pilate’s/Solomon’s song.
— By giving Milkman the box containing Hagar’s hair, Pilate entrusts him with her granddaughter’s soul. According to the voodoo religion, the hair and fingernails of the deceased contain the dead person’s soul and generally are burned to keep them out of the hands of individuals who might want to harm the soul of the deceased or keep it from finding peace in the afterlife. Because Milkman is responsible for Hagar’s death, he must assume responsibility for her soul.
** Although many literary critics have commented on the novel’s ambiguous ending as unsatisfactory, Morrison views it as keeping with the context of the novel, which focuses on duality and ambiguity. Consequently, it is up to each reader to fill in the spaces of the narrative concerning Milkman’s fate.
— § § § —
05. — The biblical “Song of Solomon”
01. — Key facts & Characters
02. — Synopsis
03. — Analysis
04. — Chapter by chapter
05. — The biblical “Song of Solomon”
Song of Solomon is also the name of a section of The Old Testament: “Song of Solomon” c. 700 BC.
I do not think this is a coincidence. The title’s linkage to the Bible’s chapter of the same name may serve to underscore the fact that Morrison’s novel addresses age-old themes — underscoring this contention is the fact that there is a lot of allusion to Homer’s Odyssey in Song of Solomon as well. The biblical book “Song of Solomon” by the way, depicts a conversation between two lovers, Solomon and a beautiful, dark-skinned Shulamite lady.
Furthermore, not only is Morrison’s Song of Solomon full of characters with biblical names but also, “Song of Solomon,” a.k.a. “song of songs,” happens to be the most erotic section of the Bible; indeed it champion’s the majesty of lovemaking (elsewhere in the bible sex is treated as a sinful act unless it is for the express purpose of reproduction). In Morrison’s Song of Solomon sexual gratification, lack of sexual satisfaction, and sexual rejection are key subtexts: one female protagonist for example is bereft of conventional sexual pleasure leading to a hinted at, somewhat unconventional, form of self-pleasure (think titillation from breastfeeding — according to the Ministry of Happiness: “A lactating mother may become sexually aroused during breastfeeding […] and this is not abnormal”).
Some say Song of Solomon is designed to spell S.O.S. (Save Our Soul) this too could equally be true — they are not mutually exclusive. (In terms of word play, just see how Morrison so expertly disects “cannon fodder” in her 1988 essay, Unspeakable Things Unspoken.)
“Song of Solomon” is the otherwise austere, erotica-wise, Bible’s momentary lapse into Arabian Nights, Carnal Prayer Mat, Karma Sutra, Perfumed Garden -style poetry & prose. I say austere erotica-wise but let’s be frank! remember what Lot and his daughters got up to 😉 Never mind that though because we can more categorically say this: within this Hebrew and Greek tome, the pleasures of sex are rarely celebrated; all too often sex is equated with depravity, not ecstasy.
“Song of Solomon” is the anomaly. According to Ben Christian (2016), it contains, “unbridled horniness.” Examples include, “Going down to the nut orchard” (Song of Solomon, 6:11) and, spooning etc. (Song of Solomon, 2:6-7, 3:4-5 & 8:3-4). In one part of the Song, one can clearly visualise the progression as a lover progresses up the body of their beloved:
[feet & legs]
How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels / the work of a master hand.
[between the legs & belly]
Your navel is a rounded bowl / that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat / encircled with lilies.
Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
[neck & face]
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, / by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, / overlooking Damascus.
[head & hair]
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses.
— Song of Solomon, 7:1-3
In it, lovers spend a night among flowers that are blooming and blossoms that are opening. Part of the song is about pomegranates, which are swollen and red when ripe, and about mandrakes, which were considered the strongest aphrodisiac in the ancient world (O’Neal, 2018). Think the implication of the image of doors opening to every delicacy:
Your neck is like a tower of ivory,
your eyes like pools in Heshbon
by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon
looking toward Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel,
the hair of your head like purple cloth—
a king could be held captive in your tresses.
How beautiful you are and how pleasant,
my love, with such delights!
Your stature is like a palm tree;
your breasts are clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree
and take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes,
and the fragrance of your breath like apricots.
— Song of Solomon, 7:4-8
She responds following the “W” in verse 9, completing his sentence and echoing her mutual desire:
Your mouth is like fine wine—
W flowing smoothly for my love,
gliding past my lips and teeth!
I belong to my love,
and his desire is for me.
— Song of Solomon, 7:9-10
In verse 11, according to Coogan (n.d.), the act of lovemaking has begun:
Come, my love,
let’s go to the field;
let’s spend the night among the henna blossoms.
Let’s go early to the vineyards;
let’s see if the vine has budded,
if the blossom has opened,
if the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.
The mandrakes give off a fragrance,
and at our doors is every delicacy—
new as well as old.
I have treasured them up for you, my love.
— Song of Solomon, 7:11-13
The imagery contained in those verses penned two and a half millennia ago are eloquent and enchanting; a world away from puritanical absenteeism.
Set me like a seal on your heart,
like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as Death,
passion as harsh as Sheol:
its sparks are sparks of fire,
flames of the divine.
— Song of Solomon, 8:6
Christian, B. (2016). Biblical Foreplay. Card Play.
Coogan, M. (n.d.). Sex in the Song of Songs. Bible Odyssey.
O’Neal, S. (2018). The Sexiest Chapter in the Bible. Learning Religions.
SparkNotes Editors. (2002). SparkNote on Song of Solomon. SparkNotes.
Washington, D. A. (n.d.). Song of Solomon. CliffsNotes.
The English language
“Elizabethan era” / “Love letters”
French in English / Latin in English
Anthology / Chronology / Terminology
Phrases & idioms (with their etymologies)
Literary criticism: analysing poetry & prose
Glossary of works, writers and literary devices:
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“If you love somebody, let them go, if they don’t return, they were never yours.”
|The Essential Rumi
“Lovers do not finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.”
|Ways of Escape:
a journey of sorts
A short excerpt from the book: “I was dead, deader than dead because, I was still alive.”
|The Significance of
A podcast series that chronologically charts the key works of poetry and prose.