literary analysis: a character from Morrison’s 1994 work of fiction, “Paradise.”
The novel ‘Paradise’ (or ‘paradise’ as Morrison later wished the title to be; to capitalise or not, a capital idea!) is not known for being an easy to read novel. In fact, as with many of Morrison’s books, it has a reputation for being the opposite—it should be noted that Morrison began writing to “forestall melancholy,” not to write easy to digest stories for cash. Be that as it may, it has nonetheless been said that the “complexity” of this novel distracts from “the profound and, deeply polemical message it conveys” regarding, “gender and American history” (Widdowson 2001 313). It has similarly been described as, “structurally complex … barely heeding the laws of time and place [and Morrison’s] most overtly feminist novel” (Smith 1998) and to be, “the most difficult and complicated of Morrison’s books” (Byerman 2010). In this short essay, the character Mavis Albright will be considered.
To address the question of why this charter is complex we need to consider some facts at the outset (facts relating to this work of fiction). One she was instrumental in the deaths of her two young children. Two her mother betrayed her location to her enraged husband (she had stolen his cherished verdant green Cadillac) and has previously had sex with him. And, three, she was at the one of the women residing at the Convent when the men of Ruby descended upon it to violently attack it. In acting independently our Mavis felt a rare happiness only once experienced before on a funfair ride—“When ‘the Rocket zoomed on the downward swing, the rush made her giddy with pleasure; when it slowed just before turning her upside down through the high arc of its circle, the thrill was intense” (33). She got this from the thrill and safety of absconding in Frank’s Cadillac, “the stable excitement of facing danger while safely strapped in strong metal” (ibid.). Later, in the “Mavis” chapter, we read what Connie said to Mavis in the kitchen of the convent, “scary things not always outside. Most scary things is inside” (39). This chapter also tells us something strange about the convent, “how still it was, as though no one lived there” (45). Is this magic realism? What exactly is real and fictional in this complicated work of fiction?
One reason for why Mavis is a complex character is to do with trust, guilt and confusion. She lost two of her kids (twin with rhyming names: Merle and Pearl) because of a mistake/error she made (so we think) this must be a huge mental burden to anyone. She did not trust the sympathies of the local journalist or the neighbours around her. She has paranoia too (maybe it is more like justified worries) because she wants to escape her abusive husband (understandable) and her surviving children who she feels want to kill her (less understandable, but her eldest daughter does seem to dislike her). Then there’s the mother-daughter trust issues. After escaping from Frank her husband), she ends up with her mum. But soon after her arrival she hears her mum telling him that his wife is with her and that he can come and get her. She heads West again with cash and tablets borrowed from her mother. As with many a great American novel she plans and dreams of California—in a colourful twist, she spray-paints the Cadillac repainted magenta. . . .
. . . Another reason for the character Mavis’s complexity could be because Morrison is linking her to an African spirit god. The character Mavis has been linked not to a biblical character as is often the case with Morrison’s fictional protagonists but with a West African deity (Bur 2006 165–166). It is argued that Morrison links Mavis to Osun. In African mythology, this is linked to a god of joy and children who is also feisty—“is easily offended”—remember that Mavis fights Gigi in a street brawl (who herself is probably sleeping with Seneca). In ‘Paradise’ (168) it does say that Mavis was a “joyful hitter” who enjoyed the fight, “pounding [and] pounding, even biting Gigi was exhilarating” (171). Linked to this is the question of how real the fiction is meant to be, is it a ghost story, is it all an allegory of the unfairness of Adam and Eve?
To the men of Ruby, the women’s self-sufficiency is deeply threatening and see it as, “a coven not a convent” (276). According to Morrison, ‘paradise’ coalesced around the idea of, “where paradise is, who belongs in it … all paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening” (Smith). Mavis is plagued by a terrible situation, abused by her husband (and eldest daughter?) she apparently leaves her infant twins in a Cadillac on a hot day with the windows up, and the babies die” (23). The description if these events are, “wrought in the full glare of Ms. Morrison’s uncompromising gaze” (Smith 1998). Such vivid and ‘haunting’ moments have appeared in many of Morrison’s previous works—mothers killing their kids (‘Beloved’); fathers raping their daughters (‘The Bluest Eye’).
To sum up, Mavis is a complex character in a complicate and difficult to follow book. She certainly is not the only complicated character in this book, but her journey West is like a symbol of the American dream especially because of the icon car the Cadillac. The book shows to us (most) men’s hatred (and lustful desire) for women. This book is more about Adam and Eve than black and white. As critics point out, who was the white girl we read about in the opening lines? Morrison provokes the reader, challenging them to identify a character in terms of race without identify the race of most of the convent’s inhabitants (Byerman). Is our Mavis white? Is it Gigi or her lover Seneca? Maybe it does not matter too much as this book is more about gender than race.
— § —
 This has been to the benefit of us all, in her acceptance talk for the Nobel prize in literature, she said the written word has the ability to, “limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers” and to keep fear at bay but it can also have the opposite impact, “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence” (Smith 1998).
 In trying to understand literary analysis better I learnt a lot from the following point made by Keith Byerman: “Shakespeare never had an original idea for a story. He stole everything.” Writers steal. Writers lie. That is their business. Morrison takes whatever she needs from wherever she gets it. You could pull apart Paradise and find all those different frames of reference. There is some John Milton here. There is some Dante, William Faulkner, and Melville. Pick your source. Do not assume that because you identified the source, you have therefore solved the puzzle. … No! Morrison used a particular kind of source in a particular kind of way. She is always doing it for her own purposes.
 Magenta is a colour that is often defined as purplish-red. It is hard not to link this defiant repaint as encouraging the reader to think of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, ‘The Color Purple.’ They key protagonist in ‘The Colour Purple’—Celie—has a difficult past which is borne from racial discrimination and violence against women. This work is as one with many of Morrison’s magic-realism fictional works because it also follows a journey that is constantly dealing with the vexed subject matter of identity.
Seneca, an interesting non-biblical name. Seneca was venerated as a moral Stoic thinker and for periods of time was one of Emperor Nero’s closest advisers (Kolbert 2015). Seneca He is said to have said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” This makes the reader think of the ending of life in African and the starting of slavery, the ending of slavery (explicit) and the beginnings of hidden slavery, the end of Haven and the Move west to Ruby. We then come to think of Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Solder’ the lyrics of it are as here:
There was a Buffalo Soldier
in the heart of America
Stolen from Africa
brought to America
Fighting on arrival
fighting for survival
I mean it, when I analyze the stench
To me it makes a lot of sense
How the Dreadlock Rasta
was the Buffalo Soldier
And he was taken from Africa
brought to America
Fighting on arrival
fighting for survival
— § —
Burr, Benjamin. “Mythopoetic Syncretism in Paradise,” in Shirley A. Stave (Ed.). Toni Morrison and the Bible: Contested Intertextualities (pp. 159–174). 2006.
Literary analysis: identifying the ancestor role in Morrison’s 1994 work of fiction, “Paradise.”
The role of ancestor is a constant motive of much of Morrison’s magic-realist writing and it is something that she sees as being distinctively linked to Afro-American literature (Morrison 1988) and something that is important to the Afro-American community in the real world too. She makes it clear it is not so much the role of man but that of ancestor that can hold (and guide) the individual and the family unit, “if we don’t keep in touch with the ancestor that we are, in fact, lost.” (Morrison 2008 63). To understand the definition of the significance of the ancestor role in Morrison’s works of fiction, “one must become familiar with the function of ancestor in West African cosmology” (Beaulieu 2003 4). However, while in some of her novels, the ancestor character is pretty clear, it is not obvious in ‘Paradise’ (1994). In ‘Love’ we can attribute it to L, in ‘Song of Solomon’ we can attribute it to Pilate. Critics contend that the ancestor character is most explicitly spelt out and dealt with in the following works: ‘Tar Baby,’ ‘Beloved’ and ‘Jazz’ (ibid.). This short essay concerns itself with the possibility of Zechariah being the ancestor character in ‘Paradise,’ it also suggests that because gender not race is the key theme of this work, the ancestor element is possibly less important and thus, less prevalent.
Morrison asserts that the ancestor is one of the distinctive elements of Afro-American writing (2008 61) and terms them “timeless people” (62). The timeless status implies the ancestors’ abstractness and their ability to transcend both time and space, diachronically as well as synchronically. In Morrison’s understanding, the particular ancestors coalesce into an abstract mass whose influence on the present is marked, regardless of the times or eras the individual ancestors originate in. Such characters in Morrison’s magic-realist style function as advisor and guide. by always (or is it almost always?) including ancestor figures into her work she enables these “culture bearers” to serve as, “a bridging point between the past and present cultures, mixing the two and influencing the communities through their understanding” (Kota 2016 2).
‘Paradise’ is primarily concerned with two communities: the residents of the small town of Ruby and an old stately home called the Convent in the nearby countryside (Widdowson 2001 314). ‘Paradise’ begins with a group of men from Ruby prepare to kill five women who live in a nearby convent (Krumholz 2002). From the men’s perspectives, the women, like Eve, embody a loss of innocence and an ejection from the Garden of Eden, the earthly Paradise, a loss the men fear and wish to prevent. But as hunted does anointed with “holy oil,” the women are also Christ-like sacrificial victims and the men their executioners (Krumholz). After the massacre of the five women of the Convent by the men of Ruby, their bodies disappear, and the residents of Ruby are then obligated to make sense of the attack and the subsequent strange disappearances—“all the characters in the novel are haunted by past events” (Anderson 2008 146).
The Convent can be viewed as a kind informal women’s refuge. a kind of informal refuge for damaged women. This complicated work of magic-realist fiction is broken down into chapters named after the work’s key protagonists—e.g., “Mavis,” “Grace,” “Seneca.” All key characters are women and include, Gigi, a seductive young woman whose boyfriend is in jail; Seneca, a hitchhiker who has survived abandonment and sexual exploitation; Pallas, a wealthy lawyer’s daughter whose lover left her for her mother” (Kakutani 1998). For the characters of Morrison’s novel to “learn to live,” one literary critic argues they must, “negotiate borders not only between life and death and past and present but between all binaries” (Anderson 148). In ‘Paradise’ Morrison, “privileges liminality, as the Convent women, erased and negatively “ghosted” by the larger society, find empowerment through their communal spiritual experiences in the Convent” (ibid). . . .
. . . Before considering the ancestor role in this work, we must focus more on gender. Why? Well because the focus on gender, reduced the need for and focus on the ancestor role. Whereas earlier Morrison novels like ‘Beloved’ and ‘Song of Solomon’ married the historical and the mythic, the mundane and the fantastic into a seamless piece of music, ‘Paradise’ is said to be, “devoid of both urgency and narrative sleight of hand. It is neither grounded in closely observed vignettes of real life, nor lofted by the dreamlike images the author has used so dexterously in previous works of fiction” (Kakutani 1998). However, it might be because this book is less about the Afro(-American) ancestor and more about gender inequality. Regarding the theme or the subtext, it has been argued that Morrison is saying that, “the price of Ruby’s insistence on maintaining a morally superior master narrative may well be the sacrifice of that very narrative. Rather than a perfect paradise, Ruby ends up as a conservative, patriarchal, thoroughly racialized, and violent community” (Dalsgård 2001).
There is another view on the subtext, it is that Paradise is a. “provocative allegory of nationhood… it begins in July of 1976-the bicentennial of the United States… it is no coincidence that these men are black, and that the first woman they kill is white. When one reads the novel allegorically, as a reconfiguration of the founding of the United States, Morrison’s vision of totalising patriarchal historiography takes on double weight. Storace 1998; Davidson 2001 371). The novel ends (frustratingly and one must say intentionally) before we the readership can know the consequences of the massacre. But we do know what Misner thinks of it all, he inwardly chastises the town for thinking, “they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him… [this is a great thinking point placed here by Morrison:] How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it” (306). It is argued that Ruby, for Misner was an unnecessary failure (Davidson 370).
We first come across the character: Zechariah Morgan on page 96 of ‘Paradise’ (or as subsequently Morrison wished it had been titled “paradise” or alternatively “War”):
“My Father,” he said. “Zechariah here.” Then, after a few seconds of total silence, he began to hum the sweetest, saddest sounds Rector ever heard. Rector joined Big Papa on his knees and stayed that way all night.
What is in a hum? Nothing and everything. We can think of Pilate in ‘Song of Solomon’ to get some guidance here—it is this bellybuttonless ladies’ hum that opened and closed that book. Turning back to our Zechariah Morgan, he is the one who tells us about leading a group of people away from Louisiana toward Oklahoma. Being “too black” to be accepted into various communities along the way, this “disallowing gives them the impetus to migrate westward to establish their own town, Haven (Oki 2013 41)—recall that the character Mavis is headed West too to escape the chains of her husband to the promised lands of California. These basically forced migrations often noted in Morrison’s fiction have been linked by literary critics to the bible’s myth of “Exodus.”
It is Zechariah who talks about a mysterious “walking man” and says this is a moment of epiphany, a kind of revelation (Oki). Zechariah says of this incident, “you can’t start it and you can’t stop it” because, “this is god’s time… [god ain’t gunna] do your work for you, so step lively.” (Morrison 1994, 97–98). At the core of the history and its retelling are the figure of Zechariah Morgan as the link with the ancestor and the oven as a symbol of the ancestral ideas and stories (The Ancestor as Figure in the novels of Toni Morrison 128). It can be argued that the oven that Zechariah constructs in Haven and is then transported to Ruby is symbolic of the community and the fire that they gather around to pass on oral stories. As is mentioned, “Zechariah, the ancestral guardian of the 8-rock community, guides the original wayfarers in their search for the promised land” (ibid.).
To sum up, we can say that Morrison, in most, if not all of her books, seeks to champion the idea that being aware of one’s roots (one’s history in both cultural and ethnic senses) will have more importance to one’s success in life (be this inner contentment or being a good citizen) than would say ignoring the past and/or relying for the most part on self-help books et cetera. As has been said, the relationship between character and ancestor, in Morrison’s prose, “antagonistic or amicable, directly correlates with that character’s success in navigating life” (Beaulieu 5) Milkman’s shifting relationship with his (ancestor character) Aunt Pilate provides a great case study. Regarding ‘Paradise’ I think that Zechariah fits the bill, so to speak, of the ancestor character. It is not as clear cut as in other novels, but ‘Paradise’ maybe had a more contemporary subtext message which may have been less about rootedness and more about feminism.
— § —
 In West African mythology the ancestors live on in a spiritual continuum between worlds and generations. It is articulated as follows: “While anyone has the power to tap into the energies of the ancestors [it is typically the elders of the community that do this in order to] ensure that subsequent generations understand the importance of the ancestors … Morrison modifies this use of the ancestor and transforms it into a literary device that explores the manifold ways in which characters relate to their ancestors and, by extension, their communities” (Beaulieu 2003 4–7).
 Zechariah is a historic character linked to the bible’s Old Testament and is thought to have helped pen the ‘Book of Zechariah’. What might be interesting and explain why Morrison chose this name for the (or one of the) ancestor figure(s) in ‘Paradise’ was because of Zechariah’s circumstances. He was said to have been in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) during the reign of Darius the Great in the era when the Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem (think: Africans forcibly transferred from Africa to the heart of America as a consequence of the slave ships) and were being encouraged to build (temporary) homes in lands they’d not originated from (think: Haven then Ruby).
 As is argued, the convent is depicted as a liminal space in which, “the monolithic categories of religion, race, class, and gender converge and make cultural hybridity possible,” this is in stark contrast to Ruby and its men who, “perceive hybridity as a disruptive evil which threatens their sense of selfhood and nationhood” (Fraile-Marcos 2003 4). To be clear here, in an anthropological (and maybe to cognitive and psychological sense) liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that takes place in the middle stage of a rite of passage. French philosopher Jacques Derrida said that if learning to live is to be achieved, “it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone” (Anderson 146). In a liminal state of mind, the concerned individual—or protagonist in a work of fiction—will no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete; a stage between text and subtext, between conscious and unconscious:
 To expand on this point more fully: “By making Ruby’s success dependent on an ancestral heroic commemoration of the success of the community’s founding fathers in establishing a covenanted community in an inhospitable western landscape, by dramatising the angry accusations made by the community’s contemporary patriarchs against the younger generations when the discrepancy between its morally superior master narrative and its actual cultural practices becomes too vast to ignore, and by ultimately having Ruby scapegoat a group of unconventional women for its internal problems, Morrison invites us critically to acknowledge the presence of one of the most canonical European American narratives—that of American exceptionalism, in African American discourse”(Dalsgård 2001 244).
— § —
Anderson, Melanie R. “‘What Would Be on the Other Side?”: Spectrality and Spirit Work in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” African American Review, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 307–321. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40301213. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann (Ed.). The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, (2003).
Dalsgård, Katrine. “The One All-Black Town Worth the Pain: (African) American Exceptionalism, Historical Narration, and the Critique of Nationhood in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” African American Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 233–248. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2903255. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Davidson, Rob. “Racial Stock and 8-Rocks: Communal Historiography in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 47, no. 3, 2001, pp. 355–373. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3176022. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Fraile-Marcos, Ana Maria. “Hybridizing the “City upon a Hill” in Toni Morrison’s “Paradise”.” Melus, vol. 28, no. 4, 2003, pp. 3–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/3595298
Widdowson, Peter. “The American Dream Refashioned: History, Politics and Gender in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Journal of American Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 313–335. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/27556969. Accessed 19 July 2020.
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.)
In this summary and analysis of Song of Solomon, I’ll point to the following:
But first I shall dwell a bit on “Song of Solomon,” 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. [breasts] 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.
“Song of Solomon” Digested
01. — Key facts & Characters
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.
02. — Synopsis
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.
03. — Analysis
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.
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.
❝ 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.
Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature — by Toni Morrison
❝ I planned to call this paper “Canon Fodder,” because the term put me in mind of a kind of trained muscular response that appears to be on display in some areas of the recent canon debate. Also I liked the clash and swirl of those two words. At first they reminded me of that host of young men — black or “ethnics” or poor or working-class — who left high school for the war in Vietnam and were perceived by war resisters as “fodder.” Indeed many of those who went, as well as those who returned, were treated as one of that word’s definitions: “coarse food for livestock,” or, in the context of my thoughts about the subject of this paper, a more applicable definition: “people considered as readily available and of little value.” Rude feed to feed the war machine. There was also the play of cannon and canon. The etymology of the first includes tube, cane, or cane-like, reed. Of the second, sources include rod becoming body of law, body of rules, measuring rod. When the two words faced each other, the image became the shape of the cannon wielded on (or by) the body of law. The boom of power announcing an “officially recognized set of texts.” Cannon defending canon, you might say. And without any etymological connection I heard father in fodder, and sensed father in both cannon and canon, ending up with “father food.” And what does this father eat? Readily available people/texts of little value. But I changed my mind (so many have used the phrase) and hope to make clear the appropriateness of the one I settled on. –
My purpose here is to observe the panoply of this most recent and most anxious series of questions concerning what should or does constitute a literary canon in order to suggest ways of addressing the Afro-American presence in American Literature that require neither slaughter nor reification — views that may spring the whole literature of an entire nation from the solitude into which it has been locked. There is something called American literature that, according to conventional wisdom, is certainly not Chicano literature, or Afro-American literature, or Asian-American, or Native American, or… It is somehow separate from them and they from it, and in spite of the efforts of recent literary histories, restructured curricula, and anthologies, this separate confinement, be it breached or endorsed, is the subject of a large part of these debates. Although the terms used, like the vocabulary of earlier canon debates, refer to literary and/or humanistic value, aesthetic criteria, value-free or socially anchored readings, the contemporary battle plain is most often understood to be the claims of others against the white male origins and definitions of those values; whether those definitions reflect an eternal, universal, and transcending paradigm or whether they constitute a disguise for a temporal, political, and culturally specific program. ❞ Read the full essay…
Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” (1988).
❝ Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all. ❞
❝ Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. ❞
❝ Something that is loved is never lost. ❞
One&Only You are the only one for me
The Love of Paris and Helen By Jacques-Louis David (1788)
No one No one else compares to you
Ovid was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus. He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, with whom he is often ranked as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature.
Love can kill
Love can save
& now, some poetry
The following five poems were all penned by Toni Morrison. In my humble opinion, amongst other things, they talk of love (“Once more you know / You will never die again”), sexual awakening (“fruit that had lost its green” / “Red cherries become jam”), identity and place (“the fish mistake my hair for home”).
I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.
My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple
Fire red and humming.
I bit sweet power to the core.
How can I say what it was like?
The taste! The taste undid my eyes
And led me far from the gardens planted for a child
To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call. 2
Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;
Lips forget what they have kissed.
My eyes now pool their light
Better the summit to see. 3
I would do it all over again:
Be the harbor and set the sail,
Loose the breeze and harness the gale,
Cherish the harvest of what I have been.
Better the summit to scale.
Better the summit to be. ❞
“The Perfect Ease of Grain”
❝ The perfect ease of grain
Time enough to spill
The flavor of a woman carried through the rain. –
Down home dreams
A rushed by shapely prayer.
Evening lips part to hush
Questions raised at dawn. –
The melon yields another slice.
Ecstasy becomes us all.
Red cherries become jam. –
Deep juvenile sleep
A whistle trace
White shorelines in green air.
Welcome doors held open
When goodbye is “So long.” –
The perfect poise of grain
Time enough to spill
The flavor of a woman remembered on a train. ❞
“Someone Leans Near”
❝ Someone leans near
And sees the salt your eyes have shed. –
You wait, longing to hear
Words of reason, love or play
To lash or lull you toward the hollow day. –
Silence kneads your fear
Of crumbled star-ash sifting down
Clouding the rooms here, here. –
You shore up your heart to run. To stay.
But no sign or design marks the narrow way. –
Then on your skin a breath caresses
The salt your eyes have shed. –
And you remember a call clear, so clear
“You will never die again.” –
Once more you know
You will never die again. ❞
“It Comes Unadorned”
❝ It comes
Like a phrase
Strong enough to cast a spell;
Like the turn of sun through hills
Or stars in wheels of song.
The jeweled feet of women dance the earth.
Arousing it to spring.
Shoulders broad as a road bend to share the weight of years.
Profiles breach the distance and lean
Toward an ordinary kiss.
It comes naked into the world like a charm. ❞
I Am Not Seaworthy”
❝ I am not seaworthy.
Look how the fish mistake my hair for home.
I had a life, like you. I shouldn’t be riding the sea.
I am not seaworthy.
Let me be earth bound; star fixed
Mixed with sun and smacking air.
Give me the smile, the magic kiss
To trick little boy death of my hand.
I am not seaworthy. Look how the fish mistake my hair for home. ❞