Biblical Names in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
The use of Biblical names in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon signals the growth of the protagonist from an isolated child-like man into a fully realized human being who has taken a place in the history of his family and by extension his people. In the final chapters when Milkman Dead learns his origins, the book becomes reminiscent of both Biblical genealogy records and Alex Haley’s book Roots which had become a watershed event in African American history, inspiring many to trace their family trees. When the Bible puts forth a list of ancestors and descendants, it is not just putting forth names. It is preserving the power of names in creating a non-destructive cultural identity. In the story of Exodus, the Hebrew slaves are not just slaves to be freed. They are descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in a family dynasty grounded in a mission set forth by God. In fact, the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus is Shemot which is translated as Names due to the opening chapter concerning the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob) who went down to Egypt.
The book frequently plays with names – Biblical and otherwise – often for ironic purposes. Even the title of the book is a reference to one of the most “secular” books of the Bible in which earthly love is aptly described with passages like: “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” (KJV, Song of Solomon, 1:2) and the main “plot” if there can be said to be a plot is a couple of narrators fawning over each other in a series of poetic passages. A key passage in that book for the purposes of this paper states: “I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.” (KJV, Song of Solomon, 1:5) The doubling of these passages with the song of the title which is the literal song of an ancestor of Milkman paints the picture of a mythic love affair in which the longing and the desires of the couple from the Biblical book are metaphor for the longing and the desire for a peoplehood which is non-destructive and a source of strength.
“Names in Song of Solomon are deeply implicated in issues of narrativity: this is a story about naming, and its character frequently bear names which denote their narrative function.” (Fletcher 405) This paper will explore certain names used by Toni Morrison throughout the text as she unveils the life of her protagonist in order to explore the roles of African Americans in the United States. For the purposes of brevity, I will concentrate on Ruth, Milkman, Guitar, Pilate and Circe.
Ruth FosterRuth Foster is the first character with a Biblical name introduced into the narrative and she shares a name with the Biblical Ruth. In the Biblical story, Ruth is a Moabite who joins the nation of Israel after her Israelite husband dies and her mother-in-law returns to Israel. In the course of the story, she catches the eye of a distant relative of her dead husband, Boaz and goes to him when he is sleeping on the threshing floor. The scene of Ruth at the foot of Boaz is one of intense debate since “uncovering of feet” can also be a double entendre as the Hebrew word for feet “regel” is also the same word for penis. Many scholars attempt to mitigate the story by stating that it was literally feet; however, the Bible was written in a different time period when romantic stories could involve sensuality without discord. Regardless, the book ends with Ruth and Boaz married and their first child is born. This child would eventually beget several other children until her great grandson King David.
In essence, the Biblical Ruth is both a caregiver and a source of dispute and possible sexual aggressiveness. Depending on the interpretation, she is either a virtuous woman driven by the love of God to become part of Israel even in a low position or she is a sexually aggressive woman who understands her low place in the social order and schemes her way into a better position with the help of her mother-in-law. This dual nature translates into the character of Ruth Foster who is the maternal character but also a woman with a strange attachment to the men in her life. From the beginning of the book, Milkman Dead is considered a joke to the people around him. His mother Ruth Foster is a woman who takes pleasure in breast feeding Milkman long after he should be weaned. She describes the act of breast-feeding one of the two acts from which she derives pleasure. When Freddie the janitor sees Ruth nursing her son, he immediately renames Milkman from his original name Macon III to the nickname that would connote a child who never stops nursing. The passage is particularly damaging as Freddie is a notorious gossip and “carried his discovery not only into the homes in Ruth’s neighborhood, but to Southside, where he lived and where Macon Dead owned rent houses. So Ruth kept close to home and had no afternoon guests for the better part of two months, to keep from hearing that her son had been rechristened with a name he was never able to shake and that did nothing to improve either one’s relationship with his father.” (15)
Shortly thereafter, Ruth is depicted as engaging in a monstrous act with her father that invokes necrophilia and incest. According to Milkman’s father, he found her “laying next to him. Naked as a yard dog, kissing him. Him dead and white and puffy and skinny and she had his fingers in her mouth.” (73) The character of Ruth in the book most embodies her Biblical counterpart at this point since her action may be affectionate and mournful from her perspective, but others like Macon can construe the action as something sinister and perverse. In many ways, she is a woman defined by her loss. Her absent father looms large in both her memory and the memory of the community. Even though he was a pompous doctor who was not liked, his memory is kept alive by his former street of residence being called No Doctor Street. Macon ignores Ruth and in essence is Ruth-less (ruthless) in all of his business dealings. Ruth’s actions are the actions of a woman who is unwanted and needs consolation. Pilate at one point describes her as “dying of lovelessness.” (151) In the character of Ruth, the sacrificing nature of the biblical character is rendered desperate and monstrous. As Soophia Ahmad states: “in Ruth Foster Dead, Morrison creates a black woman whose life is meaningless because she makes no attempt to justify her existence. She is immensely passive and terribly apathetic toward her own self.” (60) Like the biblical Ruth, she is cut off from her community and unable to identify with the community itself. Unlike the biblical Ruth she cannot find a new community in which to. Ahmad says: “She has already become a stranger to her own family, and a permanent alien in the black community to which she rightfully belongs.” (61)
Milkman is most profoundly affected by the actions of his mother Ruth. However, his name denotes an impossible isolation in several ways. Milkman was the name that was given to him when his mother was caught nursing him long after he should have been weaned. The name is a joke that resonates throughout his life as a Momma’s Boy. It also successfully describes the poor relationship that he has with his father. Not only does he not use the name that he was given by his father but he takes on a name that permanently suggests that he is being nursed by his emotionally unstable mother.
However, the birth name of Macon Dead III also offers some problems. In a passage that appears to parody Biblical accounts of families, the family history is put forth as “Macon Dead who begat a second Macon Dead who married Ruth Foster (Dead) and begat Magdalene called Lena Dead and First Corinthians Dead and (when he least expected it) another Macon Dead, now known to the world as Milkman Dead.” (18) Note that both Magdalene and First Corinthians are New Testament books of the Bible less concerned with the historical importance than the position in the stories. Mary Magdalene is an incidental character in the life of Jesus while First Corinthians is not even a proper name but a letter to a particular church written by the Apostle Paul.
The most telling part of this naming is the way in which Macon Dead is a name passed on over three generations when the original “Macon Dead” was simply named because of a misunderstanding. Milkman’s grandfather, Jacob, states that his father was born in Macon and thus the census taker puts down his name as Macon. When the bureaucrat asks him for the name of his father he says that his father is dead and thus the family name is Dead. With a family name meaning Dead, the family is literally and figuratively cut off from its history. The “man whose name is changed to Macon Dead is murdered, and his descendants transfixed in a spiritual death.” (Fletcher 205) By denying the names of the ancestors, the narrative places them in a category of simply dead. Instead of anyone begetting anyone else in an unbroken chain leading back to a prime ancestor, the ancestors are simply dead.
Milkman does not know his ancestry and the only reason why he seeks it in the first place is a search for gold.
One of the most frustrating things about Milkman Dead’s character is the fact that like his mother he is a rather passive character. Much of his action involves reacting to other characters. In many ways, he is our tour guide through the diametrically opposed values of Pilate and Guitar. It is only when he learns his family line complete with stories of the ancestors before the original orphaned Macon Dead that he becomes an active participant. His final summation is a triumph even as it may doom him: “Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees-he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For he knew what Shalimer knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” (337)
In Macon Dead’s world, two major influences keep appearing in order to lead Milkman through his journey and actually push him in the world. Their names are aptly metaphorical and illustrate their positions in the story and African American history. Guitar Bains often appears as a demonic character but with a power that Milkman cannot access. Instead of having a Biblical name, Guitar’s name is a musical instrument and a musical instrument that was extremely important in African American musical tropes throughout the 20th century. The guitar is a stringed instrument that you can play as you sing. In the 20th century, Americans were cut off from their family trees by immigration and movement. In record numbers, Americans and African Americans left their family homes in order to make new lives in the urban centers. Instead of the family homes with family names in which everyone not only knew a person but also the ancestry, people were individuals without histories who rarely stayed in touch with their past.
In the absence of a local history in order to create a communal life, Americans turned to popular culture. American stories became lurid news stories, tales of musicians and movie stars. People who could not tell you where their grandparents came from with any reasonable degree of certainty can recite the complete history of the Beatles from Liverpool to John Lennon’s murder in New York, complete with opinions about Pete Best, Yoko Ono and Ringo Star. For better or worse, in the absence of a biblical or epic poetry, Americans have a shared mythology based upon pop culture including music.
Guitar’s name invokes 20th Century African American life in which music was one of the few points of entry into mainstream acceptability. His name is not so much a name as a tool used by African Americans and later white musicians in order to create the American system. There are several guitar players that the name invokes but the two most mythological ones are Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson. Jimi Hendrix changed the way the guitar sounded and played a version of The Star Spangled Banner that pushed against the normal boundaries of what the song should sound like and defined sixties music before dying at the age of 27. Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to play brilliant music. After putting out a few blues recordings that would prove definitive, he drank poisoned whiskey and died in a bar.
In invoking these kinds of stories and histories, Guitar is both vivid and dangerous. Furthermore, Guitar is cut off from the past. His parents are gone. Milkman’s father evicted his father. He befriends Milkman early in the book and defends him. However, Guitar is capable of great violence and it is his main way of interacting with the world. Shortly after Guitar explains the purpose of the Seven Days group, Milkman has a revelation. “Guitar could kill, would kill, and probably had killed. The Seven Days was the consequence of this ability, but not its origin.” (210)
The revelation comes from a look of pure hatred that Guitar gives to Pilate, Macon’s aunt. Pilate engenders Guitar’s hatred by explaining the bones that she took from the cave that supposedly contains the family gold. She says: “You can’t take a like and walk off and leave it. Life if life. Precious. And the dead you kill is yours. They stay with you anyway, in your mind. So it’s a better thing, a more better thing to have the bones right there with you wherever you go.” (208) Pilate takes her role as the storyteller and keeper of family history. It is this justification of her bag of bones that makes Guitar so angry since his militancy is about revolution.
As Ahmad states: “Pilate is possessive only about her bag of bones, her geography book, the rocks she has collected from each place she visited during her twenty years of wandering, and her name which she wears in an earring made out of her mother’s brass snuff box. These objects, and the owner’s reverence toward them, indicate her strong ties to her past, and her veneration of the culture that has shaped her.” (66) Pilate represents veneration for the past that leads Milkman Dead on his journey.
Pilate is a mythological character in her own right. Even though her name invokes Pontius Pilate, the governor who crucified Jesus and washed his hands of the action, she is also a modern invention as the major name in the theme of the book which is flying. Much of the book speaks about flight as a path to freedom and often Pilate speaks of flying in a way that will preconfigure the revelation of Milkman’s ancestor Solomon flying back to Africa.
However, Pilate goes beyond her name and her character becomes an Eve character as she has no navel. When Circe appears, she states that Pilate “borned herself.” (244) The absence of a navel reflects a theological debate concerning the bodies of Adam and Eve which many argued were without navels. (Sims 220) Pilate is a mystical figure throughout the book representing both Western religion in the Eve form and Africa as Macon II states “if you ever have a doubt we from Africa, look at Pilate.” (54) The navel is a scar from the umbilical cord being cut from the past and with a connection to the ancestry. Yet Pilate also connects to the long lost past. As Heyman states, she is “not fully connected to her entire past, yet not disconnected like her brother and sister-in-law?” (386)
In many ways, Pilate represents Eden and her name places her at the beginning at the end of the scriptural paths of salvation. Pilate’s body is a representative of Eden in which she is akin to Eve, the first woman who would give birth to all other humans. Her emergence from the cave with a bag of bones instead of gold places her in a position of faithful adherence to a familial integrity. While Pontius Pilate was the governor that executed Jesus, the story of the Gospels hinges upon Jesus being crucified in order to take away the sins of the world and experience resurrection. There is a wealth of possibility in life as the strongest character. According to Reed, she “transcends…gender-related oppression…She can not only support and live happily within a woman-centered environment but she can also accept the love of men without being devastated by its absence” (58).
The character of Circe is particularly compelling since her name is mythological, yet not biblical. Circe is the name of the witch in the Odyssey who turns all of Odysseus’ men into pigs and provides the final way station for Odysseus before he goes home. She even has a cow named Ulysses S. Grant as well as several animals named after personages in the Civil War. After the first Macon Dead is murdered, Pilate and Macon II go to her. “Bewildered and grieving, they went to the house of the closest colored person they knew: Circe, the midwife who had delivered them both and who was there when their mother died and when Pilate was named.” (166)
Unlike most of the characters whose name includes a double meaning complete with irony, Circe seems true to her name as the transformative powerful creature who plays the role in Milkman’s completion as a human being. Judith Fletcher notes that: “Milkman’s episode with [Circe] has been, despite his disappointed expectations, a transformative experience. She is a liminal figure who mediates between death and life, but she also sits at the portal between two stories, not only the two sections of the novel, but also the novel and the epic tradition. Under her direction time for Milkman has folded in on itself: he experiences a reversal of the birth process and is then reborn,” (414)
Once Circe enters the book as a character, the narrative stops being about Milkman’s search for a bag of gold and turns into the quest for a generation of people to recapture their abundant past despite the efforts of the dominant culture to the contrary. Circe is a housekeeper and a midwife. This makes her into a mistress of homesteads and birth. In many ways, she is reminiscent of Aunt Esther from several August Wilson plays who is an off-stage presence that is mentioned as a woman who is over 300 years old and is often consulted by the characters in all of his plays despite the fact that they take place throughout the 20th century.
Soophia Ahmad states that: “She gives a new birth to him because she motivates him to discover the real names of his people and places—all of which are an integral part of him and his identity. She teaches him to cherish who he is and where he comes from. It is with her figurative, mythical touch that she subtly wipes away the sheen of complacence and uncaring that shrouds his being like the amniotic fluid—and a new, awed, yet wiser Milkman emerges.” (71) Upon seeing Circe, Milkman has discovered himself as a part of a chain of ancestors and descendants. He becomes the part of a large family that is the greater story. Upon seeing Circe, Pilate can die in the knowledge that she undersood her father’s words even as Milkman has become a complete human being.
In conclusion, the names that Morrison uses in her novel incorporate several perspectives in mythology and storytelling traditions. The names invoke modern myth-making, gossip, biblical references, double meanings and Greek epics. The characters both embody and fight against their roles as stated in the names. The tension between the meaning of the name and the choices the characters make in regard to their names create compelling identities.
Ahmad, Soophia. “Women who make a Man: Female Protagonists in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Atenea. (December 2008). 28(2), p59-73.
Fletcher, Judith. ”Signifying Circe in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” The Classical World. Sumer 2006. 99(4). Pp 405-418.
Heyman, Richard. “Universalization and its Discontents: Morrison’s Song of Solomon – a (W)hol(e)y Black Text. African American Review. Autumn, 1995. 29(3). P381-392. King James Bible. Cambridge Edition.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Penguin. 1987.
Reed, Harry. “Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon and Black Cultural Nationalism.” The Centennial Review 32 (1988): 50-64. Sims, Michael. Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form (London and NY: Penguin, 2003)
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