Song of Solomon
The Emotional Burden of Identity in Song of Solomon
Was Milkman destined to fly? Possibly he was just bound to the existence of flight? This is the choice that Toni Morrison has offered to the readers. From the very beginning Milkman is brought into the world under a confusing cloud and he lives a life seems to be one that’s destined for strife. By the end of the story Toni Morrison sort of leaves us with a “choose your own ending” kind of situation. Which may feel the reader feeling sort of empty inside but it actually enhances the joy of the story because it allows the reader to become involved in some sort of way. Proof of the impact of Zora Neale Hurston (prominent African American author in the late 19th and early 20th century) is sprinkled generously all throughout the story. Not just about folklore and mythology, Song of Solomon is overflowing with the cool, hard actualities of the real world. The question however still remains. Did Milkman really end up airborne or would he say he was just a man, attempting to escape reality?
Song Of Solomon was actually influenced by a folktale called All God’s Chillun Had Wings. According to this story long ago all Africans could fly. Through wrongdoing eventually they had lost that mighty power. However, sometimes some people could shake off the heaviness of their sins and be able to take flight once again. Whether or not Africans could really fly is a decision that is left to the readers but the real message that Toni Morrison is trying to portray inside of Song Of Solomon is that you have to learn to overcome your mistakes to really know how to “fly”.
Denise Heinz says in her book what she calls the “Double Conciouness” of Toni Morrison, as an “endeavour to understand how self and identity are affected by society” (Heinze 14). It’s not only Milkman who is searching for an identity, it’s also the people that are around who are just as confused as he is. The meaning of having an identity seems to be something that not a lot of people are able to grasp inside the novel because they aren’t being true to themselves and always have an ulterior motive. The people that do try to find it are to afraid of the consequences that may arise once the truth is revealed about themselves. Instead they choose to be content with the life there currently living and carry on in an unexplored world.
Song Of Solomon is basically a massive game to find oneself. As Milkman uncovers signs that will eventually lead to the big prize. Set inside the depths of black culture, the story starts in 1931 and moves rapidly to the exceedingly unpredictable sixties. As he continued looking for prize, Milkman reveals the genuine fortune, his past. This information opens the mystery of his own personality. The phantoms of the past, clarify the general population of the present. Right then and there, the mystery of life turns out to be obvious to him.
As mentioned before, even preceding his conception into the world there was evidence that Milkman was going to have this emotional burden on his shoulders which would follow him around till the day he finally found the answer. He was born into a family as disbanded and fake as the velvet flower petals his mom dropped with her first labor pains. As the velvet petals drop to the ground, the Robert Smith spreads his wings and flies from Mercy. The flight proves to be a failure despite the fact that Pilate attempts to ‘sing’ him into the air. The demise of Mr. Smith, and the disarray at Mercy (called No Mercy) Hospital enables Macon III to be the colored child inside those segregated white halls.
Macon III (Milkman) is born into the fittingly named Dead family. The reason why the name is perfect is because everyone that resides inside of that household might as well be dead, due to the inability of living their own independent lives. Due to the total lack of communication all the Dead residence as their name implies has no atmosphere and everyone inside the house is in a sort of a standstill. They refuse to talk about the past, refuse to acknowledge there current situation, and also refuse to think about what’s next in life. All together this leads all of them isolated from the outside world in there own unique ways.
Ruth is, in all regards a widow. Her significant other won’t touch her, holds her in hatred, and also rarely recognizes her existence. Magdalene also called Lena has her very own issues and makes flowers to distract herself from falling into despair. First Corinthians receives letters that validate herelf. Milkman receives a nickname that becomes oddly due to the fact that he sucked on his mother’s breast after an appropriate age. A connection from that can be made to his behavior around other people as he is quite immature and doesn’t understand that it isn’t appropriate to act like that. The main reason behind such despair in the Dead household is the man of the house Macon Jr. He cuts not only himself but his entire family from the outside world all because he wants to be the one who controls everything in his own little world.
The only person that bears the last name Dead who’s genuinely living their life to the fullest is Pilates. On first glance she looks as very shabby and what most would consider “low class”. Once you get to know the character her image is completely reversed. We learn that she cares little about physical appearance and that she is a kind hearted women who always the “voice of reason” who was a lot of wisdom to pass onto the younger generation. Even Milkman who is oblivious to most people around describes Pilates “as poor as everyone said she was, something was missing from her eyes that should have confirmed it. Nor was she dirty; unkempt, yes, but not dirty” (38). When Milkman looked at her in the eyes he knew this wasn’t just any ordinary person. The truth was instead of ignoring the situation going on around her like most people, Pilate decided to tackle the issue head on without any fear thus giving her not only a sense of identity, but access to everything life has to offer.
This something that only draws Milkman but many people towards Pilates, because they too want to possess similar abilities. Macon Jr as her younger brother knows all too well about this power. He describes Pilates as ‘a snake, and can charm you like a snake, but still a snake’. Macon Jr dislikes his sister as he does not approve of her way of living life. In contrast to Pilate, who has earned her way on the planet by buckling down and continuing on, Macon acquired his underlying riches through Ruth. Two characters that blindly live for other people are the mother daughter pairing of Reba and Hagar. Reba who had only lived to make her daughter happy and spoiled her to no end is not only upset and shocked by her daughters passing, it’s as though she herself doesn’t exist anymore. Even during the funeral she made no claim of being Hagar’s mother. She left everything to Pilate and silently faded into the background.
Hagar on the other hand, only lived for Milkman. When Milkman eventually got tired of Hagar she tried everything to win him back even trying to become a whole new person. Hagar losing Milkman is actually similar to another piece of literature in Hamlet where the heroine Ophelia lost Hamlet. Another similarity is also found inside the Bible where the woman in question is also named Hagar. She’s a servant who birthed Abraham’s son and was then subsequently thrown out of the house. All these characters have one thing in common thought, after being used they were abandoned to try and couldn’t recover due to the fact they were fully immersed into their significant other and unfortunately couldn’t step back into a “normal” life.
A character who went from sensible to a man who people who knew him before could barely recognize is Guitar. He appears to have completely lost his humanity,what once was a sweet boy who cared about his friends well being is no more. He is now motivated by rage, greed and revenge and according to Pilates he has a “jeweled hatred in his eyes” (210). Guitar doesn’t realize how far he has gone for the sake of “Justice” and that’s the scary part. At the point when compelled to stand up to his own madness, he can’t do it and decides to embrace the madness instead. What he fails to understand is what how far into madness he has gone which would end being the reason behind why he lost himself.
Part II of Morrison’s novel is inspired by Homer’s ancient Greek epic the Odyssey. Much like the Odyssey, in which Odysseus makes his way home after twenty years of warring and traveling, Part II of Song of Solomon describes the hero’s quest to come home. As we learn, even though Milkman was born and grew up in Michigan, his home lies elsewhere—in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Nevertheless, Milkman’s journey follows Odysseus’s and at times Morrison alerts us to this parallel with obvious references. In Homer’s epic, Circe is the enchantress who keeps Odysseus on her island for a year but then helps him on his journey home. Likewise, in Morrison’s novel, Circe points Milkman to Macon Dead I’s birthplace and tells him his grandparents’ original names, thus helping Milkman reach his ancestral home. Critic Sandra Adell gives an alternative explanation of Circe’s role in Song of Solomon. She offers that Circe is also the ancient Greek goddess of the omphalos, or navel. Consequently, argues Adell, Circe acts out her mythical role, her help serving as an umbilical cord that reconnects Milkman with a forgotten past. With Milkman’s past and present now presented to him. His whole view on the world changes and he can finally function in normal society. This is finally the thing he needed to open up his wings and truly start learning how to fly.
The Main Themes Present in Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Macon Dead II, the father of Milkman and husband to Ruth Foster, has been traumatized by watching his father be mistreated and eventually murdered during a brawl over the family farm. “Your father was a slave?” “What kind of foolish question is that? Course he was. Who hadn’t been in 1869? They all had to register. Free and not free. Free and used-to-be-slaves. Papa was in his teens and went to sign up, but the man behind the desk was drunk. He asked Papa where he was born. Papa said Macon. Then he asked him who his father was. Papa said, ‘He’s dead.’ Asked him who owned him, Papa said, ‘I’m free.’ Well, the Yankee wrote it all down, but in the wrong spaces” (Morrison 99).
The way that Macon responds to Milkman at the beginning is probably due to how much this situation has scared him. He has had to see his father go through so much pain and suffering even after slavery had been abolished. The amount of disrespect that they must have had towards the entire African-American community to make both free and used-to-be-slaves register. What was the purpose of them registering? This kind of disrespectful behavior is what resulted in the misnaming of Macon which caused him to have the wrong last name, “Dead”. The word Yankee is often used to describe the good guy in American History. The soldiers that served during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II are often referred to as heroes and rightfully so. However, the fact that this Yankee soldier is drunk, being very disrespectful and not caring about the information that he is putting onto Macon’s forms, shows the side of the United States history that is not told to the public.
Guitar Bains, Milkman’s best friend, has had a lifelong hatred for white people. He sees them as the main cause for all of the evil in the world. Bain has a hatred for Macon Dead II, Milkman’s father for charging them too much rent and causing a great deal of pain for him and his family. “Since I was little. Since my father got sliced up in a sawmill and his boss came by and gave us kids some candy. Divinity. A big sack of divinity. His wife made it special for us. It’s sweet, divinity is. Sweeter than syrup. Real sweet. Sweeter than…” He stopped walking and wiped from his forehead the beads of sweat that were collecting there. His eyes paled and wavered. He spit on the sidewalk. “Ho—hold it,” he whispered, and stepped into a space between a fried-fish restaurant and Lilly’s Beauty Parlor” (Morrison 112).
Guitar is explaining to to Milkman why he despises sweet foods so much. Those childhood memories have made an enormous impact on Bains behaviors. Despite the abolishment of slavery in 1865, African-American workers were still not being treated right even though they had now been given the same rights as white men. What surprised me is how so many employers were actually able to get away with it and how little the government really cared. It was pretty obvious that African-Americans were not being treated equally as they promised, but there was still nothing being done about it. Like when Bain’s father was killed. The white employer really had no remorse over what had happened. He basically just shrugged his shoulders and said oh well. It should not have taken nearly one-hundred years for the government to finally take action and give the African American community the rights they so promised.
Guitar explains to Milkman that violence that is caused without any consequences is not an accident, but rather intentional. The deaths of countless of African-Americans at the hands of these white people, he argues, makes the world unequal.“There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can.
If the Negro was hanged, they hang; if a Negro was burnt, they burn; raped and murdered, they rape and murder” (Morrison 259). At the time African-Americans were falling victim to multiple hate crimes and those who were committing them did not receive any sort of discipline. It is similar to what happened in Birmingham Alabama from May 2 to May 10, 1963 during a battle for civil rights. These African-Americans were legally allowed to hold their peaceful protest under their first amendment right, however, the police decided to stray them down with high powered water hoses and let their police dogs loose on some of the protesters. The police used these tactics on men, women and even children alike without any remorse leaving multiple people with injuries. The police also arrested many of the protesters just for wanting to be treated the same as white Americans. You can understand why Guitar despises white people so much based on their actions and blames them for all of the evil that goes on around the world.
Guitar Bains has grown tired of the white community killing and using African-Americans for their own personal purposes. “Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’ Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’ And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding” (Morrison 363). Slavery had no longer been a thing at that point for nearly one-hundred, however, the white community still continued to take advantage of African-Americans. These actions sort of remind me of the Harlem Hellfighters from the First World War. Over 400,000 African-Americans were drafted under the 1917 draft. They spent more time overseas than any other American unit during the war as well as suffering more casualties than any other unit with 1,500 in just the first 191 days on the front lines. Their bravely won them France’s highest honor. Despite their bravery and their sacrifices they made for their country, the Harlem Hellfighters returned home to racism and segregation for their fellow Americans. The United States Military had more or less used them as cannon fodder. At times they would not even let them serve under a U.S. commander. They would just give them to their French allies and let them use them as they pleased. Their French counterparts end up treating these men better than their own country would.
After Guitar kills Pilate, Milkman holds her in his arms. He can barely make out Guitar Banes, but he knows that his time may have come. “Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” 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 now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (Morrison 544). Milkman at this point does not seem afraid of death. As a child he was upset because he could not “fly”. By this he meant that he was stuck in his community and with his family. He finally learns to fly and how to ride the air by just letting it take full control. Once he jumps at Guitar we get the feeling that he no longer cares for himself. He has become selfless like Pilate was. He is showing mercy and forgiveness to Guitar. He knows all about what he has gone through and understands it. Part of his pain comes from what his own father did to his family. However, the fact that Milkman decided to jump at Guitar Banes leaves the question of whether or not Milkman will try to avenge Pilate unanswered. Or maybe Milkman will just forgive him and remember all of the times Guitar had helped him and showed compassion.
Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon, has many underlying themes that are present throughout the novel. The main ones being The Power of Names, Racism, Memory and Storytelling, Masculinity and Femininity and Mercy and Forgiveness. Names have power. They write history. They build communities and tell stories. Racism was big of the time era the novel took place in. It was during the time of the civil rights. There are almost no white characters in Toni Morrison’s novel. Racism is mainly directed towards the African-Americans in the novel. The characters’ actions in the novel are main controlled by some of their past memories. The way that they act and the events that occur in the novel are heavily influenced by them. Morrison dramatize the relationship between men and women in her novel. Obviously, the white men are cruel to their African-American counterparts, however, some of the black men in the novel are very cruel to black women. It shows black women as being less black during a time when black were not even considered much. The novel from a state of mercy to one of no mercy as well as from forgiveness to no forgiveness. Macons cruelty in terms of collecting rent leads to Milkman getting cruelly later on. When Guitar does not shoot at Milkmans there seems to be at least some sort of forgiveness, but it seems to be lost once Milkman jumps at Guitar. Toni Morrison’s novel has been considered such a powerful piece of literature because it dives deeper into the black experience in America. The novel discussed many ideas and concepts that affect every individual person. Toni Morrison wants the reader to be immersed in her work and she succeeds in doing so in the creation of this novel.
The Song of Solomon and the Great Gatsby: Representations of the American Dream
Monetary Wealth and Materialism
Monetary Wealth and materialism are two elements that both, The Song of Solomon and The Great Gatsby share. These novels interpret “The American Dream” and as a result emphasize the significance of the role that money plays in each of their character’s lives. Within each of these novels, the presence of a yearning for wealth within the characters and their decisions exists as a means of social criticism that exemplifies the corruption that coincides with materialism. The characters buy into the notion that money will provide happiness and therefore a sense of fulfillment. However, in many cases, an excessive amount of money can cause one to become distressed and empty. Money can provide luxury and convenience but it does not have the ability to alleviate all problems. Toni Morrison and F. Scott Fitzgerald reveal this concept in The Great Gatsby and The Song of Solomon through focus on their character’s attention to money and status which leads to their overall corruption.
The Great Gatsby emphasized monetary wealthy through multiple character and themes throughout the novel. Money is a huge motivator in the character’s relationships and drive. The character’s reveal themselves to be highly materialistic, specifically when making decisions. Tom and Daisy’s relationship is supported by their money. They are able to be part of the upper-class elite due to their high socioeconomic standing. They take advantage of what they have which has negative effects on the lives of other people. The narrator, Nick, is uncomfortable due to the way Tom and Daisy poorly handled their disruptive acts. He doesn’t even want to shake Tom’s hand after running into him because he is entirely disgusted.
“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money on their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made. . . .” (Fitzgerald, 179)
Tom and Daisy stay together because of Tom’s wealth that Daisy is attracted to. They perform despicable acts and get away with it because they are rich. They believe that because they have money they are superior to others who do not have as much as them. They do not adhere to morality because their money is blinding. Nick observes that while Myrtle, George, and Gatsby have all died, Tom and Daisy are not punished at all for their actions or behavior. The couple uses their money as a shield to avoid responsibility. While they technically have caused three deaths, they are still able to live how they would like because they have the means to do so. They use money to run away from their problems but ultimately money cannot bring people back after they are dead. Tom and Daisy subconsciously are aware of this, which is why they choose to run away. Nick sees past their outward expression of their wealth and is unhappy with who they are beneath their money shield. He cannot forgive what they have done to Myrtle, George, and Gatsby. Their actions are not tolerated by Nick which proves that money cannot buy forgiveness.
Fitzgerald carries out the idea of corruption due to wealth though Daisy. She is a character who has prioritized wealth but has come to realize that she isn’t happy. Her money has not allowed her to find happiness.
“You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and done everything.” Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!”(Fitzgerald, 17)
Daisy has led a life supported by monetary wealth. She has traveled the world and had access to the unimaginable. Yet, she still thinks her life is terrible. She thinks this because money cannot buy one’s happiness. She believes she has already seen all that the world has to offer, but in reality, she has only seen what money can buy. She is left unfulfilled by the life she has chosen to live because it has been built on materialism. She is sparking from a place of arrogance. Fitzgerald emphasizes this when referring to her eyes. They “flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s.” Daisy, like her husband, speaks from a privileged perspective. She is aware that she is privileged. She remains certain in her word but is insincere. She is pretentious and carries herself as such. She uses her status as a way to hide who she really is. She is in fact a miserable person who is left empty on the inside but she surrounds herself with material items that failed to make her feel better about herself.
Toni Morrison carries out the theme surrounding the desperation to have access to money though Milkman Dead’s character. Milkman embarks on his own quest for success which he initially believes is Pilate’s gold. Milkman shares his father’s materialistic values. He has no empathy for those whom he perceives as being inferior to him economically. The gold is blinds Milkman’s sense of morality as he wants to steal Pilate’s gold for himself in order to gain freedom. His father has always expressed that money is the key to one’s freedom. Macon Dead says to his son, “You’ll own it all. All of it. You’ll be free. Money is freedom, Macon. The only real freedom there is.”(163) Macon emphasizes the importance of money to his son. He believes that the only way to be free, is to have enough money to support yourself. Milkman believes this as well which leads him to behave in ways that he wouldn’t if money was not the priority. Macon Dead wants his son to “take back” what he believes Pilate stole from him. Macon Dead wants his son to essentially steal this money back. He says, “Macon, get it and you can have half of it; go wherever you want. Get it. For both of us. Please get it, son. Get the gold.”(172) Milkman wants to get out of the town he has grown up in and believes his father when he says that money is the key to being free. Therefore, he agrees to stealing back the gold from Pilate. Milkman’s father manipulates him into thinking that the money will alleviate what has been causing him stress. Milkman thinks that this gold will solve all of the problems that he believes he has due to the fact that he has no money. His father pressures him into getting the money by pointing out what he will be able to do with it. Although Milkman knows that stealing is wrong, he is desperate to be free.
Milkman believes the money will bring salvation and happiness.
Milkman wanted boats, cars, airplanes, and the command of a large crew. He would be whimsical, generous, mysterious with his money. But all the time he was laughing and going on about what he would do and how he planned to live, he was aware of a falseness in his voice. He wanted the money—desperately, he believed—but other than making tracks out of the city, far away from Not Doctor Street and Sonny’s Shop, and Mary’s Place and Hagar, he could not visualize a life that much different from the one he had.(179-180)
Milkman wants all the material items that money can buy. He fantasizes about the grass being greener on the other side. He wants to live a lavish life full of luxurious items that he believes will bring him joy and happiness. He believes that access to a large amount of money will carry him away from the world that he has known his entire life. However, he is aware of the “falseness in his voice.” Milkman knows that this imagined life is idealistic and deep down he knows that it may not bring him exactly what he needs because money can only provide material things. It cannot provide one with emotional support. Milkman is looking for emotional support but the money will only get him so far. He cannot envision a different life because he has known the same one his entire life. His environment hasn’t changed, therefore his mindset hasn’t changed. He can’t see what he has never been exposed to, which leaves him longing for the money more. Milkman wants to break away from parents and the life they have built for themselves. However, he doesn’t realize that by prioritizing monetary wealth, he will end up just like the person he wants to run from—his father. Even after Milkman gains access to gold, it is not guaranteed that the problems caused by his childhood will just disappear.
Monetary wealth is a concept that is prioritized in both The Great Gatsby and Song of Solomon. The characters that make money an important part of their life are the ones that are the most lost because money does not provide emotional stability. Money can only do so much before one realizes it is not enough. Fitzgerald and Morrison both emphasize this point by allowing the reader to gain insight on each of the character’s lives and how money does not improve their overall happiness. Money can present certain conveniences but cannot eliminate all issues that one may face. Money can only do so much before one realizes that money cannot buy happiness in the grand scheme of things. Fitzgerald and Morrison make an effort to show this through use of their character’s journey to figuring out this theme for themselves.
The Role of Parental Enmeshment in Song of Solomon
Response to Critical Essay: “Anaconda Love”: Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
The critical essay by Gary Storhoff discusses the origins of the psychological issues of Macon, Pilate and Ruth which leads to the parental enmeshment towards their children. The essay is separated into three parts, each section focusing on Macon and Pilate, Ruth, and Milkman, respectively. The arguments he sought to make made Macon not the villain that the novel characterizes him as and erases innocence that has been created for Ruth. The explanation behind Pilate and Macon’s enmeshment is because they seek to recreate their lost paradise, Lincoln’s Heaven. They also have acquired traits from their murdered father. One sibling attains one half while the other acquires the rest, also explaining their sibling rivalry. Macon’s trait of self-aggrandizement creates his need for authority over others; Pilate’s trait of self-denial creates her showering of love for her daughter and granddaughter. Ruth’s section discusses her realization of power in her submissiveness. Her ability to control Macon and Milkman’s actions by playing the role of an ignorant, helpless woman, she can make Macon lose his violent temper, Milkman jump to her rescue, and make the reader feel sympathy for her. Milkman’s section discusses his acceptance of his parent’s psychological underdevelopment and finding a balance between pleasing them and finding the freedom he desired throughout the novel.
I feel that the essay was convincing and was thoroughly applicable to some of the discrepancies and ambiguity in the text. It offers a psychological view of the text that changes the perspective of the reader. Rather than accepting Macon as the villain, it makes me feel Ruth is the true villain in the novel. She denied Macon of his recreated Lincoln’s Heaven, manipulates the feelings of her husband, sister in law, daughters and son, and cons the reader into thinking she is the victim. Macon is still a violent oppressor; however, he is given a background further than what is told in the novel. There is no focus on Macon’s past except when he describes Lincoln’s Heaven to Milkman. The psychological perspective of Lincoln’s Heaven on Macon does not excuse Macon’s behavior, but helps to create a bit of pity for him by the reader. My perspective of Pilate has not shifted. I still believe that she has the better understanding of what love is. Her trait of self-denial allows her to concentrate on others more than herself and doesn’t need the gratification of material items or property to assist her in recreating Lincoln’s Heaven.
The critical essay has added to my understanding of the novel. Some of the scenes that seemed insignificant or petty to me have been given meaning to the plot and conflicts, such as Macon’s act of violence on Ruth as she describes her incident at a wedding. Also, the ending of the novel has been given more meaning, rather than just Milkman surrendering to society. I now view it as him being connected to his family and past so that he further understands and loves his present.
How Milkman Dead Found His Identity in Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Milkman Gone Splat! An Analysis of the Final Scene in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon follows the life of Milkman Dead and his odyssey towards finding his true identity and discovering the history of his ancestors. The search for identity is one of the key themes in Song of Solomon, as it becomes extremely important for Milkman to go through a complicated journey in order to find himself. Along with the search for identity, flight as a means of escape is also a recurring theme throughout the novel. Through the use of magic realism, Morrison creates a world that parallels reality, but at the same time, adds magic elements to the world, making the flight of humans seem natural. In the story, Milkman learns that his great-grandfather Solomon flew back to Africa to escape the plight of slavery and attain liberty, which inspires Milkman to do the same at the end of the book. After realizing his quest for his identity is complete, Milkman decides to leap and “fly” through the air. In the final scene of Song of Solomon, Milkman triumphs in terms of finding his authentic self and achieving freedom, but ultimately dies. Morrison provides the story with significant passages that not only foreshadow Milkman’s death, but also structures her novel in a way that makes Milkman’s death the most logical ending.
Toni Morrison ends Song of Solomon with a scene where Milkman asks his friend and enemy Guitar whether he wants his life, which ties back to a conversation that Milkman and Guitar had in Chapter 10 about life and death. This conversation between Milkman and Guitar, which could be taken for granted, actually offers a lot of foreshadowing to the events that follow the conversation. In chapter 10, Guitar tells Milkman that “everybody wants the life of a black man,” but believes that every man can chose something to die for (Morrison 223). Milkman initially disagrees with Guitar, believing that “nobody can choose what to die for,” but, in the last scene, Milkman submits to Guitar’s theory by letting Guitar have his life and choosing what to die for (223). By making Milkman’s last words be an offer for Guitar to take his life, Morrison shows how the two parts of the book are connected. Through this connection, Morrison implies that Milkman dies at the end with his attempt to fly, but certainly chooses what to die for and does so willingly, as he dies with a feeling of fulfillment after realizing his odyssey is complete.
In the last scene of the novel, Toni Morrison describes Pilate’s death as a process of liberation as she “flies” away, which suggests that Milkman also achieves freedom through his death. In the final scene at Solomon’s Leap, when Milkman and his aunt Pilate bury Pilate’s father’s bones, Guitar shows up to kill both of them. The last scene involves Guitar killing Pilate, but instead of describing her death in a devastating manner, Morrison compares her death to the process of liberation and flight. For comparison, in Chapter 13, Morrison describes Hagar’s death in a much more disastrous way than the death of Pilate. Morrison chooses to describe Pilate’s death in a rather comforting manner that offers hope and relief. When describing Pilate’s death, Morrison claims that “without ever leaving the ground, [Pilate] could fly,” as some bird “scooped something shiny in its beak before it flew away” (336). As a symbol for her soul flying away when she dies, Morrison shows how Pilate achieves personal freedom through her death. Milkman’s flight in the end can be interpreted the same way. With Milkman’s search for his real identity complete, similar to Pilate, he achieves his personal through death. Milkman does attempt to fly, but only achieves personal freedom when he dies in the final chapter.
In Chapter 12, when Milkman has his dream about flying, Toni Morrison describes his dream in a way that not only foreshadows the ending, but also suggests that Milkman’s “flight” is more similar to death than literal flight. In one of the final chapters of the book, Milkman has a “warm dreamy sleep all about flying,” where he “float[s], “cruis[es], in the relaxed position of a man lying on a couch reading a newspaper.” Milkman feels as though he is “alone in the sky, but somebody [is] applauding him,” which shows strong similarity to the final scene (298). Morrison establishes this connection in order to foreshadow Milkman’s flight, but to also indicate what actually happens in the final scene. Morrison’s diction in describing Milkman’s dream proves that his flight at the end most resembles death. She uses words such as “floating” and “cruising,” which are not usually words that characterize literal flight, but rather, something more spiritual. Similar to how Morrison describes Pilate’s death, Morrison’s description of the dream shows that Milkman’s flight should be perceived figuratively, as though his soul is “flying away.” Through Morrison’s diction in describing Milkman’s dream, she not only prefigures the events that occur in the final scene, but also proves that Milkman’s flight should be interpreted as an achievement of freedom through figurative flight, which Morrison makes symbolic for his ultimate death.
Although, many might argue that Milkman’s flight in the last chapter of the book is a possibility because the book is written in the genre of magic realism; however, the structure of the book and the plot development indicate that Milkman’s death is the most logical outcome. Toni Morrison begins the novel with an incident that involves an insurance agent, Mr. Smith, who decided to attempt to fly one day but falls over and dies. On the next day, Milkman Dead is born, and thus, the novel proceeds to follow his quest to find himself. Even in a world where everyone perceives Mr. Smith’s attempt to fly as a common occurrence and people believe in the story of Solomon who flew back to Africa, Morrison still begins the novel with a failed attempt to fly. This clearly suggests that Milkman’s attempt to fly at the end also ends fatally. In terms of structure, Milkman’s death seems to be the most logical ending even if it is a mystical world. Morrison begins and ends the novel with a failed attempt to fly, except the ending is not only about Milkman’s death. After all the struggle that Milkman goes through trying to find out who he truly is, he finally succeeds in the end and has this feeling of fulfillment. Morrison structures the novel as a life cycle, by beginning with Mr. Smith’s failed attempt to fly, following it with Milkman’s prolonged quest to find himself, and finally, his success with finding himself at the end. Morrison shows that the most logical ending to this life cycle of Milkman would be his eventual death. Even in a world where flight is possible for human beings, the structure of the novel suggests that in the final scene of Song of Solomon, Milkman completes his rite of passage into adulthood, but dies, making the novel begin and end with a failed attempt to fly.
By purposely leaving the finale of Song Solomon unclear, Toni Morrison creates a number of different possibilities for what actually happens. Although, some people will argue that Milkman does fly in the end, and some will claim that he died; in the end, it does not matter. Morrison makes the ending ambiguous to demonstrate that the journey matters more than the end-result, as it is irrelevant whether Milkman dies or not. Morrison does not want the focus of the novel to be the ending scene, as she believes that Milkman’s endless struggle to find his real identity, which leads him to the feeling of fulfillment at the end of the novel, is the most important aspect of the book. In Wilfred D. Samuels’s essay Toni Morrison, he addresses the meaning of flight in Song Solomon, even quoting Morrison about what she has to say about the controversial final scene. In his essay, he mentions how Morrison herself claims that regardless of whether Milkman flew and the triumph or tragedy that follow his flight, what matters the most is how Milkman came to that stage. According to Morrison, Milkman’s “willingness to become exceptional [and] to take the leap” is the most important characteristic of the ending (Samuels 70). By keeping the ending ambiguous and making Song of Solomon concentrate more on the Milkman’s quest rather than his flight, Toni Morrison demonstrates that for any type of bildungsroman, the rite of passage matters more than the outcome.
The Primary Protagonist Milkman Dead In “Song Of Solomon” By Toni Morrison
In America there is a systematic structure that is portrayed by the White Male patriarchy that authorizes black males to transact the way they act, speak, think and live like men. Nonetheless, the actuality of race and the absence of racial diversity hinders a black male’s capability to progress into manhood. Being so the black male is left to continuously battle for an identity, for apprehending who he is rather than who he is being visualized as. “Song Of Solomon” by Toni Morrison is a coming of age story that focus on the primary protagonist Milkman Dead and his journey from birth to adulthood.
A major theme within Song Of Solomon is milkman’s quest for identity as a black man and his journey also act like a key for his spiritual identity, connecting him to his past while incorporating the present and emerging him to self discovery.Song Of Solomon in a multitude of ways traces the coming of age of Milkman Dead, it begins with a civilian named Robert Smith jumping off the roof of Mercy Hospital. “When the little boy discovered, at four….”
After the fall of Robert Smith milkman dead is born, however just like robert smith milkman’s desire is to escape his life through flight.“ But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self ”. Milkman at a young age was characterized as an odd and dead (emotionally) child who seemed to lack when it came to personality, he grows up not knowing who he is when he looks at himself in the mirror, all he sees is an incomplete being. Milkman adult hood was backtracked and as the only son of an upper-middle-class family, milkman also resists the sense of interconnection and devotion to others that are required of adults.
Milkman is a mirrored image of his father Macon Dead, he persistently tries to manage milkman, and prevents him from becoming independent not noticing that milkman is in a flux and is trapped within the context of his own life. In the novel the white peacock is mentioned the white peacock symbolizes milkman and how he cannot take flight in the beginning and is weighed down by jewelry, that jewelry represents how milkman is privileged and has the wealth of a white man which is all because of his father and because of that it impedes milkman from being able to fly and understand himself.“ I don’t want to be my old man’s office boy no more…”.
Milkman values materialistic things like his father, he becomes very arrogant and has the mentality that money is the gateway to freedom and power, however he felt as if everyone was using him, making him the subject of their own needs. Milkman slowly starts to understand this and realizes that he needs to be his own man, he needs to be an independent man.“ Who are you to approve or disapprove anybody or anything…”.
After years of an unreleased antipathy Magdalena confronts Milkman to look out the window at a dying maple tree, lena speaks to him about all of his flaws. This symbolizes how milkman has never done a thing for anyone in his entire life and yet people have sacrificed so much for him and the peeing escapade has completely ruined his sister’s lives, which then makes milkman’s personality/identity shift and he realizes that he needs to change within himself. Milkman has been reborn and an important aspect to his rebirth is the responsibility he took for hagar’s death, milkman has only taken advantage of women during his youth and has seen them as nothing but objects and taking that responsibility is unlike his old self which symbolizes how he has let his old self go.
Upon arriving to the Shalimar, it was a different experience in a social/racial aspect, “ By the time he bought the car, his moral had soard and he was….” (260). This focuses on milkmans perspective on people from the south and how they differentiate from the people in virginia. Everything that milkman has ever represented in the north was obsolete in the south,” There was nothing here to help him….”. The reality is that all his wealth doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the south, it does not benefit him but slowly milkman starts to divest his old self including his gold watch, fancy expensive suit, and money. Milkman desired the gold, he thought that finding the gold would reveal his inner true self and realize who he is. However it is not the gold that would truly change who he really is, it’s the journey to the gold while unraveling the truth about his ancestor’s.
The quest for gold had amended him and had proved how much of a man he had become, milkman acknowledges what empathy, and disclosure means because of this journey. For the first moment in milkman’s life he has cared about something other than himself, even though he did not find the gold in Danville he was intrigued by his family’s history and being in Shalimar where his grandfather was born and that gave milkman the reality check he needed. The broader point is that financial independence isn’t “flight” it is more of a psychological form of imprisonment
Cherry Symbolism in Morrison’s Novel
Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon tells the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead, a character completely alienated from his community, family and heritage. In the novel, readers follow his journey to the fictional town of Shalimar that he takes in order to fully understand the cultural heritage which has been left for him. He begins his travels as a person without a home or strong ties to family, but in the end, finds the place where he finally feels he belongs. The image of home in the book is often associated with the motif of cherries, which evokes nostalgia for different people in Milkman’s immediate family throughout the book.
Morrison develops a theme of the importance of home and belonging by using cherries to symbolize the ancestry of the Dead family.First, Morrison uses cherry trees to represent a loss of home. After Macon and Pilate, then teen-aged, flee the site of their father’s murder and stay the night at Circe’s home Pilate is immediately reminded of cherry trees. Macon and Pilate run to Circe’s home for refuge, but Pilate regrets what she will miss. “[Pilate] wanted her own cherries, from her own cherry tree, with stems and seeds; not some too-sweet mashed mush” (167). Morrison portrays the tragedy of twelve-year-old Pilate’s sudden loss of a home by showing Pilate as critical of Circe’s jam, which is said to not have “stems and seeds” and to be “too sweet”. While Circe is considered a close confidant for the children, they do not accept her place as “home”, which Pilate’s unenthusiastic opinion of Circe’s cherry jam shows.
While cherry trees represent a loss of home, cherry pies represent an attempt to re-establish familial connection. Macon tries to keep Pilate from Milkman while he could, “forbidding him to go near” (40) her and forces her to leave his son and his home and not to come back until she could “show some respect for herself” (20). This forced separation prevents them from forming a bond. Therefore, when Pilate invites Milkman into her home, she begins by extending a metaphorical olive branch. “Your father…he couldn’t cook worth poot. Once I made a cherry pie for him, or tried to…Our papa was dead, you see. They blew him five feet up into the air” (40-41). By beginning her tale with a cherry pie, and further expressing her willingness to provide information on a story from her point of view, she attempts to reclaim her relationship with her brother’s side of the family, one that knows less of the sordid history between Pilate and Macon. Her gamble works out in the long run, as by the end of the book, Macon helps Pilate bury the bones of her dead father and sings during her flight from life. She has finally reforged a link with her remaining family.
Later in the novel, Morrison uses artificial cherry flavoring to symbolize a lack of belonging. When Milkman’s car breaks down in Shalimar and he goes into a bar to recover, he buys a “Cherry Smash” soda from the bartender. Unlike Milkman and Pilate, Milkman does not understand the cherries’ symbolic value from the beginning, simply referring to it as a “red liquid” or “sweet soda water”. His indifference towards the artificial taste of his drink starkly contrasts with an earlier episode in the novel, in which Pilate tearfully rejects Circe’s cherry jam because it is artificial. While Milkman shows no particular emotion in regards to the flavor of his soda, Pilate “began to cry the day Circe brought her white toast and cherry jam for breakfast” (167). Pilate’s rejection of artificial cherry flavoring reveals her own recognition of what a real home is, whereas Milkman’s failure to react to the flavoring connects to his upbringing, which mirrors his disconnection to his family and community.
Toni Morrison uses cherries to symbolize nostalgia in her novel, Song of Solomon, in order to develop a theme of home and belonging. She introduces it as a means to initiate family ties in the midst of a dysfunctional sibling relationship and further uses it to establish the idea of home and Milkman’s ensuing search for a home of his own. It is a small fruit with a large pit, making it difficult to eat – similar to how finding a home for oneself is hard to do. Furthermore, processed cherries don’t have the seeds (such as the jam Circe gives Pilate and the cherry soda Milkman drinks) reflecting how an inauthentic home is easier to find, yet unfulfilling, but finding a real home and building family requires more work and dedication.
Song of Solomon and Gold’s Metaphor
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, explores how each character searches for something, and the novel examines the ways in which they cope when they cannot find it. In the novel, many of the characters are trapped by their materialistic desires. The need to fulfill those desires erodes their souls, making them bitter. For some of these characters, their wants and needs are in the form of gold. Song of Solomon examines the human condition of being physically, spiritually, and financially trapped through the classic symbol of desire, gold.
The protagonist, Milkman, is trapped physically and mentally. He feels as though his life has no meaning, and that if he could leave his situation on Not Doctor Street, he could be happy. From the time he was little, Milkman wanted freedom and escape from his life, or to “fly away.” He becomes sad and isolated from his friends and later, isolated from his family. He feels as though his future is defined by the events of his past and is constantly troubled by other people’s problems. He believes that he has done nothing to deserve the burden of the knowledge that people have given him and is too far inside himself to appreciate the love that his family members provide him. His desire to escape his life is shown when Morrison says “He wanted the money – desperately, he believed – but other than making tracks out of the city, far away from Not Doctor Street, Sonny’s Shop, and Mary’s Place, and Hagar, he could not visualize a life that much different from the one he had. New People. New Places. Command. That was all he wanted in his life” (179, 180). Milkman finally finds an opportunity to escape his life through his aunt Pilate’s gold.
For Milkman, the gold represents what he has always desired, freedom and flight. This is shown when Morrison describes Milkman and Guitar’s first encounter with what they thought was gold: “They both saw it [the sack of gold] at the same time. 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” (185). The idea of fulfilling this craving and achieving happiness makes Milkman selfish and cruel, causing him to betray his loving aunt by robbing her. When he discovers that Pilate does not have the gold, he goes on a journey to find it where he finds himself along the way. After gaining a sense of identity, the journey becomes more about freeing himself mentally than finding the gold and escaping physically. He has an epiphany where he is overcome with happiness and realizes that he no longer desires escape from his family’s problems or his life, and in the same way, gives up on finding the gold. This is described by Morrison’s quote, “[H]e felt a sudden rush of affection for them all… Apparently he thought he deserved only to be loved – from a distance, though – and given what he wanted… Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain, share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness” (278). At the end of the novel, Milkman never finds the gold, but gains a new identity when he realizes that the freedom gold can bring him is not worth the betrayal required to gain it. Milkman’s experience supports gold’s symbolism for a worldly desires because his want for gold disappears just as his search for happiness ends. When he gives up what weighs him down, he finally is able to fly. However, other characters are not as fortunate as Milkman is in abandoning the worldly desires that trap them.
Guitar, Milkman’s best friend growing up, is strapped financially. He lives in poverty in the South Side of the city and wants so badly to escape and to live a more affluent life. He compares himself to wealthy white people who murder innocent African-Americans, and cannot understand how his situation is fair. He says “[E]verybody wants the life of a black man… Fair is one more thing I’ve given up” (Morrison 222, 224). These internal and external conflicts eat away at him, and he sees no other way to cope than to become a murderer. Like Milkman, he sees gold as an opportunity to free himself through the wealth it can bring him. This is shown when Morrison writes “…he [Milkman] wondered if Guitar simply could not resist the lure of something he had never had-money” (180). He speaks to Milkman about all the things gold can buy him, not knowing that the gold will lead him to attack his best friend. His perspective is ironic because once, while giving Milkman advice, he says ”[A]ll that jewelry weighs it [the peacock[ down… Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (179). His viewpoint shows that, like the peacock’s tail, materialistic desires weigh down your soul, and you must give them up in order to be free. This contradicts his obsession with wealth, which ultimately weighs him down to the point of committing murder and betrayal. When Milkman gives up on finding the gold, Guitar continues. In the end, Guitar remains trapped by his greed and obsession with bettering his life financially through the gold, which comes to a head when he kills Pilate.
Macon Dead, Milkman’s father, is a slave to his desire for property and power, making him spiritually trapped. A humble farm boy turned-wealthy realtor, he is bitter about his past. After witnessing his father’s murder as a boy, he runs away where he finds gold, beginning his desire for wealth and power that last for the rest of his life. “Gold… Life, safety, and luxury fanned out before him like the tail-spread of a peacock, and as he stood there trying to distinguish each delicious color, he saw the dusty boots of his father standing just on the other side of the shallow pit… Pilate darted around the cave calling him, looking for him, while Macon piled the sacks of gold into the tarpaulin” (170, 171), describes his transformation from a humble farm boy to a money-hungry man trapped by his craving for property and prosperity. As the quote describes, Macon is indifferent to the ghost of his father whom he claimed to care so much about. While he believes that wealth will be the solution to all of his problems, it actually isolates him from his family and the people who love him. The traumatic event of his father’s murder changed him, as Morrison describes what she writes “[T]he numbness that had settled on him when he saw the man he loved and admired fall off the fence; something wild ran through him when he watched the body twitching in the dirt” (50, 51). This, combined with his desire for money, rejection by his wife’s father, and later, witnessing his wife kiss her father’s dead fingers, turns Macon into a cold, heartless, and broken man. He is trapped by his sadness, anger, and hunger for power, making him spiritually disconnected from love, his family, and immaterial things in life. When the possibility of obtaining gold resurfaces, he is naturally drawn in and gets behind the scheme of robbing his own sister, Pilate. The prosperity that gold could bring him is just another form of psychological imprisonment for Macon, pushing him farther from his sister and from love. His want for gold is stronger than his want for love, family, and loyalty, showing gold’s symbolism for desire.
In Song of Solomon, the main characters are trapped by their materialistic desires, which are symbolized by gold. Milkman, Guitar, and Macon, each see gold as a way to fulfil aspects of their lives that are missing. Gold’s symbolism for worldly desires is consistent with the fact that Pilate had no interest in the gold when she in Macon found it. Instead, she took her father’s bones with her, showing that she cares more about spiritual value than she does about materialistic value. This reinforces gold’s symbolism for acquisitive desires because Pilate does not chase the gold; the three men each have different materialistic desires, so they do pursue the gold. The wealth that comes from the gold is a temptation for the men because it seems like a solution each of their problems and an end to their longings. However, their attempts to retrieve the gold push them closer into deception and farther away from their loved ones, until Guitar becomes a murderer and Macon becomes cold and dead (hence his last name). In the end, Milkman is the only one of the three that abandons his need for “gold” and realizes the true value of the people in his life and of himself.
Subverting White Power Structures: Pilate and Shadrack’s Way Out
Toni Morrison’s Sula and Song of Solomon examine the ways in which black people in black towns with black ideologies can be physically and emotionally destroyed by the infiltration of any and all institutions that are orchestrated and controlled by white people. Morrison presents a new narrative that discourages the notion of “black stories” as a separate genre of fiction and instead presents stories that exemplify a spectrum of black identities that exist in a peaceful state until something generates a radical shift in their functionality. In these two texts, this radical shift is caused by forces that are outside of Morrison’s characters’ control and these forces create tensions that so violent and futile that they necessitate actions by black characters to maintain order in the text. Both Sula and Song of Solomon serve as anecdotal tales that charge black people with subverting and avoiding the desires of institutions that are capitalistic, racist, and sexist by utilizing characters such as Pilate and Shadrack to transgress institutionalized power structures and characters such as Helene and Guitar who submit to these same structures.
One character who clearly submits to the infiltration of white power within the realm of the black community is Guitar. As a member of the Black Power organization, entitled The Days, Guitar is responsible for enacting violence of equal force against any white person to replicate a form of retribution. Guitar clearly believes that his motives and actions are distinctly justifiable in contrast to the same violent actions done by white men. Guitar reflects, “’I am not, one, having fun; two, trying to gain power or public attention or money or land; three, angry at anybody” (157). Though Guitar is attempting to justify his actions he does so by presenting them in a way that separates him from the same modes of terror that exists in white power groups. Guitar is thus, unknowingly, participating in a system that he wishes to destroy. Though Guitar is clearly knowledgeable about the disparities in the value of black and white lives his mission to kill white people demonstrates the opposite of his supposed intentions. Guitar questions, “What that means is that a black man is a victim of a crime only when a white man says he is” (160). Guitar’s understanding of the justice system relies on the fact that white bodies are perceived as more valuable than black bodies but Guitar chooses the enact violence on white bodies to target his white oppressors. This violence takes into account Guitar’s belief that white bodies somehow are worth more therefore his murderous motivations will combat all of the institutional oppression that he faces.
Though Milkman eventually exists on a higher plane of life that is free from oppression, Milkman and Guitar’s attempt at stealing Pilates’ gold can be simply viewed as a way in which these two men seek to maintain the notion that money is power. The American Dream or in this case the white American Dream is the notion that everyone should have the opportunity to achieve success. Guitar and Milkman desire the end result of the dream and try to target Pilate to achieve this ending. This aspiration for money is the result of a desire for some form of power within the black community. Throughout the book desire for money is seen as something that exists in people who do not empathize with other black members of the community, like Macon Dead. However, Morrison describes Milkman’s desires for wealth in a negative way to the point where it appears to be a perverse. “Milkman’s own excitement was blunted. Something perverse made him not want to hand the whole score to his friend on a platter” (175). The greed that Milkman possesses is due to the fact that he adheres to notions of capitalism that he believes will eventually give him something in his life that he has never had: agency, ownership, and power. Ultimately, what these men desire is to maintain control and power and to invoke a sense of fear. In both Sula and Song of Solomon black male characters seem to persistently exist on the margins of the narratives, looking for a way in. Milkman and Guitar find that pathway through their understanding of terror as a means to be heard or seen as human. Morrison writes, “Now they were men, and the terror they needed to provoke in others, if for no other reason than to feel it themselves, was rarer but not lighter” (177). For these two men, terror becomes their only means for comprehending the world, Milkman believes he can terrorize, or at least obtain power and agency, by obtaining wealth and Guitar believes he can terrorize by replicating the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan. However, it is their subtle adherence to racist and capitalistic ideologies that forces them surrender to the truth that is embedded in their past.
Though Milkman Dead seems to be the central focus of Song of Solomon, Milkman cannot obtain the truth or seek the truth without the help of Pilate who, according to Susan L. Blake in her essay “Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon, represents, “the spirit of community inherent in the folk consciousness” (78). It is through Pilate that Milkman is able to question his own motives and presumably fly by the end of the text. The magical realist elements are not in question within the text, the only question that Milkman and Pilate must face is whether or not they can learn to comprehend their past as a way for them to push towards the future. Flight, whether it is physical or not, becomes the mode of ultimate unification of ones’ roots to the truth of the narrative: the surrender of the material (greed, power, oppression) yielded the ability to transcend all that is earthly and Pilate is the mode by which Milkman is able to discover this truth.
In Sula there is not a concrete manifestation of truth through something like the ability to fly, truth lies in resistance of white infiltration not solely relying on the modes of escapism that slave ancestors implement. Helene Wright represents the influx of white ideals and internalized feelings of inferiority manifesting through her insistence of being holier than though in relation to other black townspeople. Helene is devastated when she finds out about her sick grandmother because she feels that she must debase herself in order to return to a town with people who are darker and thus less intelligent and cultured than she is, but it is her perpetual adherence to racist stereotypes that force her to become passive in the face of white people. For example when Helene is on the train and she accidentally enters the whites only section she becomes fearful, weak, and complacent. Nel observes, “Then, for no earthly reason, at least no reason that anybody could understand, certainly no reason that Nel understood the or later, she smiled. Like a street pup that wags its’ tail” (21). Helene effectively submits to the white man on the train but in doing so socially conditions Nel to do the same. Her submission extends beyond her experience on the train, Helene believes she is somehow better than other black people because she is Creole and therefore a more cultured woman with lighter skin. Her haughtiness comes across as pride and despite her air of callous self-perceived exceptionalism Helene, “lost only one battle – the pronunciation of her name. The people in the Bottom refused to call her Helene. They called her Helen Wright and left it at that” (18). This resistance to Helene’s desires to fit into a perfect mold of black exceptionalism demonstrates the resistance of the townspeople to the infiltration of the notions of black inferiority that Helene adheres to in her everyday life. Helene is determined to separate herself from other black people and in doing so she strategically places herself in a middle ground where she can never really belong.
Shadrack, on the other hand, represents the respective opposing force to Helene’s narrative function. Though Shadrack is clearly oppressed by war and marginalized, it is his indifference to belonging that gives him the key to understanding life and death without fear of either. Racial, gendered, and sexual promiscuity that the town perceives as evil in Sula do not effect Shadrack because his is almost completely separated from the community. Through Plum and Shadrack experience the same residual effects of war they both react in two very different ways. Plum turns to drugs and Shadrack decides to express agency in a way that gives him a renewed sense of self. In war, Shadrack views a soldier get his head blow off, Morrison describes, “the rest of the soldier’s head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his helmet” (8). It does not matter if the soldier is black or white what matters is the literal consumption of bodies in war that make men disposable agents of the state. In order to combat this role Shadrack creates National Suicide Day as a way to demonstrate the control and order he can have over death. Shadrack does not fear the ultimate threat of non-existence which is a tool of white power structures but rather he orchestrates a way in which he can exist in a liminal space of separateness from anything and all things that can hurt him.
What Morrison argues through these texts and through all of her texts is that she has the right to interrogate how political, economic, and social institutions attempt to control black people and how black people react when they are faced with these challenges. In both Sula and Song of Solomon Morrison uses words like veteran, exceptional, and black to describe her characters but in using these words she attempts to show the meaning of these words void of white ideology. For example, blackness in The Bottom does not have a negative connotation, whiteness does. It is imperative in these two works to understand how language and ideologies function within a black community that do not lean on white oppression to garner meaning. Morrison writes in her essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”, “The most valuable point of entry into the question of cultural distinction, the one most fraught, is its language-its unpoliced, seditious, confrontational, manipulative, inventive, disruptive, masked and unmasking language” (17). Morrison uses language and the ideologies of her characters to show varying sides of the black condition and how these characters function both in and outside of white ideologies. Characters like Pilate and Shadrack and ultimately Milkman in the end of Song of Solomon are able to subvert white ideologies and in doing so demonstrate how blackness can be, in and of itself, a neutral term that does not necessitate whiteness or white ideologies to validate it.
Appreciation, Escape, and Resurrection
In literature, what does it mean for somebody to fly? Ovid’s Metamorphoses, chronicles of Greco-Roman mythology dating over 2000 years ago, depicts the failure of flight through the fates of Icarus and Phaeton, victims of hubris. Written by Toni Morrison and published in 1977, Song of Solomon opens and ends with the image of attempted flight. An array of paradoxical connotations emerges from this image such as triumph and failure, heroism and cowardice, and life and death. One can justify those dichotomies as a direct result to Morrison’s decision to leave the reasoning behind Robert Smith and Milkman’s leap into the air open to interpretation. Although it is unclear as to why Smith and Milkman attempt to fly, the readers discover the deterrent of flight through Milkman and Guitar’s observation and interlocution about the grounded, ostentatious peacock. The conclusion is “the shit weighs you down” (179). To realize what it means to fly in this novel, this “shit” must be defined, as well. In Song of Solomon, images of flight reflect elements of past, present, and future: appreciation of one’s origin, escape from societal domestication, and resurrection of the human spirit.Whether it be a bird or plane, anything that can soar in the air must have its origin from the ground. Hence, before one can fly, one must be rooted. From the moment Milkman realizes that humans cannot fly, he detaches himself from the community as a consequence of this disheartening recognition. Although he befriends Guitar Bains, meets his enchanted aunt Pilate, and has coition with his cousin Hagar, Milkman is still aloof, for his desire to fly compels him to enervate and eventually abandon these human connections on the ground. When the Dead family’s Packard rolls sedately through the city on Sunday afternoons, Milkman feels troubled because his sight is restricted to what he can see out of the rear window, illustrating Milkman’s tragic flaw of depreciating the past in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what will pass. To watch the passing scenery he kneels on the seat, but “riding backward made him uneasy. It was like flying blind, and not knowing where he was going – just where he had been – troubled him” (32). The past should be one’s cushion, not discomfort. In a dream, Pilate sees her father and her father tells her, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” (147). Jake’s admonition suggests that one can only fly once all earthly affairs are resolved, for Pilate still has not interred the bones that she had been carrying for all those years. And only after Pilate buries her father’s bones on Solomon’s Leap can Pilate fly. Milkman’s odyssey to ascertain the origins of his name and family meets opposition with his conflicting desire to remain ignorant, for in ignorance he finds a superficial happiness and security. When Milkman is in the airplane for the first time in his life, the feeling of freedom he finds in the air is only a pale illusion, for Milkman still thinks freedom can be found only outside of reality and apart from his past. Milkman cannot fly without embracing his past as the air underneath his wings.Raised by a man who talks black, lives white and thinks green, Milkman cannot see beyond the money, the house, and the Packard, for materialism and vanity is the “shit” that weighs him down from flying. For Milkman to truly fly, he must relinquish all that corrupts one’s mind to disregard the values of identity and culture and instead embrace humanity. The peacock serves as the icon of societal domestication. Only once the peacock releases the heavy, ornate feathers on its tail will the peacock be able to soar freely without constraint. While belittling Pilate through his anecdote about the baby snake that eventually ate its caretaker, Macon Dead also teaches Milkman “the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things” (55). Macon Dead was not born into wealth, so he had to work with just ambition to reach the pinnacle of the black hierarchy; however, Milkman was born into wealth and took it for granted, which is even worse. Society corrupted Macon Dead’s mind to such an extent that Macon Dead believes “money is freedom. The only real freedom there is” (163). Milkman adopts this principle, when he writes the word “gratitude” and includes money in a breakup letter to Hagar so that he can be liberated from Hagar’s love. Money is not freedom or a liberator, especially in opposition to love. The laws of man may revolve around money but the statute of the skies does not acknowledge the value of materialism. As Milkman’s journey develops and the layers of his family history begin to peel away, Milkman’s money and possessions quickly become useless, for the fortune is not gold but rather the past and its people. “Without ever leaving the ground she could fly” because Pilate realized that no earthly possession held any value in her heart, which the reader learns through Pilate’s disregard for her hair and social conventions (336). Milkman cannot fly until he strips off the weight of materialism and vanity on his back.Although Robert Smith and Milkman leap into the air with no evidence of success, Pilate, even after her death, soars via the birds carrying her name in the air, which insinuates a spiritual resurrection. Death is not the end of the cycle for those whose spirits were pure. Resembling Christ’s birth, life, and death, Pilate enters the world through her dead mother’s womb unaided, carries the bones of her father as society condemns her a pariah, and dies with love as her last words for the sins of Milkman and Guitar’s fatal ambition toward wealth. Yet she flies. Milkman regards Pilate’s death as a graceful flight of freedom: “Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly” (336). Not only does Pilate resemble the life cycle of Christ, but she is an example of a human that came from the earth, for she is born without a bellybutton, eats what she grows, and is aware of her origins, which all contrast with Macon Dead, a man of society rather than earth. Robert Smith’s letter about his scheduled flight from Mercy to Lake Superior bears resemblance to Christ’s journey. His departure from Mercy connotes that Smith no longer wanted to be at the mercy of society, so he flew to Lake Superior, the symbol of haven or even heaven. Convicted for claiming to be the Son of God, Christ did not receive clemency from the throng of Jewish people and eventually was crucified, but He did rise from the dead and ascended to heaven. Hence, flight can be perceived as resurrection. After Guitar murders Pilate, Milkman realizes that only in death will Milkman be able to rise from the dead and fly like Solomon and Pilate, so he asks Guitar, “You want my life? You need it? Here” (337). He leaps off the cliff. Milkman realizes that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337). Pilate’s rooted flight arises out of her true knowledge and recognition of the entangled feelings of love, animosity, faith, and anguish that define the existence of herself and her people; embracing the contradictions of humanity allows Pilate to live and die in joyful freedom. Seeking this freedom, Milkman takes flight at last.If one attempts to fly solo without human connections, without knowledge of the past, and without true love, then not only is that one capable of killing others but also one’s identity and culture. In order for Milkman to see the future, he must recognize, recollect, and reconcile himself to the past. Staring death, via Guitar, in its catlike eyes, Milkman gives everything for love, knowing that love is not a burden or oppression but freedom. Although the final image of flight in Song of Solomon lacks a definitive conclusion, one must not mettle with the question of whether he lives or dies, but rather whether he dies or flies.