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.
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