Love as an Identity in Song of Solomon

June 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is a classic novel that tells the story of a man’s coming of age. When the protagonist Milkman truly matures, he is in his mid-thirties, and has lived, up until his journey, a life of privilege, complacency, and wealth. Realizing that he is an adult, alcoholic, with little empathy or ambition, he begins a journey to find the gold his aunt ‘took’ from his father when they were children. Instead of a physical treasure, Milkman discovers his history, culture, and identity. Morrison’s analysis of love of family, culture, material goods, and empathy follows the story: Milkman comes of age when he is able to empathize and find love for his history, himself, and the people around him. While certain characters in the novel revolve around their love of material goods, Morrison uses these characters as counterexamples to her thesis that love creates an identity.

Milkman begins the novel as a young boy subject to his mother’s perversion. This introduction to ‘love’ as a physical obligation, and later, the removal of it, alienates the idea of true love to Milkman. His family is abusive towards one another, and he grows up smoking and drinking in order to fill the absence of meaning in his life. By the time Milkman is in his mid-thirties, he still has not found something to fill the void- to inspire his love. When his best friend, Guitar, points out how recklessly Milkman leads his life, he reflects that he has never been empathetic, and that his life is defined by his apathy. “Maybe Guitar was right-partly. His [Milkman’s] life was pointless, aimless, and it was true that he didn’t concern himself an awful lot about other people. There was nothing he wanted bad enough to risk anything of, inconvenience himself for” (Morrison, 107). However, the prospect of finding his family’s gold and returning it to his father motivates him to leave his small town.

Milkman’s incentive is influenced by everyone he grew up around, but particularly by his father, Macon Dead II, and his aunt, Pilate. Macon Dead II is a greedy man. When he was a young boy, his father was killed and his farm taken from him. As an adult, Macon owns and rents properties, and is one of the wealthiest colored people in the city. He makes his belief that nothing animate is as important as material goods very clear to Milkman. When Milkman is 12, Macon says to him: “‘Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too,’” (55). As an adult, Milkman emulates this in his original incentive for finding the gold: his only motivator is money. In contrast, Pilate is full of life, and places much more value on people and emotions than on materials. Macon says about Pilate: “’Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next one, but not this one,’” (55). Additionally, when Pilate dies, she says “‘I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would a loved ‘em all. If I’d knowed more, I would a loved more,’” (336). Pilate’s intuition and love gives her a sense of vivaciousness that inspires Milkman, and which he desires to find in himself and others during the latter half of his journey. It is this query- for emotional wholeness and a connection to the greater world, that ultimately drives Milkman’s discoveries.

Milkman’s journey follows the route of Pilate’s when she was a girl, and as he travels, his motivations for finding the gold develop. When Pilate was a girl, she traveled because she was isolated because of her lack of a navel. On her journey, she sought to answer the questions: “When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference? What do I need to know to stay alive? What is true in the world?,” (149). Pilate’s query led her to find a place in the world despite a physical defect. Like Pilate, Milkman feels isolated from his community because of his lack of identity. He hopes that returning the gold to his family will give him a sense of belonging and acceptance. In the beginning of his journey, Milkman is solely motivated by the gold. After his first attempt at finding it in Danville, Milkman admits: “There wasn’t any gold, but now he knew that all the fine reasons for wanting it didn’t mean a thing. The fact was he wanted the gold because it was gold and he wanted to own it. Free,” (257). Milkman ‘realizes’ that his desire to please the people he has met, and to discover more about his own past, are not his true reasons for wanting the gold, and is able to admit that he, like his father, is motivated solely by greed. Morrison uses Milkman and Macon to illustrate that this motivation is fruitless.

On her journey, Pilate went to Shalimar, Virginia to find her family; Milkman follows Pilate’s trail to Shalimar in search of stashed gold. However, what he finds is much more valuable. On his first night there, Milkman goes with some men into the woods to hunt. Exhausted, he sits and is introspective: “…his self- the cocoon that was ‘personality’- gave way… There was nothing here to help him- not his money, his car, his father’s reputation, his suit, or his shoes… all a man had was what he was born with,” (277). He is able to recognize that monetary motivation is ‘ignorant and vain’ (276), and that he is not entitled to anything, his material goods hold no value, and that the most valuable result of the trip is his sense of belonging. After the hunt he walked back to the car “like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there- on the earth and on the place where he walked. And he did not limp,” (281). Milkman’s ability to overcome a life-long physical defect (his limp) only after such introspection and alignment of his motivations, like Pilate’s, symbolizes that in order to be whole one must overcome their emotional shortcomings.

The day after the hunt in Shalimar, Milkman encounters Guitar, who accuses him of his familiar egocentric behavior. Milkman realizes that “in all his life, Guitar had never seen Milkman give anybody a hand, especially a stranger… Guitar had accused him of selfishness and indifference; told him he wasn’t serious, and didn’t have any fellow feeling-none whatsoever,” (297). Startled by this realization that all of Guitar’s accusations were substantiated, Milkman is finally able to piece together his identity. He laments who he was before he traveled: “… the consequences of Milkman’s own stupidity would remain, and regret would always outweigh the things he was proud of having done,” (335). His actions as a selfish, careless man had alienated people important to him, and prevented him from finding love as a young adult. It is not until Milkman discovers what he deems most important: his family, culture, and love, that he is able to transform his identity into a caring, loving man.

Morrison illustrates Milkman’s transformation by portraying him as happy and whole. About to finalize his tracing of his lineage, Milkman was “as excited as a child confronted with boxes and boxes of presents under the skirt of a Christmas tree… He was as eager and happy as he had ever been in his life,” (304). Morrison compares Milkman’s emotional growth to material goods, Christmas presents, in order to starkly juxtapose Milkman now and Milkman before his journey. After he learns his family’s history, Milkman is instantly elated. He goes swimming with a woman and ‘leaps, dives, grins, and splashes’ (327) in the water out of pure happiness. This happiness symbolizes the final part of Milkman’s maturation- he has learned what he came to learn, and found that love defines him.

Throughout Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead undergoes a transformation from a selfish, hating young adult, to an empathetic, loving man. Author Toni Morrison emphasizes this maturation by comparing and contrasting Milkman to his father, Macon Dead, and his aunt, Pilate Dead. When Milkman has matured and found his identity, he is most like Pilate and has abandoned his traits similar to Macon. Like Macon, when Milkman is motivated by greed, he is unsuccessful in finding love. By following Pilate’s footsteps, Milkman is able to go through tremendous personal growth. Milkman’s coming-of-age gives him an identity as someone full of love and life; he has achieved the vivaciousness he desired. At the end of the novel, after Pilate dies, Milkman attempts to fly over a ravine, surrendering himself to the power of the winds and relying on his newfound power of love. This sweeping gesture signifies that Milkman has finally learned that life is “‘not about living longer. It’s about how you live and why,’” (160); he chooses to live with love.

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