Materialism and Flight: Symbols of Restraint and Freedom
In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, flying appears as a symbol of freedom, most notably in the African legend of Solomon, who released his son Jake to fall to the evils of American slavery while he flew away to freedom. Even though the story takes place in the post-slavery era, virtually none of the characters are able to liberate themselves and take flight. The pursuit of the hopeful ideals that developed during the Civil Rights Movement seems to almost hold down the black characters as much as slavery did. They pine endlessly over revenge, personal growth, wealth, education, and love. As the characters begin to gain wealth and power, some turn into greedy machines, living only to turn their labor into money and property. They win freedom from slavery, and alongside that, they also gain what has burdened the affluent population forever: money. While the American Dream results in the pursuit of a happy family, a house, and a good job; many of the black characters pursue a slightly different “African-American Dream” that entails freedom and power. Many become so engrossed in their wealth that they estrange family, friends, and lovers. Though money seemingly offers freedom in American culture, Morrison reveals the negative effects of the African-American Dream through Macon Jr., who displays how material goods rapidly become burdensome as he begins to value wealth more than his family or his people; as different as Guitar seems, he also succumbs to this obsession and forgets his core values. Milkman, however, at first experiments with his father’s path, but he eventually realizes that true liberation can be reached only by rejecting materialism in favor of freedom and following in Pilate’s footsteps.
Although Macon Dead Jr. is one of the wealthiest black people in his town, he becomes dominated by his quest to gain more wealth, regularly rejecting basic morals and losing sight of the value of relationships and human lives. As a teenager, Macon kills an old man out of fear, but quickly forgets his crime when he discovers that the man was hiding three sacks of gold, dreaming of “Life, safety, and luxury fanned out before him like the spread of a peacock” (170). This vision of a possible future overwhelms him, causing him to completely dismiss the fact that he just slaughtered a stranger. This culture of materialism in America often blinds people to anything but money, including the loss of a human life. Pilate tries to persuade him to leave the gold behind by cautioning him against stealing, however, Macon just responds, “This ain’t money; it’s gold. It’ll keep us for life, Pilate. We can get us another farm” (171). Although Macon is so young in this scene, he is already becoming enchanted by the allure of gold, regardless of possible consequences, such as guilt or arrest. He believes that gold can keep him “for life,” even though he could spend that life in prison. The two get into a physical fight over this decision, resulting in the dismantling of their relationship as siblings. When Macon Jr. later discovers that Milkman has been visiting Pilate, he tells him, “Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world[…]Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you own yourself and other people too (55). Macon’s first advice to his only son, Milkman, is about money and property. He summarizes his materialism in these few sentences, announcing his warped beliefs that only “things you own” can be of any use in life. Macon Jr. also tries to manipulate his teenage son into stealing from family and solving one of his childhood adversities by stealing the gold. Macon also often decides that money is worth more than human lives in his workplace.When an old woman begs for an extension on her rent so she can feed her children, Macon answers, “Can they make it in the street, Mrs. Bains? That’s where they’re gonna be if you don’t figure out some way to get me my money” (21). Although Macon does not need the four dollars and no benefit will come out of putting Mrs. Bains and her family out of home, his vision of more wealth turns him callous and selfish. His greatest goal in life is to expand his wealth, causing him to become emotionally “Dead” with regards to relationships with his family, friends, and community.
Like Macon Jr., Guitar becomes obsessed with the idea of more gold and, to fulfill his intentions, he becomes violent, mistrustful, and amoral. Guitar has delusions about what his life might be like after he and Milkman steal the sacks of gold: “What he would buy for his grandmother and her brother, Uncle Billy[…] the marker he would buy for his father’s grave, ‘pink with lilies carved on it’; then stuff for his brother and sisters, and his sisters’ children” (179). Guitar has barely even begun to formulate a plan to steal the gold and is already enraptured by what he could afford with it. Like Macon, he becomes blind to the crime he is committing to acquire the gold. He violates human values as well when he tells Milkman to steal from his aunt, even admitting how crazy he is becoming: “You can’t get no pot of gold being reasonable. Can’t nobody get no gold being reasonable. You have to be unreasonable” (183). By acknowledging that no “reasonable” person can become rich, Guitar justifies how he acts about the gold and rejects his core morals just like Macon Jr. did over the same sacks of gold. The apparent association between wealth and power corrupts his thoughts and actions. Later, Guitar tries to murder Milkman by wrapping a wire around his neck while he rests. When Milkman confronts Guitar and asks why he did this, Guitar simply replies, “You took the gold […] I saw you, motherfucker” (295). Guitar has become so paranoid about the gold that he believes that his best friend stole from him and his cause, and is now lying about it. Their long-lasting friendship has lost all value to Guitar after his visions of a wealthier and more meaningful life transformed him. After stalking Milkman and seeing him helping an old man lift a crate, Guitar cannot believe that Milkman would help someone out of the kindness of his heart and convinces himself the crate is full of stolen gold. Guitar’s visions of a better life derail his rationality and destroy his relationships, causing him to attempt to kill Milkman because Guitar believe that Milkman is preventing him from accumulating money.
Toward the beginning of the novel, Milkman emulates his father’s selfish persona, however, he ultimately realizes that liberation is not an outcome of excessive wealth but of freeing himself from material desire. When Guitar begins to talk about racial issues in America, Milkman thinks to himself, “His 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 for, inconvenience himself for” (107). Although Milkman is black and racial problems should be relevant to him, all he can think about is himself and how he can live the easiest life possible. After his father tells him he needs to own things and gives him a job in his rent-collecting office, fourteen year old Milkman believes, “Life improved for Milkman enormously after he began working for Macon” (56). He believes his father’s advice to him and he begins to start his journey towards owning things. Milkman thinks living like his father is much more beneficial than living like Pilate, so he continues working a boring job to make money. However, when Milkman is slightly older and plotting to steal gold with Guitar, he finds himself thinking of a different kind of gratification: “Because his life was not unpleasant and even had a certain amount of luxury in addition to its comfort, he felt off center. He just wanted to beat a path away from his parents’ past, which is also their present and was threatening to become his present as well” (180). Milkman begins to pull himself away from the hypnotic nature of gold that his family and Guitar fell for, realizing that he has enough indulgence in his life and instead seeks liberation from a life like his parents’: unpleasant, mediocre, and insatiable. He realizes that property is not the key to power and the Dream blinds people to what is truly important. Milkman finally understands that liberation from a boring, but wealthy, life like his father’s can come by freeing himself from materialism.
As one of the only characters not limited by materialism, Pilate evades many of the hardships the others face by deciding to liberate herself of desire and want. Her salvation comes when she decides to start her life over and tackles “the problem of trying to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her” (149). Pilate begins to free herself when she decides to change her way of life; she goes from allowing herself to be grounded by the isolation she faces because of her lack of a navel to rethinking what truly matters in her life. She creates a goal much greater than Macon and Guitar’s wishes of accumulation: gratification. She then asks herself “What do I need to stay alive? What is true in the world?” and gives up “all interest in table manners or hygiene, but acquired a deep concern for and about human relationships (149). By starting at square one, Pilate realizes that to be free, she needs to have a “deep concern for and about human relationships” and care about others, rather than just herself and money. Pilate does not allow herself to be roped in by the alluring visions of freedom and property and avoids the suffering that many characters face because of their materialism. Pilate also chooses winemaking to make a living because it “allowed her more freedom hour by hour and day by day than any other work a woman of no means whatsoever and no inclination to make love for money could choose” (150). Although her work is hardly extraordinary, Pilate manages to make enough money to get by and keep her dignity. This job also allows her to have freedom in her schedule and to buy what she needs, not what she wants on a whim. When Milkman first meets her, he notes that, “while she looked 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” (39). To Milkman, the “something” that was missing is probably a look of unhappiness that he associates with poverty. Although other characters assume Pilate must be struggling and wasting her time winemaking, she is the opposite: she never becomes rich through her work, but she is much happier and freer because of her lack of burdening wealth.
Throughout Song of Solomon, wealth is oftentimes associated with happiness and gratification while poverty is associated with misery and desolation. However, Morrison demonstrates that materialism has adverse effects on anyone cursed with it: Macon Jr. destroys his relationships, Guitar goes insane and tries to kill Milkman, and, early in his life, Milkman is selfish and withdrawn from his world. Though the African-American dream seems slightly different than the American Dream in this era, Morrison shows the holes in both: that the value of wealth often trumps the value of a human life. Eventually, Milkman escapes the obsession that has consumed so many people in his world and mimics Pilate’s lifestyle. Although Pilate is one of the poorest characters in the novel, she is the only one that has the ability to literally fly until Milkman is able to deliver himself from the burden of materialism and soars. Milkman tears himself from his past, gaining control of his life while learning that property and money do not create power or independence; he must decide to liberate himself from the materialism that consumes the world around him to fly.
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