In Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” we embark on a journey that combines the mystical with the all-too-real, exploring deep themes of identity, heritage, and the indomitable spirit of seeking freedom.
The novel unfurls the saga of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, whose story is a quest for self-discovery against the backdrop of African-American life in the mid-20th century.
The story unfolds with Mr. Smith, an insurance agent tied to the ominous Seven Days society, leaping to his demise from No Mercy Hospital’s roof. This event coincides with Ruth Foster breaking racial barriers as the first African-American woman to deliver a baby, Macon Dead III, within the hospital’s walls.
The child, later nicknamed Milkman due to his prolonged nursing period, grows up befriending Guitar and meeting his aunt Pilate, despite his father Macon Dead II’s disapproval.
Macon Dead II, a man driven by material wealth, instills in Milkman the belief that ownership equates to power and self-worth.
However, Milkman’s privileged life soon leads him down a path of naivety and self-centeredness, lacking any true spiritual direction. His teenage years bring him closer to Guitar and ignite a romance with Pilate’s granddaughter, Hagar.
As Milkman steps into adulthood, helping his father with business affairs, he discovers Guitar’s involvement in the Seven Days society, a group bent on avenging racial injustices through violence. Milkman’s realization of Guitar’s deep-seated anger strains their friendship.
The plot thickens when Macon Dead II learns of Pilate’s supposed inheritance, a green sack believed to contain gold, and convinces Milkman to steal it.
The heist, however, only uncovers human bones, leading to their brief incarceration until Pilate clarifies the misunderstanding. This encounter with the law sparks a change in Milkman, propelling him on a journey to Pennsylvania and then to Shalimar, Virginia, in pursuit of his family’s legacy rather than material wealth.
Milkman’s quest in Virginia, shadowed by Guitar’s murderous intent over a misconceived betrayal, unveils his ancestry through a song that chronicles Solomon’s flight back to Africa, leaving behind a legacy of sorrow and resilience.
Milkman learns of his roots: Solomon’s son, Jake, and his union with Singing Bird, marking the beginning of his lineage in America.
Transformed by the revelations of his family’s history and the intimate connections within the Shalimar community, Milkman returns home a changed man, only to find Hagar dead from heartbreak.
In a final act of restitution, Milkman and Pilate return to Virginia to lay Jake’s remains to rest, an endeavor cut short by tragedy as Pilate falls to a bullet meant for Milkman.
In the face of loss, Milkman’s leap towards Guitar, embracing the air, symbolizes his acceptance of his heritage and the transcendental power of flight, concluding his spiritual odyssey with a profound sense of self-discovery and reconciliation.
Macon “Milkman” Dead III
Milkman is the protagonist, whose life journey encapsulates the quest for identity, self-understanding, and spiritual awakening.
Born into a world of privilege and material wealth, his path evolves from one of selfishness and disconnection to a profound exploration of his ancestral roots and the true meaning of freedom.
His transformation is marked by the discovery of his family’s history and the realization of the importance of community and connection to the past.
Macon Dead II
Milkman’s father, a successful businessman, represents the embodiment of materialism and the American Dream distorted by racial inequalities.
His obsession with wealth and property is a shield against the racial injustices he has faced, yet it also alienates him from his family and his cultural heritage.
His complicated relationships with his children and sister, Pilate, reflect his inner conflict between his desires for power and his unacknowledged longing for a deeper sense of belonging.
Pilate is the novel’s moral compass and symbol of enduring strength, spiritual depth, and connection to the past.
As Macon II’s sister, she chooses a life of independence and poverty over material wealth, embodying the novel’s themes of identity and heritage.
Her role in the story is pivotal, guiding Milkman towards his spiritual journey and representing a living link to his ancestral roots.
Guitar is Milkman’s best friend, whose life is shaped by racial violence and the desire for vengeance. As a member of the Seven Days society, he seeks justice for racial atrocities by mirroring them, representing the destructive cycle of violence and revenge.
His friendship with Milkman is complex, highlighting the tension between their differing worldviews and the impact of systemic racism on personal relationships.
Hagar is Pilate’s granddaughter and Milkman’s lover, whose tragic obsession with him leads to her downfall.
Her character arc explores themes of love, rejection, and the devastating effects of unreciprocated affection. Hagar’s story is a poignant commentary on the intersections of gender, race, and societal expectations.
Ruth Foster Dead
Milkman’s mother, Ruth, is a figure marked by her stifling marriage to Macon Dead II and her estrangement from her own desires and autonomy.
Her relationship with Milkman is complex, filled with both love and misunderstanding, and her actions reflect the struggles of women to find agency within the confines of their roles in family and society.
Although Solomon does not appear directly in the story, his legendary flight back to Africa casts a long shadow over the Dead family.
As Milkman’s great-grandfather, Solomon’s escape from slavery and subsequent abandonment of his family become a central myth that frames the novel’s exploration of freedom, loss, and the longing for a homeland.
1. Search for Identity
Central to the novel is Milkman Dead’s journey towards self-discovery, a theme that Morrison intricately unfurls against the backdrop of African-American history and culture.
Milkman’s quest is not just a literal journey through geographical landscapes but a metaphorical voyage into the depths of his past, where he seeks to understand his place in a world marked by racial injustices and familial legacies.
This theme magnifies the importance of knowing one’s roots as a foundation for true identity.
Milkman’s transformation from a disenchanted individual, oblivious to his heritage, into a person enriched by the understanding of his ancestral lineage, underscores the narrative’s assertion that personal identity is inextricably linked to one’s history and culture.
2. The Legacy of Ancestry and the Power of Names
Morrison delves deep into the significance of ancestry, highlighting how the past continuously shapes the present and future.
The novel reveals the stories of Milkman’s ancestors, each carrying a piece of history that contributes to Milkman’s understanding of his identity. The motif of flight, which begins with Solomon’s mythical escape from slavery, symbolizes the desire for liberation and the burdens of abandonment left on those who remain.
Furthermore, Morrison emphasizes the power of names within the African-American community as vessels of history and identity. Names in the novel, often laden with history and meaning, act as markers of the characters’ identities, connecting them to their pasts and influencing their destinies.
This theme suggests that reclaiming one’s history and name can be a source of strength and pride, offering a path to transcendence over the limitations imposed by society.
3. The Complexity of Human Relationships and Community
Morrison intricately portrays the complexities of familial and community relationships, demonstrating how these bonds are tested, broken, and ultimately healed.
Through the dynamics between Milkman, his family, and the broader community, the novel explores themes of love, betrayal, and redemption.
The strained relationship between Milkman and Guitar exemplifies the tension between personal ambition and loyalty to one’s community, while the evolving bond between Milkman and Pilate highlights the healing power of understanding and forgiveness.
Furthermore, the depiction of the Seven Days society and the communal life in Shalimar, Virginia, reflects on the collective struggle of African-Americans against oppression and the importance of solidarity.
Morrison suggests that community and connections are essential for personal growth and overcoming adversity, advocating for a sense of belonging that transcends individualism.
“Song of Solomon” is a masterful exploration of the African-American experience, blending the real and the mystical to tell a story of finding one’s place in the world through the discovery of where one truly comes from.
It’s a journey of flight and the search for identity, where the true gold is the song of one’s own soul, echoing the tales of those who came before.