Summary of the Novel
This bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel traces the birth, youth, and maturation of the protagonist, Milkman Dead. Born in Michigan in 1931 by miraculous means, Milkman is a gifted child until he learns at the age of four that humans cannot fly. Changed by this revelation, he grows up a spoiled, self-centered child. Torn between the magical, spiritual world of his father’s sister, Pilate, and that of his greedy property-owning father Macon Dead, Milkman follows in the footsteps of his father and becomes Macon’s assistant. Burdened by his parents’ unspeakable confidences and troubled by his loveless household, he seeks solace at his Aunt Pilate’s and by spending time with his best friend, Guitar Bains.
Living a spoiled, infantile existence until the age of 31, Milkman’s sole reason for being is to seek pleasure. After a 14-year relationship with Pilate’s granddaughter, Hagar, loses its lustre, Milkman decides to end it. Hagar has become too accessible, and their love-making, which so tantalized Milkman when he was younger, has lost its appeal. Distraught by Milkman’s mistreatment of her, Hagar repeatedly tries to kill him.
Guitar further complicates Milkman’s life when he confesses to Milkman that he is a member of a radical organization, the Seven Days, that avenges the unprosecuted deaths of innocent blacks by randomly killing whites under similar circumstances.
Lacking a social consciousness and fed up with the seriousness of life, Milkman decides he needs to separate himself from his oppressive world by traveling. When Macon suggests that Milkman steal a sack which ostensibly has gold in it from Pilate’s house, Milkman sees the gold as a way to finance his trip and finally be independent.
Macon tells Milkman that the gold is from a cave near Danville, Pennsylvania, the town Macon and Pilate grew up in. Macon explains that he and Pilate lived in the cave for several days after their father was murdered by a white family who wanted the Dead property. When a white man approached the cave, a fearful Macon killed him, suspecting him of being one of the men that killed Macon Dead I. Afterwards, he and Pilate discovered gold in the cave, but Pilate and Macon argued when Pilate told Macon it was morally wrong to keep it. This argument created a permanent breach in their relationship.
Macon now tells Milkman that he believes Pilate went back to the cave to retrieve the gold. Without expressing any concern for the morality of his actions, Milkman agrees to steal the gold with the help of Guitar, who wants the money to finance his vigilante organization. After stealing the sack, the two men discover there is no gold in it, only what they believe are a white man’s bones. These are, ostensibly, the bones of the white man Macon killed in the cave, the bones that the ghost of Macon Dead I told Pilate to go back and retrieve because “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body.”
Undeterred by this first dead-end, Macon suggests that the gold must still be in the cave in Pennsylvania. Milkman agrees to go to Danville to search the cave for the gold. Milkman seeks out Circe, the midwife who delivered Macon and Pilate. Through Circe, Milkman learns the names of his paternal grandparents—Jake and Sing—and the location of the cave where Milkman believes the gold is. Milkman searches Hunter Cave and determines that the gold and the bones of his grandfather are no longer there. From what Circe tells Milkman, he concludes that the bones in Pilate’s sack must be those of Pilate’s father.
Less interested in his family history then in finding the gold, Milkman proceeds to Shalimar, Virginia, the birthplace of his paternal grandparents. In the all-black town, he finds the men hostile toward his urban manners and his lack of community etiquette. Milkman is perplexed by this reception after he was treated with such “southern hospitality” in Danville, where his family was the “object of hero worship.”
The men of Shalimar invite Milkman on a hunting trip. On the trip, he discovers a new-found humility and an appreciation of community when he is forced to work with and rely on his fellow man. Milkman reflects on his mistreatment of his family, and of Pilate and Hagar, and develops a social consciousness. While in the woods, Guitar, who believes Milkman has hoarded the gold for himself, unsuccessfully tries to kill Milkman. Milkman protests that there is no gold, but Guitar doesn’t believe him.
No longer interested in gold, Milkman resolves instead to search for his family name and history. Ultimately, Milkman realizes the final piece of the puzzle to his family name can be found in the song the Shalimar children are always singing. Overjoyed at the realization that the Solomon that the children sing of in their song is Milkman’s paternal great-grandfather, he returns home to Michigan to share the information with his family.
Upon Milkman’s arrival, he discovers that Hagar has killed herself. Remorseful, and taking responsibility for something for the first time in his life, Milkman takes a grieving Pilate to Shalimar to bury her father’s bones at Solomon’s Leap, near his birthplace.
After the burial, Guitar appears, and in the darkness accidently shoots Pilate dead. As Milkman makes out Guitar’s figure on a distant rock, he leaps from the cliff he is standing on and flies into the air toward Guitar’s arms.
The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children of George Wofford, a shipyard welder, and Ramah Willis Wofford. Morrison recalls a childhood filled with singing and oral storytelling. While Morrison was an avid reader of the great Russian writers, Madame Bovary, and Jane Austen, she also vividly remembers the African folklore and myths that were an integral part of her youth.
Morrison refers to the oral storytelling in her household as “a spoken library.” She describes it as “children’s stories my family told, spirituals, the ghost stories, the blues, and folk tales and myths, and the everyday....” Morrison “wanted to write out of the matrix of memory, of recollection, and to approximate the sensual and visceral responses (she) had to the world (she) lived in....” From this she wanted “to recreate the civilization of black people...the manners, judgments, values, morals....” (Morrison, 29)
Born into the Depression era, in a multicultural town near Cleveland, Morrison was exposed to the struggling masses who often went hungry. She was also exposed to the injustices of racism, although she had many white friends as a child. Morrison tells of her mother battling segregation by refusing to sit in the “colored” section on public buses. Morrison’s father “received shocking impressions of adult white people” while growing up in Georgia, and the bitterness never left him. (Strouse, 53)
Morrison completed high school at the top of her class and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. Upon entering college, she changed her name to “Toni.” While at Howard, she joined the Howard University Players, a repertory troupe, and toured the Deep South during several summers. “...Seeing its roads, its shotgun houses, its schools, its particular brand of segregation” left a deep impression on her. “Seeing first-hand what life was like for Southern blacks in the late 1940s and early 1950s” made the stories Morrison had heard her parents tell about the hardships of their lives in the South more tangible. Morrison’s maternal grandfather, John Solomon Willis, “had been cheated out of his 88 acres of Alabama land, land legally granted to his Indian mother by the U.S. government following the Civil War.” (Century, 33–35)
Morrison graduated with a B.A. in English in 1953. She completed an M.A. in English from Cornell in 1955.
Morrison taught at Texas Southern University for two years before returning to teach at Howard. Morrison’s presence at Howard was important for her growing social consciousness. In 1957, the civil rights movement was just beginning. Living in the nation’s capital and teaching at one of the most prestigious black colleges in the country, Morrison was exposed to many key black figures in the civil rights movement. Among others, she knew Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), the radical black poet and had Claude Brown (the future author of Manchild in the Promised Land) as one of her students. Another student, Stokely Carmichael, the future leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became “one of the most vocal advocates of the Black Power movement.” (Century, 37)
In 1957, Morrison married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. They were divorced in 1964, but not before having two sons.
In 1965, Morrison entered publishing. She worked first as an editor at Random House, in the Syracuse office, and subsequently was promoted to a senior editor in the New York office, where she worked until 1983. While at Random House, she edited works by Muhammad Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and many other important black writers. She also worked on The Black Book, a compilation of slave narratives, news clippings, advertisements, and photographs that records three centuries of black history.
In 1989, after having taught at the State University at Purchase and at Albany, Bard College, Yale, and Rutgers, Morrison accepted an endowed professorship at Princeton University. She was the first black woman to receive such an honor.
Her first novel, the critically acclaimed The Bluest Eye (1970) deals with the issue of racism and its impact on young black girls growing up poor in Ohio. The novel centers around Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl who believes that she can right all the wrongs of her world if only she can have blue eyes. A major theme of the novel, and of subsequent novels by Toni Morrison, is the difficulty of maintaining a secure black identity in a world where the larger society conspires against that identity. Critic Jean Strouse adeptly points out the parallels between Pecola Breedlove’s conflict and that of African-Americans historically by drawing an analogy with W.E.B. Du Bois’s work The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois speaks of a “double consciousness” by which the African-American constantly experiences “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (Strouse, 54)
The Bluest Eye was followed by Sula (1974), a novel about the friendship of Sula Peace and Nel Wright and their attempt to re-create themselves because “they were neither white nor male, and that (therefore) all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them....” Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon (1977) was a bestseller, and her first novel in which the protagonist was male. Susan Lardner describes the novel as “a domestic epic—a rhapsodic work, demonstrating the virtues of the spoken word and the abiding presence in certain corners of the world of a lively oral tradition.” (Lardner, 217) Morrison believes it is important for black culture to know that it has “a legitimate source of language.” Morrison emphasizes that black culture is “most accessible in the language, the structure, the sound, what people call slang, the metaphors, the similes, the paradoxes, the ironies….”(Morrison, 29)
It is Morrison’s ability to convey this language both in her narratives and the dialogues of her characters that gives her work its strong expressive powers. Morrison describes language as “the thing that black people love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s; to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen (to black people) would be to lose that language.” (LeClair, 27)
The African-American male writers who preceded Morrison—such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin—wrote about the problems of being a black man in a white society. The “black power” advocates of the 1960s such as Stokely Carmichael and Leroi Jones wrote “...books and political slogans about power...addressed to white men trying to explain or prove something to them.” Morrison explains that “The fight was between men, for king of the hill.” (Strouse, 55)
The voices of African-American women writers, and Toni Morrison in particular, have a different focal point than their male counterparts. Their intention, first and foremost, is to address the black community. Toni Morrison categorizes her fiction as “village literature.” Morrison writes fiction “for my people, which is necessary and legitimate but which also allows me to get in touch with all sorts of people.” Morrison believes that writing is an act “to give nourishment” to her readers. Rather than accept the new “urban values,” Morrison looks to restore the “old values” and “the language that black people spoke to its original power.” (LeClair, 26) Morrison, like Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and other African-American women writers, uses black oral history, myth, and folklore to restore black culture’s heritage.
In 1980, among other honors, President Jimmy Carter appointed Morrison to the National Council on the Arts.
Morrison’s fourth novel, Tar Baby was published in 1981. Seven years later, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her novel on slavery, Beloved (1987). Her next novel, Jazz, appeared in 1992.
In 1993, Morrison was the first African-American to win the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature for a body of work that is now internationally recognized for its high literary quality, its concern with moral issues, and its depth of imagination.
Estimated Reading Time
Since each page contains about 400 words, the average student would take approximately two minutes to read each page. The total reading time of the 341-page book would be between 11 and 12 hours. The best approach is to read the book according to the natural chapter breaks.