Song of Solomon Summary

Overview

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.

Song of Solomon Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Song of Solomon is the account of Milkman Dead’s physical and spiritual journey to maturity. The quest for his Aunt Pilate’s gold leads him to his ancestral home in Virginia and the far more significant wealth of his personal and family history. Milkman’s journey is paralleled by Pilate’s long search for her father’s body and the meaning of his ghostly words. The novel turns on the conflict between two estranged households: that of Milkman’s parents, who embody materialism, and that of his aunt, who represents family.

The novel begins on February 18, 1931 (Morrison’s birthdate), with the disastrous flight of a man from the roof of “No Mercy” Hospital, triggering the labor of Milkman’s mother...

(The entire section is 752 words.)

Song of Solomon Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison’s third novel, received the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In her first work to feature a male protagonist, she established the rich narrative voice for which she has become famous. Macon “Milkman” Dead, grandson of a slave, evolves from a self-centered youth to a man of compassion and understanding. He completes this transition as he searches for his family origins, thus exemplifying Morrison’s belief in the importance of ancestors.

Originally, Milkman desires to know as little as possible about his family. Torn by the ongoing conflict between his parents, he sets out to find his inheritance, which he believes to be gold in the possession of his...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Song of Solomon Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Milkman Dead, so called because his lonely mother, Ruth Foster Dead, nursed him until he was six years old, grows up hating his family. His mother clings to her faded glory as the only daughter of Detroit’s first black doctor. His father, Macon Dead, is a ruthless landlord who built a successful realty business by exploiting his black tenants in Southside (the black section of the city, also called the Blood Bank for its frequent eruptions of violence) and who abused his wife.

At age twelve, Milkman meets Guitar Bains. Guitar introduces him to Milkman’s father’s sister, Pilate, whom Milkman knows his father hates. Pilate supports herself, her illegitimate daughter Reba, and Reba’s illegitimate daughter Hagar by...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Song of Solomon Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Song of Solomon, for which Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is an enormously complex novel which, at the same time, is her most absolutely clear work; it may be her most popular book.

From the first lines of the book, the novel concerns itself with the idea of black men flying, an image it gets from black folktales which said that in the days of slavery, every now and then a slave would remember how to fly and would fly back to Africa. The main character of the novel, Macon Dead III (who picks up the name Milkman because his mother, Ruth Foster Dead, nurses him until he is past the age at which a child is usually weaned), is born the day after a black life insurance agent, Robert Smith,...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)

Song of Solomon Summary

Part I
Song of Solomon begins with the flight of Robert Smith, an insurance agent, from the roof of Mercy Hospital. Smith...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)

Song of Solomon Chapter Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

Epigraph
The purpose of an epigraph, or inscription at the beginning of a novel is to introduce the major themes of the text. The epigraph of Song of Solomon introduces the motifs of flying and naming as key elements to understanding the novel.

The flying motif derives from black spirituals and the gospels, and particularly from the legendary folktale of the flying African. This myth, which has been handed down from generation to generation, perpetuates the belief that black people can fly. The belief in the actual physical ability to fly is less important than the belief in flight as a metaphor for freedom, spiritual transcendence, or an escape from something unpleasant by divine means. Even after death,...

(The entire section is 1762 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Mary: the barmaid and part-time owner of a bar in the Blood Bank, where Milkman and Guitar often go to drink

Summary
Macon Dead’s Sunday afternoon ritual is to show off his success by driving his well-heeled family across town to the wealthy, white neighborhoods in his expensive automobile. On these trips, Dead investigates new real estate markets. The year is 1936, and Macon contemplates the idea of an all-black vacation community in Honoré, similar to the summer resorts for white people.

A young Milkman is forced to sit backwards in the car in order to be able to see out the window. No one gets pleasure from the ride except Lena and Corinthians who pretend...

(The entire section is 1927 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Feather: he is the pool hall owner in the crime-riddled section of town called the Blood Bank

Railroad Tommy: one of two owners of Tommy’s Barbershop on Tenth Street. He is a member of the Seven Days

Hospital Tommy: one of two owners of Tommy’s Barbershop and a member of the Seven Days

Anna Djvorak: the Hungarian woman who credits Dr. Foster with saving her son’s life in 1903. Ruth Dead comes to her granddaughter’s wedding

Father Padrew: the Catholic priest who presides over Mrs. Djvorak’s granddaughter’s marriage, and who gives communion to Ruth Dead

Empire State: he is a Seven Days member who kills a white boy in a school yard...

(The entire section is 1879 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Winnie Ruth Judd: convicted murderess whom the blacks in the novel identify as an example of “white madness”

Summary
Despite being 31 years old when the chapter begins, Milkman continues to face an identity crisis. He is bored with life and realizes he has no real goals or ambitions. Contemplating what Christmas gifts to give Hagar, Milkman decides that he has lost interest in her after a 14-year relationship. Rather than buy Hagar a gift, Milkman decides to enclose cash in the “Dear John” letter he sends to her. In the impersonal letter he writes, he abruptly ends their relationship, thanks Hagar, and expresses his gratitude to her for the time they have shared. Hagar is...

(The entire section is 1165 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Moon: character who aids Guitar in preventing Hagar from killing Milkman

Preacher: head of family who took in an orphaned Pilate at age 12 when Pilate decided to search for her extended family

Pickers: migrants who Pilate lived and worked with for three years when she lived in New York State. They evicted her from their midst when they found out she had no navel

Father of Reba: Pilate’s lover on the Virginia island where she gave birth to Reba

Summary
In this chapter, Milkman conceals himself in Guitar’s room in order to avoid a spurned Hagar, who is intent on killing Milkman. Guitar continues to criticize Milkman’s selfishness, his lack...

(The entire section is 1714 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Guitar tries to make Milkman take responsibility for Hagar’s anguished state of being after Milkman has severed their relationship. Milkman objects to Guitar’s constant criticism of him and Guitar’s new conservative ways. Guitar no longer wants to party or have fun. Guitar finally reveals the reason behind his behavior. He tells Milkman about his membership in the Seven Days society, formed in 1920. The organization has its own code of justice because the white laws and courts don’t protect the black community. In the event that an innocent black is victimized, and the criminal is not brought to justice, the Days seek retribution. An innocent white will be killed on the same day of the week as the black...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Chapter 7 continues the theme of Milkman’s search for self. Milkman concludes that he needs distance from his family, and “bit” by the “wandering bug,” he makes plans to leave. Macon tries to detain him, telling Milkman “Money is freedom.”

When Milkman lets slip that Pilate has a green sack in her house with her “inheritance” in it, Macon concludes its the long-lost gold that he and Pilate discovered in a cave after their father died when Macon was 16 years old. Macon relays the story of how he and Pilate were homeless after their father was killed. Macon buried his father in a shallow grave, and Circe, the midwife, took them into her white slavemaster’s house, where she hid...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Guitar needs money for explosives to avenge the death of “four little colored girls” who have been “blown out of a church.” Milkman offers Guitar one-third of the gold, if Guitar will help Milkman steal it. While discussing a plan of action, Guitar is ruthless in his conversation with Milkman. Guitar says he will “knock off” Milkman’s relatives if it’s necessary. “What you doin’ with a heart anyway?” he asks Milkman.

Meanwhile, Milkman is preoccupied with the thought that Guitar may have already murdered for his vigilante organization. In spite of Milkman’s moral opposition to the Seven Days, he is mesmerized by the prospect of murder as something “exotic.” Milkman...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Michael-Mary Graham: the hack-poetess who hires Corinthians to work as a maid in her house

Mr. Solomon: the name Pilate gives to her imaginary husband, whose bones, she tells the police, are in the green sack that Milkman and Guitar steal from her house

Nero: member of the Seven Days that Milkman sees in Porter’s Oldsmobile

Summary
At the age of 42, Corinthians gets her first job outside the house, as a maid to an affected, hack-poetess. In spite of Corinthians refined upper middle-class upbringing and her college education, she had led a dead-end life with no prospects for marrying. Refusing to be resigned to a home-life of making artificial roses,...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Reverend Cooper: the Reverend of Danville, Pennsylvania who Milkman goes to visit to learn about his family’s past. Milkman finds out information about where the cave Pilate and Macon lived in is located from the Reverend

Esther Cooper: Reverend Cooper’s wife

The Butlers: the rich white family Circe works for. They killed Macon Dead I (Jake) in order to take possession of his property

Singing Bird (Sing): Pilate and Macon’s mother. She is a woman of mixed races, including American Indian

Nephew: the nephew of Reverend Cooper. He is called Nephew because he is the Reverend’s only nephew. He drives Milkman to visit Circe

Jake: the...

(The entire section is 2183 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mr. Solomon: the owner of Solomon’s General Store in Shalimar, Virginia. He is no relation to the immediate Solomon family or Pilate’s imaginary husband, Mr. Solomon

Children: a group of youngsters in Shalimar, Virginia who play a game and sing the song about Solomon that reveals the Dead family’s origins

Saul: Shalimar resident who comes to blows with Milkman

Omar: Shalimar resident who invites Milkman on the hunting trip

King Walker: the gas station owner and ex-star pitcher of the black baseball leagues who helps outfit Milkman in hunting gear for the hunting trip

Luther Solomon: a Shalimar resident who goes on the hunting trip. He is...

(The entire section is 1812 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Grace Long: a local school teacher in Shalimar and a friend of Susan Byrd’s. She flirts with Milkman and steals his watch

Lilah: cousin of Susan Byrd’s who “passes” for white

John: cousin of Susan Byrd’s who “passes” for white

Summary
Having absorbed the lessons of nature, Milkman forges his identity by pursuing his family history and the origins of his family name.

Milkman goes to see Susan Byrd and finds out that Susan’s grandmother, Heddy, is Sing’s mother.

Milkman continues to be puzzled over Guitar’s attempt on his life.

He marvels over his feeling of “connectedness” with the people of...

(The entire section is 962 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Lilly: the owner of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor

Marcelline: an employee of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor

Summary
Chapter 13 is a flashback to Michigan, and opens with Guitar finding Hagar after she’s made her final attempt on Milkman’s life. Guitar lectures Hagar on love, telling her “you can’t own a human being,” and a person “can’t value you more than you value yourself.” Hagar’s love is described as a “stingy little love that ate everything in sight.” He blames Pilate and Reba for spoiling her and not giving her the necessary tools to cope in the world outside the home.

Hagar is no longer a functioning human being, and lies comatose in her...

(The entire section is 935 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Milkman returns to Susan Byrd’s house, hopeful that she can further enlighten him about his family history after he has decoded the children’s song about Solomon. Susan fills in the gaps about Sing and Jake’s relationship and tells Milkman Jake was one of Solomon’s (or Shalimar’s) children; the names are synonymous. Susan also tells Milkman about the tale of the flying African: according to the legend, before witnesses Solomon flew off “like a bird” back to Africa to escape slavery, leaving his grieving wife Ryna and 21 sons behind, although he had tried to take Jake, his youngest, with him.

Analysis
Chapter 14 features a conversation between Susan Byrd and Milkman which...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Elated by his discovery of the story of the flying African, Milkman shares his exultation with Sweet by frolicking joyfully in the waters of Shalimar while yelling at the top of his lungs “my great-granddaddy could flyyyyyy and the whole damn town is named after him.”

On his return trip to Michigan, Milkman reads the road signs with interest and wonders “what lay beneath the names.” Milkman knows that “under the recorded names were other names, just as ‘Macon Dead,’ recorded for all time in some dusty file, hid from view the real names of people, places, and things. Names that had meaning”—names whose history was lost with their erasure.

Upon arriving in Michigan,...

(The entire section is 836 words.)