Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Shalimar (SHAL-ee-mahr). The ancestral home of Solomon and Ryna, Jake (Macon Dead), and Sing (Singing Bird). According to legend, Solomon could fly. Close by are Ryna’s Gulch and Solomon’s Leap. The mysteries of Pilate’s behavior, and Macon’s, are found here, and memorialized in a children’s song. Here Milkman finds his truth. Pilate finds peace as they bury their father’s bones in the land of his birth. She discards the burden symbolized by the earring she has worn all her life. As Milkman jumps from Solomon’s Leap, he knows he can soar. He has found truth, a connection through time and place that is forever unbroken by earthly bonds.
Dead home. Michigan home of the well-off family of Macon Dead, his wife, Ruth Foster Dead, and their two daughters, Magdalene, called Lena, and First Corinthians, located at 12 Not Doctor Street in a large city. It is a home filled with nice things, including a polished mahogany table and fresh flowers. They have a certain social status. Ruth is the daughter of the late Doctor Foster. Her husband Macon is a man of property and pride. His self-worth is tied to what he owns. Yet their home is truly a “dead” house. There is no life, no love within its walls. The Dead home is haunted by past secrets. Ruth is sad and loveless. Macon is angry and dissatisfied; he equates money with freedom. The daughters are troubled and frustrated, and Milkman is puzzled and angry at the rigid structure, and at his lack of personal peace and contentment in the constantly changing world of the 1960’s. The Dead home has a history, but it lacks roots.
Pilate’s house. Home of Pilate, her...
(The entire section is 710 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Song of Solomon is a novel whose third-person, limited omniscient narrator is sympathetic to the protagonist, Milkman Dead. To illustrate Milkman’s journey to self-knowledge as specifically African American, Toni Morrison uses Magical Realism, a worldview incorporating a culture’s myths, religion, and superstitions as natural, believable components of reality. The plot resembles a gothic detective story centered on four generations of one African American family, the Deads. At the age of thirty-one, Milkman knows little of his family history; he is caught in limbo, isolated from his past and uncertain about the future. His father tells him nothing of his own boyhood in Pennsylvania or about their relatives in Virginia; his aunt Pilate tells him a bit more, but her knowledge is limited. To become a man, Milkman needs to understand his heritage.
A former slave, Milkman’s grandfather received his name from information incorrectly recorded on a form. When asked his place of birth, he replied “Macon”; when asked about his father, he replied “Dead.” A careless clerk entered both words on the line marked “name,” so that the man’s name became Macon Dead. Such “accidents” impede Milkman’s quest for history. His grandfather became a successful farmer by cultivating wild forest into fertile farmland, but white neighbors coveted his land, offered to buy it, and killed him when he refused to sell, leaving Macon II and Pilate orphans. Pilate roamed from state to state, job to job, and man to man. Macon II finished...
(The entire section is 634 words.)
Song of Solomon (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
The title of the novel refers to a children’s song which is sung in part in the opening scene of the novel, recurs at intervals later, is heard in its entirety about four-fifths of the way through, and is the litany Milkman sings for the death of Pilate in the final scene. Associated with the song throughout the novel is death, bereavement, and flying. The bereaved sing this song of loss, this ballad of the flight into oblivion of Solomon, who leapt from a high outcropping of rock to return to his native Africa, leaving a grief-stricken wife and twenty-one children. And children chant this song as part of a game, a ritual remembrance of the event of long ago. Pilate sings the refrain as a funeral dirge, and finally Milkman himself sings the song as a lamentation for Pilate’s death, as a final statement of his identity, and as an assertion of his love and courage to face life or death. The novel is laced with references to the supernatural or transcendent: ghosts appear to Pilate, Solomon flies, weird sounds of monas issue forth from Ryna’s Gulch, and when the once passive Milkman leaps, and even soars, to his life-or-death confrontation with Guitar, his courage and assertion of willingness to fight for his life are an almost miraculous change from his former behavior.
The underlying theme of the whole story is love—the transmuting power of love to make life worthwhile: to give people the courage to live despite grueling adversity. Counterpoised to this theme of love is that of hate, and its deadly souring effect on all who harbor it within themselves. As the Biblical Song of Solomon is a song of love, so this novel is a song of the love of people for one another, and the effect it has on making the people who love, and those who are loved, endure and flourish.
It is the anguish of his loneliness and hatred which drives the insurance agent Smith finally to seek escape through his mad attempt to fly with cloth wings from the cupola of Mercy Hospital out across Lake Superior. We learn later that he is one of the Seven Days, who have dedicated their lives to murder. From the development of the character, Guitar, we learn how corrosive hate can be, so that finally Guitar suspects, condemns, and attempts to execute his best friend Milkman, who is blameless in the matter of deception which Guitar accuses him of. Guitar, who has tried to justify his murderous ways by saying that they were acts of love for his own people, undertaken only as retribution against white people for their murders of blacks, finally is murdering for anger, suspicion, greed, and even pure carelessness, as when he kills Pilate arising from her father’s graveside.
In the narrative, the action develops out of the static situation of the Macon Dead family, in which the parents live in a state of continual antagonism, erupting frequently into verbal confrontations and occasionally into physical assaults against the mother by the father. The mother’s passiveness is deceptive, however: she provokes the father’s anger by her remarks, and the children have learned that this is so.
The parents’ warfare, which has blighted both their lives, is based on their perception of their relative social status. The mother was the daughter of the most prominent black man in town, a doctor of some wealth and social connections. She grew up as the adored and adoring only child of the widowed doctor. When the young, ambitious Macon Dead appeared in town from obscure and obviously lowly origins, he sought to marry Dr. Foster’s daughter to enhance his own social status and to increase the amount of money available to him to invest in real estate. In short order he became embittered by the doctor’s only slightly veiled haughtiness and scorn, and jealous of his young wife’s continued ardent devotion to her father.
It is a triumph of the author’s character development that even though we have been told of the relationship between the father and daughter from the father’s point of view (it was not sexual, and he was somewhat embarrassed by her continued childlike closeness into her later teens), when Macon Dead tells Milkman of his conviction that his wife and father-in-law had been somehow sexually connected, the reader is, like Milkman, very nearly convinced. When finally the mother tells her version of the relationship she had with her father, Milkman and the reader are finally able to fit the confusing pieces together and see the situation with compassion and with despair—despair because there is no love to heal the breach between the husband and wife, despair because the anger and outrage at being rejected have poisoned them and are destroying their capacity to love and grow.
Milkman and his sisters are used by both parents. Both want to make the children into images of their own ideals and to make them reject the values and lifestyle of their mate. The mother wants Milkman to become a doctor like her father, and even suggests that he might take her maiden name as his own last name. She wants her daughters to marry well, and will consider as suitors only professional men. Then finally, when no such suitors appear, she considers that perhaps some civil worker like a postal employee might do. The father wants his son to join him in the real estate business he owns, and is adamant that the daughters shall choose men of ambition and status.
The father’s covetousness, his manipulation of his power in the community, and his inability to love people or be loved by them, drives his children and his wife and indeed everyone from any warm relationship with him. Contrasted to Macon Dead’s greed, suspicion, and self-righteousness is his sister Pilate’s openness, trust, and love. She is all that he is not. She lives in the utmost simplicity, with generosity, kindness, and love motivating all her actions. Macon cannot accept her love, her generosity, her ethics, nor her forgiveness. He tells Milkman, “You want to be a whole man, you got to know the whole truth”; yet he himself is the one who is constantly diminished by his lack of knowledge or acceptance of the truth. He...
(The entire section is 2539 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Song of Solomon, winner of the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, is an intricately woven, thematically complex novel that addresses ancestral history, class-versus-race bonds, and sexism. Milkman Dead begins searching for gold and freedom from familial ties; in the process of searching, he discovers his family history and learns about his own tribal power. Although the opening scene occurs in 1931, the characters tell stories that date back to the late nineteenth century, when Milkman’s great grandfather, Solomon, flew away from a field in which he worked as a slave, leaving behind twenty-one children and an African myth of flight.
Milkman is born despite his father’s efforts to make Ruth...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Morrison’s women in this novel are fascinating, and they are necessary to Milkman’s maturity and development as well as to the fulfillment of his journey. The magnificent Pilate, juxtaposed with her brother Macon, illustrates for Milkman how far removed his parents and sisters are from natural lives. During Milkman’s search in Virginia, women provide significant pieces to the puzzle of his history. An examination of Pilate, Ruth, and Hagar indicates, however, that Morrison wishes to point out that women are not allowed the freedoms that men enjoy in this society.
Milkman’s mother and aunt are the two important women in his life. As the daughter of the only African American doctor in town, Ruth is bred to an...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Chapter 1 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Mercy Hospital have an unofficial name, and what is that name?
2. What is the name of the poor section of town?
3. What does Robert Smith wear to help him fly?
4. What does the narrator say Milkman thinks of himself after he learns he can’t fly?
5. Why does Dr. Foster want a centerpiece on his dining room table, and what does it signify?
6. What fairy tale does Ruth compare nursing her son to? What is the significance of it?
7. What are the two names of Macon Dead’s office?
8. How is Pilate named?
9. How are pine needles significant in Pilate’s life? What do they symbolize?
(The entire section is 348 words.)
Chapter 2 Questions and Answers
1. What meaning did the Sunday afternoon rides have for Macon and Ruth?
2. Which direction does Milkman ultimately face in the car What does he see when he faces forward?
3. Why is the car called Macon Dead’s hearse?
4. How does Guitar describe Pilate’s house?
5. Does Milkman feel differently about his last name (Dead) after he visits Pilate? How?
6. What does Pilate say about the color black and the color green?
7. What does Pilate know about her mother’s bonnet? What doesn’t she know about her mother?
8. Why does Pilate say a brother and a cousin are the “same thing,” even if they don’t have the same...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
Chapter 3 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Milkman feel closer to President Franklin Roosevelt than to his father?
2. Why is Ruth jealous of death?
3. What does Ruth say to Macon that precipitates Macon smacking her in the jaw?
4. What word did Dr. Foster use to refer to the “Negroes” in the town? What was he most interested in when he delivered Milkman’s sisters?
5. How were Lena and Corinthians’ names chosen? Who else’s name was chosen by this method?
6. Why does Macon tell Milkman the story about his mother?
7. Does Milkman love his mother? Why or why not?
8. What horrible secret does Macon tell Milkman?
9. What does Macon’s...
(The entire section is 342 words.)
Chapter 4 Questions and Answers
1. What are some of the metaphors Milkman uses to describe Hagar?
2. What one gift that Hagar receives is especially out of place in her house?
3. What book does Pilate read?
4. What happens to Pilate’s mouth when she is upset?
5. Why does Reba want to be a patient in a hospital?
6. Does Guitar like Honoré? What does he call it?
7. What does Milkman equate being serious with?
8. What are some of the violent flower images the narrator uses to describe the garden in Milkman’s dream?
9. Who does Freddy say killed his mother?
10. Who else besides Guitar does Freddy say should know about the...
(The entire section is 255 words.)
Chapter 5 Questions and Answers
1. Do Guitar and Milkman get along better or worse after their quarrel about Honoré versus Alabama? Why?
2. Why does Guitar say Southerners can relate to Jesus?
3. Why does Guitar tell Milkman that a “Negro” can’t be an egg?
4. How often does Hagar attempt to kill Milkman?
5. Where does Milkman follow Ruth to?
6. What words does Ruth use to describe her father’s moral character?
7. Who aided Ruth in saving Milkman when Macon tried to abort him?
8. When was the last time Ruth and Macon had physical relations before they conceived Milkman? How many years elapsed between then and when Milkman was conceived?...
(The entire section is 336 words.)
Chapter 6 Questions and Answers
1. According to Milkman, what vices has Guitar given up?
2. What does Guitar say about white people as a race? Does he believe all white people have the potential to kill?
3. Does Milkman “buy into” Guitar’s views of white people? Why or why not?
4. What does Guitar say about the Mafia and the Klan?
5. What historic names does Guitar cite as potential killers?
6. Why did Robert Smith commit suicide and why did Henry Porter try to?
7. What does Guitar mean when he says of Robert Smith, “we do that rather than crack and tell somebody?”
8. Can Guitar have a family life as a member of the Seven Days?
(The entire section is 357 words.)
Chapter 7 Questions and Answers
1. What does Macon tell Milkman that freedom is?
2. Why doesn’t Macon know that Pilate has a green sack hanging from her ceiling?
3. Where do Pilate and Macon go after their father is killed?
4. Who buries Macon’s father, and where?
5. Why did the “slavemaster’s” house where Circe hid the children repulse Pilate and Macon?
6. What two possessions did Pilate have that belonged to her mother? What possession of her father’s did she have?
7. What happened to Pilate’s ear after she put on her earring? What did Circe do to help her?
8. Where were Macon and Pilate originally headed once they left Circe’s house?...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
Chapter 8 Questions and Answers
1. Why does the narrator say Milkman includes Guitar in the plan to steal the gold?
2. Why does Milkman suddenly start buying newspapers? What kind of reports is Milkman looking for?
3. As Milkman and Guitar discuss their plan for stealing the gold, what image does Milkman see as he stares “off into the sky for inspiration”?
4. Why is Milkman aware of a falseness in his voice when he talks to Guitar about what he will buy with the gold? Why does he really want the gold?
5. What does Milkman say about the way Pilate’s household tells time?
6. Where does Milkman tell Guitar are the only places Pilate, Reba, and Hagar go together?
(The entire section is 403 words.)
Chapter 9 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Corinthians’ mother approve of the title “amanuensis”?
2. What is the actual work Corinthians does?
3. What work had Corinthians done up until this point?
4. Why don’t the men of the community want to marry Corinthians?
5. What college did Corinthians attend? What colleges would the men have preferred?
6. According to the narrator what did a “four-year dose of liberal education” do to Corinthians?
7. What kind of shoes did Corinthians wear to and from work?
8. How does Henry Porter introduce himself to Corinthians?
9. What covers Henry Porter’s walls? What do the dates signify?...
(The entire section is 301 words.)
Chapter 10 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Milkman tell Guitar he intends to go to Danville on his own?
2. What does Guitar answer when Milkman tells him “Everybody wants something from me...”?
3. What does Guitar tell Milkman about his father?
4. What does Guitar see in the eyes of his mother after the “white man” gives her $40?
5. When Guitar says “just recently one of us was put out on the street,” who is he referring to? Who is the “us” in the phrase? Who is responsible?
6. What are some of the things that indicate Milkman is wealthy when he goes to Danville?
7. When Milkman meets Reverend Cooper, why does the Reverend become extremely...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
Chapter 11 Questions and Answers
1. What do the Shalimar women carry in their hands? What does Milkman expect to see them carrying?
2. Why does Milkman end up buying a car to travel to Shalimar?
3. What does Milkman say about “southern hospitality”?
4. How does Mr. Solomon pronounce Shalimar?
5. What message does Guitar leave with Mr. Solomon for Milkman? What does it mean?
6. Why didn’t Milkman play as a child the way the children of Shalimar do?
7. How did Milkman and Guitar originally meet?
8. What are the two major things Milkman does wrong to incite the men of Shalimar?
9. What is the name of the place where the wind sounds like a...
(The entire section is 386 words.)
Chapter 12 Questions and Answers
1. Who does Milkman specifically go to see in Chapter 12 to find out more information about his family? What specifically does he want to know?
2. What is Sing’s relationship to Susan Byrd and her father?
3. What is Susan Byrd’s grandmother’s name?
4. Is it true that it isn’t important for Milkman to find his people?
5. What does Milkman realize the ghost is telling Pilate when it says, “Sing”?
6. Since Pilate doesn’t have a navel, what else does Milkman figure can also be true?
7. What does Milkman realize he’s left behind at Susan Byrd’s house?
8. Why does Guitar try to kill Milkman? Why doesn’t...
(The entire section is 344 words.)
Chapter 13 Questions and Answers
1. What metaphor does Guitar use to symbolize what love should be like?
2. Pilate and Reba are credited with being able to “make up (their lives)” each because they have a quality Hagar lacks. What are those qualities?
3. What happens now when Reba tries to win things?
4. What facial descriptions are used to describe Pilate and Reba’s anxiety over Hagar’s condition?
5. What does Reba pawn in order to get Hagar the necessary money for her shopping trip? How much money does Hagar take with her to shop?
6. Why does Marcelline of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor agree to take Hagar as a customer in spite of the late hour?
7. What happens...
(The entire section is 345 words.)
Chapter 14 Questions and Answers
1. Why doesn’t Susan Byrd tell Milkman the truth about his family in front of Grace Long?
2. According to Susan Byrd, what is Jake’s last name?
3.Who did Solomon leave behind when he flew back to Africa?
4. Approximately how many families consider themselves the kin of Solomon in the town of Shalimar?
5. What place besides the town is named after Solomon? What is its significance?
6. What other reason does Susan Byrd give to explain why Ryna lost her mind besides the reason of “love”?
7. How does Susan Byrd explain to Milkman why the children’s song says, “Jake the only son of Solomon?
8. Who took care of...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
Chapter 15 Questions and Answers
1. Where does Milkman want to swim?
2. Once Sweet learns that Solomon flew back to Africa, what is her next question? Why?
3. Why does Milkman read the road signs “with interest” on his ride back to Michigan?
4. What is the official name of “Not Doctor” street? Why isn’t it used?
5. Why doesn’t the narrator include a list of names in the last chapter?
6. What does Milkman conclude that all human relationships “boil down to”?
7. What does Pilate do when, upon Milkman’s return, he tries to embrace her?
8. Where is the “something of Hagar’s” that Pilate has put near Milkman in the cellar?
(The entire section is 358 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
Techniques / Literary Precedents
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bakerman, Jane S. “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” American Literature 52, no. 4 (January, 1981): 541-563. Explores women characters’ search for love and self-worth in Morrison’s first three novels. Notes that each woman defines herself by “the standards and desires of a beloved man,” which results in her incomplete initiation and failed integration into the community.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Collection of scholarly essays on Morrison; includes an essay on trauma and shame in Morrison’s fiction, as well as a study of acts of unification...
(The entire section is 435 words.)