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 relies instead on suspicion and conjecture. Just as he suspects his wife of incestuous...