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...
(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....
(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...
(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 perform a home abortion. The problems in Macon and Ruth’s marriage stem in part from Macon’s discovery of Ruth lying naked in bed beside her father’s corpse, kissing his hands. Moreover, Macon denies his wife and two daughters any respect or autonomy, using them instead as gauges of his financial success. Macon defines life as “learning to own things,” and the things he owns include his family members.
When Milkman becomes a teenager, Macon tries to involve Milkman in his business of renting property in a low-income district. Macon constantly counts and rattles his keys to the properties he rents, indicating his pride in ownership. Nevertheless, it is during these years that Milkman meets Pilate, the sister from whom...
(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 upper-middle-class existence. She is presented in the novel as the underside of the ideal Southern lady image. She is totally cut off from life, benevolently imprisoned by her father, and spitefully contained by her husband, who marries her because of her class position and despises her for her inherent weakness. Ruth’s life is one of uneventful waste. As critic Barbara Christian explains, her life is symbolic of the terror that awaits those women who become the emblem of a man’s wealth and class position.
Unlike Ruth, Pilate exists totally outside societal structures, as is indicated by her lack of a navel. Her home, which is not even equipped with electricity, stands outside town. She sees little value in material things and...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Post-World War I America
Though Song of Solomon is set during the 1950s and 60s, much of its action results from events that happened at the turn of the century, including the Great Migration and World War I and its aftermath. The Great Migration involved the movement of millions of southern Blacks to the urban North in search of jobs and freedom in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. In her novel, Morrison gives voice to one of those families, the Deads, showing their progression from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Michigan. Likewise, Guitar has left the South with his family after his father's death, and no doubt many of the other inhabitants of Southside are relatively recent migrants from the rural South. The Great Migration, though it represented marginal material progress, is also portrayed by Morrison, among others, as representing the loss of a traditional rural culture. Certainly her characterization of Macon Dead, whose loss of his father and his rural lifestyle makes him emotionally stingy and materially greedy, represents this loss.
In addition to heading north, many Blacks enlisted in the armed forces during World War I as a way to improve their status in society. They were subject to discrimination even during their time in the armed forces, but they hoped that the war's end would bring new opportunities in economic life and in civil rights. After all, the war had been waged ostensibly to protect and extend...
(The entire section is 562 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?
10. Why does Macon go to Pilate’s house?
1. Mercy Hospital is called “No Mercy” Hospital by the black residents because they are not permitted to enter the hospital.
2. The name of the poor part of town is Southside.
3. Robert Smith wears “wide blue silk wings.”
4. Milkman “lost all interest in himself” when he learned he couldn’t fly. “To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull even to the women who did not hate his mother.”
5. Dr. Foster sees the centerpiece as a symbol of wealth and refinement to distinguish his family from “the people among whom they lived.” He wants to...
(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 mother?
9. What does Pilate think of being scared of something that isn’t real?
10. Why doesn’t Macon want Milkman to visit Pilate?
1. For Macon, the Sunday afternoon drives were a way to show off his wealth and look for new real estate markets. For Ruth, the drives were a way to display her family.
2. Milkman faces backward in the car. When he faces forward, he can only see “the laps, feet, and hands of his parents, the dashboard, or the silver winged woman poised at the tip of the Packard.”
3. The car is called Macon Dead’s hearse because with the exception of Lena and Corinthians, the car has “no real lived life at all.”
(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 story compel Milkman to remember?
10. What news is being broadcast over the radio when Milkman arrives at Tommy’s Barber Shop?
1. Milkman feels closer to the late FDR because FDR had polio and Milkman believes one of his legs is shorter than the other. Milkman’s father is too perfect for Milkman to be like him.
2. Ruth is jealous of death because when her father died, she felt he purposely chose death because it was “a more provocative companion” than she was. Ruth felt “personal failure” and “rejection.”
3. Ruth tells Macon, “I certainly am my daddy’s daughter.”
4. Dr. Foster called the “Negroes” in the town “cannibals,” and...
(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 “strange things” going on in town?
1. Milkman refers to Hagar as “his private honey pot” and “the third beer.”
2. The one gift Hagar receives that is especially out of place in her household is a bathrobe, because she has no bathroom.
3. Pilate reads a fourth-grade geography book.
4. When Pilate is upset, her mobile mouth becomes still.
5. Reba wants to go to the hospital because she thinks it’s a “nice hotel.”
6. Guitar doesn’t like Honoré. He refers to it as a “nigger heaven.”
7. Milkman equates being serious with being “miserable.”
8. Some of the violent flower images the narrator uses to describe...
(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?
9. What did Pilate give Ruth to entice Macon into sleeping with her?
10. What piece of fruit does Pilate offer Ruth both times that she visits? Why can’t Ruth eat it?
1. Guitar and Milkman get along better after their quarrel because of its cleansing effect on their relationship: “They were easy with each other now that they didn’t have to pretend.”
2. Guitar says Southerners can relate to Jesus because they can relate to his being “strung up on a tree.”
3. Guitar says a “Negro” can’t be an egg because his genes won’t allow it: “Nature says no.”
4. Hagar attempts to kill Milkman at least once every month.
(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?
9. What does Guitar say when Milkman says that there’s “no love in it,” referring to the Seven Days?
10. Why does Milkman “take Guitar to task” when Guitar says “we don’t off Negroes”?
1. According to Milkman, Guitar has given up “smoking,” “fucking,” and “drinking.”
2. Guitar says that as a race, white people are “unnatural.” He believes because they’re “unnatural” that any one of them has the potential to kill.
3. No, Milkman does not agree with Guitar. He thinks Guitar is unfairly stereotyping white people.
4. Guitar says the Mafia “kills for money,” and the Klan “kills for fun.”
5. Guitar cites the...
(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? Why?
9. What happened to Pilate and Macon on the third day after they left Circe’s house?
10. What remained in the cave and what was gone when Macon returned to it after his rift with Pilate?
1. Macon tells Milkman that “money is freedom.”
2. Macon doesn’t know Pilate has a green sack hanging from her ceiling because Macon has never been in his sister’s house.
3. After their father’s death, Macon and Pilate are hidden by the midwife Circe at the house where she is employed. When they leave there, they live out in nature and then in a cave.
4. Macon buried his father near a stream where he and Macon Dead I used to fish together....
(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?
7. What smell fills the air on September 19, 1963?
8. How is the lake described at the beginning of the chapter?
9. What does the green sack hanging from Pilate’s ceiling “promise”?
10. What does Guitar see in the moonlight as he and Milkman leave Pilate’s house?
1. Milkman includes Guitar in his plan to recover the gold because “maybe he wanted to see Guitar warm and joking again, his face open and smiling instead of with the grim reaper look.” Milkman also wants Guitar involved because “he could look forward to both fun and fear.”
2. Milkman buys the newspaper to look for “reports of murders that appeared suspicious, pointless” to...
(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?
10. What kind of imitation does Pilate do to get Milkman and Guitar released from jail?
1. Corinthians’ mother approves of the word “amanuensis” because “it was straight out of the 19th century” and “the rickety Latin word” makes Corinthians’ work seem important.
2. Corinthians’ actual work is as a maid.
3. Up until this point, Corinthians had made red velvet roses.
4. The men of the town didn’t want to marry Corinthians because she “lacked drive.” They believe women like her are too “accustomed to middle-class life” and that they have “no ambition, no hunger, no hustle in them.”
5. Corinthians attended Bryn Mawr. The men...
(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 friendly and solicitous with Milkman?
8. What does Reverend Cooper offer Milkman to drink? What is it stored in?
9. Who made Pilate’s earring for her?
10. How do the men of Danville describe Milkman’s father as a youth?
1.Milkman tells Guitar he needs to go to Danville by himself because he wants to be independent and that it would look “suspicious” if two men were “roaming around the woods” looking for gold.
2. Guitar tells Milkman “They want your life, man.”
3. Guitar thinks Milkman’s father is “a very strange Negro” who “behaves like…and thinks like a white man.”
4. “A willingness to love” was shining in the...
(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 sobbing woman?
10. What does the earth tell Milkman when he listens to it?
1. The Shalimar women carry nothing in their hands where Milkman would expect to see a pocketbook, change purse, wallet, keys, paper bag, comb or handkerchief.
2. Milkman buys a car to travel to Shalimar because the town is so small that he can’t get there directly by train or bus.
3. Milkman says that southern hospitality is “for real.” He wonders why “black people ever left the south,” and he thinks “the Negroes are as pleasant, wide-spirited, and self-contained as could be.”
4. Mr. Solomon pronounces the name Shalimar as “Shalleemone.”
5. The message...
(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 Guitar believe Milkman’s explanation?
9. Why wasn’t Milkman really afraid of being killed by Hagar?
10. What does the reference to the “red man’s house” in the children’s song mean?
1. Milkman goes to Susan Byrd’s house because he wants to find out about his grandmother, Sing.
2. Sing is Susan Byrd’s aunt. Susan Byrd’s father, Crowell, Byrd is Sing’s brother.
3. Susan Byrd’s grandmother is named Heddy Byrd.
4. No, at this point it is important to Milkman to find his people.
5. Milkman realizes the ghost isn’t asking Pilate to sing (a song); rather the ghost is saying his wife’s name.
6. Because Pilate...
(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 to Hagar’s shopping bags on the way home?
8. What happens after Hagar dresses up and presents herself to Pilate and Reba and sees herself in their eyes?
9. Who pays for Hagar’s funeral and why? What lone member of the Macon Dead family attends?
10. What three words does Pilate repeat to refer to Hagar at the funeral mass?
1. Guitar uses the metaphor “the way the clouds love a mountain” to explain to Hagar how love should be.
2. Pilate is “strong enough” and Reba is “simple enough,” Hagar is neither.
3. When Reba tries to win things, for the first time in her life, she is unable to.
4. Pilate’s lips are described as...
(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 Jake after he slipped out of Solomon’s arms as Solomon flew back to Africa?
9. Why did Jake have to register at the Freedmen’s Bureau?
10. What does Milkman say when Susan Byrd offers to get Milkman’s watch back?
1. Susan Byrd doesn’t tell the truth in front of Grace Long because Grace is a “gossip.”
2. Susan Byrd tells Milkman that Jake didn’t have a last name because he is “one of those flying African children.”
3. Solomon left his wife, Ryna, and 21 children behind when he flew back to Africa.
4. More than 40 families in the area consider themselves Solomon’s kin.
5. A big double-headed rock over the valley is named...
(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?
9. Why didn’t Milkman and Pilate fly to Virginia when they traveled there to bury Jake’s bones?
10. What does Pilate put on the grave instead of a rock or a cross?
1. Milkman wants to swim in the sea.
2. Sweet’s second question is about whom Solomon left behind. As a woman she is concerned with the welfare of the women and children.
3. Milkman reads the road signs with interest because he knows that beneath the names of the signs are other buried names that have meaning.
4. The official name of “Not Doctor” street is Mains Avenue, but the black community doesn’t use it because it has no meaning or history for the people who live there.
(The entire section is 358 words.)
The main motif in Song of Solomon is flying: the novel begins with Robert Smith's flight from the roof of Mercy Hospital and ends with Milkman's flight from Solomon's Leap. The motif of flight is a complicated one: it represents transcendence as well as loss. Milkman's great-grandfather Solomon was able to transcend his circumstances by flying back to Africa, but in doing so he abandoned his wife and children. Milkman finds a better example of flight in Pilate, who can fly without leaving the ground.
Though the main focus of Song of Solomon is Milkman's story, the narrator repeatedly turns to other stories to show how they intersect with Milkman's story. The narrative jumps back and forth in time to give the reader the necessary background for understanding the current situation being discussed. For example, in chapter nine the narrative shifts to the story of Corinthians and her affair with Henry Porter. When Milkman realizes that Porter is a member of the Seven Days, he tells his father about the affair, and Macon reacts punitively, forbidding Corinthians from leaving the house and evicting Porter and garnishing his wages. This provokes Lena to confront Milkman, which in turn spurs him to leave home.
Another aspect of the narration is the point of view of the narrator, which, as Catherine Rainwater noted in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, sometimes merges "with that of...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Because Song of Solomon is an accessible novel, and because it involves an exciting version of the quest for cultural solidarity, it should provoke lively discussions on matters like gender and ethnic stereotyping and variations on economic independence for minorities. Another focus for conversation might be Morrison's treatment of the Seven Days. She does not defend the attitudes and values of the group, but to what degree does she suggest that such groups are inevitable in a climate of racism? To what degree are Guitar and his associates creations of a repressive white economic culture?
1. What are we to make of the irony that Milkman's first other-directed deed in the novel, helping a man load a crate in the Danville station, convinces Guitar that he deserves to be hunted down and killed?
2. Is Circe, the ancient crone he encounters in the Butler mansion, a living anomaly, or has Milkman encountered a ghost (note her youthful voice and see Beloved for another ambivalent treatment of a ghostlike presence)? What readings of the novel are implicit in either response?
3. What specific experiences liberate Milkman in Shalimar? Which are the most important, and why?
4. Is Milkman responsible for Hagar's death? Pilate seems to think so, but she later forgives him. Do we as readers hold him accountable for Hagar's dependence? If so, is his carrying her hair, presumably accepting his role in her death, an...
(The entire section is 275 words.)
Morrison's place in American literature was assured with the publication of her third novel, Song of Solomon, by far her most penetrating inquiry into the sources and causes of cultural alienation among African-Americans. The book earned many awards and established her as both a popular and as a serious novelist. Few writers of her generation would be so simultaneously admired by the critics and by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Building on the critique of materialism and racism in American society developed in The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973), with this novel Morrison deepened her understanding of the causes of African-American cultural malaise. Although her emphasis remains on discrimination and limited opportunities for minorities, the problem central to Song of Solomon concerns strategies among the fragmented African-American community to deal with institutional racism. Each generation of her central family attempts strategies to deal with minority status in America, but the novel as a whole indicates that these are dead ends without a rediscovery of the lore and legends of African-American culture.
These tactics correspond with the generations of the main family, whose eldest male heir is always named Macon Dead. The eldest Macon received this as his name when a drunk reconstruction officer registered the ex-slave as a free man. Entries on the wrong lines resulted in the new freeman's first name being listed as that of a...
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Compare and Contrast
1963: President Kennedy is assassinated, plunging all Americans into mourning.
1970s: President Nixon resigns after being implicated in the Watergate scandal.
Today: President Clinton is impeached, becoming the butt of jokes because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
1963: Civil rights leader Medgar Evers is assassinated and his assailant brags about the murder before being acquitted by an all-white jury.
1970s: Americans of all colors are inspired by the television miniseries Roots.
Today: Byron de la Beckwith, the murderer of Medgar Evers, is sentenced to life in prison by a mixed-race jury.
1963: Many schools are still racially segregated by law.
1970s: Because of "white flight" to the suburbs, many schools become resegregated.
Today: Some Blacks begin to question the value of integration and instead work to strengthen all-Black institutions.
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Topics for Further Study
One of the catalysts for Guitar's increased involvement in politics is the Emmett Till case. Discuss the impact of Emmett Till's lynching on the political involvement of Blacks at the time.
Song of Solomon appeared at the same time that the miniseries Roots was playing on television.
Compare Morrison's text to Alex Haley's book, Roots, considering a topic such as the authors' treatment of African-American folklore, portrayal of male characters, or characterization in general.
Choose one of the scenes in the book, and write about how you would stage it as a scene from a play.
Imagine that Milkman has researched his mother's family history, and write an imaginary history of the Fosters.
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
By most standards, Song of Solomon is technically conservative for the author of The Bluest Eye and Sula. It is unique in Morrison's canon because it takes an essentially masculine view of the quest and in that the central figure is a male. It follows the logic of the quest one of literature's true archetypes. The hero sets out looking for one thing, but learns as the quest develops that what he really needs to find is something else. Traditional variations on the quest motif involve some form of renewal — the grail quest behind much modern literature leads to a cultural and agricultural renewal — and as Milkman reshapes and defines his quest, he brings back to Detroit a new and vital appreciation for African-American culture and folklore, presumably something that liberates his life and can empower others as well. Morrison, however, qualifies this traditional quest result by introducing the killing of Pilate and the ambiguity of the final confrontation between Milkman and Guitar; will their embrace, surely resulting in the death of one, prevent Milkman from taking his new view back to Detroit?
The novel is organized into two quests, one false and one true. While Milkman seeks gold, he commits to an end that compounds rather than solves his problem. Discovering, through perils reminiscent of traditional quests such as caves, mansions haunted by ghostlike figures, hostile strangers, night-hunts, and attempts on his life, that his...
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What Do I Read Next?
Beloved, Toni Morrison's 1987 novel of a former slave haunted by the ghost of her daughter, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
Paule Marshall's Praise song for the Widow (1983) is the story of a woman who discovers her family' s origins on a small island on the Atlantic Coast.
Cane, a 1923 work by Jean Toomer, lyrically records the demise of traditional Black Southern life.
Based on Shakespeare's King Lear, A Thousand Acres (1991) by Jane Smiley tells the tale of a family unraveled by its secrets.
Published in 1952, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is the classic modernist novel of an African American in search of his identity.
Rule of the Bone (1996), by Russell Banks, is a coming-of-age novel about a teenager who journeys from upstate New York to Jamaica.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Appiah, K.A. and Gates Jr., Henry Louis, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Awkward, Michael. “’Unruly and Let Loose': Myth, Ideology and Gender in Song of Solomon," in his Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality, University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 137-55.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London: Abacus, 1975.
Carmean, Karen. Toni Morrison’s World of Fiction. Troy, New York: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1993.
Century, Douglas. Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 1994.
Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962.
Davis, Cynthia A. "Self, Society and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction," in Toni Morrison, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1990, pp. 7-26.
Dematrakopoulos, Stephanie A. and Holloway, Karla F. C. New Dimensions of Spirituality—A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Garnick, Vivian. "Into the Dark Heart of Childhood," in The Village Voice, August 29, 1977, p. 41.
Harris, A. Leslie. "Myth as Structure in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 69-76.
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and...
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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 in Song of Solomon.
Lee, Dorothy H. “Song of Solomon: To Ride the Air.” Black American Literature Forum 16, no. 2 (Summer, 1982): 64-70. A study of the novel’s mythic foundation, including folktales of the Flying African, whose flight is always triggered by the utterance of a secret, now-forgotten word and a signal given for the leap into the air. Incorporates a discussion of Egyptian, Greek, and biblical symbolism.
Mayberry, Susan Neal. Can’t I Love What I Criticize? The Masculine and Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. This study of masculinity in Morrison’s novels includes a chapter on “feminine masculinity” in Song of...
(The entire section is 435 words.)