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.
Historically, the time period of Song of Solomon parallels the era in which Toni Morrison has lived. The novel begins on Morrison’s birthdate. It is the era of the Great Depression, with its disastrous economic effect on the daily lives of Americans.
Both Morrison and the characters of Song of Solomon experience the effects of segregation and racism in their lives in the 1930s. Morrison documents historic events and interweaves them with fictional ones. For example, the government in the 1930s continued to uphold the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which condoned “separate but equal” institutions for black and white people. But in Song of Solomon, “(No) Mercy Hospital” excludes blacks, and there is no other hospital provided for them.
In Song of Solomon, the author allows the reader to “bear witness” to historical events by using fictitious characters. She then lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
Much of the novel takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. Historically, this is the era of the civil rights movement. Morrison refers to dates during this time period to better explain the behavior of her characters.
The lynching of Emmett Till, in 1955, is one such date. In 1954, the doctrine of “separate but equal” had been overturned by the Supreme Court, and the angry killing of Emmett Till was an indirect reaction to the Court’s new ruling. In this way, history informs the behavior of the characters in Song of Solomon.
Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, becomes a member of the radical group the Seven Days as a reaction to the black man’s plight in the 1950s. Near the novel’s end, 1963, there is much evidence of heightened frustration in the African-American community. Historically, many followers of Martin Luther King, Jr. were becoming disenchanted with the lack of progress in social change that Dr. King attempted to forge through nonviolent means. The character of Guitar Bains reflects this frustration. Bains appears to subscribe to an activism similar to that of Malcolm X, a follower of Elijah Mohammad’s Nation of Islam. As 1963 draws to a close, many African-Americans began to embrace the Nation of Islam’s more militant approach and its call for racial separatism.
The Book-of-the-Month Club advertised Song of Solomon as one of its main selections in 1977, referring to it as “the best novel of the black experience since (Ralph Ellison’s) Invisible Man.” The best-seller was honored with several distinguished awards, including the prestigious National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1978. Following the success of Song of Solomon, Morrison was featured on the cover of Newsweek. She was invited to do a PBS series called Writers in America, and was interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show.
Song of Solomon was compared by the general public and some critics to Alex Haley’s Roots because of its similar plot, the search for an African-American family’s ancestral roots, dating back to slavehood. However, Time magazine condemned the comparison, saying that Song of Solomon, unlike Roots, has “an artistic vision that encompasses both a private and a national heritage…any comparison (with Roots) must end with the superior quality of Morrison’s imagination and prose.” (Wigan, 76)
At the time of its publication, Morrison’s novel was her strongest statement to date on white society’s oppression of African-Americans. However, critics agreed that although the novel “might easily be considered anti-white,” that “the author’s perceptions are human, rather than racist, and whites who read her will feel something—will live something—of what it means to be born black in America.” (Millar, 25)
Master List of Characters
Robert Smith—life insurance agent and member of the Seven Days organization. He attempts to fly in the first chapter.
Dr. Foster—father of Ruth Dead, and the only colored doctor in the city until he died in 1921.“Not Doctor Street” is named after him.
Ruth Dead—Milkman’s mother, Macon’s wife, and Dr. Foster’s daughter; she is the first “colored” woman to give birth at Mercy Hospital. She is born in 1901. Her name in Hebrew means “companion.”
First Corinthians (Corinthians)—Milkman’s older sister; she is 13 years older than her brother. She is the lover of Henry Porter. As is the tradition for Dead family women, her name is chosen randomly from the Bible at her birth. Her name refers to a book of the New Testament, the first epistle addressed by St. Paul to the Christians in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Ironically, Corinth was known as a city of ill-repute for its sexual promiscuity, while the character Corinthians is a virgin throughout much of Song of Solomon.
Magdalene (Lena)—Milkman’s oldest sister, she is 14 years older than her brother. Her name is arbitrarily chosen from the Bible and refers to the reformed prostitute that Jesus cures of evil spirits in the Book of Luke (New Testament).
Pilate Dead—Milkman’s aunt and spiritual mother; she is Macon Dead’s sister and the mother of the illegitimate Reba and grandmother of Hagar. Pilate’s name is arbitrarily chosen by her father from the Bible. Because he can’t read, her father chooses the name because it “looked like a tree hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of smaller trees.” Ironically in the Bible (New Testament: Book of Matthew), Pilate is the last name of a man, a Roman official (the procurator of Judea) who authorized the execution of Jesus Christ.
Freddy—the Dead family’s tenant, a janitor, and the originator of Milkman’s nickname; he is often referred to as “gold-toothed.”
Mrs. Bains—referred to as “the stout woman” in the first chapter. She is Guitar Bains’ grandmother.
Cency—Guitar Bains’ mother and Mrs. Bains’ daughter.
Guitar Bains—Milkman’s best friend and member of the Seven Days.
Macon Dead III (Milkman)—protagonist of the novel; he is the only son of Macon and Ruth Dead. He is born in 1931.
Macon Dead II or Jr.—Milkman’s father and Ruth’s husband; he is born in 1891. He is a successful man of property.
Circe—the midwife who delivers Macon and is present when Pilate “births” herself. She conceals them after Macon Dead I is killed and supplies Milkman with his family history. Circe’s name derives from Greek mythology. According to myth, she is a beautiful enchantress known for her magic arts and the daughter of Helios—the Sun God. In the Greek epic, Homer’s Odyssey, Circe detains Odysseus for a year and turns his men into swine.
Henry Porter—Macon Dead’s tenant and a member of the Seven Days. He is Corinthians’ lover.
Reba Dead (Rebecca or Rebekah)—the illegitimate daughter of Pilate Dead, she is Milkman’s aunt, and the mother of the illegitimate Hagar. Her name derives from the Bible: Rebecca or Rebekah is the wife of Isaac, a Hebrew patriarch. (Book of Genesis)
Hagar Dead—the illegitimate daughter of Reba, she is the granddaughter of Pilate Dead. Hagar is Milkman’s cousin and lover. In the Bible, Hagar refers to the concubine of Abraham (the first patriarch and progenitor of the Hebrews). The biblical Hagar is Abraham’s wife, Sarah’s handmaiden; Hagar is the mother of Abraham’s illegitimate son Ishmael and is cast aside by Abraham; her name means “forsaken.” (Book of Genesis)
Macon Dead I—referred to early in the novel only as “Macon’s father,” he is the member of the family who was misnamed Dead and lost the original family name. His real name is Jake.
Feather—he is the pool hall owner in the crime-riddled section of town called the Blood Bank.
Railroad Tommy—one of the owners of the barber shop on Tenth Street and a member of the Seven Days.
Hospital Tommy—one of the owners of the barber shop and a member of the Seven Days.
Anna Djvorak—she is 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 after the historic figure Emmett Till is lynched.
Mary—the barmaid and part-time owner of a bar in the Blood Bank, where Milkman and Guitar often go to drink.
Emmett Till—a 14-year-old black boy killed in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. The lynching of this historic figure lives on as a symbol of the racial injustice African-Americans encountered in the 1950s. The men at Tommy’s Barbershop discuss Till’s lynching, which is avenged by the Seven Days.
Winnie Ruth Judd—a convicted murderess. The blacks in the novel consider this white woman to be an example of “white madness.”
Seven Days—an activist organization of seven black men who avenge innocent black deaths by randomly killing whites under similar circumstances.
Uncle Billy—Guitar’s uncle, who comes to Michigan from Florida to raise Guitar after his father dies.
Moon—aids Guitar in preventing Hagar from killing Milkman.
Preacher—head of family that took the orphaned Pilate in after she decided to leave Pennsylvania to look for her extended family in Virginia.
Pickers—Migrants Pilate lived and worked with for three years in New York State until they discovered she had no navel.
Father of Reba—Pilate’s lover on an island of black families in Virginia.
Michael-Mary Graham—the hack-poetess who Corinthians keeps house for.
Mr. Solomon—name of imaginary husband invented by Pilate to explain to the police whose bones are in the green sack Milkman and Guitar steal from Pilate’s house. Not to be confused with the Solomons from Shalimar, Virginia.
Nero—member of the Seven Days who Milkman sees in Porter’s Oldsmobile when Milkman discovers Porter is a member of the Seven Days.
Reverend Cooper—the Reverend of Danville, Pennsylvania, who Milkman goes to visit to learn about his family. 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 only nephew of Reverend Cooper. He drives Milkman to visit Circe.
Fred Garnett—the driver of the Chevrolet who gives Milkman a ride in the direction of Danville after Milkman visits Circe.
Mr. Solomon—the owner of Solomon’s General Store in Shalimar, Virginia. He is no relation to the immediate Solomon family.
Children—a group of youngsters who sing the song about Solomon in Shalimar, Virginia.
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 not related to Mr. Solomon.
Calvin Breakstone—Milkman’s partner on the hunting trip. He tells Milkman about Ryna’s Gulch.
Small Boy—a Shalimar resident who goes on the hunting trip.
Ryna—Solomon’s wife; Ryna’s Gulch is named after her. Legend has it that when the wind hits the ravine, it sounds like a woman crying.
Vernell—the woman who prepares breakfast after the hunting trip. She gives Milkman information about “Sing” and about Heddy Byrd.
Heddy Byrd—the mother of Sing(ing) Byrd (or Bird) Dead. She is Macon Dead II’s grandmother and Milkman’s great-grandmother. She is an Indian woman.
Susan Byrd—Milkman’s cousin. She tells him about his family
Sweet—She is Milkman’s lover in Shalimar. It is the first time Milkman has a loving relationship.
Grace Long—a local school teacher and a friend of Susan Byrd’s. She flirts with Milkman and steals his watch.
Lilah—cousin of Susan Byrd who “passes” for white.
John—cousin of Susan Byrd who “passes” for white.
Crowell Byrd—only referred to, he is Susan Byrd’s father.
Lilly—the owner of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor.
Marcelline—an employee of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor.
Shalimar—another name for Solomon, Milkman’s great-grandfather who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa and leaving his wife Ryna and 21 children behind. The name Solomon and the title of the novel are a biblical reference to a book of the Bible in the Old Testament,, also referred to as Canticles. Solomon was the King of Israel in the tenth century.
Old Man in House—the man who Milkman helps lift a crate. Guitar later tells Milkman that he is sure the crate is filled with the gold Milkman has kept for himself instead of sharing it with Guitar.
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.
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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 in the crowd below. Thus Milkman’s birth becomes a kind of secular miracle, that of the first African American baby to be born at the hospital.
He is twelve before he ventures with his friend, Guitar, to Pilate’s house to meet his father’s sister, of whom Macon will not speak. Milkman is struck by the regal bearing of his tall, powerful aunt and by the comfort of the simple house. Later, he is attracted to his cousin Hagar, Pilate’s granddaughter, and carries on an affair with her for nearly fifteen years. Eventually, Hagar becomes “the third beer. . . . the one you drink because it’s there,” and Milkman decides to break off the relationship, causing Hagar to pursue him in a luckless attempt to kill him. Later,...
(The entire section is 752 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues 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 father’s sister, Pilate. Instead, Milkman’s quest leads him out of the Midwest to discover his true heritage, his ancestors. He gains pride in his family when he encounters old men who remember his father and grandfather. Before long he is more interested in locating his people than in the gold.
At the town of Shalimar, Virginia, after the symbolic initiation of a night hunt, Milkman recognizes his own selfishness. He learns that a child’s game, the town itself, and many of the people bear some version of his Great-grandfather Solomon’s name. The figure of Solomon is based upon a legend of the Flying African, who escaped slavery by leaping into the air and flying home to Africa. Milkman realizes that his great-grandfather...
(The entire section is 413 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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 making and selling bootleg wine. Milkman falls instantly in love with the beautiful Hagar, though she is five years older than he, and later maintains with her a sporadic affair that ends in tragedy.
Milkman’s first visit to Pilate marks the beginning of his stumbling, almost inadvertent quest for identity. His father forbids him to visit Pilate and tries to explain his decision by telling Milkman what he can remember about his family and his own boyhood. He remembers that Milkman’s grandfather, the first Macon Dead, was an illiterate slave freed at the end of the Civil War. He received his unusual name as a teenager in 1869, when a drunken Union army interviewer mistakenly combined his birthplace, Macon, and the status of...
(The entire section is 871 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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, leaps to his death in an attempt to fly to Canada. When, as a very young man, Milkman learns that he himself cannot fly, he loses all interest in the world.
From a young age, Milkman’s closest friend is a boy who goes by the name of Guitar, who is a bit older and quicker than Milkman. It is Guitar who introduces Milkman to Milkman’s own aunt, Pilate, whose name was chosen by her father at random out of the Bible (it suggests not only Pontius Pilate, but also the pilot of an airplane); she is the person who holds many of the keys to the knowledge Milkman will need to learn to fly.
Milkman’s father, Macon, is the son of a freed slave who was killed for his land; he grew up as a harsh, greedy man, dedicated to making...
(The entire section is 1021 words.)
Song of Solomon begins with the flight of Robert Smith, an insurance agent, from the roof of Mercy Hospital. Smith appears on the roof of the hospital with two handcrafted wings on his back. A small crowd gathers to witness the impending jump. Many believe he won't jump, but to the amazement of some and horror of others, Smith does jump. Because of Smith's attempt to fly, Ruth Foster Dead is able to deliver her child inside the hospital instead of on its steps. Negro women during this time are not allowed to give birth inside the hospital due to segregation. Thus Macon Dead becomes the first Negro child to be born inside Mercy Hospital.
Four years later, young Macon acquires his nickname, Milkman, when his father's tenant Freddie catches Ruth nursing Macon at age four. Milkman's father, Macon, Sr.—who is a harsh landlord to other Blacks—does not know the origins of this nickname, but he thinks it must have something to do with Ruth, of whom he can think only with disgust. The elder Macon is also estranged from his sister, Pilate, but on a night that he mercilessly evicts one of his poor tenants, Mrs. Bains, Macon stands outside Pilate's house to hear her singing.
Time goes on and Morrison details certain events in Milkman's growing up. As a young boy, Milkman and his family go on Sunday afternoon drives. On a particular Sunday, Milkman accidentally urinates on his sister Lena, a memory that Lena remembers years...
(The entire section is 1787 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
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, it is believed that the spirit flies back to the home of the ancestors of the dead person.
Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, traces his family origins and discovers that his great-grandfather, Solomon, escaped from the oppression of slavery by magically flying away to his homeland. Reclaiming African myths of the past and, consequently, learning of his ancestral roots, are the keys to self-discovery for Milkman.
Equally important to Milkman’s quest for identity is the recovery of his true name. Historically, Africans enslaved in America often lost their original names to slave names. Milkman’s paternal grandfather’s name was misrecorded, when he registered as a freedman in 1869, as Macon Dead....
(The entire section is 1762 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Mary: the barmaid and part-time owner of a bar in the Blood Bank, where Milkman and Guitar often go to drink
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 they’re fairy princesses being driven by a prince. When Milkman has to relieve himself in the woods, Lena is elected to go with him. While relieving himself, Milkman accidently sprays Lena with urine.
The black people who see the car pass by make fun of the severe and passionless Dead family, which rides joylessly in its “hearse” without exhibiting any “real lived life” in the car.
When Milkman is 12 years old, his friend Guitar takes him to his Aunt Pilate’s house for the first time. There, Milkman learns that the image of Pilate portrayed by his father is untrue; she is neither dirty nor drunk. Instead, Milkman is entranced by this remarkable woman and the sights, sounds, and smells of the mythic Pilate’s...
(The entire section is 1927 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
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 after the historic figure Emmett Till is lynched
Emmett Till: historic figure; a 14-year-old black boy who is lynched by whites after whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955
Milkman continues to form an identity separate from Macon, but he is kicked out of Feather’s pool hall because Macon is his father. Railroad Tommy, one of the barbershop owners, lectures Milkman and Guitar about all the things they will never have or experience because they are black men.
When Milkman is 14, he discovers that one of his legs is shorter than the other. This imperfection assures Milkman that he could never emulate his father. Because of his limp, Milkman relates to President Franklin...
(The entire section is 1879 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Winnie Ruth Judd: convicted murderess whom the blacks in the novel identify as an example of “white madness”
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 enraged by the inclusion of the word “gratitude” in the letter and “the flat-out coldness” of the “thank you.”
Along with the deteriorating relationship with his family and Hagar, Milkman’s friendship with Guitar has begun to suffer. Milkman feels Guitar has changed considerably from the street roaming, party-seeking companion whom Milkman once knew and loved. In Milkman’s opinion, Guitar has become morally superior, racially obsessive, and overly serious. The two friends often find themselves in heated arguments about class and race issues. Milkman begins to wonder about Guitar’s secret life. Milkman often finds Guitar among the group of men that gather at Tommy’s Barber Shop to discuss the issues of the...
(The entire section is 1165 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
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
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 of a social consciousness, and his Northern ways, (ways Guitar equates with white middle-class materialism.) But regardless of Milkman and Guitar’s striking differences, they continue to care about each other.
In spite of their closeness, each of the friends knows the other has a secret. Guitar is afraid because Milkman is indifferent toward the prospect of death, and Guitar fears for Milkman’s life, but Guitar doesn’t know what is at the source of Milkman’s indifference. Milkman has his suspicions about Guitar’s covert activities and is on the verge of discovering that Guitar is a member of the Seven Days.
One early morning Milkman confronts his mother after he’s followed her out to the cemetery where...
(The entire section is 1714 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
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 person. Each of the seven members has been assigned a day of the week, and the randomly selected victim must be killed in a similar way to the method of death experienced by the black. Guitar’s assigned day is Sunday. When Milkman objects to the Days’ killing of people, citing its lack of morality, Guitar tells him, “We’re not killing people,” we’re “killing white people.” Guitar does not see the killings as an act against humanity. He sees it as an abstraction, a mathematical equation in order “to keep the ratio (of whites to blacks) the same.” “There’s too much wrong with it,” Milkman says, and compares Guitar to Malcolm X.
Milkman is unable to accept responsibility for his...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
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 them.
Children of nature, Macon and Pilate suffered greatly, cooped up in a room, eating “the soft, bland food” of white people. While there, Pilate had her father’s hand-written piece of paper with her name written on it put into her mother’s brass snuff box. A blacksmith fashioned it into the earring Pilate always wears.
Fearful of being discovered, the children return to nature and ultimately are led to a cave by the ghost of their father. While in the cave, Macon kills a threatening-looking white man, and they discover gold. Pilate forbids Macon from taking the gold because it is morally wrong. But “life, safety, and luxury fanned out before (Macon) like the tailspread of a peacock.” The once loving...
(The entire section is 774 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
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 wonders how it must feel; he wonders how it would change a person. He is impressed “with the seriousness and the dread of the work of the Days,” the fear they must inspire.
Milkman is giddy with the romance of him and Guitar “taking risks” again like when they were young “swashbucklers.” Milkman associates the stealing of the gold with the “old times” when they “swaggered, haunched, leaned, straddled, ran all over town trying to pick fights or at least scare somebody….” As they discuss the theft, they see a peacock weighted down by the “jewelry” of its plumage. The image triggers talk of what they will buy with the gold once they collect it. As they approach Pilate’s house on the night of the theft, Milkman...
(The entire section is 1127 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
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
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, Corinthians finally acquires her own money and independence through her new job, but she lies to her family about her work.
On the bus to work, she meets Henry Porter, a yardman who is a member of the Seven Days, and a man who isn’t her social equal. While Corinthians is ashamed of him, she comes to love him anyway. When Henry finally makes Corinthians choose between ¬being a “doll baby” (like her mother) or being a “woman,” Corinthians chooses the latter. After spending the night with Henry, her “vanity” is transformed into “self-esteem.”
After Milkman and Guitar are picked up by the police for stealing a sack of human bones, Pilate plays the role of “Aunt Jemima” to get the two men out of jail....
(The entire section is 1574 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis
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 original first name of Macon Dead I
Fred Garnett: driver of the 1954 Chevrolet who gives Milkman a ride toward Danville. Garnett is insulted when Milkman tries to pay him for the Coke and the ride that Garnett gives him
Old man in station house: the man who Milkman helps lift a crate. Guitar later tells Milkman that he is sure the crate is filled with the gold Milkman has kept for himself instead of sharing it with Guitar
Relieved to leave behind “Lena’s anger,” “Ruth’s stepped up surveillance” and Macon’s “bottomless greed,” Milkman begins his journey to Danville. Enthralled by an exhilarating airplane ride to Pittsburgh, Milkman “felt free…away from real life” where...
(The entire section is 2183 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis
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 not related to Mr. Solomon
Calvin Breakstone: Milkman’s partner on the hunting trip. He tells Milkman about Ryna’s Gulch
Small Boy: a Shalimar resident who goes on the hunting trip
Ryna (Ryna’s Gulch): Solomon’s wife; Ryna’s Gulch is named after her. Legend has it that when the wind hits the ravine, it sounds like a woman crying
Vernell: the woman who prepares breakfast for the men after the hunting trip. She gives Milkman information about Sing and about Heddy Byrd
Heddy Byrd: an American Indian; She is the mother of Sing(ing) Byrd (or Bird) Dead. She is Macon Dead II’s grandmother and Milkman’s great-grandmother
Susan Byrd: Milkman’s cousin. She is an...
(The entire section is 1812 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis
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
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 Shalimar: “as though there was some cord or pulse of information they shared.” In Michigan, with the exception of Pilate, Milkman felt as if he didn’t belong “to any place or anybody.”
Guitar confronts Milkman and accuses him of hoarding the gold the two men had agreed to share by secretly shipping it in a crate to Virginia. Guitar compares Milkman to his father because of his greed. Milkman realizes it is useless to try to convince Guitar that the crate Guitar saw Milkman helping a man move at the bus station wasn’t a crate of gold. Milkman realizes Guitar will never believe that Milkman was helping a fellow human being because “Guitar had never seen Milkman give anybody a hand, especially a stranger.”
(The entire section is 962 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis
Lilly: the owner of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor
Marcelline: an employee of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor
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 little “Goldilocks-choice” bed. Finally, when Pilate holds a mirror to her face, Hagar responds with “No wonder.” She condemns the face in the mirror that looks back at her. Reba pawns her diamond ring to supply money to buy Hagar all the beauty products she requires to beautify herself. None of the products can make Hagar look “white” enough—the only acceptable standard of beauty she believes will give her the opportunity to lure Milkman back to her. Crushed by this knowledge, Hagar dies of a broken heart.
Ruth shames Macon into giving her money to pay for Hagar’s funeral. She is the only family member that attends the service at first. Halfway through the mass, Pilate enters the church singing...
(The entire section is 935 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis
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.
Chapter 14 features a conversation between Susan Byrd and Milkman which helps to assemble the final pieces of the Dead family puzzle.
Of the greatest significance in the chapter is Milkman’s revelation that his paternal great-grandfather Solomon could fly and that the town of Shalimar is the very home his family originated from. Unbeknownst to him, Milkman has been in the town of his origins the entire time he has been unraveling the mystery behind his family name and history.
The flying motif that has structured the novel reaches its near-conclusion. For Milkman, flight, which had been a possibility before the age of four, has again become a possibility. If Macon Dead I can appear as a ghost and Pilate can have no navel, then flight, too, can be a reality.
(The entire section is 320 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis
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, Milkman hastens off to Pilate’s house to tell her that the green sack she’s been carrying is filled with the bones of her father. Milkman also wants to tell her that the ghost of her father wasn’t telling her to sing; he was calling out her mother’s name. Instead, when Milkman arrives, Pilate “knocks him out” and puts him in the basement next to a shoe box filled with Hagar’s hair. Milkman realizes that “while he dreamt of flying, Hagar was dying.” It reminds him of his great-grandfather Solomon, leaving Ryna behind. Milkman explains to Pilate the meaning of the words “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body.” Milkman tells Pilate that her father wants her to bury him in Virginia, at Solomon’s Leap “where he...
(The entire section is 836 words.)