Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
A primary theme in Song of Solomon is the journey or quest for identity. Milkman is assisted by a number of guides as he seeks and discovers community, including Circe, who helps him in a symbolic return to the womb, and the men of the hunt, who serve as elders guiding a youth to manhood. In the course of his journey, Milkman is initiated into knowledge. One critic has written that he “journeys from spiritual death to rebirth . . . symbolized by his discovery of the secret power of flight.”
Morrison acknowledges that flight, her central metaphor, is everybody’s secret dream. Flight, symbolizing freedom or escape and found frequently in African American writing, is seen in the Flying African, Milkman’s great-grandfather, who embodies the many folktales of the escaped slave. The novel opens with the failed flight from the hospital roof of a man wearing blue silk wings and closes with the triumphant flight of Solomon and the redemptive flight of Milkman, who has finally learned to “ride” the air.
As a child, Milkman longs to fly; at age five, he feels uncomfortable riding while facing backward on a train because “it was like flying blind.” This comment also suggests that he does not want to look at the past. Later, as he and Guitar are planning to steal Pilate’s sack of gold, they notice a white peacock with a “tail full of jewelry,” apparently escaped from the zoo, and try to catch it. Milkman notes that the bird...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
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In Song of Solomon, Morrison's suggested solution can be summed up in the transformation that occurs as Milkman goes on his quest for what he believes is gold his father and his aunt Pilate hid shortly after his father's death. As an alienated Detroit African-American youth of the 1960s, Milkman seeks wealth, the white culture's symbol of power and freedom. He wants to possess things, to control people, and to become free of the influence of his father's materialism. Milkman never finds gold; what he finds is true wealth, knowledge of and pride as well as delight in stories about his ancestors — his family's and his culture's myth.
As a youth wanting power and wealth, Milkman was far more like Macon Dead II than he ever believed. As his sister Magdalena charges, in a very funny but powerful scene, Macon III, like Macon II, has been pissing on everyone he knew all his life. True to form, Milkman undertakes the quest for selfish reasons. He and Guitar attempted to rob his aunt Pilate, and even Guitar's reason, while troublesome, was less selfish than Milkman's. He wanted money to finance the Days' operations, while his friend robbed the only relative who ever treated him well so he could leave town. Milkman was also in an exploitative relationship with Pilate's granddaughter Hagar, whose suicidal love he was incapable of returning. It is only as his quest imposes its shape on Milkman that he learns that knowledge is more valuable than gold, and...
(The entire section is 1038 words.)
In some respects, Milkman's story is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about the moral and psychological development of the main character. However, Milkman is thirty-two when he finally comes of age, unlike traditional heroes and heroines of the Bildungsroman. In part, Milkman postpones his adulthood because he is comfortable as the pampered only son of an upper-middle-class family. But Milkman also resists the sense of connection and commitment to others that are required of adults. As he seeks the lost gold, he discovers instead his family's history: the ambivalent legacy of his great-grandfather, who abandons his family to fly back to Africa, the injustice of his grandfather's murder, the Indian roots of his grandmother, and the child his father had been. He begins to define himself as the descendant of a man who could fly, but also to recognize the costs of his great-grandfather's transcendence. In so doing, he learns his duty to his family and community. One major turning point occurs when he is lost in the woods, and he realizes that "[a]pparently he thought he deserved only to be loved—from a distance, though—and given what he wanted. And in return he would be … what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness." Milkman's growth into maturity depends on his realization that in order to share the...
(The entire section is 742 words.)