What is the significance of "flight" in Song of Solomon, and how does the meaning change from the beginning to the end of the novel?
Compare the meaning of flight from the beginning and the end of the novel.
This is actually a complex question, one based in Morrison's aesthetic concept for this novel, which came to be after the death of her father (inspiring her to pursue a male protagonist), who, according to her candid declarations in the Forward of Song of Solomon, became her Muse for the novel: "I had no access to what I planned to write about until my father died." She ends her Forward with the words, "[W]ithout ever leaving the ground [Pilate] could fly. My father laughed." The book Epigraph is a tribute to Morrison's father as well as a premise for the story, and reads:
The fathers may soar
And the children may know their names
Starting with the source of Morrison's inspiration, her dead father, it is correct to say that first and foremost, the significance of "flight" in the novel is release from earth-boundedness into the freedom of a transition or a transference to ethereal otherness (to spiritual existence but in nontraditional forms). It is to be noted that in her introspective Forward Morrison never connects a heart-ripping grief to the part of her father's death that inspired her; she does however connect a continuing conversation with that part, the inspiring part, of her father's death (bear in mind, I am in no way suggesting that Morrison was without deep, wrenching grief over her father's death; I am suggesting that the healing part, the inspiring part of his death--seen in Song of Solomon--was lacking manifestation of that deeply wrenching grief).
Starting chronologically with Solomon (who is prominent in the second part of the novel as a flashback to Milkman's ancestry), his flight--which left his loved ones abandoned--had this same significance of release: he leapt, he took flight, in order to return (in some transitional form or other) to Africa. In doing so, he took flight from slavery into freedom, a freedom delivered in a transference to ethereal otherness. The insurance agent's flight from Mercy Hospital across Lake Superior, the flight that opens the novel and that occurs at a time when Guitar is a young boy, takes him on the same sort of flight into freedom upon which Solomon's flight took him: though suicidal, it is a flight into what is dreamed of for both. For the insurance agent, with the unassuming name of Robert Smith, his flight is into limitless love that is dreamed of, although it is also a knowledgeable leap for which he asks mercy, for which he asks forgiveness: "I will ... fly on my own wings. Please forgive me." For Solomon, the unassuming slave yet father of a people (whom Milkman finds as his own people), his flight was into limitless self-hood, into Africa, into a return to himself. The song that Pilate sings, while wrapped in a blanket against the winter snows, as she watches Smith atop Mercy Hospital prepare for his flight on blue silk wings, commemorates, with time-adulterated words, the flight of Solomon:
Sugaman cut across the sky
Sugarman gone home
O Sugarman done fly
O Sugarman done gone
As Morrison notes in her Forward, the women who are left behind, after the men in Song of Solomon take wing and fly, are less happily moved by the flight than are the men: Solomon's wife is left a "Black lady [fallen] down on the ground / ... / [Who] Threw her body all around"; Robert Smith, with no woman of his own, brings on the labor of Milkman's mother resulting in Milkman's "peculiar" birth; Milkman's quest for flight leaves Hagar the victim of suicide (Morrison herself adapted to the flight of her father by finding in his now ethereal voice the inspiration for a story and a male protagonist; so she seems to be the only woman to take a man's flight well as expressed in the aesthetic of her story). As a consequence of the reaction of the women--or of the effect of flight upon the women left behind--the significance of "flight" takes on a bifurcated importance (there are two separate parts to its significance): flight is freedom (as explained above), but flight is also imprisonment for those affected. The journey of flight can only be triumphal for those being released into freedom; it is abysmal for those watching the flight and seeing its disastrous, tangible results. For Pilate, Milkman's flight had no adverse effect because Guitar had already catapulted her into an unbidden flight of her own when he shot her at the side of the burial place of her father's (and Milkman's grandfather's) old bones. Milkman's response to Pilate's death-flight was that "without ever leaving the ground she could fly." Morrison describes these flights as a cumulative journey:
A journey, then, with the accomplishment of flight [alluding to Lindbergh's flight], the triumphant end of a trip through earth, to its surface, on into water, and finally into air.
Admittedly, Morrison's description of "a trip through earth" is a little unclear (unclear, which is different from ambiguous) but since the story actually begins with Solomon, discovered through flashbacks, we can suppose that his unearthed bones represent the "trip through earth," while his children and grandchildren represent the trip "to its surface," and Robert Smith, erstwhile insurance agent, and Milkman represent the trips "on into water, and finally into air," as Smith sought to fly over Lake Superior and Milkman took flight into air when he leapt into the arms of his antagonist, Guitar.
In a sense, the meaning of "flight" does not change from the beginning of the novel to the end since the significance is always release from earth-boundedness into the freedom of a transition or a transference to ethereal otherness. Yet, in another sense, "flight" does change from beginning to end because whereas Smith's flight is that of a loveless man with a delusion of flight, a delusion he knew would fail because he asks for forgiveness in the note attached to the front "door of his little yellow house," Milkman's flight is a heroic one motivated by inner liberty and fulfillment based on finding what is real and meaningful and a flight in which he believes he is vindicating Pilate's death while subduing his adversary, Guitar. Solomon's flight, the flight that began the saga of Milkman and that inspired the children's song (as Morrison's father's flight inspired her "song") sung in Shalimar, was a flight-quest for ultimate humanity, a humanity stripped from off him and his loved ones. In one sense of comparison, Solomon's flight was different (whether you put it chronologically at the beginning or narratologically at the end) from the others in that his was, as Morrison says, "the most magical," based as it was on a belief system founded in his African homeland. In contrast, Milkman's flight might be said to be voluntarily sacrificial as he was flying, leaping, for Pilate who, though then in flight herself, could not leave the ground, while the insurance agent's flight might be said to be an act of desperate love, hoping for that which he could not reach on his own: love longed for.
O Solomon don't leave me here
Cotton balls to choke me
O Solomon don't leave me here
Buckra's arm to yoke me
Solomon done fly,
Solomon done gone
Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home.
In the epigraph, flight is spiritual. It is connected to the Negro Spirituals and Gospels that slaves used to sing. The belief in flight as an escape from slavery and as the path of the soul is explored.
In the beginning of the novel, flight is literal. Robert Smith jumps off the roof of Mercy Hospital. Of course, he does not actually fly, but it is a flight from reality, and from servitude. He commits suicide as an escape from the racism and prejudice he experiences. Pilate sings about it, connecting it to the Spirituals.
Flying can also mean abandoning your responsibilities. Robert Smith did, and great-grandfather Solomon did when he returned to Africa.
Pilate’s flight is not so literal. In her songs, she flies to another time and place where her people are free. She connects to a past that never was, freeing the present.