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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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 day. Similar gatherings take place in the poolrooms and wherever men congregate in Southside.

Milkman has a disturbing dream, if it is, in fact, a dream. He dreams that his mother is being suffocated by a gardenful of overzealous plants. What is particularly bewildering about the dream is his smiling mother’s benign reaction to the plants’ vicious onslaught.

Milkman lacks both the Christmas spirit and a sense of community spirit. Having “stretched his carefree boyhood out for 31 years,” Milkman reevaluates his life. He concludes that it “was pointless, aimless, and it was true that he didn’t concern himself an awful lot about other people.” Milkman’s total lack of respect for Hagar is indicated, for instance, by his reference to her as a “honey pot” (metaphor), a mere receptacle for his male pleasure.

Milkman is a product of upper middle-class complacency. He not only lacks values, he lacks ambition and initiative because his has truly been a superfluous existence.

Guitar criticizes Milkman’s utilization of his free time because Milkman spends 50 percent of his “brainpower thinking about a piece of ass.” (metonymy) Guitar tells Milkman it “looks like everybody’s going in the wrong direction but you” when Milkman admits to Guitar that he continues to go “wherever the party is.” Guitar’s new asceticism (he doesn’t want to “party,” talk about girls, or get high) bothers Milkman. Milkman admits to being bored by everything. But Milkman is particularly bothered by “the racial problems that consumed Guitar” which were “the most boring of all.”

In Milkman and Guitar’s heated debates, they reveal various important conflicts. There is a class conflict between rich and poor. Milkman reflects the values of the Downtown, the black property-owning bourgeoisie. Guitar represents the considerations of Southside, the ghetto where incidents of racism are not averted by a “fat wallet.” The men in Southside gather in the poolrooms and Tommy’s Barbershop to discuss race issues. They are the chorus—the voice of the people, the social consciousness of the community. This class difference between Southside and the Downtown is reflected in the description of Christmas ornaments in the two locations. Southside has “feeble wreaths and lights” and “tacky Yuletide streamers and bells.” In comparison, the rich Downtown had lights that were “large, bright, festive and full of hope.”

Milkman and Guitar also represent the conflict between North and South. Milkman’s all-black...

(The entire section is 1,165 words.)