Song of Solomon is the first novel in which Morrison uses a male protagonist. She has said that she chose a man because “he had more to learn than a woman would have,” but she also has noted that she was “amazed at how little men taught one another in the book.” Most of Milkman’s teachers are women, especially Pilate and his mother, but he also learns from Hagar and his two sisters, Lena and Corinthians, who turn on him after enduring years of his indifference. Pilate tells him that “if you take a life, then you own it,” and Milkman eventually accepts his responsibility for Hagar’s death.
Milkman’s moral imperfection is suggested by his shortened left leg, which creates a barely noticeable limp. After the communal hunt, in which he is initiated by the men of Shalimar into comradeship and respect for life and nature, he ceases to limp. The cold, self-centered Milkman matures into a sympathetic, caring man through the discovery of his own past, his ancestors’ suffering, and their struggles against poverty, racism, greed, and pride.
At the same time, Guitar, who is at first wiser and more aware than Milkman, becomes narrower and more fanatical as he immerses himself in the zeal of the Seven Days, a group organized to avenge the murders of blacks with the killing of whites. Guitar loses perspective, locked into a mathematical balance of life that must be maintained without any degree of mercy for either side. However, enough is seen of his past—for example, sugar makes him sick, because his childhood grief for his dead father was stifled with a stick of candy—to allow him to be a sympathetic character rather than a stereotyped terrorist.
Morrison’s women characters still remain her strongest suit, and the best of these is “wide-spirited” Pilate. She is the ancestor, the guide, the pilot, one of the free-walking dark women of Shalimar, wise and unafraid. Pilate is also given mythic overtones. She birthed herself, expelled from the womb after the death of her mother, and she has no navel. Pilate’s knowledge of herbs and magic helps Ruth to conceive Milkman by means of a powder mixed into Macon’s food, and her juju doll warns Macon against harming his wife or the child he does not want. It is Pilate who carries the burden of the past with her in her green tarpaulin, and Pilate who is equally at home in the present.
Ruth, the lemon-skinned daughter of the first African American doctor in town, is a child of privilege but is far less capable of dealing with life than Pilate is. She worships her father in life and death, but she bravely confronts Hagar, who is trying to murder her son.
Hagar, the child-woman whose name means “to forsake,” has had everything she wanted and has been spoiled by the love of her mother and grandmother, yet she cannot have Milkman, and that destroys her. Guitar warns her that if she has so little regard for herself, she cannot expect Milkman to have more, but she cannot hear him. She is an outcast almost by choice, childish and emotionally immature—indeed, Pilate’s “baby.”
Morrison uses the warm, omniscient voice of the storyteller for the novel. This voice, which enables her to move into the minds of her characters whenever she wishes, also echoes the oral tradition that is so much a part of African American history. Moreover, the past is an integral part of her characters’ lives.
Macon Dead III
Macon Dead III, also known as Milkman, the protagonist, a black man in his twenties who grows up when he discovers his connection with his ancestors, especially the founder of his family, his great-grandfather, Solomon. At first, Milkman is a spoiled, self-centered, confused, and immature boy affected greatly by the tense atmosphere of his unhappy home and family. Milkman’s family is ruled by his domineering and unsympathetic father, who has no interest in his past and his family heritage. Milkman, however, with the help of his aunt, Pilate, and his friend, Guitar, manages to...
(The entire section is 2,215 words.)