Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Shalimar (SHAL-ee-mahr). The ancestral home of Solomon and Ryna, Jake (Macon Dead), and Sing (Singing Bird). According to legend, Solomon could fly. Close by are Ryna’s Gulch and Solomon’s Leap. The mysteries of Pilate’s behavior, and Macon’s, are found here, and memorialized in a children’s song. Here Milkman finds his truth. Pilate finds peace as they bury their father’s bones in the land of his birth. She discards the burden symbolized by the earring she has worn all her life. As Milkman jumps from Solomon’s Leap, he knows he can soar. He has found truth, a connection through time and place that is forever unbroken by earthly bonds.

Dead home

Dead home. Michigan home of the well-off family of Macon Dead, his wife, Ruth Foster Dead, and their two daughters, Magdalene, called Lena, and First Corinthians, located at 12 Not Doctor Street in a large city. It is a home filled with nice things, including a polished mahogany table and fresh flowers. They have a certain social status. Ruth is the daughter of the late Doctor Foster. Her husband Macon is a man of property and pride. His self-worth is tied to what he owns. Yet their home is truly a “dead” house. There is no life, no love within its walls. The Dead home is haunted by past secrets. Ruth is sad and loveless. Macon is angry and dissatisfied; he equates money with freedom. The daughters are troubled and frustrated, and Milkman is puzzled and angry at the rigid structure, and at his lack of personal peace and contentment in the constantly changing world of the 1960’s. The Dead home has a history, but it lacks roots.

Pilate’s house

Pilate’s house. Home of Pilate, her...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Song of Solomon is a novel whose third-person, limited omniscient narrator is sympathetic to the protagonist, Milkman Dead. To illustrate Milkman’s journey to self-knowledge as specifically African American, Toni Morrison uses Magical Realism, a worldview incorporating a culture’s myths, religion, and superstitions as natural, believable components of reality. The plot resembles a gothic detective story centered on four generations of one African American family, the Deads. At the age of thirty-one, Milkman knows little of his family history; he is caught in limbo, isolated from his past and uncertain about the future. His father tells him nothing of his own boyhood in Pennsylvania or about their relatives in Virginia; his aunt Pilate tells him a bit more, but her knowledge is limited. To become a man, Milkman needs to understand his heritage.

A former slave, Milkman’s grandfather received his name from information incorrectly recorded on a form. When asked his place of birth, he replied “Macon”; when asked about his father, he replied “Dead.” A careless clerk entered both words on the line marked “name,” so that the man’s name became Macon Dead. Such “accidents” impede Milkman’s quest for history. His grandfather became a successful farmer by cultivating wild forest into fertile farmland, but white neighbors coveted his land, offered to buy it, and killed him when he refused to sell, leaving Macon II and Pilate orphans. Pilate roamed from state to state, job to job, and man to man. Macon II finished...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Song of Solomon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The title of the novel refers to a children’s song which is sung in part in the opening scene of the novel, recurs at intervals later, is heard in its entirety about four-fifths of the way through, and is the litany Milkman sings for the death of Pilate in the final scene. Associated with the song throughout the novel is death, bereavement, and flying. The bereaved sing this song of loss, this ballad of the flight into oblivion of Solomon, who leapt from a high outcropping of rock to return to his native Africa, leaving a grief-stricken wife and twenty-one children. And children chant this song as part of a game, a ritual remembrance of the event of long ago. Pilate sings the refrain as a funeral dirge, and finally Milkman himself sings the song as a lamentation for Pilate’s death, as a final statement of his identity, and as an assertion of his love and courage to face life or death. The novel is laced with references to the supernatural or transcendent: ghosts appear to Pilate, Solomon flies, weird sounds of monas issue forth from Ryna’s Gulch, and when the once passive Milkman leaps, and even soars, to his life-or-death confrontation with Guitar, his courage and assertion of willingness to fight for his life are an almost miraculous change from his former behavior.

The underlying theme of the whole story is love—the transmuting power of love to make life worthwhile: to give people the courage to live despite grueling adversity. Counterpoised to this theme of love is that of hate, and its deadly souring effect on all who harbor it within themselves. As the Biblical Song of Solomon is a song of love, so this novel is a song of the love of people for one another, and the effect it has on making the people who love, and those who are loved, endure and flourish.

It is the anguish of his loneliness and hatred which drives the insurance agent Smith finally to seek escape through his mad attempt to fly with cloth wings from the cupola of Mercy Hospital out across Lake Superior. We learn later that he is one of the Seven Days, who have dedicated their lives to murder. From the development of the character, Guitar, we learn how corrosive hate can be, so that finally Guitar suspects, condemns, and attempts to execute his best friend Milkman, who is blameless in the matter of deception which Guitar accuses him of. Guitar, who has tried to justify his murderous ways by saying that they were acts of love for his own people, undertaken only as retribution against white people for their murders of blacks, finally is murdering for anger, suspicion, greed, and even pure carelessness, as when he kills Pilate arising from her father’s graveside.

In the narrative, the action develops out of the static situation of the Macon Dead family, in which the parents live in a state of continual antagonism, erupting frequently into verbal confrontations and occasionally into physical assaults against the mother by the father. The mother’s passiveness is deceptive, however: she provokes the father’s anger by her remarks, and the children have learned that this is so.

The parents’ warfare, which has blighted both their lives, is based on their perception of their relative social status. The mother was the daughter of the most prominent black man in town, a doctor of some wealth and social connections. She grew up as the adored and adoring only child of the widowed doctor. When the young, ambitious Macon Dead appeared in town from obscure and obviously lowly origins, he sought to marry Dr. Foster’s daughter to enhance his own social status and to increase the amount of money available to him to invest in real estate. In short order he became embittered by the doctor’s only slightly veiled haughtiness and scorn, and jealous of his young wife’s continued ardent devotion to her father.

It is a triumph of the author’s character development that even though we have been told of the relationship between the father and daughter from the father’s point of view (it was not sexual, and he was somewhat embarrassed by her continued childlike closeness into her later teens), when Macon Dead tells Milkman of his conviction that his wife and father-in-law had been somehow sexually connected, the reader is, like Milkman, very nearly convinced. When finally the mother tells her version of the relationship she had with her father, Milkman and the reader are finally able to fit the confusing pieces together and see the situation with compassion and with despair—despair because there is no love to heal the breach between the husband and wife, despair because the anger and outrage at being rejected have poisoned them and are destroying their capacity to love and grow.

Milkman and his sisters are used by both parents. Both want to make the children into images of their own ideals and to make them reject the values and lifestyle of their mate. The mother wants Milkman to become a doctor like her father, and even suggests that he might take her maiden name as his own last name. She wants her daughters to marry well, and will consider as suitors only professional men. Then finally, when no such suitors appear, she considers that perhaps some civil worker like a postal employee might do. The father wants his son to join him in the real estate business he owns, and is adamant that the daughters shall choose men of ambition and status.

The father’s covetousness, his manipulation of his power in the community, and his inability to love people or be loved by them, drives his children and his wife and indeed everyone from any warm relationship with him. Contrasted to Macon Dead’s greed, suspicion, and self-righteousness is his sister Pilate’s openness, trust, and love. She is all that he is not. She lives in the utmost simplicity, with generosity, kindness, and love motivating all her actions. Macon cannot accept her love, her generosity, her ethics, nor her forgiveness. He tells Milkman, “You want to be a whole man, you got to know the whole truth”; yet he himself is the one who is constantly diminished by his lack of knowledge or acceptance of the truth. He relies instead on suspicion and conjecture. Just as he suspects his wife of incestuous...

(The entire section is 2537 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Song of Solomon, winner of the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, is an intricately woven, thematically complex novel that addresses ancestral history, class-versus-race bonds, and sexism. Milkman Dead begins searching for gold and freedom from familial ties; in the process of searching, he discovers his family history and learns about his own tribal power. Although the opening scene occurs in 1931, the characters tell stories that date back to the late nineteenth century, when Milkman’s great grandfather, Solomon, flew away from a field in which he worked as a slave, leaving behind twenty-one children and an African myth of flight.

Milkman is born despite his father’s efforts to make Ruth...

(The entire section is 561 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Morrison’s women in this novel are fascinating, and they are necessary to Milkman’s maturity and development as well as to the fulfillment of his journey. The magnificent Pilate, juxtaposed with her brother Macon, illustrates for Milkman how far removed his parents and sisters are from natural lives. During Milkman’s search in Virginia, women provide significant pieces to the puzzle of his history. An examination of Pilate, Ruth, and Hagar indicates, however, that Morrison wishes to point out that women are not allowed the freedoms that men enjoy in this society.

Milkman’s mother and aunt are the two important women in his life. As the daughter of the only African American doctor in town, Ruth is bred to an...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Post-World War I America
Though Song of Solomon is set during the 1950s and 60s, much of its action results from events...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The main motif in Song of Solomon is flying: the novel begins with Robert Smith's flight from the roof of Mercy...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Because Song of Solomon is an accessible novel, and because it involves an exciting version of the quest for cultural solidarity, it...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Morrison's place in American literature was assured with the publication of her third novel, Song of Solomon, by far her most...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1963: President Kennedy is assassinated, plunging all Americans into mourning.

1970s: President Nixon resigns after...

(The entire section is 127 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

One of the catalysts for Guitar's increased involvement in politics is the Emmett Till case. Discuss the impact of Emmett Till's lynching on...

(The entire section is 113 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

By most standards, Song of Solomon is technically conservative for the author of The Bluest Eye and Sula. It is unique...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Beloved, Toni Morrison's 1987 novel of a former slave haunted by the ghost of her daughter, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature....

(The entire section is 127 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Appiah, K.A. and Gates Jr., Henry Louis, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New...

(The entire section is 706 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bakerman, Jane S. “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” American Literature 52, no. 4 (January, 1981): 541-563. Explores women characters’ search for love and self-worth in Morrison’s first three novels. Notes that each woman defines herself by “the standards and desires of a beloved man,” which results in her incomplete initiation and failed integration into the community.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Collection of scholarly essays on Morrison; includes an essay on trauma and shame in Morrison’s fiction, as well as a study of acts of unification...

(The entire section is 435 words.)