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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 “can’t fly no better than a chicken,” and Guitar tells him that is because of the weight of its tail; in order to fly, Guitar says, one must give up the things that weigh one down. After he visits Shalimar, Milkman is able to give up the material things that weigh him down, and finally he, like his ancestor, is able to soar.

Character names are used both symbolically and ironically. Milkman—a name that suggests his immaturity and also his symbolic hunger—is emotionally and spiritually “Dead.” Guitar, through his desire for social justice, becomes an instrument of vengeance. The Dead women’s biblical names are allusive and sometimes ironic. The biblical Ruth is famed for her steadfast companionship; Morrison’s Ruth is a companion only to her father, for her husband shuns her. Hagar, named for Abraham’s outcast slave, is cast aside by her lover Milkman. Pilate, named by her illiterate father, who liked the way the name looked in the Bible, does not, like Pontius Pilate, abdicate authority but instead embraces it; she is also the “pilot” who guides both Ruth and Milkman, though Macon rejects her.

The ancient midwife Circe is an ironic counterpart to the beautiful enchantress of Greek mythology; in Song of Solomon, she is surrounded not by swine but by dogs with the eyes of children. The scent of ginger and sweet, spicy perfume, symbolic of Africa and the past, lingers around Circe, Shalimar, and the bones of Pilate’s father.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 2,280 words.)