Summary of the Novel
This bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel traces the birth, youth, and maturation of the protagonist, Milkman Dead. Born in Michigan in 1931 by miraculous means, Milkman is a gifted child until he learns at the age of four that humans cannot fly. Changed by this revelation, he grows up a spoiled, self-centered child. Torn between the magical, spiritual world of his father’s sister, Pilate, and that of his greedy property-owning father Macon Dead, Milkman follows in the footsteps of his father and becomes Macon’s assistant. Burdened by his parents’ unspeakable confidences and troubled by his loveless household, he seeks solace at his Aunt Pilate’s and by spending time with his best friend, Guitar Bains.
Living a spoiled, infantile existence until the age of 31, Milkman’s sole reason for being is to seek pleasure. After a 14-year relationship with Pilate’s granddaughter, Hagar, loses its lustre, Milkman decides to end it. Hagar has become too accessible, and their love-making, which so tantalized Milkman when he was younger, has lost its appeal. Distraught by Milkman’s mistreatment of her, Hagar repeatedly tries to kill him.
Guitar further complicates Milkman’s life when he confesses to Milkman that he is a member of a radical organization, the Seven Days, that avenges the unprosecuted deaths of innocent blacks by randomly killing whites under similar circumstances.
Lacking a social consciousness and fed up with the seriousness of life, Milkman decides he needs to separate himself from his oppressive world by traveling. When Macon suggests that Milkman steal a sack which ostensibly has gold in it from Pilate’s house, Milkman sees the gold as a way to finance his trip and finally be independent.
Macon tells Milkman that the gold is from a cave near Danville, Pennsylvania, the town Macon and Pilate grew up in. Macon explains that he and Pilate lived in the cave for several days after their father was murdered by a white family who wanted the Dead property. When a white man approached the cave, a fearful Macon killed him, suspecting him of being one of the men that killed Macon Dead I. Afterwards, he and Pilate discovered gold in the cave, but Pilate and Macon argued when Pilate told Macon it was morally wrong to keep it. This argument created a permanent breach in their relationship.
Macon now tells Milkman that he believes Pilate went back to the cave to retrieve the gold. Without expressing any concern for the morality of his actions, Milkman agrees to steal the gold with the help of Guitar, who wants the money to finance his vigilante organization. After stealing the sack, the two men discover there is no gold in it, only what they believe are a white man’s bones. These are, ostensibly, the bones of the white man Macon killed in the cave, the bones that the ghost of Macon Dead I told Pilate to go back and retrieve because “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body.”
Undeterred by this first dead-end, Macon suggests that the gold must still be in the cave in Pennsylvania. Milkman agrees to go to Danville to search the cave for the gold. Milkman seeks out Circe, the midwife who delivered Macon and Pilate. Through Circe, Milkman learns the names of his paternal grandparents—Jake and Sing—and the location of the cave where Milkman believes the gold is. Milkman searches Hunter Cave and determines that the gold and the bones of his grandfather are no longer there. From what Circe tells Milkman, he concludes that the bones in Pilate’s sack must be those of Pilate’s father.
Less interested in his family history then in finding the gold, Milkman proceeds to Shalimar, Virginia, the birthplace of his paternal grandparents. In the all-black town, he finds the men hostile toward his urban manners and his lack of community etiquette. Milkman is perplexed by this reception after he was treated with such “southern hospitality” in Danville, where his family was the “object of hero...
(The entire section is 4,144 words.)