Song of Solomon (novel)
Cover of the first edition
|Publisher||Alfred Knopf, Inc.|
|Media type||Print (hardcover, paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3563.O8749 S6 1987|
|Followed by||Tar Baby|
Song of Solomon is a 1977 novel by American author Toni Morrison, her third to be published. It follows the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, an African-American man living in Michigan, from birth to adulthood.
This novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's popular book club, and was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature. In 1998, the Radcliffe Publishing Course named it the 25th best English-language novel of the 20th century.
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Song of Solomon opens with the death of Robert Smith, an insurance agent and member of The Seven Days, an organization that kills white people in retaliation for the racial killing of blacks. Smith's attempt at flight and his subsequent death function as the symbolic heralding of the birth of Macon "Milkman" Dead III. A crowd of people gather to watch the attempted flight, including Milkman's mother, Ruth, his two sisters First Corinthians and Magdalene (called Lena), his aunt Pilate, and his friend later in life, Guitar. The appearance of Smith on the roof causes Ruth to go into labor. Given the chaos that follows and the immediate need of the pregnant mother, the hospital admits her and she delivers her son, Macon Dead III—the first African-American child to be born in the hospital.
The novel picks up again with Macon Dead III when he is four years old:  He grows stifled, alienated, and disinterested in his home life and life in Southside. Also at four years of age, Macon is given his nickname, Milkman. Functioning as an escape from her repetitive life and loveless marriage and also as a way to feel a mothering connection to her son, Ruth still breastfeeds Milkman. One day, she is caught in the act by Freddie, one of Macon Dead Jr.'s employees, who proclaims Macon Dead III to be "A milkman. … Look out, womens. Here he come."
Pilate, a bootlegger and quasi witch-woman, becomes a central figure in the novel as Milkman grows through adolescence and into his thirties. Pilate was highly influential in Milkman's birth and conception. With her sister-in-law, Ruth Foster Dead, locked in an abusive and loveless marriage with Pilate's brother Macon Dead Jr., Pilate brews a "love potion" of sorts to coerce Macon Dead Jr. into conceiving Milkman with Ruth. Traveling up from Pennsylvania, Macon Dead sought to make a life for himself and was successful both in terms of managing real estate and in marrying Ruth, the daughter of the only black doctor in town. Their father, an illiterate farmer, is swindled into giving up his land and is subsequently murdered when he refuses to move. Fleeing, Macon and Pilate as children come across a cave that contains bags of gold. Pilate does not allow Macon to take the gold, claiming that it would be stealing and that they would be in enough trouble for killing the white man. Consequently, Macon resents his sister for the missed opportunity at riches. The two siblings parted ways shortly after the incident in the cave. Pilate wanders for a time, working in New York State as a migrant worker and again in Virginia, continually ousted by the communities for her absence of a navel. She eventually settles in a community on an island off of the coast of Virginia and there becomes pregnant with her daughter Reba. She roams for a period of about twenty years, collecting rocks from everywhere she lives, until Reba becomes pregnant with Hagar. Deciding that Hagar needs her extended family, Pilate moves her daughter and granddaughter to Michigan to be nearer her brother Macon. For Milkman, while in his teens, Pilate becomes the first glimpse into his family's past. He also forms a sexual connection with his cousin Hagar.
Milkman's relationship with his family is strained, particularly towards his father. He has very little connection with his sisters and "Part One" of the novel ends with Lena admonishing Milkman for his selfishness. Milkman's relationship with his mother and father is strained by the ambiguity of truth. Macon's resentment for Ruth comes from his perception that she had an obsessive, sexual relationship with her father and her daily attempts at emasculating him. Ruth, however, maintains that the scene that Macon describes to Milkman is exaggerated by Macon, and that she was merely kissing her father's hands, a part of him that was unaffected by the illness that killed him. Additionally, Milkman becomes alienated from Hagar, whose sexual attention becomes easier to obtain the longer they are together. Milkman eventually spurns Hagar and she becomes obsessed with him, attempting to kill him once a month, but never following through.
Milkman is equally alienated from the community of Southside and this alienation manifests chiefly in his relationship with Guitar, a member of the Seven Days. Guitar is a foil to Milkman. Where Milkman is stifled and disinterested, Guitar is motivated and ambitious in his pursuit of vengeance against white oppression. Where Milkman is a person missing a life to "risk all for," Guitar continually "risks all" in his endeavors.
Milkman eventually mentions to Macon the bag that hangs from the ceiling of Pilate's modest home. The bag is heavy and Pilate mentions that it contains her "inheritance." Macon interprets "inheritance" to mean the gold that was left behind in the cave. Macon assumes that Pilate returned to the cave and claimed the gold for her own. Macon then sends Milkman and Guitar on a "quest" to steal the bag of gold from Pilate. Milkman and Guitar succeed in stealing the bag from Pilate, but are stopped by the police and arrested after the police discover that the bag contains, not gold, but human bones. Macon Dead and Pilate both go to the police station to try to free the two young men. Macon attempts to use his influence and money to persuade the police to release the men, but ultimately it is Pilate who frees them by acting like a worn-out, subservient, old black woman even though Milkman has never seen his aunt as anything less than tall, strong, and commanding. For Guitar, Pilate's performance elicits hatred toward her and deepens his misogyny.
"Part Two" of the novel positions Milkman making a journey south to Pennsylvania in search of the gold that must still be in the cave. There he meets the Reverend Cooper who knew Milkman's father when he lived near Danville as a boy. Cooper shares tales of Macon Dead that surprise Milkman and begin the connection between Milkman and his past. He eventually finds the land where his grandfather lived and an old house that stands upon it. There he encounters Circe, an impossibly old ex-servant of the Butler family who has outlived their last descendant to view the collapse of the family and their estate. She relates the tale of Macon Dead Sr.'s body washing up from his grave and being moved to the cave where Macon Dead's children found the gold. She also tells Milkman of a Native American woman named Sing and a black man whom she married named Jake. Milkman leaves and finds the cave but no gold and only one human skeleton where there should have been two. He deduces that Pilate must have retrieved the gold and taken it to Virginia where they had ancestors, so he sets off in search of it.
Milkman stumbles across Shalimar, Virginia, by accident. While out hunting with some older men from Shalimar, Milkman is attacked by Guitar who has followed him to Virginia. Guitar is under the impression that Milkman has taken the gold and shipped it away and thus wants revenge. Struggling, Milkman discharges his gun, missing Guitar and scaring him off. The hunters return and Milkman tells them that he discharged his gun by accident, never mentioning that his friend had just tried to murder him.
Shortly thereafter, Milkman is told of the Byrd house. There he can find a woman, Susan, who might be able to connect the fragments of Milkman's ancestry. Once more, the woman named Sing whom Circe mentioned earlier is spoken of to Milkman and he feels that he is getting closer to discovering his family history. When Milkman goes to the Byrd house the first time, he is offered little information. He leaves the house, wary that Guitar is stalking him in the woods somewhere, but he promises to visit again. On his way back to town he encounters Guitar, who claims that Milkman took the gold for himself and Milkman, explains that there never was any gold and that he did not take it. Guitar does not believe Milkman.
The following day, Milkman observes the children of the town playing and singing the "Song of Solomon." Milkman hears the song for the first time and remembers that Pilate sang a similar song back in Michigan. Milkman begins to piece together what little he knows about his family history and the history of the song. Eventually, it dawns on him that the song is about his family. He later returns to the Byrd house and is able to confirm his suspicions through the information that Susan relates. After this, he heads back to Michigan to find Pilate.
While Milkman is gone in Virginia, Hagar has sunk into a terrible depression from him having spurned her earlier. She eventually catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and comes alive again, thinking that if she fixes herself up then Milkman would want her. Pilate and Reba scrape up money and Hagar spends it on dresses, makeup, and a haircut. The effort amounts to little, and Hagar succumbs to her grief. A collection is taken up by the community to bury Hagar, and Pilate sings a mournful song at her granddaughter's funeral.
Milkman thinks it only appropriate that Macon Dead Sr. be finally laid to rest in his ancestral home in Shalimar. Milkman finds Pilate at her home and is greeted by her knocking him unconscious as repayment for the grief that caused her granddaughter to die. When he comes to, Milkman convinces her to travel with him to Virginia and bury her father. They make the journey and decide to bury Macon Dead Sr. overlooking the ravine. After placing the bones in the grave, Pilate is killed by a gunshot from Guitar that was intended for Milkman. The novel ends with Milkman leaping toward Guitar for a final battle. The novel leaves the outcome unresolved, but finally it seems that Milkman has learned to "fly."
The novel is set mostly in a fictional town in Michigan, where the protagonist lives; in Danville, Pennsylvania, where Milkman's paternal grandfather lived and was killed and where Milkman learns the story of his family; and in Virginia, a little town named Shalimar, where his ancestors are from. The events take place mostly between the 1930s and 1963, but there is also reference to the 19th-century lifetime of Milkman's grand and great-grandfathers, Jake, real name of Macon Dead I and Solomon.
Song of Solomon is a multicultural text, with elements of Native American culture being intertwined with African-American culture in Shalimar, Virginia. Equally, Morrison employs Islamic imagery in the actual "Song of Solomon", including in the "nonsense" language of the song. Note in the second line of the fourth quatrain the words "Medina" and "Muhammet". Medina is a holy city in Islam, second perhaps only to Mecca, and Muhammet is an allusion to Muhammad, the Islamic prophet.
Like all the other works of Toni Morrison, the novel is an example of both American literature and African-American literature. It challenges the question of African-American identity and relationships among African Americans and between black and white individuals and communities. The main conflict of the novel is Milkman's search for ways to become independent from his family, to gain self-realization, and to answer the questions of who he is, how he lives, and why.
The novel, Morrison's third, was met with widespread acclaim, and Morrison earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1978.
The novel has faced several challenges and bans in schools throughout the U.S. since 1993. As recently as 2010, the novel was challenged and later reinstated at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, IN.
- "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993" (Press release). Swedish Academy. October 7, 1993. Retrieved June 1, 2009.
- "Radcliffe's Rival 100 Best Novels List", Modern Library, 1998.
- Morrison, Toni (1977). Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf. p. 9. ISBN 0-394-49784-8.
- Morrison (1977). Song of Solomon. p. 15.
- Morrison (1977). Song of Solomon. p. 303.
- Editors, History com (November 13, 2009). "Song of Solomon wins National Book Critics Circle Award". HISTORY. Retrieved February 27, 2019.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- "Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century", American Library Association.
- Van Wyk, Rich. "Song of Solomon won't be silenced at Franklin Central". WTHR NBC Eyewitness News, May 17, 2010.
- "40 FAVOURITE BOOKS OF FAMOUS PEOPLE". ShortList. September 22, 2011. Retrieved May 24, 2012.
- "The Official Dead Milkmen Website » Milkmen FAQ". Deadmilkmen.com. March 9, 2004. Archived from the original on July 21, 2005.
- Essays and General Info about Song of Solomon
- Analysis of Song of Solomon on Lit React
- Stanford University's free on-line video course The Art of Living includes the following three 50-minute lectures about moral interpretations of Song of Solomon: