Song of Solomon (novel)
|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.
This section's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (April 2019)
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 black people. 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. In the chaos that follows, the hospital admits her and she delivers her son, Macon Dead III—the first African-American child 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 in Southside. Ruth still breastfeeds him, in an escape from her repetitive life and loveless marriage. One day, she is seen by one of Macon Dead Jr's employees, who nicknames the boy "Milkman".
Pilate, a bootlegger and quasi witch, becomes a central figure as Milkman grows through adolescence and into his thirties. She was highly influential in Milkman's birth, having brewed a "love potion" to coerce her brother into conceiving Milkman. Traveling up from Pennsylvania, Macon Dead Jr. was successful in managing real estate and marrying Ruth, the daughter of the only black doctor in town. Their father, an illiterate farmer, is swindled into giving up his land, and subsequently murdered when he refuses to move. Fleeing, Macon and Pilate come across a cave that contains bags of gold after killing a white man. Pilate does not allow Macon to take the gold, in fear of trouble from killing a white man, and Macon resents her for the missed opportunity. The two siblings parted ways shortly after. Pilate wanders, working in New York State as a migrant worker and again in Virginia, continually ousted by communities for her absence of a navel. She eventually settles on an island off the coast of Virginia and becomes pregnant with her daughter Reba. She roams for about twenty years, until Reba becomes pregnant with Hagar. Deciding that Hagar needs her extended family, Pilate moves her daughter and granddaughter to Michigan to be near 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. 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. He 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. This alienation manifests chiefly in his relationship with Guitar, a member of the Seven Days.
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, assuming 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 from Pilate. Milkman and Guitar succeed, but are arrested by the police after they discover the bag contains human bones. Macon Dead and Pilate go to the police station 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 woman. For Guitar, Pilate's performance elicits hatred 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. 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. She relates the tale of Macon Dead Sr.'s body washing up from his grave and being moved to the cave where his 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 be 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 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 thus wants revenge. Struggling, Milkman discharges his gun, scaring away Guitar; he does not tell the hunters about the encounter.
Shortly thereafter, Milkman is told of the Byrd house. There he can find a woman, Susan, who might connect the fragments of Milkman's ancestry. Once more, the woman named Sing is brought up. When Milkman goes to the Byrd house, he is offered little information. He leaves the house, wary that Guitar is stalking him, but promises to visit again. He encounters Guitar again, who claims that Milkman took the gold for himself. Milkman is unable to convince him otherwise.
The following day, Milkman sees the children of the town playing and singing the "Song of Solomon." Milkman remembers that Pilate sang a similar song, and 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 confirms his suspicions through Susan. 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. She eventually catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and comes alive again, thinking that if she fixes herself up 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 laid to rest in his ancestral home in Shalimar. Milkman finds Pilate at her home, and she knocks him unconscious 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 bury Macon Dead Sr. overlooking the ravine. After placing the bones in the grave, Pilate is killed by a gunshot from Guitar, intended for Milkman. The novel ends with Milkman leaping toward Guitar. The outcome is left 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 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. In the second line of the fourth quatrain the words "Medina" and "Muhammet" appear. Medina is a holy city in Islam, second to Mecca, and Muhammet is an alternative form of the name of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
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.
Flight and freedom are major themes in Song of Solomon. Milkman is born the day after the death of Robert Smith, an insurance agent who “promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at 3:00” (3). Milkman grows to become enamored with flight and airplanes and disinterested with being on the ground. The ambiguous ending of the novel is supposed to signal Milkman’s ability to finally fly. Of the flights in the novel, Milkman’s journey is intertwined with the story of Solomon and Jake. Jake, Milkman’s grandfather, is the son of Solomon. The folklore surrounding his grandfather, Solomon, is that he was a "flying African" who flew back to Africa to escape slavery. The myth of the "flying Africans" is a popular African American folktale. The tale goes that a group of Ibo slaves in Georgia joined together and walked over water to avoid enslavement. They are said to have flown back to Africa. Although the myth uses the word “fly,” flight actually denotes death and/or suicide. Morrison uses the myth of the "flying Africans" to construct the patrilineal history of the Dead family.
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 (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.
- "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: