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Song of Solomon Essay Sample

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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.

In many of Morrison’s stories, seeking or denying one’s cultural roots is a major concern. Milkman Dead, the young man who is searching for independence in Song of Solomon, leaves his home to find gold. Instead, he discovers the intricacies of his family’s heritage, a discovery that connects him to life and, ironically, simultaneously frees him from life. Milkman begins to recognize the links between past experiences and present circumstances. Consequently, he develops an understanding of his mother’s abnormal sexual behaviors and his father’s obsession with owning things.

Ruth is dead inside, frightened of her husband and bored by her life. She searches for some sign of her own purpose and usefulness in life by creating elaborate arrangements to cover a watermark on her mahogany dining table. Much more alarming, she breast-feeds her son until he is old enough to walk and talk, a fact that is discovered by a town gossip who gives the boy the nickname “Milkman,” which stays with him for the rest of his life.

Macon’s obsession with gaining wealth and owning property is symbolized by his keys, which he counts constantly and fondles frequently in order to gain a sense of security. Macon believes that class elevation will protect him and his family from racism. He marries Ruth because she is a doctor’s daughter, not because he loves her. He parades his well-dressed daughters before his lower-class tenants but rushes to guard the girls when a tenant tries to touch them. Furthermore, when Macon collects rent from these tenants, he shows little compassion for the plight of those who have limited funds. Although Morrison does not focus primarily on the class/race relationship in this novel, this concern appears to be a major theme. Rather than seeking truth or taking flight, Macon decides to live by the standards set by his capitalistic society.

Pilate refuses to do the same thing. Her only participation in society is her business of selling homemade wine, the profits from which she, Reba, and Hagar either squander or give away. Milkman says that he cannot identify the source of comfort in her home, a home of so few material comforts. Pilate’s daughter, her granddaughter, her bag of bones, and her homemade earring, with which a bird flies away after she dies, seem to be her only treasures.

The flying motif of the story is based on the African myth of enslaved Africans flying back to the African continent. Whether Milkman’s great grandfather died, simply left, or actually flew away from the field is undetermined. Yet the empowerment of such a myth and the oppression it suggests—an oppression so strong that it engendered such wishes or such power—attest the Africans’ faith in their ability to transcend their subjugation.

The importance of ancestors and history is indicated by Morrison’s emphasis on naming. The incorrect, altered, and denied names in the story create distance between the characters and their identities. When Macon’s father, who is actually named Jake, registers with the Freedman’s Bureau, a government organization that requires the registration of all emancipated slaves, the clerk makes errors that result in the name “Macon Dead” becoming his legal name. Macon’s father begins the Dead tradition of blindly choosing the names of female children from the Bible. This is how Pilate, Reba, Hagar, and Milkman’s sisters, Magdalene “Lena” Dead and First Corinthians Dead, get their names.

The names in the community are also important indications of the struggle between those in power and those in subjugation. The African Americans in the city decide to refer to the street on which the only “colored doctor” had lived as “Doctor Street,” but the city’s legislators order that any mail addressed to “Doctor Street” be directed to the dead letter office. In an official notice, the legislators note the street’s name as “Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street.” Therefore, as “a way to keep their memories alive and please the legislators as well,” the African Americans refer to the street as “Not Doctor Street.” In a similar way, they rename the MercyHospital “No Mercy Hospital,” to emphasize the hospital’s refusal to treat African American patients.

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 upper-middle-class existence. She is presented in the novel as the underside of the ideal Southern lady image. She is totally cut off from life, benevolently imprisoned by her father, and spitefully contained by her husband, who marries her because of her class position and despises her for her inherent weakness. Ruth’s life is one of uneventful waste. As critic Barbara Christian explains, her life is symbolic of the terror that awaits those women who become the emblem of a man’s wealth and class position.

Unlike Ruth, Pilate exists totally outside societal structures, as is indicated by her lack of a navel. Her home, which is not even equipped with electricity, stands outside town. She sees little value in material things and sells homemade wine to provide an income for herself, her daughter, and her granddaughter. Pilate possesses admirable strength and energy, but, in order to grow and survive on her own terms, she has to move outside society.

Hagar’s acceptance of European standards of beauty, such as light skin, straight hair, and thin noses, illustrates the ill effects of society’s tendency to objectify women who live within it. When Milkman rejects Hagar, she concludes that her woolly hair, unfashionable clothes, and lack of makeup are the reasons. Frantically, she shops for stockings, lipsticks, and other cosmetics, hoping to transform herself into something she imagines Milkman finds acceptable.

By the end of the novel, Milkman recalls and regrets his treatment of Hagar. His experience with her and his exposure to the other women in his life lead him toward the fulfillment he enjoys as his journey closes. Morrison seems to imply that women are necessary participants in the development of males. Meanwhile, male-dominated cultures impede female development. 

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