Song of Solomon (novel)


Song of Solomon (novel)
Song of Solomon  
SongOfSolomon.jpg
First edition cover
Author(s) Toni Morrison
Country U.S.A.
Language English
Genre(s) African American literature
Publisher Alfred Knopf
Publication date 1977
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 337
ISBN 0-452-26011-6
OCLC Number 15366961
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 19
LC Classification PS3563.O8749 S6 1987

Song of Solomon is a 1977 novel by American author Toni Morrison. It follows the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, an African-American male living in Michigan, from birth to adulthood.

This book won the National Books Critics 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.[1]

Contents

Plot summary

Morrison's protagonist, Macon "Milkman" Dead III, derives his nickname from the fact that he was breastfed during childhood (Macon's age can be inferred as he was wearing pants with elastic instead of a diaper, and that he later forgets the event, suggesting he was still rather young). Milkman's father's employee, Freddie, happens to see him through the window being breastfed by his mother. He quickly gains a reputation for being a "Momma's boy" in direct contrast to his (future) best friend, Guitar, who is motherless and fatherless.

Milkman has two sisters, "First Corinthians" and "Magdelene called Lena." The daughters of the family are named by putting a pin in the Bible, while the eldest son is named after his father. The first Macon Dead's name was the result of an administrative error when Milkman's grandfather had to register subsequent to the end of slavery.

Milkman's mother (Ruth Foster Dead) is the daughter of the town's only black doctor; she makes her husband feel inadequate, and it is clear she idolized her father, Doctor Foster, to the point of obsession. After her father dies, her husband claims to have found her in bed with the dead body, sucking his fingers. Ruth later tells Milkman that she was kneeling at her father's bedside kissing the only part of him that remained unaffected by the illness from which he died. These conflicting stories expose the problems between his parents and show Milkman that "truth" is difficult or impossible to obtain. Macon (Jr.) is often violently aggressive towards Ruth because he believes that she was involved sexually with her father and loved her father more than her own husband. On one occasion, Milkman punches his father after he strikes Milkman's mother, exposing the growing rift between father and son.

In contrast, Macon Dead Jr.'s sister, Pilate, is seen as nurturing—an Earth Mother character. Born without a navel, she is a somewhat mystical character. It is strongly implied that she is Divine—a female Christ-in spite of her name. Macon (Jr.) has not spoken to his sister for years and does not think highly of her. She, like Macon, has had to fend for herself from an early age after their father's murder, but she has dealt with her past in a different way than Macon, who has embraced money as the way to show his love for his father. Pilate has a daughter, Reba, and a granddaughter named Hagar. Hagar falls desperately and obsessively in love with Milkman, and is unable to cope with his rejection, attempting to kill him at least six times.

Hagar is not the only character who attempts to kill Milkman. Guitar, Milkman's erstwhile best friend, tries to kill Milkman more than once after incorrectly suspecting that Milkman has cheated him out of hidden gold, a fortune he planned to use to help his Seven Days group fund their revenge killings in response to killings of blacks.

Searching for the gold near the old family farm in Pennsylvania, Milkman stops at the rotting Butler Mansion, former home of the people who killed his ancestor to claim the farm. Here he meets Circe, an almost supernaturally old ex-slave of the Butlers. She tells Milkman of his family history and this leads him to the town of Shalimar. There he learns his great-grandfather Solomon was said to have escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, leaving behind twenty-one children and his wife Ryna, who goes crazy with loss. Returning home, he learns that Hagar has died of a broken heart. He accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where she is accidentally shot and killed by Guitar, who had intended to kill Milkman.

At the end of the novel, Milkman leaps towards Guitar. This leap is ambiguous, it is not explicitly stated that either or both is killed. However it brings the novel full circle from the suicidal "flight" of Robert Smith, the insurance agent, to Milkman's "flight" in which he learns to fly like Pilate.

Themes

The novel's epigraph reads, "The fathers may soar/ And the children may know their names." The importance of names and naming for Morrison's cast of characters lies in a name's ability to intimate or uncover hidden truths about personal identity. In the novel, names take on an active role: they help one acquire self-knowledge, connect with one's history, and might even have the power to change one for the better or worse. Take Hagar, for example: the Oxford English Dictionary cites one obsolete verb form of "hag," which means "to torment or terrify as a hag; to trouble as the nightmare"; are her attempts to murder Milkman then merely a means by which to fulfill the command of her name? She also gives her characters biblical names such as Hagar. In the Bible, Sarah has a handmaiden named Hagar , who bears Abraham –her husband- a son and is then banished from Abraham's family. Similarly, Hagar in “Song of Solomon” is a character who is used by Milkman, but but then also put aside by him, driving her insane.

By and large, Morrison's characters acquire their names in later life. Nicknames, misnomers, mistaken identities—these are the ways in which characters are read and judgements are made about them. These are also the ways in which the characters may judge themselves. Milkman's shame over his nickname, for example, grants the reader insight into his aggressive and unloving relationship with his mother.

A major theme in the novel is Milkman's quest for identity as a black man in the 20th-century United States, as he slowly tries to piece together the history of his ancestors, which he achieves by journeying into his father and aunt's past, searching for his origins. The sources and meanings of names also tie into his larger search for identity.

The novel is written in the third person, but the narrative weaves in and out of different character viewpoints, beliefs, and psychologies. The reader is given insight into Macon and Pilate's early lives together, as well as an understanding of their personal history and of the effects of slavery on the Dead family, including Milkman. The search for identity, the effects of geographical displacement on African Americans, and the effects of distorted love all play out as important themes in the novel. Another major theme is the idea that the individual must find freedom from not only saving himself.

Furthermore, throughout the novel, flight is presented as one of the only ways to achieve freedom in an otherwise stifling world. Although the exact meaning of flight, in both the literal and the figurative sense, changes as the novel progresses, Milkman's fascination with flight remains constant. When Milkman finally decides to "fly" in the end, he proves to the readers that it is one's actions, and not one's name, that make her/his story worth remembering.

Conveyed by his metaphorical relation to a peacock, Milkman is initially a "flightless bird" weighed down by his pride, search for gold and coloured ancestry. However, only when he "surrenders to the air" and frees himself from societal burdens can he truly "fly" in life and soar above prejudices similar to his ancestor, Solomon.

Another major theme presented in the novel is singing as the songs were sung from the beginning to the end of the novel. While Mr. Smith was about to commit suicide, Pilate sang the song "O sugarman done fly...", and the same song was repeated again after Mr. Smith committed the suicide. The song sung by the people of Shalimar guides Milkman in his journey of uncovering his family history. When Hagar dies, Pilate and Reba both sing to relieve their grief.

In the novel, gender inequality was greatly expressed. Men were more powerful and always tend to have control over women in some way: Macon Dead's violence towards Ruth, Milkman's ignorance for Haggar; the only exception was Pilate, whom Milkman described to be a woman that could fly without ever leaving the ground. This can be read both literally or metaphorically. Literally, a bird swooped down and picked up her box with her name inside it and flew away, letting her fly in a sense. Metaphorically, the use of flying, as seen throughout the novel, is an indication that she did something important with her life and made a story for herself.

The role of outsider is also a theme of the novel. When Milkman is a juvenile, he is very much self-absorbed and sees the world only through his father's and Guitar's eyes with appreciation of awe and affection. He hears fascinating stories from his father, but has never experienced any himself. Moreover, he learns from his father and Guitar that to be a man is to either own something or to conduct violence. However, he does not totally understand the whole purpose of their views and is thus not very self-promoted. Nevertheless, Milkman has gone through a character development when he travels north to his old family farm searching for gold. When he hears of the people telling stories of his father and grandfather, he begins to recognize the emptiness of his lust and starts to step out of his own and to see the world through other people's eyes.

Footnotes

  1. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993" (Press release). Swedish Academy. 1993-10-07. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/press.html. Retrieved 2009-06-01. 

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