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Summary of the Book
The central theme in Toni Morrison’s book, “Song of Solomon”, is the quest for self-identity. In the novel, the author narrates the life journey of a young man, “Milkman” Dead, who lacks enthusiasm for his life, is alienated from his relatives, his cultural roots and his community.
At first, Milkman appears psychologically and spiritually enslaved, but later, his aunt, Pilate, and his ally, Bains, help him to embark on a journey of self-discovery. It is through his quest for spiritual and physical restoration that Milkman is able to relate to his inner self and regain his sense of self-worth.
The events of Milkman’s journeys span over thirty years. In part I of the book (Chapters 1-9), Morrison narrates Milkman’s early life in his hometown, a small town in Michigan. From his birth to his early thirties, Milkman is spiritually empty; his aunt’s conservative tendencies and the father’s worldly lifestyle could not help him grow spiritually.
At one time, Milkman’s father and his sister, Pilate, are forced to flee their home following their father’s killing over land. Later, following a disagreement, they go separate ways only to meet again in this small town in Michigan. The two still have a grudge against one another and could not communicate. Towards the end of part I, Milkman sets out on a quest to find his aunt’s hidden gold, which, according to his father, would become his inheritance.
In part II, Milkman travels to the South ostensibly to search for gold (his inheritance). His quest leads him to a farm in Danville, Pennsylvania, his grandfather’s home. He would later trace his lineage to a small town, Shalimar, in Virginia and go there. It is in this small town that his quest ends when Milkman meets his paternal relatives and discovers his true self-identity.
Developing Milkman’s Quest
Morrison uses many narrative elements in part I in developing Milkman’s quest in the American South in part II. One such narrative element is setting. The South harbors Milkman’s past history particularly slavery in the South. Morrison uses the name “Southside”, Pilate’s residence in the town, to denote their southern ancestry, the origins of the Black population.
Thus, Pilate’s place gives Milkman a direct emotional connection to his ancestors in the South. Also, Morrison predicts the importance of Milkman’s journey to his southern ancestral home when he states that Milkman’s walk in the Not Doctor Street was dreamlike and strange following his quarrel with his father.
His quarrel with his father marks a turning point in his life as he learns of his father’s materialistic tendencies over family traditions. Also, in part I, as Milkman walks down this street to his aunt’s Southside residence, he encounters people “all going the direction he was coming from” (78). Here, Morrison signals that in order for Milkman to discover his identity, he will have to go against the grain and transcend not only the Northward migration of the Black population but also his selfish desires and pleasures.
Morrison, in part I, narrates Milkman’s inquisitiveness to know the meaning of one’s name to signify Milkman’s as well as his ancestral origins. It is the South that harbors the secrets of Milkman’s ancestral past and the origin of his family name, which they lost because of their high mobility. As his father explains, Macon Dead, was the name given to his grandfather by a Freedman Bureau official, which the Macon family kept because Milkman’s mother insisted that “it was new and would wipe out the past” (53).
His father’s explanation marked another turning point as Milkman later sets out to find his family origins and his true identity. By dropping their family name the Macon family lost their traditions and history. The surname is significant to the family as it gives them a sense of self-determination. Thus, Morrison uses Milkman’s urge to know his family name in part I to herald his subsequent quest to the South to discover his heritage and self-identity.
Another narrative element Morrison uses in part I of the novel to herald Milkman’s journey in part II is sequencing of events. Milkman’s self-alienation and disaffection to his family and the black community required complete restoration. He had lost his sense of heritage and therefore, could not relate well with his family or community.
Morrison first symbolizes Milkman’s uniqueness during his birth. He narrates that Milkman is born, the first Black baby, in an all-White hospital called Mercy Hospital. Morrison also narrates how Milkman’s prolonged breastfeeding distinguishes him from other children. At only age four, after Milkman learns that people cannot fly, he loses “all interest in himself’ and likewise has no interest in those around him (9). The author narrates how Morrison was excluded by other children while growing up.
His siblings treated him with “casual malice” (10), which, ironically, made Milkman, from an early age, to develop the urge to seek answers about his true identity and familial origins. The social exclusion Milkman suffers marks a turning point in his life as he realizes that he is different from other kids. It also makes him to seek to find out about his ancestry, hence his quest to the South.
As Milkman becomes older, his life is fraught with failures, partly because of his childhood alienation and lack of empathy and self-awareness. Morrison narrates that, at 22 years of age, Milkman still acts and behaves as a child. He writes that Milkman had not “thought of his mother as a person, a separate individual, with a life apart from allowing or interfering with his own” (75).
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Also, Morrison portrays Milkman’s perceptions as inaccurate and self-centered. He assaults his father to please his mother but learns that “there was no one to thank him-or abuse him, his action was his alone” (68). This marks another turning point in his life, as he learns that he is responsible for his actions and by extension, his destiny.
Morrison also gives his point of view regarding Milkman’s actions. He states that Milkman’s “sleeping with Hagar had made him generous, or so he thought, wide-spirited, or so he imagined” (69). The author’s point of view portrays Milkman as a self-absorbed and selfish young man, with no dream in life.
It is no wonder the prospect of hidden treasures (gold) makes him set out on a quest to find it. Morrison also gives his views about Milkman’s adulthood dream. He states that Milkman contemplated relocating from the Not Doctor Street to a new place with “new people, new command. That was what he wanted in his life” (180). The author’s views and sequencing technique to herald Milkman’s future quest to the South.
Magical Realism in the Book
Morrison uses many examples of magical realism to advance the novels’ themes. One such example relates to his use of descriptions that appeal sense perceptions such as odors, tastes and colors. For instance, he describes the realistic, yet the mysterious quality of the smell of ginger, when he compares his hometown in Michigan with a mystical place in the Far East.
He writes: “An odor like crystallized ginger, or sweet iced tea with a dark clove floating in it… made you think of the East and striped tents and the sha-sha-sha of leg bracelets….” (184). His magical description evokes emotions of Milkman’s lost personal identity and culture. It helps to elaborate the novel’s realistic themes of bemoaning lost culture and personal identity. It underscores Milkman’ and his friend’s (Guitar) search for self-identity, which is a key theme of the book.
Another example of magical realism occurs in chapter 11. In this scene, Morrison describes the sounds made by the hunting dogs during the hunt. He describes the sounds as “all those shrieks, those rapid tumbling barks, the long sustained yells, the tuba sounds, and the drumbeat sounds… (278).
His depiction of the voices, though, distinctive and realistic, is, in time and space, shrouded in mystery. Morrison also links the conscious experiences and the memories of the characters’ past lives. Morrison uses this approach to advance the novel’s theme of the search for one’s self-identity as exemplified by Milkman’s search. It is through his epic search for self consciousness that readers understand the significance of familial and communal identity in his life.
Another example of magical realism that involves personal consciousness occurs in chapter 10. Morrison describes Circe’s house as “looking as if it had been eaten by a galloping disease, the sores of which were dark and fluid” (220).
She then proceeds to describe what is going on in Milkman’s memory including his flight from his hometown in Michigan to Pennsylvania, his final chat with his personal friend, Guitar, his journey on to Circe’s house and his interaction with his father’s friends before returning to Circe’s house where Milkman is.
This approach of superimposing past memories with the present is an important magical realism technique that helps Morrison to describe the dynamics of the characters’ conscious experiences.
A new sense of self-identity transforms the once narcissistic Milkman into an empathic man as shown in his realistic interaction with his girlfriend, Sweet: “He made up the bed. She gave him gumbo to eat. He washed the dishes… He scoured her tub (285). Here, Morrison encourages greater consciousness among the black people to seek to understand their history and community identity. Her description of how Milkman connected with his personal and familial consciousness borders magical realism.
Milkman, in chapter 15, on completing his quest, reflects on the people he has interacted with and how they helped shape his destiny. He becomes conscious of his familial and community origins as shown in the list of names of his black kinsmen. Morrison uses this mental imagery to illustrate the book’s theme of personal and community sense of identity.
Toni Morrison’s Female Character Portrayal
Morrison depiction of the female characters in the novel illustrates the defects of gender relations among the blacks. She portrays female characters as crucial in the development of personal and community identity. All the females Milkman interacts with, though he mistreats them, help him discover his self-identity.
One such female character is Pilate, an influential figure in Milkman’s life, who, unlike Macon Dead, is conservative and disdainful of Macon’s materialistic lifestyle. Morrison uses Pilate to represent the deep connection that females have to their people and ancestors. A stark contrast to Pilate values her ancestry and longs for a reunion with her relatives in the South. However, to her brother, Macon, kinship is not important.
Pilate plays a crucial role in Milkman’s life. Her incomplete song makes Milkman to seek for the missing words of the song later in the book. The words of her song are symbolic because she is attempting to assist Milkman discover his identity.
At the end of the book, Milkman gets all the words and is able to sing the entire song, which makes him feel that he has found his true identity. Pilate helps Milkman, who had lost all personal and cultural consciousness because his father was ‘dead’ emotionally, to discover himself. Thus, Pilate helps to develop an emotional connection to his ancestors.
Morrison also portrays female characters as role models. In the novel, all of Milkman’s role models are females who guided him throughout his life. Even his close male friend, Guitar, is a rogue murderer who could not guide Milkman. In the end, Milkman discovers that Pilate’s teachings were relevant to his final destiny, though, initially, he had sidelined her. As it turns out, Pilate is the most influential figure in Milkman’s quest for self-identity.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage International, 1977. Print.