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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison Review Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio (Ciabattari 1). She was a prominent editor and writer of her time. The Song of Solomon, published in 1977 is Toni Morrison’s third novel. It proved to be hugely popular with both critics and readers alike. The novel revolves around the ultimate quest for self and its realization. It tells the story of the quest for cultural identity by its hero, Macon (Milkman) Dead III. In so doing, the novel reflects Morrison’s desire to preserve African-American folklore, art, music, and literature (Chastain 779). The relationship between love for an individual and love for an ideology is explored well in the novel through the love of Macon for Hagar and the love of finding justice for African Americans. Hagar’s and Guitar’s expressions of love are different. The book itself is a swooping flight of imagination. It won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1977 (Haskins and Haskins 40). Morrison, as a novelist has always explored the definition of love from a philosophical viewpoint. She is known for creating characters whose love is interwoven with violence, destruction, or death (Bak 279). In the book, “The Song of Solomon” such an obsessive love is found in the passionate desire of Hagar and the friendly love of Guitar.

The novel begins with the scene of Robert Smith, an insurance agent leaping off the roof of Mercy Hospital wearing blue silk wings hoping that he will fly to the opposite shore of Lake Superior. He instead falls to his death. The next day, the first black child is born in Mercy Hospital, Milkman Dead to Ruth Foster Dead. Knowing that he cannot fly, Milkman grows up a very disinterested young man though he enjoys the love and care of his mother, aunt Pilate, and his sisters First Corinthians and Magdalene (called Lena). Milkman is not capable of reciprocating the love and kindness of the women around him and grows up bored and lacking compassion. In this emotional desert, Milkman forms two initially sustaining relationships, one with a schoolmate, Guitar, and one with Pilate’s granddaughter, Hagar.

In his ruthless pursuit of gold, Milkman, at the age of thirty-two, with the help of his friend Guitar Bains attempts to rob Pilate. But instead of gold he just finds some rocks and a human skeleton. He needed the funds to participate in the mission planned by the Seven Days, a secret society that tries to kill innocent white civilians to take revenge on the atrocities committed against the African-Americans. Searching for material prosperity, Milkman rejects the love of Hagar, who is driven mad by the rejection and tries to kill Milkman many times in her frustration at not being able to get his love. Later Milkman side-tracks and embarks on a voyage tracing family history. By the time he returns, Hagar is dead of a broken heart. Guitar, his companion on the journey in the quest for gold feels that Milkman might have cheated him of his share of gold and tries to kill him. Thus we find that both Hagar and Guitar try to kill him despite being very close and loving to him. Despite the similarity in trying to kill Macon, both of them differ in their styles of expressing their love.

Hagar’s passion often turns into murderous attempts against the Milkman. According to Hans Bak, while these weird representations of love seem to have psychological depth and sociological implications, Morrison is challenging her readers “to think beyond conventional categories of intention and behavior – to entertain the paradox of murderous or incestuous love” (Bak 281). Hans Bak holds that Morrison seems to be proposing through social marginals such as Circe and Pilate that love and creativity can be found in unlikely places if we are willing to break free from the normal socially acceptable way of seeing and judging things and see things independently. In the last scene in Song of Solomon, Aunt Pilates takes the bullet that Guitar intends for Milkman.

As she lies dying in Milkman’s arms, she says that “I wish I’d a knew more people. I would have loved ’em all. If I’d known more, I woulda loved more” (Morrison 336). Milkman on reaching maturity realizes that the only people who have truly loved him were “both women, both black, both old” (Morrison 331). He refers to the love of his mother and Pilate who had fought for his life. He also takes responsibility for Hagar’s loving him to death by accepting a box of her hair from Pilate. However, the most significant symbol of his manhood is his acceptance of the paradox represented by his best friend Guitar’s love. Milkman thinks to himself “perhaps that’s what all human relationships boiled down to: Would you save my life? Or would you take it?” (Morrison 334) Only – “Guitar was exceptional. To both questions he would answer yes” (Morrison 331). The paradox represented by Guitar is that good and evil, love and hate, life and death, ultimately end up being difficult to distinguish (Bak 283).

At age twelve, Milkman and his cousin, Hagar, get sexually involved. Hagar becomes emotionally dependent on Milkman as a result of this affair. But he chooses to break off their relationship one Christmas day by sending her money and a thank-you note. This sent Hagar “spinning into a bright blue place where the air was thin and it was silent all the time, and where people spoke in whispers or did not make sounds at all, and where everything was frozen except for an occasional burst of fire in her chest” (Morrison 99). Hagar almost has a parasitic love for Milkman and can only love herself in the reflected light of his false love. When Milkman breaks up with Hagar, she feels lost and her world is shattered. Her love is transformed into a potent rage that provokes her to kill Milkman. When Milkman leaves, Hagar turns the attention onto herself and eventually dies of heartbreak when she realizes that Milkman is,”…never going to like my hair.” (Morrison 316)

“How can he not love your hair?… It’s his hair too. He got to love it.” “He don’t love it at all. He hates it.” (Morrison 315). This last comment is uttered by a dangerously mentally ill Hagar Dead to her mother Reba and her grandmother Pilate. In the passage, grandmother, mother, and daughter discuss whether Milkman, the novel’s central character, “likes” Hagar’s hair. Pilates asks how it can be possible for Milkman to love himself and hate Hagar’s hair. But Hagar is certain that Milkman is only attracted to women with distinctly European features and insists, with deadly finality that he is never going to approve of her hair. African-Americans have a distinct type of hair that does not blend with the European or white ideal of beauty. According to Angela M. Neal and Midge L. Wilson (328): “Compared to black males, black females have been more profoundly affected by the prejudicial fallout surrounding issues of skin color, facial features, and hair”. In the context of Hagar, Morrison engages the black female’s struggle between her hairstyle preferences and the female hairstyle preferences of the black male. Shortly after Milkman writes Hagar a “thank you” note ending their relationship, Hagar decides to murder him. The “thank you” hurt Hagar, but she only becomes murderous when she spots Milkman sitting in Mary’s, smiling at and talking to a woman whose “silky copper-colored hair cascaded over the sleeve of his coat” (127).

Later, when she finds that she can’t bring herself to kill Milkman, she decides to become the woman with the copper-colored hair, reasoning that the copper-colored ideal is what Milkman wants in a woman. “‘No wonder. No wonder,’” Hagar reasons as she attempts to determine the reason that Milkman won’t love her. “‘I look like a ground hog. Where’s the comb?’” (308-09). After a frantic search for the comb, along with her first bath in days and a trip to the beauty shop, Hagar is intent on winning Milkman back by dressing in stylish clothes and making her hair attractive to him. She’s certainly attempting to let her hair work its magic on him, but it is also obvious that she’s submitting to the power males have over women and their hair.

Michael Awkward argues that Hagar reflects more of society’s views on women. This acceptance is reflected partially in her wholehearted adoption of its ideas of female beauty. (493) – the “silky hair,” the “penny-colored hair,” the “lemon-colored skin,” and the “gray-blue eyes”. Hagar is trapped between her African physical features and the white-female ideal of beauty. She is perfectly aware of the priority men like Janie’s first two husbands and the man who was observed stroking Janie’s hair in the store place on female hair, and Hagar is also well aware that she doesn’t quite measure up. That awareness, among other things, leads to her death (Ashe 579). Through Hagar, Morrison explores the theme of passionate love and the mixed ideology of beauty and grace.

Another relationship that is used to explore love and ideology is the special friendship that develops between Guitar and Milkman. The guitar is more of a guide and mentor to Milkman and he is also a friend show is wise and kind and fearless. Above all, Guitar also seems to fill in the place of Milkman’s father as Milkman declares Guitar to be the only sane and constant person in his life. He spends a lot of time with Guitar and finds him to be a willing listener and an understanding friend. The guitar is sensitive to the feelings of Milkman when he tells him, “Looks like everybody’s going in the wrong direction but you, don’t it?”. He encourages Milkman to assume responsibility for his own life. “You got a life? Live it!” he tells him. However, Guitar is also dangerous because of his links with Seven Days, a vigilante group. He does not have the spirit of forgiveness and the love of humanity.

He has a deep hatred of whites as a result of his father’s brutal death at the hands of whites. He is also very deeply insecure and paranoid and is not able to trust anyone including his best friend. When Macon evicts Guitar for back rent, he holds Milkman responsible and considers it a breach of their friendship. When he accompanies Milkman to search for the lost gold, he does not trust him bust says “I’m nervous. Real Nervous.” Convinced that Milkman has betrayed him, he decides to kill him and paradoxically, he reveals his intention to kill Milkman. When Milkman asks why he has chosen to tell him, Guitar responds, “You’re my friend. It’s the least I could do for a friend.” Thus Guitar seems to be torn between commitment to his friendship and his membership in the Seven Days. Through his predicament, Morrison explores love in a different dimension and ideology of racism.

Morrison uses Milkman’s relationship with Hagar to illustrate the detrimental effects of male/female relationships that result when in romantic love one willingly loses the true self in the name of love. Initially, Milkman is shown as the aggressor, and Hagar the reluctant prize. However, Milkman soon becomes very important to Hagar. She tells Ruth that Milkman is “my home in this world”. She opens herself to him and by the twelfth year, Milkman has grown bored with her accessibility: “He didn’t even have to pay for it. It was so free, so abundant, it had lost its fervor. There was no excitement, no galloping blood in his neck or his heart at the thought of her”; In the eyes of Milkman, Hagar meant nothing: “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make” (Morrison 320). Hagar had confused love with possession and desired to own him even if it meant killing him. Similarly, Guitar confuses friendship with black militancy.

The guitar is older than Milkman and street-smart and he protects Milkman. The main feature of Guitar is that he hated the whites in the name of love of black people: “What I’m doing ain’t about hating white people,” Guitar tells his friend, “It’s about loving us. About loving you. My whole life is love.” Thus Guitar is a man who is confused between the very concepts of love and hate. In pledging his “whole life” to the universal love of all black people, Guitar is unable to claim a more personal love of Milkman. The secrecy of his work isolates him and precludes intimacy. The guitar is forced to cross the boundaries of morality and rationality in his pursuit of gold and street justice (Bloom 65).

Hagar expresses her love for Milkman through her focus on looks. “Look at how I look. I look awful. No wonder he didn’t want me. I look terrible” (Morrison 312). Hagar has a black urban, northern working-class look with a strong attachment to the rural south. Her boyfriend on the other hand is the progeny of the urban black middle class. When Milkman rejects her Hagar decides that to hold on to him, she must make herself into a less black woman. What Hagar does not understand is that Milkman’s indifferent attitude is an expression of his primary sexism as well as “his internalized acceptance of the larger society’s racist measure of blacks in terms of how closely an individual’s skin and hair approximates the white model” (Willis 114).

Hagar thus accepts her rejection as a personal affront and tries to solve it through consumerism. Hagar appears before her mother and grandmother decked in new clothes and cosmetics she has hauled home through a driving rainstorm: her “wet ripped hose, the soiled white dress, the sticky, lumpy face powder, the streaked rouge, and the wild wet shoals of hair” (Morrison 318). If Hagar succeeded in acquiring the look she strived to get, she would look like a black mimicry of a white cultural model. However, looking grotesque and pitiful, Hagar is the “sublime manifestation of the contradiction between the ideology of consumer society that would have everyone believe that we all trade equally in commodities and the reality of all marginalized people for whom translation into the dominant white model is impossible” (Willis 115).

The theme of love helps in accelerating the story of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Hagar expresses her love for Milkman through her focus on physical aspects such as hairstyle, cosmetics, and dresses. But negates the positive aspects of love through her aggressively possessive nature. Guitar, as a friend, expresses his love for Milkman through his wise words of advice and consolation. However, he too negates the positive aspects of the friendship by ultimately getting ready to kill him. Both Hagar and Guitar are similar in their inner levels of insecurity. It is their insecurity that makes them behave so violently. Both of them are not able to trust Milkman. For ideology, the black feminist stereotype versus the white model ideology disturbed Hagar whereas the ideology of taking revenge by hating whites disturbed Guitar. Hagar dies of a broken heart whereas Guitar aims Milkman to kill him. It is Milkman who can empathize with both Hagar and also with Guitar and forgive their transgressions. “You want my life?” Milkman calls out to Guitar in the aftermath of the shooting. “You want it? Here.” Milkman’s tearful offer of himself demonstrates how much he valued love. In the case of Hagar, by accepting the box containing her hair, he shows he values her love for him as well. Thus both, Hagar and Guitar can be considered as successful in making Milkman feel their love, though it’s a destructive one.

Works Cited

Ashe, D. Bertram (1995). Why Don’t He like My Hair?”: Constructing African-American Standards of Beauty in Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’ and Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’. African American Review. Volume: 29. Issue: 4. 1995. Page 579+.

Awkward, Michael (1990). “‘Unruly and let loose’: Myth, Ideology, and Gender in Song of Solomon.” Cited Callaloo 13 (1990): 482-98

Bak, Hans (2004). Uneasy Alliance: Twentieth-Century American. Rodopi Publishers.

Bloom, Harold (1999). Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Chelsea House Publishers. Philadelphia. 1999.

Chastain, Emma (2004). Literature. Spark Educational Publishing. 2004.

Ciabattari, A. Nancy (1996). Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Research and Education Association: Toni Morrison. 1996.

Haskins, James and Haskins, Jim (2001). Toni Morrison: Magic of Words. Millbrook Press. 2001.

Morrison, Toni (1977). Song of Solomon. Knopf Publishers. New York.

Neal, Angela M., and Midge L. Wilson. “The Role of Skin Color and Features in the Black Community: Implications for Black Women and Therapy.” Clinical Psychology Review 9 (1989): 323-33.

Willis, Susan (1991). A Primer for Daily Life. Routledge Publishers. New York.

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