Toni Morrison’s various books have frequently made use of magic, African-American spiritual beliefs and religious values to construct and convey a strong narrative element. “The Song of Solomon” works on an absolute assumption that all magic experienced by the book’s characters is real.
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Therefore, African spiritual elements are recurrently used as metaphors for each and every episode that takes place in their lives. So, we have women who can be born without a navel like Virgin Mary, grown men who can fly around the town like the experienced aviator Charles Lindhberg, murdered babies returning from the dead fully grown into adults and conjurers practicing various forms of African pagan spiritualism including Voodoo (Beaulieu, 2003, p.89).
To the untrained reader, the first layer of the narrative would appear downright illogical due to its extensive interweaving with the world of magic and ghosts. However, as one starts looking past these mysterious elements, it becomes a fascinating exercise to observe the several subtle, hidden layers in the plot which traverse an entire gamut of emotions ranging from mirth to sorrow. An example,
“The men and the dogs were talking to each other. In distinctive voices they were saying distinctive, complicated things.” (Morrison, 1987, p. 277)
The sense of anthropomorphism in the above sentence is basically an abstract literary device which attempts to convey the principle of vital existence as a basic element of human well-being. Several sentences like this have been sprinkled throughout the plot to convey the entire range of inner emotions that the characters are going through at any moment.
In that sense, Morrison’s dependence on surreal elements of magic to convey various plot elements can be equated to the twisted allegory of a world where words create magic, literally, since conjurers are an integral part of the narrative flow (Beaulieu, 2003, p.89).
The key protagonist Macon “Milkman” Dead, an African-American male character, is depicted as a confused person who wants to uncover the historical truth and bitter realities behind his family name “Dead”. The name was accidentally soaked up by his grandfather, a newly freed Negro slave from the Civil War era whose Master was “dead” and hence, the man was re-born into this new identity that made him increasingly distantly from his African roots. Macon Milkman Dead’s feelings on this historical incident are summarized as:
“Macon Dead never knew how it came about — how his only son acquired the nickname that stuck in spite of his own refusal to use it or acknowledge it. It was a matter that concerned him a good deal, for the giving of names in his family was always surrounded by what he believed to be monumental foolishness.” (Morrison, 1987, p.15)
Three generations after the slave name became a part of their family destiny, Macon Milkman Dead’s journey of self-exploration takes him in the direction of the mythical town of Shalimar where he believed there was hidden gold, a fortune he wanted to use for personal benefits (Morrison, 1987, p.112).
Instead, Milkman learns up the stark history of his family’s inglorious past. One of his ancestors, Solomon by name, had managed to break free from the manacles of slavery, to escape to Africa leaving twenty-one children behind.
Milkman was able to conjure up the vision of this poignant past with the help of Pilate, his aunt and a soothsayer who is depicted throughout the narrative as a woman with amazing clairvoyant abilities and a motherly nurturing instinct. Pilate is also shown responsible for the very conception of Milkman. Being a soothsayer, she saw the arrival of this child even before his birth.
Having learned that there was not much love was lost between the parents, she fed the father a magical concoction which forced him to take the necessary steps towards procreation. Through Pilate’s character, Morrison basically portrays a closer look into the world of magic realism which consists of elements of Voodoo, black magic and the healing art of African midwifery. All rituals portrayed in the book are replete with the mysticism and ghostly allure attached to African spirituals.
The objective behind using the allegory through Pilate by Morrison is to represent the woman as the manifestation of Mother Earth herself, a character so pious and invigorating that she is above sin herself. The allegories of Virgin Mary are also represented through Milkman’s two sisters, whose names were picked by their parents by sticking pins in the Holy Bible itself (Morrison, 1987, p.22).
In contrast to these deeply content and pious characters, Milkman’s own life is shown as one of bitter conflicts, acrimonies and a search for true identity. Towards this end, fairy tale elements such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpeltiltskin” have been used by Morrison to convey the sense of hope and exhilaration experienced by Milkman to challenge the frustrations of his life. He also runs into hostility several times into the story with his own father who habitually used to hurt his mother.
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In order to depict Milkman’s constant struggles with his own self-esteem issues, Morrison uses another allegorical ploy, of “dreams” (Morrison, 1987, p.23). Through these dreams, he is able to magically visualize his life through various scenes which start unfolding in real life as well. Pilate visualizes the father guiding her through the forest. There are also depictions of princesses riding a chariot into a world of eternal and ethereal bliss (Morrison, 1987, p.111).
Another key allegorical element in the book if of human flight. In the first chapter itself, the character of Robert Smith is shown with attached wings, in an attempt of figurative flight. According to Morrison, there can be several interpretations of this flight attempt. One, it could indicate the acquired skills-set of a pioneering African-American aviator.
Two, in the world of magical realism into which Morrison attempts to draw the reader to, the flight indicates a form of escapism which was the mainstay of many African-American lives who bore the brunt of racial prejudice due to unjust Jim Crow laws.
Three, the flight also could have been interpreted as a suicide attempt for a failed insurance agent, perhaps depicting the struggles of the Great Depression era, during 1931 where the plot is loosely based on. Following in the foot-steps of Robert Smith, Milkman is shown to attempt his own loose flight towards the end of the narrative.
In this case, he is shown as someone who wants to escape from the bitter realities of life. In the same vein, it may be understood that Milkman wants to soar like an eagle by being transformed into a world of magic realism where there are infinite possibilities in life. A message of hope is left towards the end.
“If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.” (Morrison, 1987, p.337)
“Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone, Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home.” (Morrison, 1987, p. 303)
Beaulieu, E.A. (2003). The Tony Morrison Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Morrison, T. (1987). Song of Solomon (Oprah’s Book Club). New York, NY: Penguin Books USA.