Milkman is considered the protagonist of the novel by critics who view Song of Solomon primarily as a coming-of-age story. Milkman is born into the noble lineage of a prominent black doctor and a wealthy landowner. He shares characteristics with heroes ranging from Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, to Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Both Odysseus and Milkman search for their ancestral homes. And like Holden Caulfield, Milkman makes his most important journey inside his soul as he grows from an egotistical young man into a compassionate adult.
Prior to this transformation, Milkman is a selfish young man who lacks any consideration for others. Although he fits in at upscale parties, Milkman feels alienated by his family, other -African-Americans of all classes, and humanity in general. He is also physically different from the people around him, since he has an undersized leg. Since Milkman is able to conceal his leg, he believes that he can also hide his emotional shortcomings. Other characters, however, are aware of Milkman’s oddities. His mother’s guests comment that he is a strange child and his schoolmates frequently tease him and beat him. Even when Milkman is a grown man, his behavior is much different from that of the rest of his community. He even walks against the flow of traffic on the street. Although Milkman is flawed, his family loves him unconditionally. Milkman does not return their love, and causes them much pain.
Milkman’s distorted personality is not entirely his fault. Morrison shows us that generations of slavery and abuse have played a part in developing Milkman’s selfish personality. Milkman’s immaturity stems directly from the enslavement and ensuing escape of his great-grandfather, Solomon. Because Solomon escaped, Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead I, grew up an orphan. In turn, Macon Dead I’s son, Macon Jr., witnesses white men murder his father. Macon Jr. never fully recovers from witnessing his father’s death; he becomes a greedy, vicious man who raises his own son, Milkman, to share those characteristics. The racism that has afflicted Milkman’s ancestors is partially responsible for Milkman’s own selfishness. Milkman is finally able to heal his wounds by traveling to Shalimar, the site of Solomon’s flight toward liberty.
Pilate can also be seen as the protagonist of Song of Solomon because she is the novel’s moral guide. Although the narrator rarely focuses on what Pilate is feeling or thinking, preferring instead to concentrate on Milkman’s quest, Pilate’s presence is felt everywhere in the novel. Despite being named after the Roman statesman who, according to the New Testament, ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate is completely incapable of cruelty. It is more accurate to see her name as a homonym for “pilot.” She is frequently leading someone who is in need of guidance, such as the skeleton of her dead father, or Milkman, during his spiritual journey.
Although Pilate’s actions in the novel are less visible than Milkman’s, her role is just as important. Born without a navel and alienated from others, Pilate is a survivor of the same racism that has embittered Macon Jr. and Milkman. Pilate is nevertheless loving and selfless. Her one regret when dying is that she could not have loved more people. Pilate’s loving nature does not connote weakness but rather strength. When a man beats her daughter, Reba, Pilate pushes a knife within an inch of his heart and persuades him never to touch Reba again. Even though she is in her sixties and Reba’s abuser is a strong young man, Pilate prevails.
Morrison suggests that Pilate’s supernatural powers, great strength, lasting youthfulness, and boundless love come from African-American cultural traditions. Although Pilate suffers the same disadvantages as Macon Jr., she is still able to preserve a link to her family’s forgotten past. By singing folk songs about Sugarman’s flight, Pilate recreates a past in which her ancestors shed the yoke of oppression. Her recreation of this past sustains the characters who live in the present. Both Macon Jr., who secretly eavesdrops on her nightly singing sessions, and Milkman, who uses the songs to find his ancestral home, Shalimar, need Pilate to keep alive the remaining vestiges of their humanity. Indeed, as Milkman realizes at the end of his journey, Pilate is the only human being he knows who is able to fly without ever leaving the ground. That is, she is already liberated and does not need to escape to attain freedom. Ultimately, Pilate becomes the novel’s model character, showing that strength does not have to come at the expense of gentleness, and that personal freedom is not necessarily compromised by love for others.
Unlike Pilate, who is strong-willed, Ruth is a subdued, quiet, upper-class woman. Ruth relies on Pilate for financial support. As a result, Ruth never develops into a strongly independent person. Until age sixteen, she was cared for by her father, Dr. Foster. After she married Macon Jr., he took care of her. Because she considers giving birth to Milkman her life accomplishment, some critics argue that Ruth represents the unliberated woman whose own goals are dictated by a sexist society.
However, Ruth does not always submit to the will of men. Ruth is less assertive than Pilate, but she exercises her will in more subtle ways. For instance, while Ruth was pregnant with Milkman, she and Pilate collaborated to ensure his safe birth despite the efforts of Macon Jr., who tried to force Ruth to abort the child. Pilate threatened Macon Jr. directly by storming into his office and leaving an impaled voodoo doll in his chair. Ruth’s evasion of Macon Jr. was more subtle. When Macon Jr. forced Ruth to stick needles into her womb in order to damage the fetus, she only partially inserted them, ensuring that Milkman remained unharmed. Furthermore, despite Macon Jr.’s seething anger over Ruth’s affection for her father, Ruth continues to visit his grave frequently. Her subtle independence makes her a foil for Pilate.