Song of Solomon

by: Toni Morrison

Pilate Dead

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.