Song of Solomon

by: Toni Morrison

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Biblical Allusions

Song of Solomon’s title refers to the biblical book of the same name, emphasizing that the novel adresses age-old themes. The biblical book depicts a conversation between two lovers, King Solomon and his beautiful, black Shulamite bride. Similarly, Morrison’s novel is a celebration of the triumph of earthly love. Morrison gives her characters biblical names in order to align them with well-known figures. As a result, many of the characters in Song of Solomon carry with them not only their own personal history as described in the novel, but also the history of a biblical namesake. By giving her characters the names of biblical figures, Morrison compares them to epic heroes whose experience transcends cultural and temporal boundaries. For instance, the biblical Hagar is Sarah’s handmaiden, who bears Sarah’s husband Abraham a son and is then banished from his sight. Likewise, Morrison’s Hagar is used by Milkman, who enjoys her offerings. The similarity of both Hagars’ experiences suggests that women will be abused in any patriarchal society.

Names

In Song of Solomon, names show the effects of both oppression and liberation. Before Milkman uncovers his grandfather’s true name, he is known as Macon Dead, the same name that white oppressors gave his grandfather. When Milkman finds out his grandfather’s true name he begins to feel proud of himself and his family. The fact that Milkman’s nickname describes him better than his recorded name shows thatwritten names are often unreliable. For this reason, they are often replaced by names from the oral tradition. For instance, Dr. Foster’s street is officially labeled Mains Avenue. But after his death, it is commonly known as “Not Doctor Street.” Although the official name is accurate, the popular name is more descriptive.

In the novel, names describe characters’ personalities and behavior. Circe, for instance, shares her name with an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey who provides Odysseus with crucial help for his voyage homeward. Likewise, Morrison’s Circe directs Milkman toward his ancestral home and allows him to bridge a gap in his family history. Another example is Guitar’s last name, Bains, which is a homonym for “banes,” or sources of distress. His name suggests both the oppression he has suffered and his profession as an assassin. Finally, Pilate’s name is a homonym for “pilot.” She guides Milkman along his journey to spiritual redemption.

Singing

In Song of Solomon, singing is a means of maintaining a link to a forgotten family history. In a community where most of the past generations were illiterate, songs rather than history books tell the story of the past. Songs record details about Milkman’s heritage and cause Milkman to research his family history. Pilate’s songs about Sugarman, for instance, encourage Milkman’s quest to Virginia. Similarly, the songs Milkman hears about Solomon and Ryna inform him of the mysterious fate of his ancestors, and keep him on the path to self-discovery.

Milkman is not the only character who is guided by song. Other members of the Dead family use songs and singing to heal themselves spiritually and emotionally. When Macon Jr. is depressed, for example, he secretly listens to Pilate’s songs under her windows. Similarly, after Hagar dies, both Pilate and Reba cope with their grief by singing a mighty rendition of a gospel tune. The healing power of song is a common theme in African-American culture, where it brings people together and allows people to share experiences.