Song of Solomon

by: Toni Morrison

Ruth Foster Dead

She had the distinct impression that his lips were pulling from her a thread of light. It was as though she were a cauldron issuing spinning gold.

The narrator explains why Ruth breastfeeds her son far beyond infancy. She feeds him in a small study in her home when no one else is around. However, the janitor, Freddie, sees what’s going on through a window. In response, he calls the boy Milkman, a nickname that sticks throughout his life.

Ruth was a pale but complicated woman given to deviousness and ultra-fine manners. She seemed to know a lot and understand very little.

After hearing his father’s explanation of his disdain for his own wife, Milkman tries to sort out his myriad feelings toward his mother, Ruth. She is brutalized by her husband, but Milkman realizes that she appears to be somewhat complicit because of her own temperament. She seems shadowy and mysterious. She acts weak and vulnerable. For the first time, he admits to himself, he sees her objectively, not just as an extension of himself.

I’ve never in my whole life heard my mother laugh. She smiles sometimes, even makes a little sound. But I don’t believe she has ever laughed out loud.

Milkman muses about his mother’s nature as he talks to Guitar. He goes on to describe what he says is a dream about her: that she is attacked and overtaken by tulips she plants in her garden. For him, the dream—which he feels was not a dream at all—argues against being too serious, Ruth’s eternal state of being.

But I didn’t think I’d ever need a friend because I had him. I was small, but he was big. The only person who ever really cared whether I lived or died.

Milkman recounts the time he followed his mother to a train station and then to the Fairfield Cemetery where her father is buried. He surprises her when she comes out. Here, she explains how she felt about her father, and then she confides in her son that Macon Dead II, his father and her husband, killed her father and tried to kill his son. These macabre details about his own life haunt Milkman, and his mother’s confessions bring them closer together.

He became a plain on which, like the other cowboys and Indians in the movies, she and her husband fought. Each one befuddled by the values of the other. Each one convinced of his own purity and outraged by the idiocy he saw in the other.

The story of Milkman’s birth, brought about by a trick to get Macon to sleep with Ruth one more time, includes details about how the couple continued to despise and resent each other. Here, the narrator explains that Milkman exists as the venue of their arguments, not the cause. He merely represents the place where they clash.