The sight of Mr. Smith and his wide blue wings transfixed them for a few seconds as did the woman’s singing and the roses strewn about.
In the opening scene of the novel, the narrator sets up the theme of flight and escape. A hapless insurance agent, Robert Smith, leaps from the roof of Mercy Hospital, drawing a crowd of onlookers and sending the protagonist’s mother into labor. This suicide has a magical, mysterious quality that sets the tone of the book. A modern Icarus, Smith leaps into the air to escape his undramatic life.
He just wanted to beat a path away from his parents’ past, which was also their present and which was threatening to become his present as well.
As Part I comes to a close, the narrator reveals that Milkman’s discontent mounts and he longs to escape. He detests both of his parents, yet he feels himself stuck in their lives and circumstances. He asked his father for a year of freedom, but unless he can finance the year’s expenses himself, his father will not agree. He and Guitar list things they will spend their money on if they can successfully steal some gold, but even his hopes for escape offer little comfort.
You can’t take a life and walk off and leave it. Life is life. Precious. And the dead you kill is yours. They stay with you anyway, in your mind. So it’s a better thing, a more better thing to have the bones right there with you wherever you go. That way, it frees up your mind.
After springing Milkman and Guitar from jail for stealing the heavy bag, Pilate tells them what really happened after she left the white man and the treasure behind in the cave. She explains that she returned three years later to retrieve the man’s bones because her father told her that she could never escape responsibility for the man’s life. This principle becomes even more significant, and her return even more ironic, in Part II.
This one time he wanted to go solo. In the air, away from real life, he felt free, but on the ground, when he talked to Guitar just before he left, the wings of all those other people’s nightmares flapped in his face and constrained him.
The narrator reveals why Milkman decides to fly to Pennsylvania by himself to look for the cave that held the treasure. As he flies, he thinks about all the people from whom he wishes to escape: Lena, Corinthians, Ruth, his father, Hagar, even Guitar. For the first time, he feels unfettered by all of them, independent and self-sufficient, on a quest to seek both his fortune and his roots.
“When you say ‘flew off’ you mean he ran away, don’t you? Escaped?” “No, I mean flew . . . You know, like a bird. Just stood up in the fields one day, ran up some hill, spun around a couple of times, and was lifted up in the air.”
This exchange occurs between Milkman and Susan Byrd. When Milkman returns to Susan’s house, Susan tells him about his great-grandfather, Jake. She explains that Jake left with the Indian woman, Sing, and according to Susan, he was one of those flying African children, a common legend about certain slaves who escaped bondage by physically flying away. Milkman loves this detail about his grandfather and joyfully shares it later with Sweet while they swim before he leaves for home.
As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
In this ambiguous ending, the novel concludes with an image of flight. Milkman and Guitar both appear to fly at the end, and yet readers don’t know which one of them lives or dies. However, the very fact that Milkman can fly means that he has evolved beyond his physical body and shares a common bond with his great-grandfather, Jake, whom he sought to understand all his life. Even though Pilate is dead, the novel ends in mysticism and with an uplifting tone.