Song of Solomon
Summary: Chapter 12
Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home.
After spending the night with Sweet, Milkman visits Susan Byrd, simultaneously meeting a young woman named Grace Long, who seems smitten by him. It turns out that Susan Byrd’s deceased father, Crowell, had a sister named Sing, but Susan claims that this Sing never married and left Virginia in a wagon headed for Massachusetts, not Pennsylvania. Disappointed that his clues seem to have led him to a dead end, Milkman leaves dissatisfied, forgetting his watch, and taking with him only a box of cookies and Grace Long’s address in the box.
Walking along the path from Susan’s house, Milkman realizes that his family history means a great deal to him and that it is important to find “his own people.” As he journeys back to Sweet’s place, he encounters Guitar. Guitar accuses Milkman of stealing the gold from the cave and shipping it to Virginia. Although Milkman denies doing so, Guitar is convinced of Milkman’s treachery, announcing that he saw Milkman helping an old man lift a heavy crate onto a weighing platform back in Danville. Having never seen Milkman perform a selfless act, Guitar finds Milkman’s assisting of the old man suspicious. Believing that Milkman has stolen the gold, thereby preventing Guitar from carrying out his mission for the Seven Days, Guitar promises to do everything possible to kill him. When Milkman asks why Guitar left him a warning about his impending demise at Solomon’s store, Guitar replies that it was the least he could do for a friend.
Following his conversation with Guitar, Milkman spends another night with Sweet, and then returns to Shalimar. The events of the few previous days make Milkman realize that he sorely misses Pilate. He also sees his parents’ flaws and positive qualities in a more objective light, and understands that their life experience scarred them. Finally, Milkman regrets his treatment of Hagar and becomes aware that he thrived off her mad desire for him because it validated his manhood.
Taking a break from his thoughts, Milkman again hears the local children sing a song about Jay, the only son of Solomon. He memorizes the entire song, according to which Solomon flew home across the sky, leaving a woman named Ryna to cry for him, -weeping that cotton balls will choke her. The song also relates that Jay was raised by a woman named Heddy in a “red man’s house.” As he listens, Milkman realizes that the song is about his grandfather, Macon Dead I, formerly known as Jake, and his great-grandfather, Solomon. He also understands that Susan Byrd did not tell him everything she knew. He resolves to visit her again, thrilled by his discovery.
Summary: Chapter 13
Guitar returns to Michigan to find Hagar, despondent and nude, standing listlessly in his room. Feeling sorry for her, Guitar drives Hagar home, urging her along the way to stop destroying herself over Milkman. Pilate and Reba also try unsuccessfully to cheer up Hagar. Suddenly waking from her catatonic state, Hagar rushes into a flurry of activity, believing that if she only improves her physical appearance Milkman will grow to love her.
Reba pawns her Sears diamond for $200 and sends Hagar on a shopping spree. In a mad rush to make herself over, Hagar dashes from store to store, purchasing a variety of cosmetics and fashion garments: a garter belt, colorless pantyhose, panties, and nylon slips. On her way home, Hagar is caught in a torrential thunderstorm and her purchases are damaged. Nevertheless, she scurries into her bedroom, and, without drying herself, puts on her new getup. When she greets Pilate and Reba, she is a mess: her hose is “ripped,” her white dress is “soiled,” her face powder is “lumpy,” and her hair is “wild.” After a sudden commotion, Hagar collapses into a deep illness and soon dies.
Ruth visits Macon Jr. at his office and he reluctantly gives her money for Hagar’s funeral, a grand but sparsely attended affair. Near the conclusion of the ceremony, Pilate and Reba burst in, singing an old gospel tune, “Mercy.” Pilate reaches the coffin and speaks to Hagar, repeatedly calling her “[m]y baby girl.” Pilate concludes her lament by exclaiming, “And she was loved!”
Analysis: Chapters 12–13
The narrative’s emphasis on the African-American oral tradition reflects Milkman’s maturation. Historically, African slaves were prevented from becoming literate by their white masters, so they preserved their history and passed it on to future generations through songs and stories. Ultimately in Song of Solomon, Milkman’s family history is conveyed by the spoken rather than the written word. Only by letting go of the traditional methods of historical research prevalent in the white world—searching through archives or registry records—and putting his faith in folk legends can Milkman uncover the truth about his family’s origins. Milkman’s ability to use this ancestral, oral tradition as a resource—being given clues by everyone from Macon Jr. to Circe to the singing children—attests to his transformation from a black man alienated from black culture into a black man who embraces black culture.
The act of learning the popular folk song about Solomon that the children teach one another reaffirms Milkman’s status as a child in a new world. Spiritually reborn after surviving Guitar’s assassination, Milkman must now, like a child, learn his way around. He is innocent, eager to learn, not spoiled and bored as he was during his actual childhood in Michigan. Most important, perhaps, he is aware of and curious about his heritage. The traditional folk song about Solomon introduces the children to their heritage, and by taking part in this formative experience, Milkman becomes one of them. That he feels so at home in this community illustrates the depth of his transformation.
Solomon’s song expands upon two major ideas in the novel, flight and abandonment, and suggests that the destructive cycle that includes both of these is almost inescapable. Just as Solomon escaped slavery and left his wife, Ryna, to suffer alone in hot cotton fields, so does Milkman flee the confines of his dull existence in Michigan and leave Hagar to die of unrequited love. We can interpret this pattern of males abandoning females as a comment from Morrison on black social conditions. Slavery and continued subjugation by whites had a devastating effect on African-American families: the men were often absent, whether they were taken by force or left of their own accord, leaving women the burden of raising children alone. Many, like Guitar’s mother, are unable to deal with their difficult task, scarring a new generation of children and perpetuating the same problems that have affected their generation. Morrison, however, does not blame the men or the women for their deeds. Rather, she shows that the social conditions that forced Solomon to fly away from the cotton fields and that force Milkman to run away from home are responsible for the continuing deprivation of the African-American community.
While Hagar’s death can be traced to this cycle of flight and abandonment, Pilate and Reba are in continuous rebellion against this cycle. Although their best efforts to save Hagar’s life prove inadequate, Pilate and Reba never cease to fight, even when Hagar is lying in a coffin. When Pilate lifts her head to the sky and shouts, “And she was loved!” she is not only grieving over her granddaughter but also expressing her dissatisfaction with a society, a world, and a God that would allow such a catastrophe. But Hagar loses her own struggle precisely because she does not believe that she is deserving of love. This belief is evident in her frantic attempts to improve herself physically. Though Reba and Pilate try to raise Hagar’s confidence in her own natural appearance, Hagar thinks that she can break this cycle of flight and abandonment only by transforming herself into a physically attractive woman and luring Milkman back. However, the thunderstorm that opens on her after her shopping spree and her horrible appearance after putting on her damaged garments demonstrate the futility of her attempt to break the patterns of her heritage. Whereas Pilate and Reba are anchored to their identities and remain strong in the face of struggle, Hagar has become so self-hating that reminders of who she actually is—a thirty-seven-year-old, single, poor African-American woman—speed her death.
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