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Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison

Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Summary

Over the years, Milkman’s love for Hagar blooms and wilts. When he is seventeen and she is twenty-two, Hagar invites him into her room for the first time and makes love to him. For three years, Hagar teases Milkman with intermittent passion, sometimes accepting his advances, sometimes declining them. But by the time Milkman hits Macon Jr., Hagar’s refusals dwindle and she becomes unquestionably his, waiting for him when he is away and chiding him for not paying enough attention to her. While Milkman enjoys his sexual relationship with Hagar, he treats her like a “third beer,” partaking of her because she is “there,” rather than because he genuinely wants to pursue her. Never considering Hagar a girlfriend or future wife because of her lower social class, Milkman instead searches for a bride among the wealthy black women of Honoré, but finds them too boring for his taste. At age thirty-one he tires of Hagar and writes her a letter breaking off their relationship. Hagar is driven insane by the letter and rushes out to find Milkman.

Meanwhile, Milkman and Guitar have grown apart. Though they are still buddies, Milkman suspects that Guitar is concealing something from him. Guitar, in turn, chides Milkman for leading a careless, frivolous life. During one of their conversations, Milkman tells Guitar about a dream in which he sees his mother planting flower bulbs in their backyard. The flower bulbs, Milkman says, grow instantaneously, almost choking his mother. Although Milkman says that the vision was a dream, he knows that it was reality.

Unaware that Hagar is roaming the town’s streets searching for him, Milkman chats with Freddie the janitor. Freddie tells Milkman that he believes in ghosts, and that his own mother went into labor, gave birth to him, and died after seeing a ghost of a white bull. Milkman shrugs with a smile. Freddie then tells Milkman about growing up in jail because Jacksonville, Florida, did not have facilities for black orphans. He also suggests that Guitar is involved in shady activities, including the recent murder of a white boy in their town.

Analysis

Milkman is disconnected from his true identity in part because he rejects the love that he is given instead of returning it. For instance, just as the biblical Abraham banishes the handmaiden Hagar instead of marrying her after she bears him a child, so does Milkman discard Pilate’s granddaughter Hagar when he no longer finds her useful. The fact that Milkman appreciates Hagar only for her physical attributes, without understanding her deep feelings toward him or ever reciprocating her respect, is symptomatic of his emotional shallowness. Only when Milkman eventually recovers his lost identity does he learn how to love those who love him.

Morrison’s narrative often conveys Milkman’s inner struggle by employing techniques of magical realism, a narrative form in which magical events occur as part of everyday life. Although the novel is situated within a real historical time frame (the historical Emmett Till was murdered in 1953), supernatural events are pervasive and generally accepted as normal by the characters. Morrison even uses magical realism to show the racial problems of mid–twentieth-century America in physical terms. For example, the ghostly white bull that terrifies Freddie’s mother and whose appearance seems to speed Freddie’s birth is a striking symbol of overwhelming white power and oppression. Similarly, the oppression to which Ruth is subject is also embodied in a supernatural event: her weak-minded submission to domestic terror is symbolized by the passive welcome she extends to monstrous flower bulbs that try to choke her. The aggressive, magical realist aspect of these supernatural encounters makes racism and sexism all the more immediate to us.

Though all of the novel’s characters witness supernatural events, only Milkman is unwilling to acknowledge their existence publicly. Even though he sees the flowers choking his mother, when he tells the story to Guitar he purposefully claims it was a dream in order to avoid seeming like a fool who believes in fairly tales. Furthermore, though Milkman is not bold enough in his conversation with -Freddie to deny the existence of ghosts outright, his smirking disdain for the janitor’s story suggests that he considers belief in the super-natural to be a mark of either stupidity or low social standing. In short, Milkman rejects the paranormal because he is concerned about his self-image and about being seen by others as a strange freak. But because the supernatural is part of the reality of Song of Solomon’s world, Milkman’s failure to accept the supernatural actually makes him abnormal.

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Correction

by GrammarJunkie18, August 16, 2014

In your character analysis of Ruth Dead, you wrote that "Ruth relies on Pilate for financial support." I'm not sure what you meant to say - maybe "Ruth relies on Pilate for emotional support" or "Pilate relies on Ruth for financial support." Either way, please correct. Thanks.

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