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Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison

Chapter 5

Chapter 4

Chapters 6–7

Summary

Driven mad by her overpowering love, Hagar ceases to be interested in anything other than Milkman. She obsesses over being abandonded, and remains depressed despite Pilate and Reba’s attempts to comfort her. Milkman spends much of his time at Guitar’s place, hiding from Hagar, who roams the streets of their town and periodically tries to kill him. Meanwhile, Guitar has become paranoid and politically active, triple-locking his doors at night and lecturing to Milkman about the oppression of African-Americans and other subjugated peoples around the world. One night, as Guitar continues to chide Milkman about being wealthy and well-dressed, Milkman confronts him, asking him to account for his secret activities. Guitar only smiles in response, and leaves for a mysterious house where six old men wait for him. Milkman remains alone in the Southside flat on a night when both expect Hagar to make another attempt to murder him.

As Milkman lies alone in Guitar’s bed, he remembers how he came to discover one of his mother’s darkest secrets only a week before. Milkman recalls how he witnessed his mother leaving Not Doctor Street on a bus late at night. Unbeknownst to Ruth, Milkman followed her to the county train station and then to Fairfield Cemetery, where Dr. Foster had been buried more than forty years earlier. Milkman waited for several hours outside the gates while Ruth was inside the cemetery and confronted her when she finally exited. On the ride back to town, Ruth gave Milkman an explanation of her relationship with Dr. Foster, one that challenged Macon Jr.’s version of the events. She told Milkman that she cherished her father because he was the only person in the world who cared about how she lived.

Milkman also recalls that Ruth told him that Macon Jr. had killed Dr. Foster by throwing away his medication and that their sex life had ended after Dr. Foster’s death. Hungry for her husband’s physical attention, Ruth had secretly fed him an aphrodisiac concocted by Pilate. Macon Jr. made love to Ruth for four days and Milkman was conceived.

Macon Jr. had tried to force Ruth to abort the baby. Pilate prevented the abortion by frightening Macon Jr. with a voodoo doll. Ruth acknowledged that she breast-fed Milkman past infancy and also claimed that she prayed for him every day and night.

Milkman stops ruminating when he hears Hagar’s footsteps in the room. She enters with a butcher knife. Instead of getting up and stopping her, Milkman closes his eyes and wills her dead. He asks an unseen power to choose between him and her. She strikes him on the collarbone with the knife, but the blow is harmless, and she is unable to make another attempt. Milkman sits up, throws Hagar a few jeering remarks, and turns away.

Within a short time, Ruth finds out about Hagar’s murderous behavior and goes to see Pilate. Because she has always seen Milkman as her “passion” and her “single triumph,” rather than a separate person, Ruth is determined to keep him out of harm’s way. On the porch of Pilate’s home, Ruth threatens Hagar. Ruth and Hagar heatedly discuss their love for Milkman until Pilate interrupts and tells them that it is silly for a woman to feel so much for any man. Pilate then tells Ruth the story of her childhood. She had worked diligently as a migrant worker but was driven out of each place because people were terrified of a woman with no navel. Pilate settled down on a Virginia island for a few years, and found a good man who fathered Reba. Despite being in love, she refused to marry him. After Reba gave birth to Hagar, Pilate moved her family to Macon Jr.’s town, bringing a green sack from Lincoln’s Heaven as one of her few possessions. The ghost of Macon Dead I, Pilate claims, followed her, sometimes speaking to her and murmuring the word “sing.” Pilate also tells Ruth that she became a wine-maker and seller because it was the job that afforded her the most independence. Finally, Pilate concludes her story, which she has deliberately made long to keep Ruth’s mind off Hagar.

Analysis

Song of Solomon takes place within a political context, and the characters of Guitar and Milkman represent different attitudes toward the civil rights of African-Americans. Guitar is a radical revolutionary, whose views are a combination of those put forth by Elijah Mohammed and Malcom X, leaders of Islamic religious groups that fought for black self-sufficiency and separation from whites. Guitar’s involvement, we later learn, with the anti-white Seven Days group makes him an extremist within the radical community. Milkman represents the calmness of the Northern black upper-middle class, which did little while blacks in the South were beaten and imprisoned. Morrison does not give us a character who embodies the principles of nonviolent resistance put forth by Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the 1960s civil rights movement. Instead, Morrison purposefully presents only the extreme viewpoints embodied by Milkman and Guitar to heighten their eventual clash.

The novel idealizes strong women, painting in an unfavorable light those female characters who depend on men for survival. While Ruth and Hagar are from different classes, generations, and social groups, each harbors a love for Milkman that stifles her personal development. After Milkman abandons her, Hagar can do nothing but think about her former lover. Although Hagar’s love may seem selfless, it is actually consumingly selfish, as she needs Milkman to survive. Ruth, who cannot bear the thought of harm coming to her boy, is also unwittingly motivated by selfishness, viewing Milkman as a triumph over her husband’s despotism. Although Ruth suffers under Macon Jr.’s wrath for many years, she does not leave him, nor does she directly stand up to him. Rather, she continues to draw on his money to maintain her upper-class -lifestyle just as Hagar tries to lure Milkman’s affection for her own needs. Both women are not only powerless before and completely dependent upon men, but also self-serving.

In contrast to the weak Hagar and Ruth, Morrison elevates Pilate to the status of an admirable female role model. She is the only woman in the novel who does not define herself according to the love a man holds for her. She does not need anyone’s affirmation. Surviving by her own means and wits, Pilate radiates strength. She is named after Pontius Pilate, the Roman politician who, according to the New Testament, presided over Jesus’ crucifixion. Like her namesake, Morrison’s Pilate is a powerful figure, but unlike him she is completely free of evil. Nevertheless, Morrison reminds us that women who are self-assured and independent are actually feared, shunned, and treated as though they are evil. Pilate must pay the price of alienation for her freedom.

In this part of the novel Morrison uses supernatural situations and events to examine Pilate’s and Milkman’s independence and power over others. Morrison symbolizes their strength and the alienation that comes with it through supernatural physical abnormalities: Milkman’s leg shrinks and Pilate lacks a navel. Morrison also endows both characters with uncanny willpower over others. Pilate is able to fend off her brother’s attacks on his wife and strike mortal fear into him with a simple rag doll. Similarly, Milkman is able not only to avert Hagar’s knife from his throat by thought alone but also to will her eventual death and his own survival. These supernatural traits distinguish Milkman and Pilate from the other characters and heighten the importance of their respective journeys.

The narrative voice also gains importance in this section of Song of Solomon. Much of the novel develops through dialogue in which the narrator’s voice is almost entirely absent. However, the narrator’s interjections are essential to the plot. We learn about certain events from a series of competing narratives: Macon Jr. and Ruth, for example, give Milkman contradictory explanations of Dr. Foster’s relationship with Ruth. In this case, the narrator brings us a more accurate account than either character, telling us in the first chapter that Dr. Foster notices Ruth’s inappropriate affection for him and is secretly glad when she marries. Thus, while Milkman has only his father’s and mother’s takes on the relationship from which to draw a conclusion, we, as readers, have the additional advantage of being able to hear Dr. Foster’s point of view and thus evaluate the matter more objectively.

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