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Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison

Chapter 10

Chapters 8–9

Chapter 11

Summary

Milkman speaks to Guitar and tells him that he intends to go to Montour County, Pennsylvania, to look for the gold in the cave. He says that he will go alone but that he will split any treasure he finds with Guitar. Guitar suspects that Milkman might cheat him. He reminds Milkman that he needs the money to carry out his Seven Days mission and to help support Henry Porter, who has been evicted in the aftermath of his affair with First Corinthians. Their conversation ends on a sour note.

Milkman takes a plane to Pittsburgh, relishing the flight, and then takes a bus to Danville, Pennsylvania, the town nearest Lincoln’s Heaven. In Danville, he finds an old friend of his father’s, Reverend Cooper, who tells Milkman that he knows his “people.” As Reverend Cooper tells Milkman stories about his father’s boyhood, Macon Dead I, and Circe, Milkman feels a warm glow. He realizes that Macon Jr. had a close relationship with Macon Dead I and loved him. Reverend Cooper also tells Milkman that the Butlers, the wealthy white family that employed Circe, were responsible for Macon Dead I’s murder.

Milkman makes his way toward Lincoln’s Heaven, and stops by the now run-down Butler mansion on the way. He walks inside and is startled by a rotting stench that quickly turns into a pleasant ginger scent. He sees a spiraling staircase and remembers seeing such a staircase in his childhood dreams. An ancient woman, “colorless” with age, stands at the top of the staircase and hugs Milkman. She confirms that she is Circe, his father’s midwife. At first, Circe mistakes Milkman for Macon Jr., and is disappointed when she discovers that she is looking at the wrong Macon Dead.

Circe tells Milkman that Macon Dead I’s real name was Jake, that his wife’s name was Sing, and that they came to Pennsylvania in a wagon from a place in Virginia called Charlemagne. Circe adds that the deceased owners of the mansion, the Butlers, earned their wealth by robbing and killing poor, independent farmers such as Macon Dead I. She also reveals that a month after his burial, the murdered Macon Dead I’s body floated out of its grave during the first rain and was deposited by hunters in the same cave where Macon Jr. and Pilate stayed. Under the pretense of wanting to find and bury his grandfather’s bones, Milkman procures directions to the cave (called Hunter’s Cave) from Circe. He offers to help Circe leave the Butlers’ rotting mansion, which she occupies alone with a pack of weimaraner dogs. But Circe is determined to stay in the house of her hated masters because she wants to make sure it rots to the ground.

Macon leaves the Butler mansion and trudges through the thicket toward Hunter’s Cave, ruining his expensive suit and shoes, and damaging his gold watch. He is driven by an unquenchable desire to find the gold. When Milkman reaches the cave, all he finds inside are some boards and a tin cup.

Milkman goes back to the highway and hitchhikes to the Danville bus station with a man named Fred Garnett. Milkman offers to pay the man for the ride, but Garnett does not take Milkman’s money and drives away, offended. Milkman then goes inside the bus station’s diner, where he helps a man load a huge crate onto a weighing platform. Milkman decides that Pilate must have taken the gold with her to Virginia and resolves to follow in her footsteps.

Analysis

Milkman’s journey, at first a greedy search for hidden treasure, becomes a meaningful quest for self-understanding. Although Milkman claims that gold is the ultimate goal of his journey, his motives for the gold are less convincing than his desire to seek out his family history. His reasoning behind going to Virginia to find Pilate’s gold is illogical. There is no evidence to suggest that Pilate took the gold with her to Virginia or ever had it in her possession. While it could be argued that Milkman’s desire for gold blinds him to better judgment, it is also possible that Milkman is purposefully trying to come up with a selfish reason to visit Virginia, because he cannot yet admit to himself that he is becoming a new man and that his journey south is not motivated by greed.

In stepping out of his self-absorbtion Milkman finds the path to personal fulfillment and independence from his father. At the Danville bus station, for instance, Milkman does something that seems out of character. Whereas earlier, he humors Hagar and her love only for sexual satisfaction, he now selflessly helps a man lift a crate. Furthermore, when his greedy tendencies arise, they actually set Milkman apart from his father. Greed is an end in itself for Macon Jr.: he is driven solely by the desire to accumulate profit. For Milkman, on the other hand, the gold offers the opportunity to escape the confines of privileged life. He wants it because it would give him the freedom to break out of his father’s oppressive environment and allow him to find his own road in life.

As Milkman’s quest progresses, the mythical world and the world of reality blend together. Circe, uncannily similar to the imaginary witch of Milkman’s childhood dreams, appears to him to be so wispy that he is unsure whether she is a mirage or a living person. Milkman leaves Circe convinced that she is a living, though ancient, woman, but her airy, disheveled appearance, young woman’s voice, and ability to transform a stench of decay into a pleasant fragrance make us think that she must be some sort of supernatural figure, after all. Ultimately, Milkman’s encounter with Circe situates his own quest within Circe’s mythic description of Macon Jr.’s and Pilate’s early years. Just as Milkman is unsure whether Circe is a living woman or a ghost, we wonder whether Milkman’s newly recovered past is historically accurate or simply part of an old folk tale.

The decay of the Butlers’ mansion and the disintegration of the Butler family represent the collapse of the old sharecropping order and values. Just as the manor crumbles into disrepair, so did the Butlers fall from grace—dying alone and forgotten after leading a life of luxury, their memory cursed by their neighbors. That their possessions were devoured by their own dogs is the ultimate humiliation, as though their family trappings were nothing more than worthless scraps. The Butler mansion also symbolizes the emptiness of possessing material goods. Like Macon Jr., the Butlers dedicated their life to money, losing their humanity in the process. After losing their ill-gotten wealth, the Butlers were unable to go on living. They died not because they lacked food or clothing, but because they lacked money, the only good that nourished them.

Part II of Morrison’s novel is inspired by Homer’s ancient Greek epic the Odyssey. Much like the Odyssey, in which Odysseus makes his way home after twenty years of warring and traveling, Part II of Song of Solomon describes the hero’s quest to come home. As we learn, even though Milkman was born and grew up in Michigan, his home lies elsewhere—in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Nevertheless, Milkman’s journey follows Odysseus’s and at times Morrison alerts us to this parallel with obvious references. In Homer’s epic, Circe is the enchantress who keeps Odysseus on her island for a year but then helps him on his journey home. Likewise, in Morrison’s novel, Circe points Milkman to Macon Dead I’s birthplace and tells him his grandparents’ original names, thus helping Milkman reach his ancestral home. Critic Sandra Adell gives an alternative explanation of Circe’s role in Song of Solomon. She offers that Circe is also the ancient Greek goddess of the omphalos, or navel. Consequently, argues Adell, Circe acts out her mythical role, her help serving as an umbilical cord that reconnects Milkman with a forgotten past.

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