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Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison

Chapter 11

Chapter 10

Chapters 12–13

Summary

Milkman buys a cheap car and reaches Shalimar, his ancestral home in Virginia, where his car breaks down next to Solomon’s General Store. Walking past women who remind him of Pilate, Milkman enters the store and is told by its proprietor, Mr. Solomon, that an unnamed friend of his drove by earlier, leaving a message that “your day is here.”

Milkman realizes that the man was Guitar, and wonders why Guitar’s message contained the executioner’s call of the Seven Days. Milkman goes outside Solomon’s store, and sees children playing a game and singing a song about Jay, the only son of someone named Solomon. Seeing the children evokes in Milkman memories of his own dreary childhood, which was marred by grieving over his inability to fly. When Milkman goes back inside the store, he finds himself burned by hostile stares from local men. After a few heated words, Milkman ends up in a fight with one of them, who is named Saul. While defending himself with a broken bottle, Milkman is cut with a knife on his face and left hand.

Older men in Solomon’s Store compliment Milkman’s bottle-swinging prowess and invite him to join them on a hunting trip. Though Milkman has never held a rifle in his life, he responds with bravado and agrees to come along. The men—Calvin, Luther Solomon, Omar, King Walker, Vernell, and Small Boy—strip Milkman of his suit, dress him in military fatigues, and hand him a Winchester rifle. The hunting party reaches its destination, Ryna’s Gulch, late at night. The wind echoes in Ryna’s Gulch eerily and local legend claims that the sounds come from a woman crying in the ravine. As the other men plan out the details of the hunt, Milkman notices a strange car speed past them.

The hunters divide into pairs, Milkman partnered with Calvin. They trek through the woods stalking a bobcat for several hours until Milkman becomes exhausted and stops to rest, leaving Calvin to continue the hunt alone. Lying in the dark under the Virginia sky, Milkman loses himself in thought. He comes to understand that he has always taken his privileged status for granted, that he has mistreated people who have loved him, such as Hagar, all the while indulging in self-pity. Away from his wealth and distinguished parentage, Milkman is forced to evaluate himself honestly and to see what he is actually capable of on his own.

Milkman’s ruminations are interrupted when Guitar appears behind him and starts choking him with a wire, repeating again the Seven Days’ trademark phrase, “your day has come.” Milkman sees colored lights and hears music. His life flashes before him, but it consists of only one image—that of Hagar bending over him “in perfect love, in the most intimate sexual gesture imaginable.” Milkman relaxes, surrendering to Guitar’s murderous hands and breathes what he thinks is his last breath. Suddenly feeling invigorated, he manages to fire his Winchester rifle and scare Guitar off just as the men from the hunting party return, with a bobcat as their prize. The hunters, unaware of the recent attempt on Milkman’s life, make fun of him for accidentally firing the rifle. Unaffected by their comments, Milkman walks on the earth “like he belong[s] on it,” for the first time not limping.

The following day, over breakfast, Milkman finds out that his grandmother, Sing, was an Indian, the daughter of a woman named Heddy. Another of Heddy’s descendants, Susan Byrd, lives in the area and Milkman decides to visit her. Before heading to Susan’s, however, Milkman spends the night with a local prostitute, a beautiful woman whose personality is echoed in her name, Sweet. Sweet bathes Milkman and makes love to him, bringing him much pleasure in the process. In return, Milkman bathes Sweet, makes her bed, and scours her tub, while she makes him gumbo, puts salve on his neck, and launders his clothing. After giving Sweet fifty dollars, Milkman leaves, saying that he will see her that night.

Analysis

Chapter 11 is written as a bildungsroman, a story that describes the maturation of a young hero into an adult. Finding himself in a completely unfamiliar place where his urban life experience is a handicap, where his father’s wealth cannot shield him from harm, where locals (like Saul) tend to dislike him rather than adore him, Milkman is quickly forced to evaluate his life. Under the dark Virginia sky, Milkman dispenses with the self-praise and self-pity that characterize his privileged childhood. He begins to judge himself fairly, finally becoming able to admit his own wrongdoings. Milkman’s changing out of his nice suit and into military clothes signifies his transformation from a child into an adult. He has outgrown both the literal wardrobe of his fancy clothes and the metaphorical wardrobe of his sheltered upbringing.

The spiritual and metaphorical transformation that Milkman experiences goes hand in hand with his physical rebirth from the jaws of death during Guitar’s attack on him. Guitar’s attack forces Milkman not only to face death but actually to experience it. The wording of the text in the attack scene suggests that Milkman dies and is instantly resurrected: “[h]e . . . saw a burst of many-colored lights dancing before his eyes. . . . When the music followed the colored lights, he knew he had just drawn the last sweet air left for him in the world.” The wordplay spell cast over the novel—that Milkman cannot be killed because he is already “Dead”—is finally broken. One can argue that Milkman is killed by his way of living before a new way of living resurrects him. That is, Guitar’s murder attempt comes at a moment when Milkman is finally casting off the deadness that has characterized him throughout the novel, when he is beginning to experience selfless compassion toward others.

Following his resurrection, Milkman is no longer the outsider he has been his whole life. He now belongs to a human community and feels that he belongs to it. Milkman’s laughter with the hunters after surviving his assassination is evidence of his rebirth into a life of interacting meaningfully with others. Whereas earlier he feels fake compassion and fake understanding of racism, he now feels and expresses true emotions. The disappearance of the physical manifestations of Milkman’s deadness—the undersized leg and the limp that accompanies it—show that he has been cured of his alienation.

We see evidence of Milkman’s new identity in his positive interaction with Sweet. Unlike his relationship with Hagar, in which he uses her for sex but never returns her overwhelming love, Milkman engages in a mutually fulfilling relationship with Sweet. He bathes her after she bathes him; he gives her a back massage and she salves his wounds; he cleans her bathroom and she feeds him. It is no accident that Hagar “bending over him in perfect love” is the prevalent image that Milkman sees while Guitar tries to kill him. This image symbolizes both the degree of Hagar’s generosity and also the extent of Milkman’s mistreatment of her. In his extraordinarily respectful, fair-minded behavior toward Sweet, Milkman demonstrates that he has learned from his past mistakes and has matured.

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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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