Song of Solomon
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Flight as a Means of Escape
The epigraph to Song of Solomon—“The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names”—is the first reference to one of the novel’s most important themes. While flight can be an escape from constricting circumstances, it also scars those who are left behind. Solomon’s flight allowed him to leave slavery in the Virginia cotton fields, but it also meant abandoning his wife, Ryna, with twenty-one children. While Milkman’s flight from Michigan frees him from the dead environment of Not Doctor Street, his flight is also selfish because it causes Hagar to die of heartbreak. The novel’s epigraph attempts to break the connection between flight and abandonment. Because Pilate, as Milkman notes, is able to fly without ever lifting her feet off the ground, she has mastered flight, managing to be free of subjugation without leaving anyone behind.
Morrison’s extensive use of flying as a literal and not just metaphorical event pushes Song of Solomon toward the genre of magical realism. The novel’s characters accept human flight as natural. For instance, the observers of Robert Smith’s flight encourage him rather than rush to prevent his leap, implying that they do not see his flight as a suicide attempt. Instead, the onlookers behave as though Smith’s flight might be possible. Furthermore, the residents of Shalimar, Virginia, do not think that Solomon’s flight is a myth; they believe that the flight actually occurred. Morrison’s novel belongs to the genre of magical realism because in it human flight is both possible and natural. For the long period of time during which Milkman doubts the possibility of human flight, he remains abnormal in the eyes of his community. Only when he begins to believe in the reality of flight does he cease to feel alienated.
Men’s repeated abandonment of women in Song of Solomon shows that the novel’s female characters suffer a double burden. Not only are women oppressed by racism, but they must also pay the price for men’s freedom. Guitar tells Milkman that black men are the unacknowledged workhorses of humanity, but the novel’s events imply that black women more correctly fit this description. The scenes that describe women’s abandonment show that in the novel, men bear responsibility only for themselves, but women are responsible for themselves, their families, and their communities. For instance, after suffering through slavery, Solomon flew home to Africa without warning anyone of his departure. But his wife, Ryna, who was also a slave, was forced to remain in Virginia to raise her twenty-one children alone. Also, after Guitar’s father is killed in a factory accident, Guitar’s grandmother has to raise him and his siblings. Although she is elderly and ill, she supports her children financially, intellectually, and emotionally.
Relying on this skewed idea of gender roles, the society in the novel judges men and women differently. While men who fly away from their communities and families are venerated as heroes, women who do the same are judged to be irresponsible. Although Solomon abandoned his family with his flight to Africa, generations later he is remembered as the brave patriarch of the whole community. At the same time, Ryna, who was left to care for a brood of children, is remembered as a woman who went mad because she was too weak to uphold her end of the bargain. Residents of Shalimar have named a scary, dark gulch after Ryna, while they have given Solomon’s name to a scenic mountain peak. The community rewards Solomon’s abandonment of his children but punishes Ryna’s inability to take care of them alone.
The Alienating Effects of Racism
Racism is the central cause of suffering in the novel. Racism has long-lasting damaging effects on the community. Slavery causes Solomon to flee toward freedom and end his marriage to Ryna. This flight begins many generations of trauma. The knowledge that his father died because of his white employers’ negligence makes Guitar especially sensitive to the injustices perpetrated against African-Americans. Emmett Till’s murder and the Birmingham Church bombing remind Guitar of his own tragedy, transforming him into a ruthless, vengeful murderer. Guitar’s story shows that racism alienates its victims from their native communities and causes them to lose touch with their own humanity.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Song of Solomon’s title refers to the biblical book of the same name, emphasizing that the novel adresses age-old themes. The biblical book depicts a conversation between two lovers, King Solomon and his beautiful, black Shulamite bride. Similarly, Morrison’s novel is a celebration of the triumph of earthly love. Morrison gives her characters biblical names in order to align them with well-known figures. As a result, many of the characters in Song of Solomon carry with them not only their own personal history as described in the novel, but also the history of a biblical namesake. By giving her characters the names of biblical figures, Morrison compares them to epic heroes whose experience transcends cultural and temporal boundaries. For instance, the biblical Hagar is Sarah’s handmaiden, who bears Sarah’s husband Abraham a son and is then banished from his sight. Likewise, Morrison’s Hagar is used by Milkman, who enjoys her offerings. The similarity of both Hagars’ experiences suggests that women will be abused in any patriarchal society.
In Song of Solomon, names show the effects of both oppression and liberation. Before Milkman uncovers his grandfather’s true name, he is known as Macon Dead, the same name that white oppressors gave his grandfather. When Milkman finds out his grandfather’s true name he begins to feel proud of himself and his family. The fact that Milkman’s nickname describes him better than his recorded name shows that written names are often unreliable. For this reason, they are often replaced by names from the oral tradition. For instance, Dr. Foster’s street is officially labeled Mains Avenue. But after his death, it is commonly known as “Not Doctor Street.” Although the official name is accurate, the popular name is more descriptive.
In the novel, names describe characters’ personalities and behavior. Circe, for instance, shares her name with an enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey who provides Odysseus with crucial help for his voyage homeward. Likewise, Morrison’s Circe directs Milkman toward his ancestral home and allows him to bridge a gap in his family history. Another example is Guitar’s last name, Bains, which is a homonym for “banes,” or sources of distress. His name suggests both the oppression he has suffered and his profession as an assassin. Finally, Pilate’s name is a homonym for “pilot.” She guides Milkman along his journey to spiritual redemption.
In Song of Solomon, singing is a means of maintaining a link to a forgotten family history. In a community where most of the past generations were illiterate, songs rather than history books tell the story of the past. Songs record details about Milkman’s heritage and cause Milkman to research his family history. Pilate’s songs about Sugarman, for instance, encourage Milkman’s quest to Virginia. Similarly, the songs Milkman hears about Solomon and Ryna inform him of the mysterious fate of his ancestors, and keep him on the path to self-discovery.
Milkman is not the only character who is guided by song. Other members of the Dead family use songs and singing to heal themselves spiritually and emotionally. When Macon Jr. is depressed, for example, he secretly listens to Pilate’s songs under her windows. Similarly, after Hagar dies, both Pilate and Reba cope with their grief by singing a mighty rendition of a gospel tune. The healing power of song is a common theme in African-American culture, where it brings people together and allows people to share experiences.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Almost all of the characters in Song of Solomon are black. The few white characters represent violence and wrongdoing. After Guitar’s father is cut in half during a sawmill accident, for example, the mill’s white foreman offers the family almost no sympathy or financial support. Likewise, Circe’s wealthy white employers, the Butlers, are murderers. When they take Macon Dead I’s land, they end his children’s innocence. Even white animals carry negative connotations. A white bull causes Freddie’s mother to go into labor and die. The bull’s interference with Freddie’s birth represents white people’s devastating interference with the African-American world. Likewise, the white peacock that causes Guitar and Milkman to become infatuated with the pursuit of wealth represents the corrupting influence of greed.
First Corinthians and Lena make artificial roses that represent the stifling life of the upper class and the oppression of women. The roses do not bring in much money; the true purpose of the activity is to provide a mindless distraction from their boredom. First Corinthians and Lena perform their task without any enthusiasm, motivated by habit rather than conviction. In literary works, living roses often symbolize love. The artificial roses sybolize the absence of love in Macon Jr.’s household. Unlike living plants, the artificial flowers convey only the depression of their makers.
Gold represents Macon Jr.’s obsessive pursuit of wealth. Gold is utterly irresistible to men in the novel, who violate their principles in order to get it. For example, Milkman robs his aunt, Pilate, because he wants to be wealthy and independent. Likewise, Guitar’s desire for gold motivates his attempted murder of Milkman. Finally, Macon Jr. spends a lifetime pursuing gold without any greater goal beyond accumulation.
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