The next day a colored baby was born inside Mercy for the first time. Mr. Smith’s blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered . . . that only birds and airplanes could fly—he lost all interest in himself.
The narrator establishes the complex connection between the insurance agent’s leap from the tower and the birth of the novel’s protagonist, Milkman. Not only did the suicide cause his mother, Ruth’s, labor, but the event also saddened the boy, when at age four he learned of its details. Milkman became dull and unimaginative, to the dismay of his mother and others.
Milkman knew that what with the earring, the orange, and the angled black cloth, nothing—not the wisdom of his father nor the caution of the world—could keep him from her.
Milkman meets his aunt Pilate on the steps of her porch while he’s with his friend, Guitar. They approach her and ask her questions as she sits and peels an orange. She invites them into her house, and they are pleased to go. Inside, they observe her strange rooms and get to meet her daughter and granddaughter. The narrator reveals how Milkman feels mesmerized by his aunt and falls in love with Hagar.
Milkman was young and he was friendly—just the opposite of his father—and the tenants felt at ease enough with him to tease him, feed him, confide in him.
At age thirteen, Milkman works for his father by collecting the rents. Personable and affable, he discovers and hones his considerable social skills, continues to visit Pilate’s house despite his father’s command to not, and remains close friends with Guitar. Milkman seems to be more like an adult than a child and often skips school to do his work.
Everyone who knew him knew about Hagar, but she was considered his private honey pot, not a real or legitimate girl friend—not someone he might marry.
The narrator explains how others view Milkman’s relationship with his cousin, Hagar. Milkman began a relationship with Hagar when he was twelve and she was seventeen. At first, the relationship felt exciting, but over the years, that excitement faded. Now, Milkman describes Hagar as a third beer that he drinks simply because it exists, not because he feels thirsty anymore. He has become bored with his life, and Hagar exists as part of that boredom. Later, he regrets how he treats her, which causes the sadness that results in her death.
Milkman stared off into the sky for inspiration, and while glancing toward the rooftops of the used-car places, he saw a white peacock poised on the roof of a long low building that served as headquarters for Nelson Buick.
Several times in the novel, characters are faced with visions that may or may not be real, visions that reinforce the magical surrealism of Morrison’s style. This white peacock represents a good example. In the scene, Milkman and Guitar need inspiration for their plan to steal Pilate’s gold. They try to catch the peacock, but the bird struts around elusively. They then remark that the peacock cannot fly, perhaps suggesting their own ineptitudes, and finally, they lose interest in capturing the white peacock, a turn that might signify how one loses the desire to chase one’s dream.
You are a sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man. I hope your little hog’s gut stands you in good stead, and that you take good care of it, because you don’t have anything else. But I want to give you notice.
Magdalene finally comes out of her shell and lets her brother, Milkman, feel her wrath with a furious verbal barrage. She recalls the time he urinated on her when they were children but uses the incident to say that he is still urinating on everyone in the family. Magdalene states that Milkman thinks he is better than everyone else and that he has the right to decide their lives. Just prior to Magdalene’s outrage, Milkman betrayed Corinthians by telling their father about her affair with Henry Porter.
Daddy wants me to be like him and hate my mother. My mother wants me to think like her and hate my father. Corinthians won’t speak to me; Lena wants me out. And Hagar wants me chained to her bed or dead.
Just before he leaves for Pennsylvania, Milkman explains to Guitar how he feels: trapped by the people around him. His family is making him crazy, he says, and he’s got to get away to save his sanity. Guitar responds that his family merely wants his life. Guitar continues to explain that everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody wants to control him, each in his or her own way.
There wasn’t any gold, but now he knew that all the fine reasons for wanting it didn’t mean a thing. The fact was he wanted the gold because it was gold and he wanted to own it. Free.
The narrator provides insight into Milkman’s mind after he fails to find the gold. After Milkman goes to the cave, he sees that the gold is not there. As he rides the Greyhound bus south, he imagines returning home without the treasure. He knows that he will be stuck at home forever, so finding the gold serves as his only ticket to freedom. He’s decided to follow the gold, or at least go in the direction that he thinks Pilate took the gold after she visited the cave the second time. She headed to Virginia, and so will he.
Jesus! Here he was walking around in the middle of the twentieth century trying to explain what a ghost had done. But why not? One fact was certain: Pilate did not have a navel. Since that was true, anything could be, and why not ghosts as well?
The novel continues to have a tone and quality of mystery and magic as Milkman continues his journey south to Virginia. At this point, Milkman remembers the ghost on the wagon on which his father and Pilate met Circe so many years ago. Several ghosts populate the novel, each playing an important symbolic role in the narrative and highlighting some quality of Milkman and his rite of passage.
He couldn’t be mistaken. These children were singing a story about his own people! He hummed and chuckled as he did his best to put it all together.
Mysteriously, Milkman listens carefully to a song about Solomon that the school children sing. Many of the names in the song sound like names from his past. He memorizes the song lyrics and tries to put the details together in his mind, but they elude him. Nonetheless, he realizes that the song, and the place where he stands, holds missing pieces about his past.