Compared to Robert Smith’s drastic leap, however, the other characters’ attempts to escape seem feeble. Unlike Smith, who is unwilling to tolerate his circumstances any longer, these other characters accept the futility of trying to change their lives. For example, Milkman becomes bored with life when he realizes at age four that humans cannot physically fly. Likewise, Ruth Foster Dead tolerates her submissive role in the household and never lifts her voice against Macon Jr. Similarly, Lena and First Corinthians Dead show no signs of rebellion, preferring to spend their time quietly making artificial roses. Pilate Dead appears to be the only liberated character. Unburdened by material goods and unashamed of her poverty, she is the only one of Smith’s spectators who refuses to be a passive observer. She answers Mr. Smith’s flight with the power of her own will. She looks him in the eye and sings at the top of her voice.
The idea of human flight to freedom is rooted in both African-American and European literary traditions. Mr. Smith reminds us of Icarus, a human from Greek mythology who uses wings made out of wax in an attempt to fly close to the sun. Like Icarus, Smith plummets to his doom when his wings fail to carry him. Smith’s flight also evokes a traditional Gullah folk tale about slaves who overcome subjugation in Southern cotton plantations by flying back to Africa. By alluding to two great literary narratives in the description of Robert Smith’s failed flight, Morrison endows the flight with an epic quality that sets the stage for Milkman’s eventual, successful flight.
The rest of the first chapter introduces us to the novel’s characters and the inner conflicts that drive them. In the dim-witted nurse’s bossing around of six-year-old Guitar Bains we see the origins of the adult Guitar’s hatred for whites. Similarly, the glimpse of Macon Jr. privately basking in Pilate’s simple song hints that he has a sensitive side beneath his hard, dead shell. Finally, that Ruth is well dressed, in contrast to the shabbily dressed crowd, suggests that Ruth is alienated from her fellow African-Americans and wants to become white. But her desire to be white meets resistance, as the white Mercy Hospital admits her only with great reluctance. Like her biblical namesake, Ruth the Moabite, who becomes estranged from her native people and struggles for acceptance among the Hebrews, Ruth Foster Dead is an outsider in both the black community and the white community.
Morrison’s emphasis on names and naming suggests that the novel is ultimately about recovering and accepting lost identity. Macon Jr. is as spiritually dead as Milkman is after age four. But we know that “Macon Dead” is not the real name of any of the three Macons. This name is the result of an accident—a drunken Union soldier’s shaky handwriting—which suggests that either of the living Macons (Macon Jr. and Milkman) can recover his true name and identity with a little bit of effort. Indeed, only when Milkman, on a journey to discover his lost family history, learns Macon Dead I’s given name, can he begin to come to terms with his own identity.
Furthermore, names of geographic locations sometimes serve as milestones along Milkman’s journey. For instance, Milkman’s own street, dubbed Mains Avenue by the post office, is called “Not Doctor Street” by town residents—a more descriptive name, since a doctor who once lived there no longer does. Living on a street whose true name has been obscured by its nickname invites Milkman to question his own name, and spurs his quest toward self-discovery.