Song of Solomon takes place within a political context, and the characters of Guitar and Milkman represent different attitudes toward the civil rights of African-Americans. Guitar is a radical revolutionary, whose views are a combination of those put forth by Elijah Mohammed and Malcom X, leaders of Islamic religious groups that fought for black self-sufficiency and separation from whites. Guitar’s involvement, we later learn, with the anti-white Seven Days group makes him an extremist within the radical community. Milkman represents the calmness of the Northern black upper-middle class, which did little while blacks in the South were beaten and imprisoned. Morrison does not give us a character who embodies the principles of nonviolent resistance put forth by Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the 1960s civil rights movement. Instead, Morrison purposefully presents only the extreme viewpoints embodied by Milkman and Guitar to heighten their eventual clash.
The novel idealizes strong women, painting in an unfavorable light those female characters who depend on men for survival. While Ruth and Hagar are from different classes, generations, and social groups, each harbors a love for Milkman that stifles her personal development. After Milkman abandons her, Hagar can do nothing but think about her former lover. Although Hagar’s love may seem selfless, it is actually consumingly selfish, as she needs Milkman to survive. Ruth, who cannot bear the thought of harm coming to her boy, is also unwittingly motivated by selfishness, viewing Milkman as a triumph over her husband’s despotism. Although Ruth suffers under Macon Jr.’s wrath for many years, she does not leave him, nor does she directly stand up to him. Rather, she continues to draw on his money to maintain her upper-class -lifestyle just as Hagar tries to lure Milkman’s affection for her own needs. Both women are not only powerless before and completely dependent upon men, but also self-serving.
In contrast to the weak Hagar and Ruth, Morrison elevates Pilate to the status of an admirable female role model. She is the only woman in the novel who does not define herself according to the love a man holds for her. She does not need anyone’s affirmation. Surviving by her own means and wits, Pilate radiates strength. She is named after Pontius Pilate, the Roman politician who, according to the New Testament, presided over Jesus’ crucifixion. Like her namesake, Morrison’s Pilate is a powerful figure, but unlike him she is completely free of evil. Nevertheless, Morrison reminds us that women who are self-assured and independent are actually feared, shunned, and treated as though they are evil. Pilate must pay the price of alienation for her freedom.
In this part of the novel Morrison uses supernatural situations and events to examine Pilate’s and Milkman’s independence and power over others. Morrison symbolizes their strength and the alienation that comes with it through supernatural physical abnormalities: Milkman’s leg shrinks and Pilate lacks a navel. Morrison also endows both characters with uncanny willpower over others. Pilate is able to fend off her brother’s attacks on his wife and strike mortal fear into him with a simple rag doll. Similarly, Milkman is able not only to avert Hagar’s knife from his throat by thought alone but also to will her eventual death and his own survival. These supernatural traits distinguish Milkman and Pilate from the other characters and heighten the importance of their respective journeys.
The narrative voice also gains importance in this section of Song of Solomon. Much of the novel develops through dialogue in which the narrator’s voice is almost entirely absent. However, the narrator’s interjections are essential to the plot. We learn about certain events from a series of competing narratives: Macon Jr. and Ruth, for example, give Milkman contradictory explanations of Dr. Foster’s relationship with Ruth. In this case, the narrator brings us a more accurate account than either character, telling us in the first chapter that Dr. Foster notices Ruth’s inappropriate affection for him and is secretly glad when she marries. Thus, while Milkman has only his father’s and mother’s takes on the relationship from which to draw a conclusion, we, as readers, have the additional advantage of being able to hear Dr. Foster’s point of view and thus evaluate the matter more objectively.