Summary: Chapter 8

Guitar lies in his bed, figuring out how to bomb a white church and kill four little white girls in order to avenge the Birmingham church bombing, in which four little Black girls perished. Guitar’s plans hit a dead end because he does not have enough money to purchase explosives. Milkman then arrives and tells Guitar about the treasure Pilate is supposedly hoarding in the green tarp. The two friends fantasize about how to get the loot, devise ways to get it out of Pilate’s house, and relish all the possibilities the money will bring.

During Milkman and Guitar’s conversation, a mysterious white peacock leaps off a building and struts around the street in front of them. Guitar and Milkman attempt to catch the peacock, but then lose themselves in fantasies about the gold. Guitar briefly thinks that he could use the money to help out his grandmother and siblings but then recalls that he needs the money for his Seven Days mission. Meanwhile, Milkman realizes that having a large sum of money would liberate him by making him independent from his father. The following night, Guitar and Milkman steal into Pilate’s house and cut down the green bundle. On their way out, Guitar thinks he sees a figure of a man standing right behind Milkman. As the pair leaves Pilate’s place, Reba, who is awake, wonders what the robbers might want with the bundle.

Summary: Chapter 9

The narrator tells us that First Corinthians is secretly working as a maid for Michael-Mary Graham, the state poet laureate. Although First Corinthians graduated from Bryn Mawr and has been to France, no man of her social class is interested in marrying her because she is too “accustomed to middle-class life.” Though her parents think she is working as Graham’s secretary, First Corinthians has taken the job as a maid in order to get out of Macon Jr.’s house and feel independent.

On her bus rides home from work, First Corinthians is courted by an elderly Black man, who we later learn is Henry Porter. Porter works as a yardman and is a Southside tenant of Macon Jr.’s, and he and First Corinthians begin to date in secret. He eventually confronts her and asks her if she is ashamed to be dating him. First Corinthians says that she is not. But after she realizes that she is in love with Porter and that he might leave her forever because she is not a “doll-baby,” she admits that she has not been fair to Porter. They go to his place and make love.

When First Corinthians returns home to Not Doctor Street, she overhears a loud argument between Macon Jr. and Milkman. During the argument it comes out that while driving with the tarp bundle in their car after the robbery, Guitar and Milkman were pulled over by a cop, searched, and taken to the police station. The bundle, as it turns out, is not filled with gold but with rocks and a human skeleton. Both Macon Jr. and Pilate come to the station to bail them out. Pilate plays the act of an ignorant old woman, and tells a story about how the bones belonged to her dead husband, Mr. Solomon. The cops believe Pilate’s story, return the bundle to her, and let the two men go. Milkman recalls that on the ride back from the station, Pilate told Macon Jr. that she never took the gold, but instead came back to the cave three years after she and Macon Jr. parted to collect the bones of the dead white man. Pilate claimed that Macon Dead I ordered her to come back because she could not “fly on off and leave a body.”

While they are sitting in the den of their house in the middle of the night, Macon Jr. yells at Milkman, asking him why he took along Guitar, “that Southside nigger.” Milkman refuses to respond to his father’s provocations and is instead shocked by the fact that the cops stopped him without a good reason. Milkman calls his father crazy, but Macon Jr. says that if Pilate did not take the gold then it must still be in the cave, and that someone should retrieve it.

Milkman goes to sleep and wakes up at noon. He stands in front of the mirror in his bathroom and feels a profound sense of shame over stealing the green tarp. While reviewing the events of the previous day, Milkman realizes that Guitar has killed before and is capable of killing again. As he gazes into the mirror, Milkman notices that his undersized leg seems to have returned to normal length.

Milkman then walks outside, sees an old Oldsmobile packed with Guitar and six other friends, Porter among them, and realizes that Porter, a member of the Seven Days, is the man First Corinthians is secretly seeing. After Milkman informs Macon Jr. of his discovery, Macon Jr. breaks up the relationship, evicts Porter from his dwelling, and forces First Corinthians to quit her job.

A few days later, Lena confronts Milkman and harshly rebukes him for ending First Corinthians’s only relationship. She tells Milkman that he is just like Macon Jr., living off Ruth’s, First Corinthians’s, and her own labor without doing anything himself. Lena reminds Milkman of the time when he, then just a little boy, urinated on her. She claims that in one way or another, Milkman has been urinating on others his entire life, and that he is a “sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man” without anything to show for himself except the “little hog’s gut” that hangs between his legs. Lena ends her rebuke by telling Milkman that she will no longer make artificial roses and sends Milkman away from her room.

Analysis: Chapters 8–9

Throughout the novel, white creatures are symbols of impending harm or wrongdoing. In this section, the white peacock seen by Guitar and Milkman, like the white bull that caused the labor and subsequent death of Freddie’s mother, is a phantom of evil. The two men’s pursuit of the white peacock symbolizes their greed. The peacock itself symbolizes the corrupting allure of wealth, just as when Macon Jr. saw the gold in the cave as a spread peacock’s tail and became obsessed with accumulating wealth. This greed is evil because it makes Macon Jr. a tyrant and eventually turns Guitar against Milkman. That these apparitions are specifically white evokes the idea of white oppression of Black people: the white bull effectively renders Freddie an orphan and forces him to grow up in jail because there are no facilities for Black orphans, while the white peacock appeals to Guitar’s sense of Black people being the victims of economic injustice.

Milkman’s emotions following the theft of the tarp reflect his ongoing, intensifying transformation from a “Dead” man into a living one. The shame Milkman feels after robbing Pilate serves as evidence of his spiritual awakening. It is no coincidence that while he experiences this shame his undersized leg—the physical abnormality that represents his emotional childishness—appears perfectly normal again. The lame leg that seems miraculously cured demonstrates that Milkman’s shame is the beginning of a deeper transformation. Now that he is able to understand his actions and his way of life objectively and to see the immaturity of his lifestyle, he can repair his flaws and become a better person.

Milkman’s experience of being pulled over by a white cop without probable cause, or good reason, marks the end of his privileged, idealistic worldview. This incident proves to Milkman that, in the eyes of the law, he is just another Black man, guilty before proven innocent. Ironically, the dehumanizing police station experience that follows Milkman’s arrest gives him a taste of being a part of the greater African-American community, from which he has always been alienated. Entering this community endows Milkman with compassion. In fact, we know that he tells Macon Jr. about Porter’s relationship with First Corinthians because he is genuinely concerned about her welfare, rather than—as Lena suggests—because Porter is of a lower social class. Lena viciously rebukes Milkman, equating his tyranny with Macon Jr.’s, because she does not realize that the Milkman before her is evolving from a selfish person into a caring one.

Milkman is not the only character who undergoes a transformation. His sisters, First Corinthians and Lena, whom Morrison keeps in the background of the novel’s main events, are suddenly transformed into deep, complex characters. The two sisters, who have spent their lives in Dr. Foster’s parlor making artificial roses, which are symbols of fake love, refuse to be aristocratic sweatshop workers any longer. The fact that First Corinthians works as a maid despite her college degree does not demean her but rather liberates her economically and socially. Furthermore, the fact that she finds true love only outside the strict confines of her class shows that Morrison is making an attack on class-consciousness in general. Lena’s revolt comes out during her confrontation with Milkman. Even though she may be mistaken about the nature of Milkman’s now-transformed character, her rebuke is fully justifiable and represents the revolt of the novel’s repressed female characters. Lena speaks not only for herself, but also for her mother, sister, and every other abused, subjugated, or abandoned woman in the novel.

The confusion about the location of the gold illustrates the difficult nature of Milkman’s journey toward self-discovery. When Macon Jr. prepares to tell Milkman his story after Milkman first mentions the tarp at Pilate’s house, the narrator cuts in to tell us that the gold was not in the cave when Macon Jr. came back three days after murdering the old white man. But Macon Jr.’s suggestion to Milkman that the gold may still be inside the cave conflicts with the narrator’s version of the story. Because Milkman does not have our luxury of sifting through conflicting narratives, he can follow only the erroneous roadmap that Macon Jr. lays out for him. This wasted effort teaches Milkman a lesson: although he has spent his life idling, he must now work hard for his reward, the eventual recovery of his identity.