Song of Solomon

by: Toni Morrison

Chapter 10

Summary Chapter 10


Milkman’s journey, at first a greedy search for hidden treasure, becomes a meaningful quest for self-understanding. Although Milkman claims that gold is the ultimate goal of his journey, his motives for the gold are less convincing than his desire to seek out his family history. His reasoning behind going to Virginia to find Pilate’s gold is illogical. There is no evidence to suggest that Pilate took the gold with her to Virginia or ever had it in her possession. While it could be argued that Milkman’s desire for gold blinds him to better judgment, it is also possible that Milkman is purposefully trying to come up with a selfish reason to visit Virginia, because he cannot yet admit to himself that he is becoming a new man and that his journey south is not motivated by greed.

In stepping out of his self-absorbtion Milkman finds the path to personal fulfillment and independence from his father. At the Danville bus station, for instance, Milkman does something that seems out of character. Whereas earlier, he humors Hagar and her love only for sexual satisfaction, he now selflessly helps a man lift a crate. Furthermore, when his greedy tendencies arise, they actually set Milkman apart from his father. Greed is an end in itself for Macon Jr.: he is driven solely by the desire to accumulate profit. For Milkman, on the other hand, the gold offers the opportunity to escape the confines of privileged life. He wants it because it would give him the freedom to break out of his father’s oppressive environment and allow him to find his own road in life.

As Milkman’s quest progresses, the mythical world and the world of reality blend together. Circe, uncannily similar to the imaginary witch of Milkman’s childhood dreams, appears to him to be so wispy that he is unsure whether she is a mirage or a living person. Milkman leaves Circe convinced that she is a living, though ancient, woman, but her airy, disheveled appearance, young woman’s voice, and ability to transform a stench of decay into a pleasant fragrance make us think that she must be some sort of supernatural figure, after all. Ultimately, Milkman’s encounter with Circe situates his own quest within Circe’s mythic description of Macon Jr.’s and Pilate’s early years. Just as Milkman is unsure whether Circe is a living woman or a ghost, we wonder whether Milkman’s newly recovered past is historically accurate or simply part of an old folk tale.

The decay of the Butlers’ mansion and the disintegration of the Butler family represent the collapse of the old sharecropping order and values. Just as the manor crumbles into disrepair, so did the Butlers fall from grace—dying alone and forgotten after leading a life of luxury, their memory cursed by their neighbors. That their possessions were devoured by their own dogs is the ultimate humiliation, as though their family trappings were nothing more than worthless scraps. The Butler mansion also symbolizes the emptiness of possessing material goods. Like Macon Jr., the Butlers dedicated their life to money, losing their humanity in the process. After losing their ill-gotten wealth, the Butlers were unable to go on living. They died not because they lacked food or clothing, but because they lacked money, the only good that nourished them.

Part II of Morrison’s novel is inspired by Homer’s ancient Greek epic the Odyssey. Much like the Odyssey, in which Odysseus makes his way home after twenty years of warring and traveling, Part II of Song of Solomon describes the hero’s quest to come home. As we learn, even though Milkman was born and grew up in Michigan, his home lies elsewhere—in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Nevertheless, Milkman’s journey follows Odysseus’s and at times Morrison alerts us to this parallel with obvious references. In Homer’s epic, Circe is the enchantress who keeps Odysseus on her island for a year but then helps him on his journey home. Likewise, in Morrison’s novel, Circe points Milkman to Macon Dead I’s birthplace and tells him his grandparents’ original names, thus helping Milkman reach his ancestral home. Critic Sandra Adell gives an alternative explanation of Circe’s role in Song of Solomon. She offers that Circe is also the ancient Greek goddess of the omphalos, or navel. Consequently, argues Adell, Circe acts out her mythical role, her help serving as an umbilical cord that reconnects Milkman with a forgotten past.