Chapter 11 is written as a bildungsroman, a story that describes the maturation of a young hero into an adult. Finding himself in a completely unfamiliar place where his urban life experience is a handicap, where his father’s wealth cannot shield him from harm, where locals (like Saul) tend to dislike him rather than adore him, Milkman is quickly forced to evaluate his life. Under the dark Virginia sky, Milkman dispenses with the self-praise and self-pity that characterize his privileged childhood. He begins to judge himself fairly, finally becoming able to admit his own wrongdoings. Milkman’s changing out of his nice suit and into military clothes signifies his transformation from a child into an adult. He has outgrown both the literal wardrobe of his fancy clothes and the metaphorical wardrobe of his sheltered upbringing.
The spiritual and metaphorical transformation that Milkman experiences goes hand in hand with his physical rebirth from the jaws of death during Guitar’s attack on him. Guitar’s attack forces Milkman not only to face death but actually to experience it. The wording of the text in the attack scene suggests that Milkman dies and is instantly resurrected: “[h]e . . . saw a burst of many-colored lights dancing before his eyes. . . . When the music followed the colored lights, he knew he had just drawn the last sweet air left for him in the world.” The wordplay spell cast over the novel—that Milkman cannot be killed because he is already “Dead”—is finally broken. One can argue that Milkman is killed by his way of living before a new way of living resurrects him. That is, Guitar’s murder attempt comes at a moment when Milkman is finally casting off the deadness that has characterized him throughout the novel, when he is beginning to experience selfless compassion toward others.
Following his resurrection, Milkman is no longer the outsider he has been his whole life. He now belongs to a human community and feels that he belongs to it. Milkman’s laughter with the hunters after surviving his assassination is evidence of his rebirth into a life of interacting meaningfully with others. Whereas earlier he feels fake compassion and fake understanding of racism, he now feels and expresses true emotions. The disappearance of the physical manifestations of Milkman’s deadness—the undersized leg and the limp that accompanies it—show that he has been cured of his alienation.
We see evidence of Milkman’s new identity in his positive interaction with Sweet. Unlike his relationship with Hagar, in which he uses her for sex but never returns her overwhelming love, Milkman engages in a mutually fulfilling relationship with Sweet. He bathes her after she bathes him; he gives her a back massage and she salves his wounds; he cleans her bathroom and she feeds him. It is no accident that Hagar “bending over him in perfect love” is the prevalent image that Milkman sees while Guitar tries to kill him. This image symbolizes both the degree of Hagar’s generosity and also the extent of Milkman’s mistreatment of her. In his extraordinarily respectful, fair-minded behavior toward Sweet, Milkman demonstrates that he has learned from his past mistakes and has matured.