Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Flight as a Means of Escape
The epigraph to Song of Solomon—“The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names”—is the first reference to one of the novel’s most important themes. While flight can be an escape from constricting circumstances, it also scars those who are left behind. Solomon’s flight allowed him to leave slavery in the Virginia cotton fields, but it also meant abandoning his wife, Ryna, with twenty-one children. While Milkman’s flight from Michigan frees him from the dead environment of Not Doctor Street, his flight is also selfish because it causes Hagar to die of heartbreak. The novel’s epigraph attempts to break the connection between flight and abandonment. Because Pilate, as Milkman notes, is able to fly without ever lifting her feet off the ground, she has mastered flight, managing to be free of subjugation without leaving anyone behind.
Morrison’s extensive use of flying as a literal and not just metaphorical event pushes Song of Solomon toward the genre of magical realism. The novel’s characters accept human flight as natural. For instance, the observers of Robert Smith’s flight encourage him rather than rush to prevent his leap, implying that they do not see his flight as a suicide attempt. Instead, the onlookers behave as though Smith’s flight might be possible. Furthermore, the residents of Shalimar, Virginia, do not think that Solomon’s flight is a myth; they believe that the flight actually occurred. Morrison’s novel belongs to the genre of magical realism because in it human flight is both possible and natural. For the long period of time during which Milkman doubts the possibility of human flight, he remains abnormal in the eyes of his community. Only when he begins to believe in the reality of flight does he cease to feel alienated.
Men’s repeated abandonment of women in Song of Solomon shows that the novel’s female characters suffer a double burden. Not only are women oppressed by racism, but they must also pay the price for men’s freedom. Guitar tells Milkman that black men are the unacknowledged workhorses of humanity, but the novel’s events imply that black women more correctly fit this description. The scenes that describe women’s abandonment show that in the novel, men bear responsibility only for themselves, but women are responsible for themselves, their families, and their communities. For instance, after suffering through slavery, Solomon flew home to Africa without warning anyone of his departure. But his wife, Ryna, who was also a slave, was forced to remain in Virginia to raise her twenty-one children alone. Also, after Guitar’s father is killed in a factory accident, Guitar’s grandmother has to raise him and his siblings. Although she is elderly and ill, she supports her children financially, intellectually, and emotionally.
Relying on this skewed idea of gender roles, the society in the novel judges men and women differently. While men who fly away from their communities and families are venerated as heroes, women who do the same are judged to be irresponsible. Although Solomon abandoned his family with his flight to Africa, generations later he is remembered as the brave patriarch of the whole community. At the same time, Ryna, who was left to care for a brood of children, is remembered as a woman who went mad because she was too weak to uphold her end of the bargain. Residents of Shalimar have named a scary, dark gulch after Ryna, while they have given Solomon’s name to a scenic mountain peak. The community rewards Solomon’s abandonment of his children but punishes Ryna’s inability to take care of them alone.
The Alienating Effects of Racism
Racism is the central cause of suffering in the novel. Racism has long-lasting damaging effects on the community. Slavery causes Solomon to flee toward freedom and end his marriage to Ryna. This flight begins many generations of trauma. The knowledge that his father died because of his white employers’ negligence makes Guitar especially sensitive to the injustices perpetrated against African-Americans. Emmett Till’s murder and the Birmingham Church bombing remind Guitar of his own tragedy, transforming him into a ruthless, vengeful murderer. Guitar’s story shows that racism alienates its victims from their native communities and causes them to lose touch with their own humanity.