The first black boy ever born in Mercy Hospital in a town in Michigan comes into the world the day after an insurance agent named Robert Smith kills himself by trying to “fly” from the roof of the hospital across Lake Superior. The boy’s mother, Ruth, nurses him until he is eight or nine years old, thus earning him the ridiculous nickname Milkman. Milkman befriends an older boy named Guitar, visits his Aunt Pilate, and falls in love with Pilate’s granddaughter Hagar. Milkman also lives in fear of his father, the methodical businessman Macon Dead.
When Macon discovers that Milkman has been visiting Pilate’s house, he makes the boy come to work for him to diminish his free time. Milkman is given the job of collecting the rents from the poor tenants whose houses his father, one of the wealthiest black men in the town, owns. Milkman grows up working for and fearing his father, hanging out with Guitar, and spending any free time with Pilate and Hagar. Eventually he begins an affair with Hagar; around the same time he also stands up to his father by knocking him into a radiator after Macon slaps Milkman’s mother.
In response, Macon confides in Milkman that he believes Ruth to have had a seeming sexual affair with her own father, the prominent citizen Doctor Foster. When he confronts his mother, extremely agitated, she tells him that Macon Dead killed Doctor Foster by taking away medicine Doctor Foster needed to have to live. When Milkman is in his thirties, he loses interest in Hagar and breaks off their affair. Hagar loses her mind and begins trying to murder Milkman, ritualistically, every month. Finally Milkman confronts her, but she is unable to kill him.
Guitar, meanwhile, has grown increasingly edgy and increasingly obsessed with the idea of Milkman’s pampered position within the local black hierarchy; at last he divulges to Milkman that he is in a group called the Seven Days, which kills a white person for every black person murdered by a white. Each person has a different day; Guitar’s day is Sunday; whenever a black person is murdered on a Sunday, Guitar murders a white person in the same fashion. Milkman also learns that his sister, First Corinthians, is having an affair with another member of the group, Porter.
Troubled and increasingly preoccupied with the question of his family’s hazy past, Milkman announces to his father that he wants to be independent, to leave the town for a full year. Macon agrees, but only if Milkman will steal the green bag of gold hanging from Pilate’s ceiling-gold, he says, Pilate stole from the camp of a man he murdered when they were children, right after their father died and right before their estrangement. Milkman and Guitar pull off the robbery, but find out that the bag is full of bones–the bones of the man Macon killed.
Milkman travels to Pennsylvania, officially to look for the gold, but also to trace his family’s history. He meets Circe, an ancient woman who gives him some clues about his background, and he travels to Shalimar, Virginia, where his family originated. The symbolic geography of the novel is extremely important: black history radiates from the South, and becomes more uncertain the further North one travels; Milkman begins the novel in Michigan, and must travel southward and eastward to recover his fragmented family history.
He gradually fills in the pieces, with the help of Susan Byrd and a nonsensical child’s song: he is the grandson of Jake and Sing; Jake was the youngest son of a slave named Solomon and his wife Ryna. Solomon is supposed to have had the power of flight, and to have flown back to Africa. Ryna was miserable about his disappearance, and these facts are now recorded in the cliff called Solomon’s Leap and the howling valley called Ryna’s Gulch.
While Milkman is in Shalimar, Guitar appears and tries to murder him, thinking he has taken the gold for himself. Guitar then returns home in time to see Hagar before she dies; Milkman enjoys a dalliance with the prostitute Sweet before returning home to find Pilate. Pilate blames him for Hagar’s death, and breaks a bottle over his head; but when Milkman tells her one of his other discoveries–that the bones in the green bag belonged to her father, not to the man Macon murdered–she agrees to travel south with him to lay the bones to rest.
At Solomon’s Leap, they lay Jake’s bones to rest, but Guitar fires a shot from the gulch and kills Pilate. Milkman sings to her as she dies, then leaps off the cliff himself, unconcerned with whether he will live or die, only thinking about surrendering to the wind, and riding it. Analysis Song of Solomon is a novel about history, memory, and recovery; it also deals with the relationship between love and violence. Milkman’s quest for his family history represents the state of long-term African-American memory in general.
Because of the absence of documents, records, and written histories, Milkman’s past is uncertain, based mostly on the spoken stories he hears and his parents’ memories. Only by following the stories to their source, the south, can Milkman learn the legend of Solomon, his great-grandfather, the slave who could fly. Milkman’s acceptance of the story of Solomon as the source of his history fills him with a wild joy, and represents an agreement to the magical mythology of the black oral tradition in which stories changed their shapes over time as they passed down from generation to generation.
By accepting this legend-that the slave Solomon took flight and rode the wind back to Africa-Milkman places himself in the line of African-American memory, and it is significant that the story leads him, figuratively speaking, back to Africa along with Solomon. Names are of central importance in Song of Solomon, because they are among the only fixed repositories of history–and even names are not particularly fixed. Milkman’s family takes its name from the first Macon Dead, who was given his name by a drunken Yankee soldier at the Freedman’s Bureau.
Milkman recovers his true name, Jake, and also discovers that, in the town of Shalimar, Virginia, his family’s history is diffused into the very geography in place names and children’s songs. Through characters such as Guitar and Hagar, the novel deals with themes of love and its connection with violence. Guitar loves his race so much that he commits multiple murders for it, joining the revenge-oriented violence group called the Seven Days and killing a white person for every black person whom is lynched or murdered by whites on Sunday.
Guitar hates performing the killings, but is driven to commit them by his devotion to the cause of his race. Similarly, Hagar is driven to kill Milkman because she loves him all-embracingly, and when he rejects her, he obliterates any sense of self-worth she might ever have had. Hagar feels as though she draws her very existence from Milkman, and when he refuses her love, she is driven to murder him to complete her own destruction.
However, the ultimate lesson of the novel is that these self-destructive acts of violence stem from a fragmented comprehension of the nature of self, and that an act such as Milkman’s discovery of the past is able to set one free. Around these major themes Morrison explores a number of other ideas, such as the importance of class difference within black communities, the pursuit of wealth (represented by Macon Dead) as contrasted with the pursuit of memory, and the nature of the lyrical, malleable experience of African Americans unfixed from recorded time (especially as represented by old women such as Pilate and Circe).
Throughout, the novel is set in an expressive landscape suffused with important, recurring images and symbols: “rose petals blowing in the snow” and “the opening of a peacock’s tail”. These symbols embody the thematic ideas of the novel, give it an emotional depth and richness, and connect the tone of the story to the kind of oral legend that also characterizes its central myth, the legend of the slave Solomon. Character Analysis
Milkman Dead is actually named Macon Dead III. He acquires the nickname Milkman from Freddie, a janitor who discovers Ruth Dead nursing Milkman when the boy is more than halfway to adolescence. His drive to recover his family history leads him to Virginia, where he learns the legend of Solomon. As a child, Milkman is aloof and awkward, losing interest in him as a young boy when he realizes that he will never be able to fly.
The rest of the book chronicles Milkman’s development toward the moment when he does attempt to fly, by throwing himself joyfully off Solomon’s Leap at the end of the novel. Milkman’s traumatic inability to come to terms with his parents’ history together spurs him to understand his family history as a whole, and prompts him to travel east and south toward the source of that history. His reconstruction of his past also represents a reconstruction of himself and of his worldview–at least as compared to Guitar’s fragmented, violent outlook.
Milkman’s final agreement to the legend of Solomon, emulating his great-grandfather by taking flight himself, represents an acceptance of the reality of his family’s past even with its magical distortions-and represents an acceptance of African-American history as a whole, for which the distortions are in disarray from the truth throughout the novel. Macon Dead is actually Macon Dead II, the son of the first Macon Dead (also called Jake), and Sing. He is Ruth’s husband, and father to Milkman, Magdalena, and First Corinthians.
A hard-nosed businessman, Macon believes that money and independence are the only ways to become truly free. These traits are what symbolizes anything and everything white. Macon Dead may be black, but his values and tendencies are those of a white man. Pilate Dead is the daughter of Jake and Singer, sister to Macon Dead, mother to Reba, and grandmother to Hagar. She lives in the poor black area of town, where she sells wine with her daughter and granddaughter. A lyrical, pliant character, Pilate sings frequently, impelled to do so by what she believes was a command from her father’s ghost.
She represents the fantastic side of the story. The more Milkman is drawn south, the more fantasy takes over and reality is left in the dust. Ruth Dead is Milkman’s mother, Macon Dead’s wife. Ruth’s father, Doctor Fostor, was one of the most prominent black citizens of the town. Ruth’s love for her father may have been more than daughterly; after Doctor Foster’s death, Macon claims to have found Ruth in bed with him, naked, and sucking on his dead fingers. She represents something of a tainted love towards Milkman. She is not righteous, but she does love Milkman.
Guitar is a young black man from the South, raised by his grandmother in Michigan. Milkman’s best friend, and a member of the Seven Days who kills for revenge against murdered blacks. Towards the end of the novel he becomes obsessed about the gold Milkman is trying to find at the same time that Milkman becomes obsessed with his history. Hagar is Pilate’s granddaughter, who becomes Milkman’s lover. After he rejects her, she loses her mind and tries to murder him. She dies toward the end of the novel of a fever (really just her broken heart).