Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931), is a Nobel Prize-winning American author, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed black characters; among the best known are her novels The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Toni Morrison on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
Morrison began writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She went to one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. The story later evolved into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), which she wrote while raising two children and teaching at Howard. In 2000 it was chosen as a selection forr Oprah's Book Club.
In 1975 her novel Sula (1973) was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel,Song of Solomon (1977), brought her national attention. The book was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award.In 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first black woman to win it.
Toni Morrison has said in interviews that she opposed desegregation in the early 1960s despite being aware of its terrible effects. She worried that the excellent historically black schools and universities would disappear. Morrison wondered if the treasures of folklore, art, music, and literature created by the relatively insular African-American community would disappear once that community became more porous. Accordingly, while Song of Solomon explores the different experiences of white people and black people, almost all of the action occurs within an African-American world, drawing on its vitality for inspiration.
Although the black community provides the setting of Song of Solomon, the novel's themes are universal. Milkman's quest toward self-discovery, Macon Jr.'s obsession with wealth, Pilate's boundless love for others, Ryna's and Hagar's madness from broken hearts, and Guitar's destructive thirst for revenge are classic stories that have been told countless times in literatures of all traditions.
Song of Solomon is a 1977 novel by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison. It follows the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, an African-American male living in Michigan, from birth to adulthood.
Plot and structure:
Robert Smith, an insurance agent in an unnamed Michigan town, leaps off the roof of Mercy Hospital wearing blue silk wings and claiming that he will fly to the opposite shore of Lake Superior. Mr. Smith plummets to his death. The next day, Ruth Foster Dead, the daughter of the first black doctor in town, gives birth to the first black child born in Mercy Hospital, Milkman Dead. Discovering at age four that humans cannot fly, young Milkman loses all interest in himself and others. He grows up nourished by the love of his mother and his aunt, Pilate. He is taken care of by his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene (called Lena), and adored by his lover and cousin, Hagar. Milkman does not reciprocate their kindness and grows up bored and privileged. In his lack of compassion, Milkman resembles his father, Macon Dead II, a ruthless landlord who pursues only the accumulation of wealth.
Milkman is afflicted with a genetic malady, an emotional disease that has its origins in oppressions endured by past generations and passed on to future ones. Milkman's grandfather, Macon Dead, received his odd name when a drunk Union soldier erroneously filled out his documents (his grandfather's given name remains unknown to Milkman). Eventually, Macon was killed while defending his land. His two children, Macon Jr. and Pilate, were irreversibly scarred by witnessing the murder and became estranged from each other. Pilate has become a poor but strong and independent woman, the mother of a family that includes her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter, Hagar. In contrast, Macon Jr. spends his time acquiring wealth. Both his family and his tenants revile him.
By the time Milkman reaches the age of thirty-two, he feels stifled living with his parents and wants to escape to somewhere else. Macon Jr. informs Milkman that Pilate may have millions of dollars in gold wrapped in a green tarp suspended from the ceiling of her rundown shack. With the help of his best friend, Guitar Bains, whom he promises a share of the loot, Milkman robs Pilate. Inside the green tarp, Milkman and Guitar find only some rocks and a human skeleton. We later learn that the skeleton is that of Milkman's grandfather, Macon Dead I. Guitar is especially disappointed not to find the gold because he needs the funds to carry out his mission for the Seven Days, a secret society that avenges injustices committed against African-Americans by murdering innocent whites.
Thinking that the gold might be in a cave near Macon's old Pennsylvania farm, Milkman leaves his hometown in Michigan and heads south, promising Guitar a share of whatever gold he finds. Before he leaves, Milkman severs his romantic relationship with Hagar, who is driven mad by his rejection and tries to kill Milkman on multiple occasions. After arriving in Montour County, Pennsylvania, Milkman discovers that there is no gold to be found. He looks for his long-lost family history rather than for gold. Milkman meets Circe, an old midwife who helped deliver Macon Jr. and Pilate. Circe tells Milkman that Macon's original name was Jake and that he was married to an Indian girl, Sing.
Encouraged by his findings, Milkman heads south to Shalimar, his grandfather's ancestral home in Virginia. Milkman does not know that he is being followed by Guitar, who wants to murder Milkman because he believes that Milkman has cheated him out of his share of the gold. While Milkman initially feels uncomfortable in Shalimar's small-town atmosphere, he grows to love it as he uncovers more and more clues about his family history. Milkman finds that Jake's father, his great-grandfather, was the legendary flying African, Solomon, who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. Although Solomon's flight was miraculous, it left a scar on his family that has lasted for generations. After an unsuccessful attempt to take Jake, his youngest son, with him on the flight, Solomon abandoned his wife, Ryna, and their twenty-one children. Unable to cope without a husband, Ryna went insane, leaving Jake to be raised by Heddy, an Indian woman whose daughter, Sing, he married.
Milkman's findings give him profound joy and a sense of purpose. Milkman becomes a compassionate, responsible adult. After surviving an assassination attempt at Guitar's hands, Milkman returns home to Michigan to tell Macon Jr. and Pilate about his discoveries. At home, he finds that Hagar has died of a broken heart and that the emotional problems plaguing his family have not gone away. Nevertheless, Milkman accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where they bury Jake's bones on Solomon's Leap, the mountain from which Solomon's flight to Africa began. Immediately after Jake's burial, Pilate is struck dead by a bullet that Guitar had intended for Milkman. Heartbroken over Pilate's death but invigorated by his recent transformation, Milkman calls out Guitar's name and leaps toward him.
Milkman Dead: The protagonist of the novel, also known as Macon Dead III. Born into a sheltered, privileged life, Milkman grows up to be an egotistical young man. He lacks compassion, wallows in self-pity, and alienates himself from the African-American community. As his nickname suggests, Milkman literally feeds off of what others produce. But his eventual discovery of his family history gives his life purpose. Although he remains flawed, this newfound purpose makes him compassionate and caring.
Pilate Dead: Macon Jr.'s younger sister. Born without a navel, Pilate is physically and psychologically unlike the novel's other characters. She is a fearless mother who is selflessly devoted to others. Pilate is responsible for Milkman's safe birth and continues to protect him for years afterward. She also takes care of her daughter, Reba, and granddaughter, Hagar.
Macon Jr.: Milkman's father and Ruth's husband, also known as Macon Dead II. Traumatized by seeing his father murdered during a skirmish over the family farm, Macon Jr. has developed an obsession with becoming wealthy. In the process, he has become an emotionally dead slumlord. His stony heart softens only when he reminisces about his childhood. Macon Jr.'s stories about his childhood help fuel Milkman's investigation into the history of the Dead family.
Guitar Bains: Milkman's best friend. Having grown up in poverty after his father was killed in a factory accident, Guitar harbors a lifelong hatred for white people, whom he sees as responsible for all evil in the world. Morrison points out that while Guitar's rage is justifiable, his murders of white people neither combat racism nor help the African-American community.
Hagar: Pilate's daughter and Milkman's lover. Hagar devotes herself to Milkman, even though he loses interest and frequently rejects her. Like her biblical namesake—a servant who, after bearing Abraham's son is thrown out of the house by his barren wife, Sarah—Hagar is used and abandoned. Her plight demonstrates a central theme in Song of Solomon: the inevitable abandonment of women who love men too much.
Macon Dead I: Macon Jr.'s father and Milkman's grandfather, Macon Dead I is also known as Jake. Macon Dead I was abandoned in infancy when his father, Solomon, flew back to Africa and his mother, Ryna, went insane. Macon Dead I was raised by an Indian woman, Heddy. The mysterious legend of his identity motivates Milkman's search for self-understanding.
Ruth Foster Dead: Macon Jr.'s wife and the mother of Milkman, First Corinthians, and Lena. After growing up in a wealthy home, Ruth feels unloved by everyone except her deceased father, Dr. Foster. Although her existence is joyless, she refuses to leave Macon Jr. for a new life, proving that wealth's hold is difficult to overcome.
Dr. Foster: The first black doctor in the novel's Michigan town. Dr. Foster is an arrogant, self-hating racist who calls fellow African-Americans “cannibals” and checks to see how light-skinned his granddaughters are when they are born. His status as an educated black man at a time when many blacks were illiterate makes him an important symbol of personal triumph while contrasting with his racist attitude.
Reba: Pilate's daughter and Hagar's mother, also known as Rebecca. Reba has a strong sexual drive but is attracted to abusive men. Nevertheless, because Pilate is her mother, the few men who dare mistreat her are punished. Reba's uncanny ability to win contests such as the Sears half-millionth customer diamond ring giveaway demonstrates that wealth is transient and unimportant.
First Corinthians Dead: Milkman's worldly sister, educated at Bryn Mawr and in France. First Corinthians shares her name with a New Testament book in which the apostle Paul seeks to mend the disagreements within the early Christian church. Like the biblical book, the character First Corinthians tries to unify people. Her passionate love affair with a yardman, Henry Porter, crosses class boundaries. Her actions prove that human beings of different backgrounds and ages can share a bond.
Magdalene Dead: Another of Milkman's sisters, also known as Lena. Lena's submissive attitude in Macon Jr.'s home makes her one of the many submissive women who populate Song of Solomon. But her rebuke of Milkman's selfishness demonstrates her inner strength.
Michael-Mary Graham: The Michigan poet laureate. Graham is a liberal who writes sentimental poetry and hires First Corinthians as a maid. Graham represents the double standard of white liberals. Although they claimed to support universal human rights, liberal whites often refused to treat African-Americans as equals.
Circe: A maid and midwife who worked for the wealthy Butler family. Circe delivered Macon Jr. and Pilate. In her encounter with Milkman, Circe plays the same role as her namesake in Homer's Odyssey, the ancient Greek account of a lost mariner's ten-year voyage home. Just as Homer's Circe helps Odysseus find his way back to Ithaca, Morrison's Circe provides crucial information that reconnects Milkman with his family history. In this way, Morrison's Circe connects Milkman's past and future.
Sing: Milkman's grandmother and Macon Dead I's wife. Sing is an Indian woman also known as Singing Bird. Sing's name commands Macon Dead I, Pilate, and Milkman to connect the missing links of their family history through Solomon's song.
Henry Porter: First Corinthians's lover and a member of the Seven Days vigilante group, which murders white people. Porter's tender love affair with First Corinthians proves that a personal connection between two human beings is stronger than differences of background and class.
Robert Smith: An insurance agent and member of the Seven Days vigilante group. Smith's attempt to fly off of the roof of Mercy Hospital begins the novel's exploration of flight as a means of escape. Smith's failure to fly contrasts with Milkman's eventual success in escaping the confining circumstances of his life.
Freddie: A janitor employed by Macon Jr. Freddie is the town gossip. Freddie spreads rumors through the town, illustrating how information was often disseminated within African-American communities. Freddie coins the nickname “Milkman” for Ruth's son, showing that original names are often forgotten and replaced
Solomon: Milkman's great-grandfather, who supposedly flew back to Africa but dropped his son Jake shortly after taking off. Solomon's flight is a physical demonstration of the liberation that is felt when a person escapes confining circumstances. However, Solomon's crying wife, Ryna, and traumatized children show that escape has negative consequences as well.
Ryna: Milkman's great-grandmother and Solomon's wife. When Solomon abandons her, Ryna goes mad. According to legend, her cries can still be heard.
Sweet: A prostitute with whom Milkman has a brief affair. Unlike Milkman's affairs with other women, especially Hagar, his relationship with Sweet is mutually respectful and entirely reciprocal. His interactions with her demonstrate that the most gratifying relationships in the novel are those in which both partners treat each other as equals.
The Southside district in a city near Lake Superior; Danville, Pennsylvania; Shalimar, Virginia
Point of view:
Third Person (Limited Omniscient)
Toni Morrison wanted her readers to take part in the construction and creation of the novel to, in a sense, work with the point of view/narrator to determine what is important and what is not. She said, "to have the reader work with the author in the construction of the book – [that] is what’s important. What is left out is as important as what is there."
A Jacob Lawrence painting engages Homer’s Odyssey over ginger tea.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) is one of the most renowned American painters of all time whose artwork examines, explores, and engages over four generations of the black experience in America. He is famous for his paintings capturing life and culture in Harlem, but he is also celebrated for painting works of art inspired by the oral storytelling he heard around him. Mr. Lawrence is definitely conversing with Homer’s Odyssey, that oft recycled classic tale of a hero’s (thorny) journey to get back home to his lady after many years of battle, and they are definitely drinking ginger tea. The presence of gingery smells, as we know from reading Song, heralds a dreamy, creative state packed with human longing, desire, and hope – emotions perfect for these two most reverend works of art as they converse with one another.
Dense, loaded, locked, stormy
Identity - In Song of Solomon we see a young man undergo an odyssey toward finding himself and toward finding his people. All along the way, he struggles with the concept of community that compels him to forge his being in the context of collective identity, and struggles with the concept of individual identity, forged out of personal journey. He wrestles with the expectations of the black community and with the emptiness that haunts his interior self. Identity is both individually and collectively sought after throughout this novel.
Love - Love is talked about tirelessly throughout Song of Solomon, and the lack of it repeatedly drives women insane with loss. It is often confused for possession and ownership. Many are deprived of it, others kill in the name of it, and still others don’t even know they have it. The Christ-figure’s (Pilate's) last words are about love and her desire to have known more people in order to have loved more people.
Race - We see a troubled universe in Song of Solomon, where racism and inequality run rampant, touching and affecting every character’s life in significant ways. We are exposed to a society divided along racial lines, and we are given access to the black community, watching the effects of slavery and racism over four generations of American history. We witness America’s inability to see beyond race, and to honor Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. We see how racism is both socially, systematically, and economically perpetuated. Feeling that there is no solution, no way out, no means of achieving the inalienable rights Lincoln spoke of, a society within the black community is formed in order to kill white people.
Visions of America - Though Song spans nearly four generations of American history, we spend the most time in 1960s America, on the eve of the Civil Rights movement. We are immersed in the black experience in America, and watch countless acts of racism, hate, and intolerance unfold. Despite the fact that we are dwelling in an era that is nearly a century after Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, we still see a broken, unjust society.
The Home - Homes symbolize status in the world of Song of Solomon and also indicate how a person copes, feels, and identifies materialistically with the world around him. We are presented with a spectrum of homes, from huge mansions, to two-room shacks, to improbably manicured dwellings carved out of wilderness, to cozy one-room cottages of mythical comfort. The larger and more affluent the home, the more diseased it becomes.
The Supernatural - The question of what is natural and what is unnatural is one that threads its way throughout Song. Therefore, the idea of the supernatural is extremely important, pointing to higher powers and greater beings. We are constantly presented with ghosts, magic, and seeming impossibilities.
Women and Femininity - In this novel, women are those left behind. We see them trapped in their marriages and in their societal niches, crushed by the heavy burden of survival. While men are associated with flying and fleeing, women are associated with groundedness and earthliness. We see them brought to madness at the loss of their lovers and husbands, and we see the anguish that comes when they are denied sexual love and sexual expression. Women in Song of Solomon are obsessive in their love of the men in their lives, relying on these partners as representation of "home" or of a safe place. The only women capable of living independently, without men, are those who have been marginalized by society. Therefore, we understand the relationship between women and men in the novel as inextricably linked to the way in which we understand the society in which they live.
Man and the Natural World - We see our protagonist fight against the wilds of Virginia, unaccustomed to the problems it presents him. By contrast we see those people born in this wilderness navigate it effortlessly. The natural world in Song of Solomon represents a pastoral paradise, untainted by materialism and by corruption. At the same time, slavery and racism are present even in these rural pockets of society.
Exploration - Song of Solomon's protagonist literally embarks upon a journey of exploration, the initial goal being the discovery of gold. But this quest eventually morphs into an exploration of identity, family, and name. We watch our protagonist struggle to reach both goals, realizing that shortcuts and haste only set him back further from his goals. The desire for self-knowledge is imbued in each character to some extent.
Memory and the Past - We hear the characters of Song of Solomon constantly retell the same story, adding new detail and specifics with each recollection. In this way, we see the power the storyteller holds in choosing what details to include and in deciding how to present these details.
Symbolism, allusions, myth:
The peacock first randomly appears in the used car lot where Milkman and Guitar are hanging out, considering all of the things they will buy and do with the gold they are about to steal. It is completely white, except for a tail "full of jewelry." When Macon first discovers the gold in the cave after killing the man, life, wealth, and security fan before him like a peacock’s tail.
The peacock then becomes closely associated with wealth and with the ways in which wealth can blind people. Peacocks are considered proud, vain creatures that like to preen their ornate tails. The presence of the peacock in the used-car lot seems to foreshadow a disappointing attempt at burglary. Instead of discussing the way in which they are going to go about stealing the gold or the probability of there being any gold at all, the boys are sidetracked and tempted by a discussion of what the gold will bring them. The peacock helps derail their focused, rational approach.
The Geography Book
Pilate’s geography book has been with her since she was a little girl and remains a constant source of intrigue, reminding her of all the places she has been to, and all the places she has yet to see. At one point, Guitar tells Milkman that he feels his whole life is geography.
The Southside community is acutely aware of geography both on grand and infinitesimal scales. For one thing, Southside is the southern portion of the city by Lake Superior (which we assume is Detroit, Michigan, though we are never explicitly told this). The fact that the black community is concentrated in the southern portion of a northern city recalls the once divided country, separated between North and South, Yankees and Confederates, those free and those locked in slavery.
We are also reminded of the Great Migration which took place after the Civil War and which saw many freed slaves move to northern cities. Our protagonist, however, follows the reverse migration, beginning in the North and ending in South, where his ancestors once dwelled. All characters that inhabit Song of Solomon seem acutely aware of where they are in relation to other places.
The motif of flying begins with Song’s epigraph which tells the story of fathers who abandon their children, and it ends with Milkman’s flight. Throughout the novel, we are continually presented with men who fly off, leaving women behind. Their flight produces mixed emotions, because, while it is incredibly victorious for the community, which tells and retells the story of the flight, it is also a cause of much heartache and loss.
The belief in flight is what makes this book so awesome and is also what makes us realize that it is not always grounded in reality as we know it, but deals in mythological and magical terms as well. When we enter the world of Song, we watch a man fly off of a hospital building, and his fall is ambiguous. We don’t actually get to see his flight, and we don’t actually see him crash to earth. We are told there is no blood on his body when people examine his corpse on the ground. In this way, we wonder if Robert Smith isn’t successful after all at flying across Lake Superior.
The motif of flight also resonates with the folklore which tells the tale of slaves who flew back to Africa, as Milkman’s great-grandfather did, leaving a wife and 21 children behind. At the end of the novel, we find that Pilate has always been able to outsmart the whole flying and abandoning conundrum. She’s always been able to fly and yet she never leaves anyone behind. In the last moment, Milkman surrenders to the air and rides it, learning how to fly.
Even when in the presence of toxic lake water that gives people ear infections when they swim in it, and in the presence of a hairy, ripe animal smell, this mysterious, sweet ginger smell shows up, making its smellers dream a little bit or think of places in the Far East. The ginger smell seems to trigger or herald moments of dream state or of suspended reality. The olfactory nerve kicks into high gear and allows characters to open up to a prospect or to an idea of something new.
The ocean finds it way to Lake Superior by way of the St. Lawrence River. The narrator of Song argues that it is this single fact that instills in the inhabitants of the city a desire to wander, to feel the click of the door behind them. In the Bible, the ocean is often symbolic of the masses, of a people. In this sense, we might interpret Milkman’s wandering, ocean-bitten ways as a quest to find his people.
Whenever we see a cave in literature, we automatically think of Lazarus, that Biblical man who was thought to be Mary Magdalene’s brother. Word got to Jesus that Lazarus was dead in a cave and had been for four days. Jesus went to the cave, opened it up, and out popped Lazarus still in his mummy-death clothes, but fit as a fiddle.
It’s hard to keep track of all the dead bodies that are dumped or left in this Montour County cave, but we realize that we still aren’t quite sure what happened to the bones of the man who Macon stabbed to death way back when. The pitch-blackness of this cave, as well as all of the mystery surrounding the skeletons and hidden treasure found within, only serve to heighten the symbolism of the cave. The fact that Pilate stays inside with the dead man for so long also says something about her and her supernatural ways. But even so, we still don’t know who took the gold and we still don’t know what happened to the old white man.
The Weimaraner Dogs/The Hunting Party
It’s the intelligent, childlike eyes that stare at Milkman from the Butler mansion windows such that Milkman thinks there are actual children inside that totally creeps us out. These dogs are disgusting in their proliferation, but they are also well groomed. The fact that they have such human eyes makes us think that (in a world where Circe is impossibly alive) they were once humans or absorbed the spirits of humans. They are Circe’s revenge, destroying the wealth and property that the Butlers killed for.
Weimaraners are hunting dogs by nature, originally trained to hunt big, scary things like bears. When they are unconfined and left to roam, they will destroy niceties like furniture and wallpaper. Their presence heightens Circe’s mythological status and also intensifies the dreamlike nature of Milkman’s encounter with her. They are both extremely loyal to Circe and extremely destructive of their surroundings. Once domestic hunting dogs owned by the Butlers, they now roam free and have developed wild ways.
The fact that Weimaraners are hunters by nature resonates with the hunt that takes place in Shalimar. Suddenly we see hunting everywhere, especially when we realize that it’s not only bears and bobcats that are hunted, but humans too. For example, when little Macon is waiting outside of the cave for his sister after they discover the gold, he hears a search party in the distance, and knows they are hunting him. Guitar tells the story of the grief he felt having killed a doe while hunting as a little boy. And then we see the anxiety of the barbershop congregants after a white schoolboy is killed, knowing the police are hunting for anyone who vaguely fits the description of the killer. Milkman is the most hunted of all, pursued by both Hagar and Guitar.
Everyone seems to be pursuing someone or something in this novel, and when the bobcat is successfully cornered, shot down from its tree, and killed, we know in our gut that something similar is going to happen to a person.
Symbolic of the darkness and death that eats away at the Dead household, the watermark reminds Ruth of her father’s death, and is the product of having left her seaweed and driftwood centerpiece to rot and decay on the dining room table at the time of his death. The dining room table is often considered the symbolic center of the nuclear family, and the fact that this dining room table is permanently scarred seems to reflect the dysfunction of the Dead family perfectly. Not only is the table permanently maimed, but the watermark seems to continually grow, like a cancer. Though Ruth has applied many a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to the mahogany table in the hopes of making the watermark go away, she secretly likes the watermark. It reminds her and connects her to her father, and it is one of the few things in the house that is totally hers.
Hagar’s Beauty Products
Jungle Red (Sculptura), Youth Blend, baby clear sky light, mango tango, Sunny Glow, Chantilly, and Bandit. These are not the new line of boutique Jamba Juice flavors. They are the beauty products that Hagar buys during her final shopping spree.
Convinced, after looking at her face in a compact mirror, that Milkman doesn’t want her or love her because she is not pretty enough for him or desirable enough for him, she goes to the department store in order to reinvent herself. These saucy names have natural connotations (the sun, the sky, mangoes, youth, jungle, etc.) and stand in strong contrast to the real images of nature that we see through the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the Pennsylvanian woods.
As Hagar weaves between the display cases shrouded in an ether of perfume, moving like a "smiling sleepwalker" (2.13.311), she is presented with posters and images of beauty and perfect femininity, and, thus, she is promised happiness. While we savvy millenials may know this fanfare to be the work of what we like to call marketing campaigns, the images argue that a person can buy her way into beauty and desirability. And they successfully convince Hagar. In this way, we have another example of materialism and capitalism and the resulting destructive and quixotic emotions (Whoa, check out them apples. We just used a fancy word, and it means to pursue mirages, or things that aren’t real, like those windmills you think you see over yonder) that are stirred within Hagar.
The dang soft-boiled egg comes up again and again throughout Song. First we watch as Pilate makes the perfect soft-boiled egg (right before the water turns into a rip-roaring boil, when the bubbles are the size of peas, take the eggs off of the stove and set them aside with a folded newspaper to cover them; then go do a little dance, the electric slide perhaps, and when you’re done, voila! The egg is ready). Once they’re cooked, Pilate peels the shells off of them. Then she splits them open, revealing their velvety insides. Only then, does she begin to tell Milkman and Guitar riveting stories of watching a man drop dead and seeing the ghost of her father. When she splits open the egg, we can’t help but feel like she’s opening up us up too, preparing us for the almost magical stories. We also get the feeling that her ability to slice open an egg is similar to her ability to get to the heart of a matter, to know a person. She is one perceptive lady, and also a lady we would never want to mess with.
Later, we hear Milkman and Guitar talk about tea and soft-boiled eggs, and Guitar tells Milkman he can never be and will never be an egg, because eggs are white and fragile. What begins as a playful conversation about eggs quickly turns into a charged, loaded conversation about race. While Pilate is all about the insides, the heart of the egg, Guitar is fixated on the shell and the cover of the egg. This distinction parallels the different ways each person understands humanity and the world in which he/she lives.
Finally, when the Shalimar hunting party is skinning the bobcat, they let Milkman do the honors and take out the heart. Milkman does so, and it "fell away from the chest as easily as yolk slips out of a shell" (2.11.282), and our symbol-hunting dogs go wild because, at this point, an egg image has surfaced more than three times. Here, the heart is likened to an egg yolk, recalling the yellowy goodness that Pilate cooks up, highlighting even further and more explicitly the egg as a symbol for humanity, and aligning Pilate yet again with the quest for this humanity. The fact that Milkman has the honor of taking the heart reflects the transformation he has undergone to become more like his auntie.
The Velvet Roses
Whenever they surface, the velvet roses make us a little queasy, and NOT because they remind us of Valentine’s Day, but because they remind us of the opposite of Valentine’s Day (a.k.a. where love goes to die a slow and painful death). Their presence in the novel points to the suffocated, sheltered, and stagnant lives to which Lena and Corinthians Dead are assigned. The girls can’t even have real flowers. They can’t even go out and play in sunshine. The only time Lena gathers real flowers, her brother pees her on, and the flowers die. They are doomed to creating velvet replicas of nature within the tomblike walls of their home.
These roses also bring to light everything Lena and Corinthians will never be able to do (that is until Corrie breaks free): they cannot have babies because they are not married. They cannot get jobs, unless they want to work as a maid. They cannot fall in love, because their father will not permit it unless they fall in love with a suitable man, and there aren’t too many of those around. The only "proper" means of passing their time as educated, affluent women is to make fake flowers. The roses are also significant because, when Robert Smith flies off of Mercy hospital, the only red on the snow visible is that of the spilt velvet roses, and not of Mr. Smith’s blood, heightening both Mr. Smith’s mythical status and calling attention to the girls’ stiff, plastic lives.
Adventure; Coming-Of-Age; Magical Realism; Folklore, Legend, and Mythology; Mystery; Quest; Tragedy; African-American Literature
My own interpretation:
Milkman Dead becomes a man by learning to respect and to listen to women. In the first part of the novel, he emulates his father, by being deaf to women's wisdom and women's needs, and casually disrespecting the women he should most respect. He chooses to stray from his father's example and leaves town to obtain his inheritance and to become a self-defined man. From Circe, a witch figure, he is inspired to be reciprocal, and through his struggle for equality with men and then with women, he begins to find his inheritance, which is knowing what it is to fly, not gold. At the end, he acts with kindness and reciprocity with Pilate, learning from her wisdom and accepting his responsibilities to women at last. By accepting his true inheritance from women, he becomes a man, who loves and respects women, who knows he can fly but also knows his responsibilties.
"The singing woman . . . had wrapped herself up in an old quilt instead of a winter coat. Her head cocked to one side, her eyes fixed on Mr. Robert Smith, she sang in a powerful contralto."
"Macon Dead never knew how it came about -- how his only son acquired the nickname that stuck in spite of his own refusal to use it or acknowledge it. It was a matter that concerned him a good deal, for the giving of names in his family was always surrounded by what he believed to be monumental foolishness.”
"Milkman closed his eyes and opened them. The street was even more crowded with people, all going in the direction he was coming from. All walking hurriedly and bumping against him. After a while he realized that nobody was walking on the other side of the street."