“Song of Solomon” is a novel published in 1977 by the American author Toni Morrison. The novel was Morrison’s third and the first that met with resounding success in author’s circles. It won the National Book Critics Award in 1977 and was part of the reason that Morrison later won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. It was also chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s famous book club and won the Radcliffe Publishing Course prize for being the 25th best English-language novel of the 20th century.
The novel tells the story of a man named Macon Dead III who is born at the beginning of the book as the first black child to be delivered in Mercy Hospital in a small town in Michigan. Macon was one of the few black people in his town that came from money and was the descendant of the first black doctor in the town. When he was a child, his mother breast fed him for longer than average, and because of this, he is given the nickname “Milkman” which is used throughout the novel to refer to him.
Milkman’s life becomes difficult as he must deal with a cousin who is desperately in love with him, a friend who over time becomes so bitter over the state of race relations in America that he joins a club that randomly kills innocent white people in return for the deaths of innocent blacks. Eventually, Milkman embarks on a journey to learn more about the ancestors that he knows nothing about and discovers that his great-grandfather was a legendary flying man in the small town in which he lived. At the end of the novel, Milkman escapes his friend’s murder attempt by flying away.
The novel opens on February 18th, 1931 on the rooftop of a hospital called Mercy in a town in Michigan. Robert Smith, a Mutual Life Insurance agent, wears blue silk wings as he stands on top of the roof. He swears that he will fly off of it. The crowd below is mostly made up of the African-American residents of the town. The hospital is known to the town as “No Mercy Hospital” because it refuses to treat African-Americans and the street is known as “Not Doctor Street” because a black doctor named Dr. Foster used to live there.
In the crowd stands a woman named Ruth Foster Dead, Dr. Foster’s daughter. Ruth is pregnant and stands with her two daughters, Lena and First Corinthians. As she watches the spectacle on the roof, Ruth suddenly goes into labor. Because Ruth is of a higher socioeconomic status than most of the other blacks in the town, she is rushed to the hospital to give birth. Robert Smith jumps off the roof to his death just as Ruth becomes the hospitals first black patient.
Ruth gives birth to a son named Macon Dead III, and the narratives speed up a bit to when Macon is four years old. Ruth and her children live in Dr. Fosters large, isolated house with Ruth’s abusive husband Macon Dead II. When little Macon is four years old, he discovers that people can only fly in an airplane and becomes bored with life. Also very bored, Ruth indulges in breastfeeding Macon well past infancy. One day when the janitor, Freddie sees Macon breastfeeding he nicknames him Milkman and this nickname stick all throughout his life.
Macon’s father is a slumlord who is ruthless and only concerned with accumulating wealth. He inherited his odd last name from his illiterate father when an intoxicated Union soldier made a mistake on his identity card. Every day, Macon II sits in his real estate office and refuses to bend to his tenant’s pleas for leniency. Macon II mother died giving birth to his sister, Pilate. All of the children in the Dead family, except for firstborn son, are named by picking a word randomly from the Bible. Pilate is now a poor woman, and Macon II has banned her from his house because he is ashamed of her.
Years later, when little Milkman is twelve years old, he meets a boy named Guitar Bains who is a few years older than him. The two become friends and one day Milkman walks with Guitar to Pilate’s house despite his father’s insistence that he never venture there. Milkman is immediately struck by his aunt’s strong, powerful spirit and does not mind that she lives in squalor. When Milkman asks Pilate if she is his aunt, she enigmatically notes that there, “ain’t but three Deads alive.”
Hanging from the ceiling of Pilate’s home is a mysterious green sack. Pilate lives with her daughter, Reba and her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Hagar. When Milkman meets Hagar, he falls in love instantly. After he returns home, Milkman is harangued by his father for visiting his poor aunt’s house. But Milkman calms his father by reminding him of the stories of their childhood that his aunt told him while he was visiting. Macon II begins talking about his father and his strange name but when Milkman asks what his grandfather’s real last name was, Macon II ignores the question.
Soon, Milkman begins working with his father which gives him the chance to spend more time on the other side of town with Guitar, Pilate, and Hagar. Sometimes Guitar and Milkman visit a barbershop where they listen to the older men talk about the racial inequality prevalent in society. After hearing such a discussion, Guitar confesses to Milkman that his father was killed in a sawmill accident and that he hates his father’s white boss and white people in general.
By the age of fourteen, Milkman has developed a pronounced limp due to one of his legs growing in shorter than the other. He begins trying to rebel from his father by smoking cigarettes, growing facial hair and spending his money carelessly. When Milkman is twenty-two, Macon II hits his wife during an argument, and Milkman hits him back. He swears that he will kill him if he even hits his mother again.
Macon II tells him that he is angry at Ruth for her father’s sake as Dr. Foster was a greedy, self-hating African-American who hated other people from his race and called them all “cannibals.” He also claims that Dr. Foster may have had an incestuous relationship with Ruth. Milkman realizes that his motivation for hitting his father was not protecting his mother and that his mother has a life outside of caring for him.
He goes to visit Guitar and finds him at the barbershop discussing the murder of two black youths, one of whom was in their town. Milkman tells Guitar about hitting his father and Guitar explains that the deck is stacked against black men and that sometimes they are tricked into hurting each other. Milkman is not interested in Guitar’s speeches and dismisses him as crazy.
At this point, Hagar is seventeen years old. Soon, she invites Milkman into her room, and the two make love for the first time. Hagar becomes unquestionably in love with Milkman where he confesses that he treats her more like a “third beer,” indulging in her just because she is “there” instead of still feeling that he is in love with her. He looks down on Hagar and doesn’t consider her future wife material because of her poor family. Milkman begins searching for a wife among the wealthier black women in town but soon realizes that he finds them too boring.
When Milkman is thirty-one years old, he breaks off his relationship with Hagar in a letter. Hagar becomes so upset that she rushes out to find him. By this point, Milkman and Guitar have slowly grown apart. Milkman suspects that Guitar is keeping a secret from him. Hagar becomes obsessed with Milkman even more so and begins stalking him around town. Milkman spends his time at Guitar’s house, hiding from her. Guitar has become incredibly paranoid and has set his house up like a fortress. Milkman asks him about his secret activities, but Guitar only smiles and leaves the house.
Milkman has recently learned a secret about his mother as well. He followed her out to her father’s grave one night without her knowing and confronted her. She confessed to him that she loved her father because he was the only person who understood her but that she was not in an incestuous relationship with him. She then said that Macon II had killed Dr. Foster by throwing away his medication. She says that her sexual relationship with her husband suffered after her father’s death and, desperate for his attention, she fed Macon II an aphrodisiac secretly and it was then that they conceived Milkman. Macon II tried to force Ruth to abort the child, but Pilate fought him off by scaring him with a voodoo doll.
Back in Guitar’s house, Milkman is just dozing off to sleep when he hears Hagar’s footsteps in the room. Instead of getting up to hide, he merely shuts his eyes and wishes she was dead. Hagar brandishes a butchers knife and strikes him on the collarbone with it. Milkman is not hurt and sits up, insulting her and then turning away.
Later, Milkman finally confronts Guitar and asks him to tell him what he has been doing at night out on the town. Guitar tells him that he is part of a secret society called the Seven Days which randomly kills white people whenever a black person is murdered, and the offense is left unpunished. Guitar argues that he believes that white people are “unnatural” and would pillage and murder if given the opportunity. He also says that he believes that Adolph Hitler only murdered Jews because black people weren’t around. He says that his club keeps the ratio of blacks to whites balanced and ensures that the whites will not gain the upper hand by committing genocide. Shocked by this, Milkman argues that whites have made sacrifices on behalf of blacks in the past and that they are all human beings. He calls Guitar “crazy” and that he may one day move on to killing black people and maybe even Milkman himself.
After this conversation is over, Milkman goes to speak with his father and asks him if he may be allowed to take a year off to travel. During the conversation, Milkman accidentally mentions the green sack hanging from Pilate’s ceiling. Macon II begins to get excited at this news. He tells Milkman that after his father’s murder, he and Pilate hid in a cave for a short while where they were soon found by a white man. Terrified that they were in danger, Macon II killed the white man and afterward discovered that the man was a gold digger who had found a treasure of nuggets in the woods. However, Pilate urged him not to take the gold nuggets. The two fought and Macon II left. When he returned later, Pilate and the gold were gone. Macon says that the green sack must be filled with the dead man’s gold and tells his son to steal it.
Milkman goes back to Guitar and tells him about the treasure. Guitar is interested in helping him get the loot because he could then take a share and donate it to the club. Milkman wants the money so that he can leave his father’s business and travel. The following night, the two sneak into Pilate’s house and cut the green sack down. Reba, who is awake, hears them but does not see them. She wonders what robbers would want with the green sack.
While Milkman and Guitar are driving back with the bundle, however, they are pulled over by a policeman and the bundle is searched. It is discovered that it only holds some rocks and a human skeleton. Macon II and Pilate are called to the station to bail the men out. Pilate pretends that the bones belonged to her dead husband, Mr. Solomon and the police believe her.
Pilate confesses to Macon II that she didn’t take the gold but came back three years after the incident to collect the bones of the dead white man. She says that their deceased father’s ghost ordered her too do this because she could not “fly off and leave a body.” Later that night, Macon II yells at his son and insists that the gold must still be in the cave.
The next day, Milkman wakes late and feels profoundly ashamed that he stole the tarp. Milkman realizes then that his short leg seems to have caught up and grown to normal size. Milkman tells Guitar that he has made a plan to go to the cave that his father and aunt stayed in to look for the gold. The cave is across the country in Montour County, Pennsylvania. He says that he intends to go alone, but he will split the treasure with Guitar, but Guitar suspects that he will be cheated.
Milkman travels across country by plane and then by bus to the town nearest to where his father and aunt grew up. In the town, he meets an old friend of his father’s who has since become a Reverend. The Revered tells Milkman about his father as a child, and Milkman begins to realize that his father had a close relationship with his grandfather and obviously loved him. The Revered also tells Milkman that Macon Dead I’s wealthy white employers were the ones responsible for his murder.
Milkman stops by the mansion of the former employers and meets another friend of his father’s named Circe. Circe was the midwife who delivered his father. She tells Milkman that his grandfather’s real name was Jake and that his wife was an Indian woman named Sing. The white employers have died in years past, and Circe now lives in the mansion alone. Milkman asks her about the location of the cave while keeping the gold a secret. Before he leaves, he offers to help Circe leave the mansion, but she tells him that she is determined to stay there because she wants to watch the mansion of her hated white masters rot to the ground.
Milkman goes to the cave, determined to find the treasure but finds nothing. He hitchhikes back into town and assumes that Pilate must have lied about taking the gold. He thinks that she took the gold to the families ancestral home in Virginia and decided to follow in her footsteps in the hopes of finding it.
He buys a used car and travels to the home, Shalimar. Once he reaches the town that Shalimar is in, Milkman’s car breaks down, and he enters a general store owned by a man called Solomon who tells him that a friend was looking for him earlier with the message, “your day is here.” Milkman remembers Guitar telling him that this was the executioner’s call of the Seven Days club and wonders why Guitar would have followed him to Virginia.
Milkman is invited on a hunting trip with some of the men in town, and he ends up in the woods, stalking a bobcat for several hours before he sits down, alone to rest. Milkman begins thinking about his life while staring up at the night sky and realizes that he has always taken his wealth and privilege for granted and that he has mistreated Hagar and other people that have loved him. Milkman’s thoughts are interrupted when Guitar appears and attacks him. Guitar chokes him until he is almost unconscious. Milkman sees a vision of Hagar and thinks he is going to die. However, in the last second, he manages to get a hold of his rifle and scare Guitar off.
The following day, Milkman decides to visit a relative of his mother’s called, Susan Byrd. However, his visit to Susan does not garner much as she does not remember his mother at all. She claims that Sing was her relative, but that she never married and left the state in a wagon headed for Massachusetts, not Pennsylvania.
Milkman realizes that his family’s history means a lot to him and he wants to “find his people.” On his walk back to town he meets Guitar again. Guitar accuses him of stealing the gold and Milkman denies this. But Guitar is not convinced and promises to do everything in his power to kill him. Milkman shortly returns to Shalimar and begins to think about Pilate. He realizes that he misses her a great deal. He begins to see his parents in a more realistic light and realizes that they are real people. He regrets his treatment of Hagar and becomes aware that he enjoyed her treatment of him because it made him feel desirable as a man.
As he walks, Milkman hears the local children sing a song about a man named Solomon that flew home across the sky. The song says that Solomon left his wife Ryna and that he was raised in a “red man’s house” by a woman called Heddy. Because of all that he has learned of his family in recent days, Milkman realizes that this song is actually about his grandfather and that his great-grandfather was Solomon. Milkman returns to visit Susan again, and she confesses that she did not tell him everything she knew. His grandmother, Sing, left in a wagon with Jake. Jake belonged to the legendary tribe of flying African children, and they were the descendants of Solomon. Solomon and his wife had been slaves on a plantation and had twenty-one children. Solomon flew away from the plantation and tried to take Jake with him. Unfortunately, he accidentally dropped Jake, and the baby landed in the yard of an Indian woman named Heddy who raised Jake as her son. Heddy had a daughter named Sing whom Jake later ran off with.
Hearing this story amazes Milkman who leaves Susan’s house energized. Milkman soon returns home and goes straight to Pilate’s house. When he gets there, he learns that Hagar has died of illness after she began desperately trying to improve herself so that he would love her. Returning to his house, Milkman tells his father of his journey and Macon II agrees to go down and see his hometown again soon. Milkman also realizes that the bones that Pilate has stored for all of these years belong to her father and not the white prospector. He and Pilate return to Virginia to bury the bones near Solomon’s Leap, the cliff where Solomon accidentally dropped Jake.
Just as the burial is completed, Pilate is shot by a bullet that Guitar intended for Milkman. Pilate dies in Milkman’s arms. Milkman becomes enraged and stands up, unafraid of Guitar. He calls out to his former friend and sees his shadowy outline in the trees. Milkman leaps toward him saying that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Macon “Milkman” Dead III – the protagonist of the novel. Macon is a wealthy black man living in a small town in Michigan who must navigate the tense topic of race relations in his country from the viewpoint of someone who is more privileged than his friends and relatives. Macon receives the nickname, “Milkman” at a young age after he is seen breastfeeding from his mother long after many children would have already stopped and the nickname sticks for his whole life.
As he grows, Milkman develops an undersized leg that causes him to limp as he walks. “Song Of Solomon” is largely considered by critics to be a coming of age novel because of the transformation that Milkman goes through over the course of the book. He changes from being somewhat of a privileged, spoiled youth into an independent, thoughtful man who acknowledges the advantages he was given in life and intends to make up for them by helping out his community more. He also develops an understanding of his parents, his lineage and the individual lives of everyone in it that causes him to pause and review the fact that his ancestors were real people with faults and troubles just like him.
After this transformation, Milkman heals not only mentally but physically, finding that his leg has miraculously caught up and is no longer shorter than the other and that he has developed the ability to fly just like his great-grandfather did.
Guitar Bains – Milkman’s childhood best friend. Guitar grows up in poverty and suffers the loss of his father at a young age when the man is killed in a sawmill accident in the factory where he worked. Because of this accident and the failure of the rich, white sawmill owners to take any responsibility, Guitar develops a hatred of white people that causes him to join a group of black men who seek out and kill innocent white people every time an innocent black person is killed.
Milkman does not approve of Guitar’s murderous club and distinctly asks him if Guitar will ever get to the point where he even begins murdering black people. Of course, this is later brought to life when Guitar does accidentally murders Pilate in a plot to steal her gold from Milkman. Guitar’s jealous rage over gold that was never his, to begin with casts him as the villain in the novel and proves that Morrison intended to show that his murderous rage at white people, although justifiable, did nothing to help racism or himself.
Hagar – Pilate’s granddaughter and Milkman’s cousin. When Milkman initially meets Hagar he falls in love with her instantly and does everything he can to be with her. However, over the years his love for her dwindles as she’s for him grows stronger. After Milkman breaks up with Hagar, she becomes obsessed with him, stalks him and even attempts to stab him with a butcher knife in Guitar’s house.
Hagar’s biblical namesake is a servant who bore Abraham a son and was promptly thrown out of the house and abandoned. This is, of course, analogous to Hagar in the novel, which is used and abandoned by Milkman. At the end of the novel, Milkman realizes that he has treated Hagar poorly, but before he can apologize and make it up to her she dies of an illness that comes from her mania.
Pilate Dead – Macon II’s younger sister. Pilate is perhaps the strongest character in the book and certainly the most moral from start to finish. It is arguable that she is even the protagonist of the story. Pilate is a good mother and a fearless protector of her household. She raises both her daughter and granddaughter in a small, poverty-stricken house on the bad side of town. Pilate refuses to take the white man’s gold after Macon II kills him in the cave and later returns to collect what she thinks are the man’s bones so that she may take them with her because she believes that this is the way to honor him. When she learns that the bones, in fact, belonged to her father, she returns to her hometown with Milkman to bury them but is accidentally shot by Guitar who was intending to shoot Milkman. The book ends with her death enraging Milkman so much that he learns to accept his ancestral right and fly.
Toni Morrison Biography
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18th, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison’s parents moved to Ohio to escape the racism of the deep south, and as a child, they instilled in her a deep sense of her African American heritage and a love of books. At the age of 12, Morrison converted to Catholicism and received the baptismal name of “Anthony” which later became the nickname “Toni.”
Morrison attended Howard University and graduated with a B.A. In English in 1953. She then went on to attend Cornell University and received a Master of Arts in 1955. It was while she was in college that she began writing as part of a poets group and after she graduated, while she was teaching at Howard University that she wrote her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” which was later published in 1970. She met her husband, Harold Morrison while teaching at Howard and the two married in 1958 and had two children before divorcing in 1964.
After the divorce, she began working as an editor for a textbook publisher and then went on to work at Random House publisher in New York City and helped to publish many of the classic works of black literature by authors such as Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, and Angela Davis.
In 1973, Morrison published her second novel, “Sula” which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1975. Two years later, Morrison’s first nationally recognized book, “Song of Solomon” was published as well. “Song of Solomon” later won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1987, Morrison published her fourth novel, “Beloved” which later earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted into a 1998 film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Morrison published perhaps her best-known work, “Jazz” in 1992 and won the Nobel Prize in Literature the next year for her collected works.
In addition to her novels, Morrison has also published plays, non-fiction works, and children’s literature. She continues to write today and her most recent novel, ‘God Help the Child’ was published in 2015. Most of her novels concentrate on the lives and trials of black women in America. Morrison currently lives in Ohio, where she recently established a residency at Oberlin College. She is also currently a member of the board of The Nation magazine.