In the introduction to Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison writes about the death of her father and the inspiration for the novel. She found herself talking to him and wondering what the men he had known were really like. For the first time, with Song of Solomon, Morrison writes from her male characters’ perspective, and these male characters are focused on flight, on some journey of their own, a pursuit after something that might bring them happiness.
Macon Dead is a prosperous businessman in the black community of South Detroit. His main concern is making money and expanding his business (property ownership and rental), and he is good at it. He is also feared and revered by the community and by his family. Macon treats his wife Ruth like dirt and ignores his daughters Corinthians and Magdalena called Lena, who are 12-13 years older than his son Macon (aka Milkman), but he eventually brings Milkman into his business at least in part as a way to keep Milkman away from the bad influences of his mother and his aunt Pilate.
Milkman has been adored by his mother and it is because of this that he has his nickname. When bullied at school, an older boy known as Guitar took Milkman’s side and befriended him. Guitar and Milkman remain lifelong friends, and Guitar stays focused on justice and fairness in ways that will disturb and alarm Milkman. Guitar is responsible for introducing Milkman to Macon’s sister Pilate, who seems to be the opposite of her brother. Where he is rich with a fine home and car, she is poor and lives in a shack. Where he is involved in legitimate business, she brews wine and spirits illicitly and lives hand to mouth. But Pilate seems at peace with her life, while Macon is often angry and dissatisfied. Macon despises his sister and refers to her as a snake, forbidding Milkman to see her, but this is to no avail. Not only does Milkman continue to visit Pilate’s place, he also, as he grows older, becomes sexually involved with Pilate’s granddaughter Hagar.
Milkman has a pretty good life by outward appearances. He and his father have wealth and can get anything they want, but each man is dissatisfied. Macon is always looking for more to acquire and continues to loathe his wife. When he explains to Milkman the reasons for his disgust with Ruth, Milkman is shaken. He will later learn his mother’s side of the story, but Milkman’s desire to get away from it all, to leave his family and community, takes hold. His friendship with Guitar becomes strained when Milkman learns about a secret society that Guitar is involved in. Milkman expresses his disapproval and skepticism about it, and he can feel Guitar’s disdain for Milkman’s life of privilege and whining. Milkman’s desire to flee increases as his relationship with Hagar deteriorates, and after hearing from his father the story of Macon and Pilate’s childhood and his father’s reason for hating Pilate, Milkman resolves to go to their childhood home in Pennsylvania on a quest.
While on this journey through Pennsylvania and Virginia, Milkman learns more of his family history, truths that even Macon and Pilate do not know, and in the process, Milkman engages in some self-reflection and self-realization. He begins to try to put himself in others’ shoes, particularly the shoes of the women in his life. Back in the introduction, Morrison notes that the flights that male characters make are ambiguous and disturbing, that there are consequences for those left behind which the men do not seem to consider. With the exception of Pilate, the female characters in this novel do not get to escape, to take flight; rather, they are left to deal with the consequences of those who do. Corinthians has been to college and tries to secretly flee her everyday life for something more satisfying for her but is thwarted. Pilate did live and travel independently not so much by choice as by necessity. Women like Ruth and Pilate, whose younger lives were lived very much in relationship to a man who left, find ways to make up for that lost loving relationship. For other women in the story, that loss is too great to manage.
Song of Solomon is a brilliant novel, widely recognized as one of the greats of modern literature. I feel that I have only skimmed its surface with this review. So much more could be written (or discussed in a class or group) about these relationships, as well as about race and injustice/the pursuit of justice in the US. Guitar is a character worthy of in-depth discussion. I think dissertations could be (probably have been) written on each character in this novel. Morrison’s ability to create these intersecting plots that cover generations, these characters who are complex and disturbing and tragic, and to write in vivid, direct prose is nothing short of genius. I have read that she is an admirer of the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Morrison deserves a place alongside them as master novelist