Toni Morrison’s 1977 masterpiece, ‘Song of Solomon,’ tackles some of the most important themes in American life in the 20th century. These include the bitter legacy of slavery, the complexity of family, and the reality of human frailty.
Themes in Song of Solomon
Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead III, the lead character in Toni Morrison’s 1977 masterpiece, Song of Solomon, is a hard guy to figure out and an even harder one to love. But that’s what makes Morrison’s novel a classic, the novel specifically singled out among Morrison’s cavalcade of hits when she became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
Set primarily in the late 20th century Michigan, Song of Solomon is the story of Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead, and his family, going back three generations. It explores the complexities of home, the power of kin to both uplift and suppress as well as transform and deform. It is also the story of the legacy of slavery in America, the enduring stain of racial discrimination, and the cultural, political, economic, and familial wounds it brings.
Leaps of Faith
Song of Solomon begins and ends with the attempt to fly, the desperate leap to defy gravity and in the process perhaps to become more than human. The novel opens the day before Milkman’s birth, with the delusional Robert Smith believing he can fly to the opposite shore of Lake Michigan. He jumps from the roof of the hospital where Milkman’s mother, Ruth, lies in labor, and plummets to his death.The novel ends 32 years later, with Milkman making his own leap, this time at his friend, Guitar, who has accidentally shot and killed Milkman’s beloved aunt, Pilate.
We don’t know what happens after the leap, whether Milkman or Guitar is killed–or both. This ambiguity, or uncertainty, serves a powerful purpose in the novel, because such leaps symbolize transformation and transcendence –or at least their possibility.
The Disappointment of Being Human
The root of Milkman’s anger as a child and the source of his discontent as an adult is his discovery at age four that humans can’t fly. Milkman longs for a humanity that can transcend the grubbiness of circumstance, the history of pain, violence, deprivation, and wrongdoing that his family has endured.
All this changes when Milkman explores his family history. His efforts begin when he hears a rumor of a lost stash of family gold. He wants the loot and so travels from Michigan to Pennsylvania and finally to the family’s ancestral home in Virginia and the magical town of Shalimar in an attempt to find it.The name Shalimar is symbolic of a place of exceeding, legendary beauty. This is precisely what Shalimar, Virginia, becomes for Milkman. Here he learns the history of his family, specifically, the story of his great-grandfather, Solomon. Solomon is a so-called ‘flying African,’ who escaped the horrors of American slavery by climbing a mountain and flying from its peaks all the way to Africa.
The discovery of Solomon transforms Milkman. It restores to him the hope, faith, and purpose that he lost as a disillusioned four-year-old.
The Pleasure and Pain of Family
Solomon’s family is fractured in the aftermath of his magical flight. Solomon’s wife, Ryna, loses her mind.
Their 21 children are left virtually to fend for themselves. This sets the stage for a host of dysfunctional family relationships marred either by too much closeness or none at all. In fact, Milkman’s nickname comes from the fact that Ruth continued to breastfeed him well into his childhood.This is only compounded by the reality that Macon Jr. and his sister, Pilate, never experienced this kind of parent/child bond.
Macon Sr. was murdered right before his children’s eyes by an affluent white family, the Butlers, who wanted to seize Lincoln’s Heaven, the prosperous farm Macon Sr. labored for years to build. After their father’s murder, Pilate and Macon Jr. drift apart. The life of family, prosperity, and independence their father, born a slave, had toiled to create for them in the post-Civil War era had been shattered.This is the legacy with which Milkman’s family must cope, a complex and often contradictory history of estrangement and codependence, of loss and dysfunctional attachment.
Slavery, segregation, and racism in 19th and 20th century America left an indelible mark, as the family struggles to define themselves individually and in relation to one another.
Money Makes the World Go ‘Round
Money is yet another powerful issue in Morrison’s novel. After their father’s murder, Macon Jr. devotes his life to making money.
Everything is secondary to this goal. He scoops up property after property and becomes a landlord loathed by his tenants. Pilate, on the other hand, lives an impoverished life, but one infused with wisdom and love. Born without a navel, she seems hardly human, an almost Christ-like figure of patience, self-sacrifice, virtue, knowledge, and love.Milkman initially seems to be following in his father’s greedy footsteps.
Guitar joins Milkman in this quest to find the family gold, which leads to violence. Guitar believes that Milkman has cheated him out of his share of the gold and is aiming for Milkman when he shoots Pilate instead. Guitar’s hunger for money isn’t entirely selfish. He leads an organization called the Seven Days group, and he wants this money to fund the group, which is dedicated to seeking revenge against those who have murdered blacks. In this novel, money is intimately connected to violence.
It severs human connection, making us suspicious, rash, and brutal, as evidenced in Guitar’s accidental killing of Pilate.
Toni Morrison’s 1977 masterpiece, Song of Solomon, is the story of Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead III and his family. Morrison examines the complexity of family relationships, the disappointment of human frailty, and the legacy of racism in America. When Milkman discovers years later that his great-grandfather, Solomon, escaped slavery by flying away to Africa, his once bitter spirit is restored. Solomon’s flight creates a history of estrangement and codependence within the family. On a quest for the family’s rumored lost gold, Milkman discovers his own family history and is redeemed.
His friend, Guitar, who wants money to fund the group he leads avenging black murders, believes Milkman has stolen his share. Guitar accidentally shoots Milkman’s aunt, Pilate, who symbolizes wisdom, virtue, and self-sacrifice. This suggests the corrupting power of money, its link to distrust, estrangement, and brutality.