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Analysis

What’s Up With the Epigraph?

Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.

The fathers may soar
And the children may know their names


By the time we get to the epigraph, we already know we have a song and a guy named Solomon on our hands. The epigraph helps fill in the blanks a little, telling us that fathers and children are also going to figure largely. And not just any fathers and children, but flying fathers and name-remembering children.

The themes of ancestry, family, and names present themselves in these two simple lines. Upon finishing this novel, we realize that the epigraph captures the great conundrum at the heart of Milkman’s journey: how do you fly away to Africa and still remain part of your 21 daughters’ and sons’ lives and memories? The two mays in this epigraph create an uncertain, wishy-washy ambiguity that suggests there just might not be one right answer to this great conundrum, and that it may, in fact, be a conundrum.

In addition to the mays, we also have two other verbs: "soar" and "know." We start with the soaring and we end with the knowing – a possible replica of the way a reader reads the novel. But in each case, it is only possible soaring and possible knowing. We start with the fathers, we travel through the children, and we end with the names. The epigraph is in couplet form, a form that is commonly used in love poetry because it represents the unity of two halves. Love, therefore, is present without being present.

While that is highly likely, friends, we have to tell you that the amount of scrutiny we just paid to the construction of the epigraph is only a fraction of the amount of scrutiny Toni Morrison pays to her sentences when she is making them. Each of her sentences is like a little novel in the belly of a giant. One thing is for certain, we are left with the idea of names ringing in our ears. And if you are of the belief that names are superficial sounds attached to people, places, and things, be prepared to have your boat rocked.

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