Study Guide

Song of Solomon Analysis

  • Tone

    Dense, loaded, locked, stormy

    Well, let’s just take the very first sentence of the novel. It seems neutral, placid, and without the emotion to tell us how we should feel about this particular life insurance agent. Sounds easy enough. Shall we move on?

    Not so fast. The sentence begins with North Carolina and ends with Lake Superior, reflecting a movement from South to North reflective of the immigration of many black Americans from the South to Northern cities following the Civil War. The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance company was and is a well-known insurance company serving the black community (and for a long time was the only insurance company serving communities of color in America), so we are given a historical and sociological placement and context.

    We see the words "fly," "mercy," and "life" – all words and themes central to the understanding of Song. The verb "promised" is a verb of hope, dependent upon the future, and involves the engagement of two parties: both the promisor and those promised to (in this case the flying man and the audience below). This relationship is very relevant and interesting to the reader who has just picked up the novel and who is just now reading its very first sentence because, in many ways, the relationship between the author and the reader is one of promise as well. By the end of the first sentence, we have been given the ingredients to the book, and we know exactly where we are, when we are, and who we are watching. THAT IS JUST THE FIRST SENTENCE.

    Can you see know how the tone of this novel is dense, loaded, locked, and stormy? You can wander down a sentence, and you may as well be Alice in Wonderland, forced to choose between wormholes, goat paths, and various doors. The stormy part simply comes from the emotion that rocks every detail of this novel. For example, even though this first line is distant in tone, it still tells the tale of a man about to jump off of a hospital building. You could spend years talking about one line.

  • Genre

    Adventure; Coming-Of-Age; Magical Realism; Folklore, Legend, and Mythology; Mystery; Quest; Tragedy; African-American Literature

    Oh yes, we went there. Never fear, friends, Shmoop never makes a mistake. Song of Solomon can indeed be classified under (at least) seven different genres. And if you are in the mood to play that age-old classic, Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Genre, Song of Solomon will seem like the gift that keeps on giving.

    We watch Milkman go on many adventures through woods and into caves, encountering witches and bobcats along the way. We see him come-of-age, transforming from a sheltered, selfish young man into a mature, grounded adult who has an interest in things other than himself. Magic happens all the time in Milkman’s world, and yet, to the characters who inhabit Song, this magic is part of their reality. Things like bellybuttonlessness, ghosts, and people who fly violate no laws or rules in the world of this novel. At the heart of Milkman’s quest is folklore – the myth of his great-grandfather who was part of a band of slaves who flew back to Africa, leaving wife and children behind. This act is remembered only in songs sung by children and in the names of the town, Shalimar, and it is remembered in different ways, depending on who you talk to. We follow Milkman around as he tries to figure out the mystery of the missing gold, only to have his interest switch to the mystery of his family tree. Milkman initially goes on a quest for gold, but this quest quickly turns into a search for identity. And finally, a tiny, insignificant event – helping a man push a crate onto a dolly – leads to the undoing, the cornering of Milkman. He knows he’ll never be able to convince his best friend that the crate was not full of pilfered gold, and he resigns to his fate.

    So what’s with the schizophrenic novel? Toni Morrison wasn’t interested in pinning down anything or in making her book fit nicely into any one category in the perfectly organized Borders bookstore. She wanted (and still wants) her readers to take part in the making, the creation, and the understanding of her novel. Let’s read the author’s own words:

    "you have to think what do you want it to be: you want him to live, you want him to die…, you want him to kill Guitar, you want Guitar to kill him… You’re there, you really are, and I just cannot pass out these little pieces of paper with these messages on them telling people who I respect ‘this is the way it is’… we’re taught to read [books] like you open a medicine cabinet and get out an aspirin and your headache is gone. Or people are looking for the ‘how-to-book – you know, thirty days and you’ll have a flat stomach… they are looking for easy, passive, uninvolved and disengaged experiences – television experiences, and I won’t, I won’t do that."

    Ladies and gentlemen, through these words, we see how Toni (we’re on a first name basis now) wants us to push our notions of what a book should be out the window. Arrivederci. She doesn’t want us to rely on her, the creator, to tell us what to think and how to feel. We actually have to make choices for our own self as to just what kind of story this is. An adventure? A coming-of-age tale? A quest? A tragedy? A mystery? A myth? A work of magical realism? Pin that tail.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    The "Song of Solomon" is both folkloric and Biblical in origin. Before we feast our eyes on Toni Morrison’s novel, we know that songs are going to feature largely, and that this novel may even be a song in and of itself. Oh, and a man named Solomon may or may not be significant. Once our Sherlockian brains come across the children playing with a soda can in Shalimar, Virginia, we realize that they are singing a song of Solomon. Eureka! Singing is more emotional than talking, and songs not only tell a story, but they tell it with emotion.

    In this way, Song of Solomon is not just your standard novel. It does more than a novel. It sings. It stirs the emotional boef bourguignon of human experience. Solomon, we come to find out, is Milkman Dead’s great-grandfather, who used to live in Virginia, who was a slave, who had 21 children, and who flew off to Africa, leaving his wife, Ryna, behind and devastated. This myth titillates Milkman’s curiosity more than his three-piece suit or than a bobcat’s heart, and the investigation of it leads to a discovery of his "people" and a community. By following the Song of Solomon, Milkman finds himself.

    But wait, there’s more. Song of Solomon is also the name of the last book in the Old Testament, and, boy, does it have the scholars stumped. It’s considered one of the trickiest books to interpret in the Bible, but it’s also one of the most popular books in the Bible. There’s a lot of love in it, and not only love, but sex. The Biblical Song of Solomon tells the story of romantic love between a man and a woman, and it celebrates sexual love, telling the story of courtship and consummation. The man is thought to be King Solomon, and the woman is thought to be a Shulamite, a country lass. This text has been interpreted in millions of ways: as an allegory for God’s relationship to Israel, as a way of understanding the church as a "bride" of Christ, and more. In its simplest form, it is a love poem.

    A love poem in the Bible? Sex is not a shameful thing in the Bible. Sex is interpreted as an allegory for the union of God and his people; sex represents wholeness and union (both physical and spiritual). This love poem crowns Song of Solomon, reminding us of the ancientness and significance of romantic love.

    Indeed, we think about this when Hagar goes crazy over the lips that aren’t being kissed, when Ruth sneaks out to talk to hang out with her dead father, when Corinthians falls in love with Henry Porter, when Milkman meets Sweet, and when Ryna’s gulch cries. Song's Biblical ties remind us that this is a novel that touches upon faith, belief, and the universal human experience. We also then understand Song of Solomon as timeless, part of the great spectrum of love that threads throughout literature, history, and across cultures.

    We nearly leaped out of our skins when we read in the Song, "for love is as strong as death,/ jealousy is as cruel as the grave./ It’s flashes are flashes of fire,/a most vehement flame./ Many waters cannot quench love,/ neither can floods drown it." If you had told us those were Pilate’s words, we would have believed you. In Milkman’s world, love both kills and is un-killable.

    And here’s something to consider: the name Solomon means "peace," and Solomon (from the Bible) was the product of an adulterous relationship between King David and Bathsheba. We highly recommend that you read the Song of Solomon in the Bible, because you will find objects, colors, and themes that live everywhere in Song of Solomon, particularly in Pilate’s house. Things like gold, pine, greenness, and brambles.

  • What’s Up With the Ending?

    Guitar puts his gun down. We just got so worked up when that happened. This ending is highly and brilliantly ambiguous. We know these facts to be true:

    • Milkman and Pilate bury Jake’s bones on Solomon’s Leap, thus putting to rest Jake’s ghost and bringing full circle four generations that were once disconnected.
    • Pilate puts her snuffbox earring on top of Jake’s grave.
    • Milkman hears a shot and Pilate falls,
    • Milkman cradles Pilate and sings to her.
    • Pilate dies in his arms staring at something beyond his shoulder.
    • A bird swoops down and picks up Pilate’s snuffbox earring.
    • Milkman can’t see Guitar, but waves wildly at him to get his attention
    • Guitar puts his gun down
    • Milkman jumps off of Solomon’s Leap.
    Because Guitar puts his gun down, we understand that he’s not ready or planning to kill Milkman just yet. But whether or not Guitar plans to kill Milkman, or whether Milkman plans to kill himself does not matter, we are told. What matters is that when Milkman leaps, he learns how to fly.

    Milkman learns how to "ride" the air by surrendering to it, by letting it take control. By ending the novel here, all we know is that Milkman flies away, and thus the myth of Solomon’s Leap is perpetuated. Morrison ends the novel where it does, leaving us with many questions unanswered and forcing us to imagine what happens next, to develop our own explanation of Milkman’s leap.

    In this way, we are like the children in the epigraph, deprived of our father/protagonist, remembering him in our own ways. We screamed when we turned the page to find no more chapters. And that, friends, is the sign of a good book. A really good one.
  • Setting

    The Southside district in a city near Lake Superior; Danville, Pennsylvania; Shalimar, Virginia

    Setting in Song of Solomon is as important as candy is in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The city near Lake Superior is never named, but we assume it is Detroit, Michigan. We as readers spend all of our time in Southside/Not Doctor Street, a predominantly black community. We have awkward dinners in the Deads’ big, ornate house. We go to Mary’s, where the beer runs free, the loonies can be their loony selves, the prostitutes can work peacefully, and where Milkman and Guitar can philosophize about life. We also hang out at the barbershop owned by Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy, listening to the news on the radio and talking politics with the men assembled there. The beauty parlor is close by, but the blinds are always drawn, and we only see its insides once, when Hagar tries to arrange a hair appointment. We visit Pilate’s two-room house/wine bar on Darling Street, a modest home with almost no furniture, no locks, and no blinds on the windows. There’s also Mercy Hospital, where we begin the novel and from whose roof we watch a man jump. The hospital is initially a white hospital, treating only white patients. We get to see Guitar’s one-room bachelor pad and Henry Porter’s attic room in a building owned by Macon Dead. Lastly, in another part of town, we are shown Michael-Mary Graham’s poetic dwelling, where she likes to collect objects and things that sound cool and poetical, even if they aren’t cool and poetical.

    Next we travel by airplane and Greyhound bus to get to Danville, Pennsylvania, a tiny, one-street town in rural Pennsylvania. The bus depot sells cheeseburgers, nails, bus tickets, and other such delicious things. Here in Danville, the people are really friendly. You ask them a question, and, even if they don’t know the answer, they’ll send you to someone who does. Or they’ll give you a ride and a coke, even though you are a stranger to them. Like Reverend Cooper, the holy man who drinks rye whiskey in his little yellow house and who will take you in and treat you like family just because he once (many moons ago) knew of your dad and your aunt. His wife will cook you a lavish feast, and his nephew will drive you into the woods so that you can go cave-hunting. Once there, you’ll meet a mythical creature named Circe with a pack of Weimaraner dogs, all of which roam free in a decaying mansion that is being eaten by ivy. Slap on your hiking boots and your fanny pack, and get ready to get your hike on through the thick, green wilderness of Pennsylvania. Just before you leave Danville, be sure to stop by the freight yard to help put a crate on a dolly.

    Finally, let’s go south to Virginia. We need to find a town that sounds like Charlemagne. Stop in Culpepper and several other towns along the way. Ask for direction from the locals. No one’s heard of Charlemagne? AAA finds a town not found on the maps called Shalimar. Charlemagne … Shalimar … hmm. This could be promising. Let’s go there. Oh wait, your car is breaking down. Here’s a nice little roadside stop. We can stop here, ask for help with the car and see if anyone knows where this Shalimar place is. Surprise! This is Shalimar. No place to stay, so you’ll have to sleep in your car. The locals don’t take to kindly to you domineering, BMOC ways, and they’re not adverse to a fight. Have a little scuffle with the locals. They might invite you to go hunting in the mountain wilderness in the dark of night. Definitely, say yes. You’ll hear the howl of a weeping woman, but that is just the wind hitting Ryna’s gulch. Afterwards, you’ll enjoy a nice breakfast at the used-to-be gas station, which is now an unofficial hunter’s club. You find you can stay with Sweet, a prostitute, in her little cottage, and the next morning you might want to visit Susan Byrd, a local who lives in a decaying house with a white picket fence carved out of the Blue Ridge woods. No trip to Shalimar would ever be the same without stopping at Solomon’s Leap, the rock from which it is supposed that Milkman’s great-grandfather leapt into the sky and flew off to Africa.

  • What’s Up With the Epigraph?

    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.

  • Writing Style

    Descriptive

    We know what you're thinking. "Descriptive? Isn't every novel descriptive? What kind of cheesy label is that?"

    Let's just put it this way: Song of Solomon is descriptive in the way cotton candy is sweet. This isn't an oh-look-how-beautiful-the-landscape-is kind of a style. No, Morrison's descriptions are raw and thick with details.

    Let's take a look at an example:

    The blood was not pulsing out any longer and there was something black and bubbly in her mouth. Yet when she moved her head a little to gaze at something behind his shoulder, it took a while for him to realize that she was dead. And when he did, he could not stop the worn old words from coming, louder and louder as though sheer volume would wake her. He woke only the birds, who shuddered off into the air. Milkman laid her head down on the rock. Two of the birds circled round them. One dived into the new grave and scooped something shiny in its beak before it flew away. (15.80)

    See what we mean by raw? Morrison doesn't hold back on the blood. She's no Quentin Tarantino, sure, but she's also no 19th-century British novelist who's all into the way a country estate looks among the fields of Devonshire or whatever.

    Morrison's also not afraid to repeat her words for added effect. Did you notice how she uses "louder" twice? Doesn't it give you the feeling that you're there listening to Milkman sing? Or check out how she uses "wake" in one sentence and then "woke" in the next; she's forcing you to track the effect of Milkman's singing on the now-dead Pilate to the birds.

    There's always a ton going on at once in Song of Solomon, and Morrison doesn't hesitate to shows us every little thing. Or at least it feels like every little thing.

    The total effect? Reading Song of Solomon will feel like you're shadowing Milkman's every move, kind of like the way Guitar shadows Milkman at the end—only without all the violence and death. At least, we hope not.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Peacock

    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.

    Flying

    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.

    Ginger Smell

    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

    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.

    The Cave

    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.

    The Watermark

    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 Egg

    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.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Limited Omniscient)

    Have you ever noticed that the word "ominous" is almost inside of the word "omniscient?" OK, maybe only the first two letters are, but we do think there is something a little ominous about this omniscient point of view. The point of view seems to know everyone and everything, and chooses for us who we should be interested in, who we should pay attention to. Sometimes the point of view gives us so much detail, we’re practically there in Southside or Shalimar. Other times, we’re left to imagine, guess, wonder at what happens. Like Guitar’s girlfriend. Who was she and how did she break his heart? Or Pilate’s thoughts at the end of the novel. We hear what she says, but, DANG IT, we don’t have access to her mind. Initially, we have a hard time trying to figure out who we’re supposed to like and pay attention to. But then the point of view settles on Milkman. Pay very close attention to the "limited" part. When do the limits come into play, and when is the point of view unlimited (if ever)? This point of view guy sure does have a lot of power, because he is able to end the novel before we know what happens to Milkman. 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."

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Call (something has gone wrong)

      Milkman learns about his mother.

      Explanation/Discussion: Milkman feels pretty dang triumphant after he defends his mom from his dad’s abusive hand. But then he hears the story of Ruth’s shady past. He goes in search of Guitar, seems to be walking in the opposite direction of everyone else, and finds the barbershop entranced by a story of a black man who was murdered for whistling at a white woman. Milkman can trust no one in his family, and he’s losing his best friend to politics.

      The Hero’s Companions

      A bag of bones and a ghost too

      When Milkman enlists his best friend in the plot to steal Pilate’s gold, he’s delighted to see Guitar back to his normal, playful ways. The quest for the gold unites the friends, reminding them of the good old days and bringing to light the promise of better lives ahead. They are the perfect companions, and their burglary goes without a hitch. It’s only when the boys are pulled over by the police for no good reason that everything goes wrong. Pilate never travels with Milkman, but she sends him down memory lane with her and she continually and repeatedly tells and retells the story of the bones, stirring in Milkman a desire to explore.

      The Journey

      Milkman searches for gold and family.

      Milkman’s journey takes him through Danville, PA and throughout Virginia as he tries to locate Shalimar. His journey’s focus first is gold, but even when the gold is not found, the journey continues. Milkman goes in search of his family and, ultimately, his self.

      Monsters

      Circe, dogs, peacocks, and bobcats

      Along the way, Milkman encounters some pretty strange sights. Circe is impossibly old and is likened to a witch, and, like the goddess Circe who keeps Odysseus on her island for a year, this Circe is also protected by a pack of dogs, beasts with human eyes but wild ways. While the bobcat is not a monster, its symbolic force in the novel as the hunted being tells us that there is a humanity to it, heightened also by the ferocity that lives in its eyes, even after being killed. The peacock arrives out of nowhere to distract the characters and to tempt them into dwelling on wealth and personal gain. Each monster has a human quality, as though it were once a person.

      Temptations

      Sweet and the Peacock

      Sweet and the Peacock both represent strong temptations: sex and money. However, the Peacock only tempts with the dream of money, and the comfort Sweet offers when Milkman meets her pales in comparison to the comfort his family tree provides.

      The Helpers

      Omar, the Shalimar children, and Susan Byrd

      Once Milkman proves he’s not such a city boy snob, the Shalimar hunting party warms up to him. After the bobcat is skinned, Omar refers him to a woman who might be able to help him find out more about his heritage. Susan Byrd, while at first very unhelpful, gives Milkman the valuable information about Jake and Sing, and also about the legend of Solomon’s leap. Finally, the Shalimar children complete the puzzle for Milkman through the song that they sing, incorporating the names of all of his ancestors.

      The Final Ordeals

      Hagar dies, Guitar believes Milkman has betrayed him, and Pilate is shot.

      Like a wrecking ball, death rolls through the final chapters of this novel. Hagar is killed by her madness for Milkman, a madness Guitar tries to heal. Guitar follows Milkman, sees him help a man with a crate, and believes Milkman has betrayed him and is hoarding the money for himself. Guitar shoots Pilate on Solomon’s Leap, killing her before she has time to love all of the people she wants to love.

      The Life-Renewing Goal (the Holy Grail, Paradise, Home)

      Milkman learns how to fly.

      In the final moment, we see Milkman surrender to the air, learning how to ride it in the way his great-grandfather did. This marks the culmination of his journey to know himself through his history, but it ushers the onset of a new life and a new identity.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Milkman is the king of the world

      With a snazzy nickname, an aunt who makes booze, a best friend who protects him from bullies, a part time job, and a girlfriend with a nice booty, Milkman is pretty much living’ the dream.

      Conflict

      Seasons change, leaves turn, the past bites you in the butt…again and again and again.

      Milkman is thrown into a pit of baby conflict-rattlesnakes. He keeps getting bitten. Guitar is a murderer. Hagar wants to kill Milkman. Milkman steals from Pilate. Guitar disapproves of Milkman’s lifestyle. Milkman’s mom has shady habits. Lena tells Milkman he’s a loser.

      Complication

      Goldless, shoeless, and hungry

      Milkman leaves all of his conflicts behind to forge ahead in search of the remedy to all that is broken: gold. But one shredded suit and lots of bat poop later, Milkman finds his hands are empty, and he no longer has a goal or purpose. Doh.

      Climax

      Milkman feels the love! And the wire around his neck.

      He sits smack down in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains listening to the hunting party communicate with the dogs as they track the bobcat, and, for some reason, Milkman finds perfect happiness. He is overcome with understanding for the people in his life and feels deep and profound love. Just as he gains this clarity, Guitar slips the wire around his neck, intending to pull the life out of him, taking the life of his best friend.

      Suspense

      Sing, sing a song. Make it simple, to last your whole life long.

      After a night at Sweet’s, Milkman is feeling’ good, but he is still stumped by his family tree. Then he hears the local children singing a song and playing a game, and inside the song are the names of his ancestors. Eureka! But what does it all mean?

      Denouement

      Guitar breaks the rules.

      Pilate dies, cradled in Milkman’s arms, having been shot by Guitar on Solomon’s Leap after burying her father’s bones.

      Conclusion

      Milkman surrenders.

      If wishes were horses, we’d feed them carrots every single day. But wishes are not horses, and we don’t really know what happens at the end of this novel. It’s up to us to decide. Check out What’s Up with the Ending? for a little something to chew on, but, really, we just have to surrender to the novel’s ending.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Milkman meets Pilate, the forbidden aunt, and learns about his father’s (and therefore his family’s) past. Milkman’s curiosity for his history is stirred, and he lays plans for his journey into the past.

      Act II

      In many ways there are two distinct Act IIs, because Milkman’s goal continually changes. The first Act II arrives when Milkman and Guitar steal Pilate’s green bag. Like two leprechauns who feel they have found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Milkman and Guitar dream about what kind of lives this gold will bring them. Soon after, they realize that the "gold" is really human bones, and, to top that off, they are taken to jail. Milkman’s dreams of independence are tarnished, and his best friend is furious at him.

      The second Act II arrives after Milkman has abandoned his dream of goal in the pursuit of his family history. After an impossible search, he stumbles upon the teensy town of Shalimar, Virginia where he suspects he has roots. He is so close to his history, and yet the first thing he does when he rolls into town is to insult all of the locals, thus momentarily sealing him off from the ancestry that lurks around him.

      Act III

      When Milkman and Pilate go to bury Jake’s bones on Solomon’s Leap, Milkman has already reached his goal of solving his family mystery. He has proved to himself that he can live and act independently through his journey. His ambiguous and complicated leap into the air at the end of the novel further highlights his sense of independence and empowerment. It is at this moment that he takes the cocktail of emotion and knowledge within him (the self knowledge he has gained, the family history he has learned, and his unbending love for his aunt) and acts upon it. He chooses his death or life, whatever the case may be, resulting in a final and full realization of his quest.

    • Allusions

      Biblical References

      • Old Testament, Song of Songs (referenced through the novel’s title)
      • Reba (throughout)
      • Pilate (throughout)
      • Hagar (throughout)
      • First Corinthians (throughout)
      • Magdalene called Lena (throughout)
      • Ruth (throughout)
      • Solomon (throughout)
      • Jake/Jacob (throughout)

      Mythological and Folklore References

      • Circe (throughout)
      • Hansel and Gretel (2.10.1)

      Historical References

      • Abraham Lincoln (1.2.159)
      • Malcolm X (1.6.108)
      • General Robert E. Lee (1.2.159)
      • Mary Todd (1.2.159)
      • Ulysses S. Grant (1.2.159)
      • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1.3.75)
      • John F. Kennedy (1.4.157; 2.10.50)
      • Winnie Ruth Judd (1.4.75)