Study Guide

Guitar Bains in Song of Solomon

By Toni Morrison

Guitar Bains

Guitar has music in his name. He is the cussing rebel who has a vocabulary that would make the dictionary jealous and who could teach a college course on Identity, and how to find it. Once when Milkman was getting his little Dead butt kicked a long time ago, Guitar stepped in and saved the day. Milkman’s nose was bleeding, so Guitar handed him his baseball cap. Milkman wiped his nose, and Guitar slapped his hat back on his head. Now, that’s hardcore.

Guitar is a murderer, and his approach to his work as a member of the Seven Days is strangely cold and scientific (talking about chromosomes and ratios and populations). But beneath the killing and the textbook explanations is a man whose father was sawed in half when he was just a boy, a man who tells Hagar he’s lost everything he’s ever loved.

He is haunted by the memory of the white sawmill owner’s visit to his home shortly after his father’s death. The owner brought candy for him and his siblings and $40 for his mother. He listened to the sawmill owner tell his mother how they couldn’t fit his dad’s body back together, so they had to lay the two pieces side by side in the coffin, with both eyes gazing into each other. He watched his mother smile with gratitude upon receiving the $40. He threw his piece of candy away in the outhouse toilet, and if you even mention the name of something sweet and sugary, Guitar will start vomiting.

When Guitar thinks about the prospect of gold and what it would afford him, we see the kind side of him, as well as how hard his life has always been. With gold he would buy things like a grave marker for his father’s grave, meals for his uncle, clothes, presents for his brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews.

Again we see this generosity in the way he deals with Hagar, treating her gently, taking her home when he finds her standing in his apartment with a knife. He tries everything in his power to teach her the importance of self-love. He treats her decently, which is a kind of affection she never received from Milkman.

There’s the playful Guitar too, the one who skips school, takes Milkman to pool halls and parties, teaching him the ways of the world and defending him from anything that might get in his way. Guitar has always protected Milkman, even knowing that Milkman’s dad evicted him, his brothers, and grandmother once before when he was little.

At the end of the novel, we see Guitar break the rules of the Seven Days and kill a fellow black man. But we also see his love for Milkman radiate forth in the way he puts his gun down upon being presented with his friend’s newfound fearlessness. Guitar strangely is the (Pontius) Pilate of the novel, killing the Christ-like figure. Milkman comes to realize that, at the heart of every relationship, lies the question: would you take my life, or would you save it? Guitar is exceptional, because he can answer yes to both questions. In the same way Pilate is able to fly off and yet remain firmly part of the earth, Guitar is able to both preserve and kill at once.