Study Guide

Song of Solomon Part 1, Chapter 3

By Toni Morrison

Part 1, Chapter 3

  • The money from his new job starts flowing into Milkman’s pockets, but it gets harder and harder to find Guitar, who always seems to be busy. But when Milkman does catch Guitar, there’s always an adventure to be had.
  • The boys ditch school one day and Guitar takes Milkman to Feather’s Pool Hall. He asks for a round of beers. Feather kicks them out (aw man), wary of serving alcohol to the son of his landlord, the dreaded Macon Dead.
  • Crestfallen, the boys wander over to a barbershop owned by Hospital Tommy and Railroad Tommy. Hospital Tommy speaks like a walking dictionary and inquires as to why the boys aren’t in school. Guitar relates the humiliating tale of being refused beers at Feather’s.
  • Railroad Tommy launches into an avalanche of a lecture with Shakespearean weight about all of the things Guitar and Milkman are never going to get in life – everything from a personal valet, to a thousand dollars in cold cash, to honors for serving the country in battle, to Baked Alaska.
  • Guitar asks Milkman what Baked Alaska is, but Guitar doesn’t know. He hates sweets. He hasn’t been able to eat sweets since he was little when his father was killed in a sawmill accident. As retribution, the white sawmill owner brought candy to the newly fatherless children and husbandless wife.
  • As he relates this story, Guitar gets queasy and throws up next to a beauty shop. The two boys go in search of some weed.
  • Fast-forward two years. Milkman is fourteen and knows how to compensate for a slightly shorter left leg by developing a strut. He feels a connection to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who's legs were paralyzed from polio), and sees him as more of a father figure than his own father.
  • Macon, Sr. loves having his son work for him because it makes his business more legit. He doesn’t have to do the dirty work anymore, but can manage and deal with the dignified tasks of owning property.
  • The year is 1945, and business is booming for Macon, Sr. Everything is progressing, improving, thriving, except for his relationship with his wife, who he still loathes and who disappears every so often in the dead of the night to go someplace.
  • Fast-forward eight years. The Deads are at the dinner table. Ruth relates a story of attending a Catholic wedding and not knowing how to take Communion. It’s a simple story, but her husband is disgusted with her simpleness. He tells her the family probably doesn’t know her name, but only know her as their former doctor’s daughter. Ruth replies that she is indeed her father’s daughter.
  • Macon reaches across the dining table and punches her in the jaw.
  • Milkman throws his father against the radiator. He asks his mother if she is OK. She says she is.
  • Corinthians and Lena glare at Milkman, so he exits stage left and goes up to his room where he fumbles with the objects on his dresser and looks at himself in the mirror.
  • Macon comes into his room and tells him he has to know the whole truth. Story time:
  • Macon reminisces about Dr. Foster, Ruth’s father. This is his story. Dr. Foster was an ether-sniffer. He delivered Corinthians and Lena, and each time was only concerned about the color of their skin. Mercy Hospital wouldn’t treat black people at that time, and Ruth didn’t want anyone else to deliver her babies. This weirded Macon out. He always felt like Ruth and her father were ganging up on him, reminding him whose house he lived in, whose wealth he basked in. He had the lucrative idea to buy land and sell it to railroad magnates, but Dr. Foster wouldn’t lend him the money and Ruth wouldn’t help change his mind.
  • Dr. Foster sniffed too much ether and, one day, he got very sick. When he died, Macon came home from work to find his wife naked in bed with her dead father, kissing his fingers. Upon seeing this, Macon spun into a world of disgust and suspicion. He even wondered whether Lena and Corinthians were his own daughters and wondered constantly about the nature of Ruth and Dr. Foster’s relationship. This ends Macon’s story.
  • Well, Milkman is, how shall we put this … extremely freaked out and experiences a quarter-life crisis. He peaces out of his creepy house and wanders through the busy streets in search of Guitar. All the while his mind races with the information he has just received.
  • He slowly begins to remember being breastfed until he was too old to be breastfed. He becomes more and more weirded out.
  • He notices he is walking on a very busy sidewalk, but that everyone is walking, rushing in the opposite direction. The sidewalk across the street is completely empty.
  • Milkman finds Guitar at the barbershop but, instead of a captive ear, he finds everyone listening intently to the radio. The newscaster is relating a story of a young black man named Till who was visiting Sunflower County, Mississippi from the North and who had been stomped to death for whistling at a white woman. His murderers were boasting of their deed.
  • The barbershop erupts in conversation, some saying Till should have known better than to act like a Northerner in the South, others saying he has a right to act however he wants, and still others positing that no law will punish the murderers.
  • The men start to trade stories of the atrocities they had experienced themselves.
  • Guitar and Milkman leave in search of a bar. They end up at Mary’s, the most successful and popular bar in the Blood Bank neighborhood.
  • Milkman tells Guitar about how he hit his father and how his father hit his mother.
  • Guitar sympathizes and tells the story of accidentally killing a doe one time while hunting and how horribly he felt, but he knows this story isn’t helping things. He knows Milkman is holding something back. He tries to draw it out of his friend, but Milkman can’t bring himself to relay the news he’s just discovered about his mother.
  • Guitar tells Milkman to let whatever information he’s stewing over go, to stay strong, to not turn whatever it is into anger.
  • Guitar brings up Till again, but Milkman dismisses the conversation, saying, "I’m the one in trouble." This frustrates Guitar.
  • They talk about names, about Milkman’s nickname, and Guitar says people get their names "the best way they can." Milkman laments over why they can’t get names the right way. The best way is the right way, Guitar refutes.
  • They talk about the fact that Hagar doesn’t have a last name, and Milkman tells Guitar how his father got his name. Just another night at Mary’s.