Study Guide

Song of Solomon Themes

  • Identity

    In Song of Solomon we see a young man undergo an odyssey toward finding himself and toward finding his people. All along the way, he struggles with the concept of community that compels him to forge his being in the context of collective identity, and struggles with the concept of individual identity, forged out of personal journey. He wrestles with the expectations of the black community and with the emptiness that haunts his interior self. Identity is both individually and collectively sought after throughout this novel.

    Questions About Identity

    1. When does Milkman first start to question his identity?
    2. Has Milkman found his identity at the end of the novel?
    3. How does Guitar define identity?
    4. Who do you identify with in this novel?

    Chew on This

    In the world of Song of Solomon, identity is not given, it is forged.

    A person’s identity is inextricably linked to his history.

  • Love

    Love is talked about tirelessly throughout Song of Solomon, and the lack of it repeatedly drives women insane with loss. It is often confused for possession and ownership. Many are deprived of it, others kill in the name of it, and still others don’t even know they have it. The Christ-figure’s (Pilate's) last words are about love and her desire to have known more people in order to have loved more people.

    Questions About Love

    1. What version of love do you find most appealing or real in this novel?
    2. Does Guitar really kill out of love?
    3. What do Pilate’s last words about love mean?

    Chew on This

    There is an absence of love in Song of Solomon.

    Love is confused for ownership in Song of Solomon.

  • Race

    We see a troubled universe in Song of Solomon, where racism and inequality run rampant, touching and affecting every character’s life in significant ways. We are exposed to a society divided along racial lines, and we are given access to the black community, watching the effects of slavery and racism over four generations of American history. We witness America’s inability to see beyond race, and to honor Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. We see how racism is both socially, systematically, and economically perpetuated. Feeling that there is no solution, no way out, no means of achieving the inalienable rights Lincoln spoke of, a society within the black community is formed in order to kill white people.

    Questions About Race

    1. Are the Seven Days justified in what they do?
    2. What is Milkman’s relationship to race?
    3. Is there a relationship between money and race? Between materialism and racism?

    Chew on This

    In order to seek identity, Milkman must examine himself as an individual and in the context of the black community.

    White people are unnatural in the world of Song of Solomon

  • Visions of America

    Though Song spans nearly four generations of American history, we spend the most time in 1960s America, on the eve of the Civil Rights movement. We are immersed in the black experience in America, and watch countless acts of racism, hate, and intolerance unfold. Despite the fact that we are dwelling in an era that is nearly a century after Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, we still see a broken, unjust society.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. What events of American history are referenced by characters in Song of Solomon?
    2. What is Guitar’s vision of America?
    3. Are there conflicting visions of what America is?
    4. We see four generations of American history play out. Does anything change in the good old U.S. of A., and if so, what changes?

    Chew on This

    Urban America in Song of Solomon is a world of materialism and corruption.

    Technology and modern tools of communication both unite and alienate the black community in Song of Solomon.

  • The Home

    Homes symbolize status in the world of Song of Solomon and also indicate how a person copes, feels, and identifies materialistically with the world around him. We are presented with a spectrum of homes, from huge mansions, to two-room shacks, to improbably manicured dwellings carved out of wilderness, to cozy one-room cottages of mythical comfort. The larger and more affluent the home, the more diseased it becomes.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Who has the comfiest home?
    2. How many homes do we encounter in Song?
    3. Where does Milkman find home?

    Chew on This

    In Song of Solomon, homes are both womblike and tomblike.

    Homes are agents of confinement throughout this novel.

  • The Supernatural

    The question of what is natural and what is unnatural is one that threads its way throughout Song. Therefore, the idea of the supernatural is extremely important, pointing to higher powers and greater beings. We are constantly presented with ghosts, magic, and seeming impossibilities.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Why doesn’t Milkman believe in ghosts?
    2. What do ghosts do and say in this novel?
    3. What does it mean to be "supernatural"?
    4. Is Pilate supernatural?

    Chew on This

    Pilate’s lack of a belly button makes her a marginal being.

    Ghosts are peaceful in Song of Solomon.

  • Women and Femininity

    In this novel, women are those left behind. We see them trapped in their marriages and in their societal niches, crushed by the heavy burden of survival. While men are associated with flying and fleeing, women are associated with groundedness and earthliness. We see them brought to madness at the loss of their lovers and husbands, and we see the anguish that comes when they are denied sexual love and sexual expression. Women in Song of Solomon are obsessive in their love of the men in their lives, relying on these partners as representation of "home" or of a safe place. The only women capable of living independently, without men, are those who have been marginalized by society. Therefore, we understand the relationship between women and men in the novel as inextricably linked to the way in which we understand the society in which they live.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What kinds of women do we meet in this novel?
    2. When Milkman asks Guitar why he worries about black women, Guitar responds, "because she’s mine" (2.10.223). What does he mean when he says this?
    3. What does Guitar mean when he says that Hagar needs a "chorus of mamas" (2.13.307)?

    Chew on This

    Women are left behind in Song of Solomon.

    Women are peripheral in this novel.

  • Man and the Natural World

    We see our protagonist fight against the wilds of Virginia, unaccustomed to the problems it presents him. By contrast we see those people born in this wilderness navigate it effortlessly. The natural world in Song of Solomon represents a pastoral paradise, untainted by materialism and by corruption. At the same time, slavery and racism are present even in these rural pockets of society.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What does Milkman understand or hear in the "language" between the Shalimar hunters and their dogs?
    2. What examples of nature are we given in Song of Solomon?
    3. Does nature exist in the city, or do we only experience it in Danville and Shalimar?

    Chew on This

    Milkman’s trek through nature reflects the trek through his internal self.

    In Song, we see how nature forces a man to shed unnecessary materials and to use only his body and mind.

  • Exploration

    Song of Solomon's protagonist literally embarks upon a journey of exploration, the initial goal being the discovery of gold. But this quest eventually morphs into an exploration of identity, family, and name. We watch our protagonist struggle to reach both goals, realizing that shortcuts and haste only set him back further from his goals. The desire for self-knowledge is imbued in each character to some extent.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Who goes exploring in this novel?
    2. Why do people explore?
    3. What is the opposite of exploration?
    4. What does exploration involve?

    Chew on This

    As Milkman explores Danville and Shalimar, he explores himself.

    Exploration in Song of Solomon involves darkness and the inability to see.

  • Memory and the Past

    We hear the characters of Song of Solomon constantly retell the same story, adding new detail and specifics with each recollection. In this way, we see the power the storyteller holds in choosing what details to include and in deciding how to present these details.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What memories exist in this novel and how do they differ from one another?
    2. How do Pilate and Macon’s memories of their childhood differ? What elements of their memories are similar?
    3. Is it good to have memories?
    4. What examples of collective memory do we have in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Memories are crucial to identity in this novel.

    Remembering is a creative process in Song of Solomon.