Monday, December 20, 2010

Required Work: Song of Solomon

Ambiguous ending alert! Just thought I would go ahead and rip that band-aid right off. As someone who appreciates closure, I figured I would go ahead and forewarn you that Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon has an ending that remains (and will probably always remain) open to debate. But I will also go ahead and assert that it isn’t the result of sloppy writing, and it also is not an ending that Morrison tacked on simply because she needed an ending. I do believe it is intentional, and even for those of us who appreciate closure and become frustrated with unanswered questions in literature; I do believe she achieves the effect she was going for…whatever that was.


There are a couple of options we can go with here for Song of Solomon. Clearly, it falls into African-American literature. And here I am going to make a brief point that was brought up in the class I just finished: just because the author is of a certain race it does not automatically make their works “African-American literature” or “Jewish literature” or “Latino/a literature,” etc. The genre should be applied when considering the actual work, and not necessarily the author’s background. Both Robert Pinsky and Philip Roth are Jewish, but my professor would argue that Roth’s novels can be described as Jewish literature much more readily than can Pinsky’s poems. Although, and this is another issue, certain authors, such as Roth, do not appreciate these types of labels. They tend to be a result of readers and critics attempting to put authors in a box and keep them there, and no artist wants that. Song of Solomon, however, does qualify as African-American literature as it focuses on the experiences of an American-American community in early 1930s America.

This novel is also part slave narrative as it tells the story of Milkman’s great-grandfather, Solomon, and his escape from slavery by flying back to Africa. This also gives the novel the feel of an African folk tale as flying is a major theme in different ways. But more on that later.

The book can also be seen as a Bildungsroman as it does follow the moral and psychological growth of Macon “Milkman” Dead III from birth to adulthood (and arguably to death). Probably the biggest change that occurs within Milkman is his decision at the end to stop running from his best friend, Guitar, who is attempting to kill him (although I guess that would make him more of a former best friend). Instead of continuing to run, he turns and faces him, and the novel ends with the reader not knowing if Guitar succeeded, or if Milkman came out the stronger man, or if neither happened, or even if both happened. I will further discuss this event, as well as Milkman’s great-grandfather, in the Themes section.


Race is obvious, as is Milkman’s quest for identity as a black man in 20th-century America, so let us move on.

Flying becomes a central theme from the very first chapter, as the reader is shown the note of Mr. Smith, a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Agent who is getting ready to attempt to fly from the Mercy Hospital building to the other side of Lake Superior. What he learns of course is that only birds and planes are meant to fly (and much like the ambiguous ending, I feel like it is never really clear whether Mr. Smith died or not, but I am not certain on that so don’t take my word on it). Even before this though, in the epitaph, flying is brought up: “The fathers may soar/and the children may know their names.” The narrator asserts that when Milkman learns at the age of four what Mr. Smith had already learned, that being able to fly was a gift that humans were not meant to have, that he became “saddened” and had subsequently “lost all interest in himself.” Later, Milkman will have dreams of flying, and still later when he visits the town of Shalimar with is aunt, Pilate, he learns of his great-grandfather’s escape from slavery by flying to Africa. In the final pages in the book, after Pilate is mistakenly shot and killed by Guitar (which is a heart-wrenching scene by the way), Milkman realizes that she too was able to fly “without ever leaving the ground,” making the idea of flight a much more symbolic or even spiritual thing than a physical one. And just a few short lines later, Guitar and Milkman have their final confrontation where Milkman finally gains his own freedom in much the same way his great-grandfather did. Whether he lives or dies, Milkman has learned that “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” Flight is presented as one of the only ways to achieve freedom on an otherwise suffocating existence.

Because of this open ending, this book reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The poem within the novel is a 999-lined poem that is written entirely in heroic couplets…except that last line…which happens to rhyme with the very first line of the poem…therefore throwing the reader back to the beginning of the poem is this weird (but oddly fascinating) continuous loop. Morrison achieves the same thing because while Milkman learns to fly, the reader isn’t sure if is has resulted in his death. But if we go back to the beginning, the novel opened with a man attempting to fly from the hospital in which Milkman is born in shortly afterward, thus creating another weird and fascinating loop. Through flight, the novel continuously rejects the idea of closure. The three men that “fly” are the three men whose endings we are not sure of: Mr. Smith, the great-grandfather, and Milkman himself. Instead, all of these different narratives interweave into each other. And gaps within the narrative get filled in because the reader is compelled to circle back re-read certain narrative sections.

Another theme within the novel is that of biblical names. There are Milkman’s two sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalena called Lena. There is his aunt, Pilate, who is actually the most nurturing and almost divine character in the book, despite her name. There is Milkman’s mother Ruth, and Pilate’s granddaughter Hagar, who is in love with Milkman and is actually the first person who tries to kill him because of that love. Then of course, there is Solomon, who only exists in the past, but is the one who, as far as we know, first achieved flight.


The book was published in 1977, but the story begins in 1931 with Mr. Smith’s flight and Milkman’s birth. It is mentioned that Guitar is a member of the Seven Days group, a group of black men that commits revenge murders against white people in response to the brutal murders that were taking place against innocent blacks at the time. Every time a black person was murdered unjustly (or the murder is at least deemed unjust by the group), one of the members picks and kills an innocent white person. Now I have not been able to find anything on any real Seven Days group that existed in the mid 1900s in America, but that is not to say that groups like this didn’t exist at the time of such racial tension in this country.

As Milkman looks deeper into his family’s history, the reader is shown the effects that slavery could have had on the African-American family long after it has ended. One of the effects is Milkman’s quest for identity as a black man. The effect of geological displacement of African-Americans because of slavery is also explored.

Also, at the beginning of the novel, it is explained that Milkman will be the first black baby born at Mercy Hospital, and that the only reason it is being allowed is because Ruth is the daughter of a black doctor.

Although I did enjoy this book, I do have to wonder why this book was chosen as a required work over Morrison’s Beloved or The Bluest Eye. I am glad it was chosen over those two in the sense that it doesn’t make a reader’s soul cry in the way that the other two would (at least they did for me). If this is the first book by Morrison that someone picks up, at least they won’t be immediately turned off by the severity and despair that the other two are so heavily with.

Next weekend is of course Christmas weekend, so I will be taking another break while enjoying the holiday season with my family. The following week, however, I plan to have finished Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. So until them, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

No comments: