Long acclaimed as one of the major writers about African American culture, Toni Morrison has led a distinguished career as textbook editor, novelist and professor at Princeton, Yale and Howard Universities. Her work has earned her well deserved honors: the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved in 1988, the Nobel Prize in 1993 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Morrison cites her affiliation with the Catholic church and listening to her family share African American folklore was a strong influence on her work. Morrison’s critically acclaimed novel, Song of Solomon, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, can be interpreted on multiple levels. It references the bible, Greek mythology, African American folklore and more. The family members of the protagonist, Milkman, portray mythical archetypes, who support his journey to find himself. Not only do they support him but their lives also highlight African American enslavement and emancipation that can be interpreted as literal or figurative forms of life and death, connoting the universal cycle of life.
Pilate Dead’s character alludes to an African shaman, who sacrifices her life, and is an inspiration for Milkman by setting an example on how not to be enslaved by life. Pilate, Milkman’s aunt, rejects electricity and plumbing for her home, and instead uses her humble abode as a soulful gathering place to rejoice in song. She is well-traveled and collects rocks from the places she visits as keepsakes. Pilate supports Milkman’s life journey by making sure he was conceived, guarding him once he was born, putting up an act to bail him out of jail, and taking a fatal bullet. Morrison characterizes Pilate as not being enslaved by either white culture or conventions within her black community. “Progress was a word that meant walking a little farther on down the road” (27). Instead of Pilate racing through life, she slows down and enjoys life in the present, and focuses on meaning instead of materialism. When Pilate died, Milkman thought, “There’s got to be at least one more woman like you” (336). She is a great inspiration to Milkman, providing an example on how not to be bound by life. There is an allusion to Pilate being a shaman or African voodoo queen with practices that support life and death; her special potion, induced lust and virility that created an infant, Milkman. Her interest in rocks and bones is also an allusion to shamanism. There is an interesting correlation between her name and sacrificial support she made for him. Pilate was named after after the judge who ordered Christ’s crucifixion, “Pontius Pilate”. Pontius’s action triggered the belief in sacrificial death, allowing others to be born again. Juxtaposed to Pilate’s character, she made sacrifices for Milkman for a figurative rebirth. Pilate traveled full circle on her cycle of life, from inspiring Milkman to sacrificing her life for him.
Driven by wealth and enslaved by greed, Macon Dead Sr. is portrayed as the soulless “bad guy”, that unknowingly challenges Milkman to live, while his spirit dies. As a child, Macon’s father was murdered. When he became an adult, he married Ruth, the daughter of a wealthy doctor, causing a series of events: Macon’s father-in-law declines to lend him money, Macon quickens the doctor’s death, witnesses his wife being intimate with her father, and finally attempts to kill his unborn son. When Milkman was an adult, Macon tells a story to him about a bag of gold he swears his sister, Pilate, stole and still has in her possession. Unearthing this memory ignited Macon to prompt his son to steal the gold from her. Morrison ignites Macon’s downward spiral into a “bad guy” when he married Ruth, and developed a resentful relationship with his father-in-law for not lending him money. Perhaps Macon harbored bitter feelings into adulthood for the murder of his father by wealthy planters, triggering him to justify the death of a wealthy doctor. Macon continued to spiral out of control, witnessing the inappropriate actions of his wife’s intimacy, causing him to want to kill his unborn son. These events simultaneously caused literal and figurative deaths, that essentially, killed his own spirit. When Macon told Milkman “go wherever you want”, he alludes to the fact that gold will set Milkman free even though Macon lied and wanted Milkman to continue working for him in a lifeless environment. Growing up with his father’s emotional abandonment, Milkman in essence, “froze” his ability to become emotionally mature and feel safe to “fly the coup”. When Macon prompts him to steal for the potential to be free and not enslaved by his dead life, is when Milkman hits rock-bottom by committing the crime. While Macon became increasingly enslaved by anger and bitterness, his son Milkman eventually reversed his cycle of life in a positive direction, recognizing that he was behaving too much like his father, and that gold was not what he was searching for.
First Corinthians Dead portrays the Roman Venus archetype, who experiences love and intimacy, igniting her to live and free herself from binding isolation and depression. Corinthians’s prestigious education intimidates potential suitors for marriage. As a result, she made red velvet rose petals with her sister for many years for a local department store. One man, Porter, pursued her but Corinthians at first rejected him. Eventually she relented and started seeing him and found new and unexpected life within her. Milkman, Corinthians’s brother, makes the connection that she is seeing a member of the covert Seven Days society and thought, “Foolish woman . . . Of all the people to pick. She was so silly. So silly. Jesus!” (211). Morrison uses red velvet rose petals symbollically: “she saw her ripeness mellowing and rotting before a heap of red velvet scraps on a round oak table” (197). The petals describe the draining of Corinthians’s life-blood, separation, lovelessness and dying passion. Once Corinthians started to release her social class judgements and dated Porter, she “now felt a self-esteem that was quite new” (201). A goddess full of life was emerging from her as she experienced a new part of herself that she had not previously experienced before. Similar to romance stories, Corinthians’s brother, Milkman, was the disruptive antagonist of her relationship, albeit in a passive way. He did not communicate his disapproval to Corinthians but he judged her. Instead of Milkman worrying about his own troubled life, he displaced his negative emotions toward his sister who was just finding life in love. While Milkman was going downhill, Corinthians tosses her rigid belief systems for connection and intimacy, giving her a reason to spark her cycle of life and live. Finally, she blooms and releases the “shackles” of separation from others.
Ruth Dead, portrays the tragic lover archetype, choosing to stay enslaved in a dysfunctional relationship, killing her spirit. Ruth, mother of Milkman, had an inappropriate bond with her father that ultimately destroys her marriage with husband, Macon. Her attempts to get Macon’s attention were repeatedly rejected in a callous manner. In one instance, Ruth asks Macon how he liked the floral arrangement she made for the dinner table: “and without moving his head, said ‘Your chicken is red at the bone’” (12). She gave up on the marriage and became obsessed with the notion of having a baby. Pilate, her sister-in-law, concocts a “lust and virility” potion and Milkman was conceived. Ruth fixated her attention on the boy, breastfeeding him until age four. Morrison’s portrayal of Ruth as a sad victim of a bad relationship, further supported a lifeless, dead family. When Ruth kisses the fingers of her dead father, she kills her marriage. She thought that having a baby would give her a reason to live, feel needed and live vicariously through him: “She had the distinct impression that his lips were pulling from her a thread of light” (13). It gave her connection to another human being that she did not have with the rest of the family. Ruth was happy to give up her life to someone with a fresh start… her life-filled innocent baby. Morrison’s portrayal of the tragic lover, was a catalyst in Milkman’s journey to find himself; both his parents were lifeless and he knew things needed to change. Ruth had an opportunity to be a goddess in her beautiful home, but she figuratively killed herself by allowing to be enslaved by shame. She was a mother but not a matriarch, giving her son, Milkman, a negative impression of women as an adult. Ruth’s spirit and her marriage’s position on the cycle of life, was bound in the dead position, like her surname.
With grounded roots and the strength of a tree, Jake’s character alludes to a deity of nature who starts off enslaved and was set free. Milkman’s grandfather is brought into the world as a special man as he was the only boy of 21 to survive. As an adult, he garnered significant respect among townspeople who wished they were as strong as him. Upon emancipation, Jake bounced back with his migration north to find his land he named, “Lincoln’s Heaven”––beautiful terrain that he shaped into a robust farm. Perhaps Morrison was eliciting biblical numerology, making Jake the last of twenty-one children which is: “exceeding sinfulness of sin” (Rom. 1:18-32). Jake “exceeded” expectations, freeing himself from the sin of slavery to become a successful man. Portraying Jake’s character as a deity of the land was apropos. Reverend R. Hambira of the Botswana Christian Council states:
A familiar piece of land is essential. Pushing them [Africans] off such land for whatever reason is denying and depriving them of the life-sustaining wisdom without which they find it very difficult to subsist. Health, like food, is not only a physical or a psychological concern. It also has everything to do with the spiritual welfare of the people.
Reverend R. Hambira
When Africans were taken from their homeland for slavery, their connection to land and culture fractured. Jake embodies a powerful nature deity and “hero-like” status among his townspeople for growing roots into his own land. Milkman learned more about Jake on his journey and became proud of his heritage, furthering his progression to find himself. Jake traveled full-circle in his cycle of life. Even though Jake started off in the death grips of slavery and his life was cut short by murder, he overcame enslavement by reconnecting with what he was passionate for… the land.
An archetype of tragic love similar to Ophelia in Hamlet, Hagar’s enslaving low self-worth causes her life to literally end. Starting in their late teens, cousins, Hagar and Milkman, had a sorted relationship that lasted for sixteen years. Their relationship went downhill when Milkman distanced himself from her. Feeling abandoned, Hagar started to lose her mind, “when she dragged herself off to bed, having spent another day without his presence, her heart beat like a gloved fist against her ribs” (125). Further in Song of Solomon, grandmother Pilate, searched for a gift to “break her spell” from depression. Hagar looked at herself in her new mirror and said, “I look awful” and thought that a new look would reignite Milkman’s attraction to her. She filled her arms with beauty products and came home and died. Morrison portrays two lovers who essentially mirrored each other. Similar to Milkman, Hagar never moved out of her family home. A sense of individuality, emotional maturity and healthy separation did not develop within both Milkman and Hagar. When Hagar becomes needy and obsessive, she stalks and becomes violent with Milkman. In response, Milkman avoids her and she feels abandoned. While Hagar directs all her attention on Milkman, losing herself in the process, she kills her relationship with the most intimate person in her life. Interesting to note, that while she loses herself, Milkman simultaneously loses his own identity. Hagar’s cycle of life literally ended by a lack of self-love.
Portrayed like a deity of mother nature, Lena connects to earthen beauty and is spirited, bold and stable like a tree. As youngsters out on a family drive, Macon pulled over so that Milkman could pee. His sister, Lena, guided him to the bushes and distracts herself by picking a “colorful bouquet of flowers.” Accidentally, Milkman peed on her and a tree. Lena germinates a clipping from the tree and plants it in their backyard. As adults, the tree starts dying, so she recounts the childhood story to Milkman. He asks in a snarky tone whether the tree needed to be pissed on again. Lena startles him by slapping in the face, but then, he finally starts to listen. Lena conjectures, “I thought because that tree was alive that it was all right. But I forgot that there are all kinds of ways to pee on people” (214). In her final demand to Milkman, Lena states, “I don’t make roses anymore, and you have pissed your last in this house” (216). Her demand pushes Milkman to “fly the coop”. Morrison portrays Lena as having the greatest strength of character in the Dead family household; her connectedness to earth was a significant catalyst for Milkman’s initiation into adulthood. It may be that Lena saw the tree as an extension of her family and herself; thus, when the tree starts dying, it represented the figurative death of them. Perhaps Morrison chose the maple tree as “maple trees hold the wisdom of balance, promise and practical magic” (Universe of Symbolism). Possibly Lena planted her “tree of life”, hoping for it to impart its “wisdom of balance” and “promise” to heal her dysfunctional household. The point where Lena slaps Milkman and threatens him to leave the house, was a significant turning point in Song of Solomon for it was then that Milkman embarks on his journey: “What begins as a selfish quest for gold, for material success and escape, becomes a quest for knowledge of his family history and an identity based on that history” (Lee). Milkman believes that finding the gold would somehow give him new life and freedom, but what he received was much more valuable: a sense of self. His cycle of life rose upward from the enslavement of stagnation to be reborn again.
Rising from ashes, like the Phoenix deity, Solomon escapes from slavery and flies away, while his great-grandson breaks free from stagnation to find himself and flies high. Solomon is the original ancestor, the seed that is the beginning of Milkman’s lineage. His mythical character “flies away” either literally or figuratively. Solomon has a profound affect on the townspeople and the family he left behind, particularly, his wife, Ryna. Susan Byrd, a relative, shared with Milkman about Ryna, his great-grandmother: “They say she screamed and screamed, lost her mind completely. You don’t hear about women like that anymore, but there used to be more–the kind of woman who couldn’t live without a particular man. And when the man left, they lost their minds, or died or something. Love, I guess” (323). For generations thereafter, relatives sing, “Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone / Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home” (303). Morrison portrays an original ancestor, breaking free from enslavement, but she leaves it up to the reader to decide whether he flies away figuratively or literally. While Solomon breaks free to live, it killed the spirit of his wife, Ryna. Morrison could be alluding to the disappearance of black men from their families from the time American slavery began, and some could argue, the present. Slaves were expected to procreate in order to create a large population of chattel. The responsibility of back-breaking forced labor and a huge family, would be an enormous challenge for anyone. Morrison continues the same action with Milkman who abandons his girlfriend, and Macon who abandons his wife. At the sacrifice of his family, Solomon escaped slavery, burned his nest, and with a gush of wind, his cycle of life began as he flew back to Africa. Milkman learned about the story of Solomon as he journeyed to the south and became increasingly more self-aware with each step of of his journey. As each blade of grass in his “death nest” burned, his rebirth began rising high, just like his great-grandfather’s did. Milkman finally found himself and celebrated in the presence of his new-found lover, “Sweet”. With a baptismal swim in the Blue Ridge mountain’s version of an ocean, along with the water snakes that symbolize transformation (T. Andrews 160), his cycle of life began.
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is a masterpiece that delivers a powerful, message about the cycle of life. She writes about death and rebirth in a way that is colorful, honest, symbolic and magical. It is easy to correlate an archetypal figure from Song of Solomon to one’s own life, and everyone knows at least one of the them: one who sacrifices for others without complaint, one who is inspirational, one who is driven by wealth, one that finds love, one who stays in a dysfunctional relationship, one who has a great strength of character, one who acts like a tragic lover, one who is bold and spirited, one that abandons their circumstance, and finally, one that discovers who they are. At different points in our lives, we can all identify with these characteristics. With that, we can be inspired by Song of Solomon to gain a better understanding of ourselves and others as we experience our own cycle of life.
Andrews, Ted. Animal Speak. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications. 1993. Print.
Lee, Catherine Carr. “The South in Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon: Initiation, Healing, And Home.” Studies In The Literary Imagination 31.2 (1998): 109-123. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 23 Nov. 2013.
Hambira, Rupert, Rev. “Those who do not know the village they come from, will not find the village they are looking”. Echoes The Earth As Mother. World Council of Churches. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.
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Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Penguin Group. 1987. Print.
“Tree Symbolism Ancient & Mystical Teachings.” Universe of Symbolism. Presley Love. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. Web.
Professor J. Isles