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Toni Morrison - Song of Solomon

Examine Toni Morrison’s portrayal of a hidden ancestral myth in Song of Solomon and the extent to which it is undermined by her presentation of male-female relationships in the novel.

Morrison is concerned with the ancestral myth for what it has to teach us about male-female relationships, as well as the roots of African American culture. It is often hard to distinguish whether Morrison’s main concern is race or gender since her novel Song of Solomon incorporates both themes. However, Morrison’s somewhat negative portrayal of the flighty male characters seems to suggest, in my opinion, that Morrison is more interested in her presentation of male-female relationships.

Morrison’s hidden ancestral myth is inextricably linked with Milkman Dead’s quest for first freedom and wealth, and later his identity which is tied up with his ancestor’s past. The most prominent ancestral myth within Song of Solomon is that of the flying black men which is eventually traced back to Milkman’s great-grandfather, Solomon. The first instance of flight mentioned by Morrison in her novel is that of the ‘flight’ of Robert Smith from the roof of Mercy Hospital the day before Milkman is born. Morrison implies that this incident unconsciously affected Milkman:

Mr. Smith’s blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier – that only birds and airplanes could fly – he lost all interest in himself. (1)

Instead, Milkman takes enjoyment in artificial flight when he travels on a plane, which ‘exhilarated him, encouraged illusion and a feeling of invulnerability.’ (2)

However, Milkman’s quest traces back the origin of the black flight myth to his great-grandfather, Solomon, who flew from slavery, leaving behind his wife, Ryna, and twenty-one children. Although Solomon’s memory lives on in the “Sugarman” blues song, Milkman’s quest is necessary to identify the real identity of Solomon. Although Milkman rejoices in the knowledge of the discovery of his flying ancestor, Sweet functions to remind the reader that Solomon abandoned his family. Through Milkman’s selfish ‘flight’ motivated by greed, and Solomon’s flight, ‘in response to intolerable pressures and constraints’ (3) that could be excused if it were not for his abandonment of Ryna, Morrison emphasises the irresponsibility of men’s flight. Morrison also reminds us of the abandoned women – Ryna and Hagar – the female ancestors who have been forgotten while the men’s names live on in song or legend. A consequence of male flight is that the children ‘suffer discontinuity of every kind. They lose their homes, a sense of their fathers, a sane and stable mother, and even their racial roots’. (4) Proof of this is Macon Dead who is totally alienated from his ancestral identity.

The process of naming black people is also rooted deeply in the ancestral myth. Through Milkman’s quest we learn that the first Macon Dead, who acquired his name from a drunken white soldier, was really called Jake. However, names can also have a positive effect on identity. In reaction to the names given by whites, the blacks give each other names ‘in recognition of some personal attribute.’ (5) Guitar admits that while Bains is ‘the slave master’s name’ (6), Guitar’ reflects his longing for a guitar as a child. More sinister is Milkman’s nickname, which indicates the unnatural breastfeeding that occurred for too long, and is therefore associated with shame. However, Karla Holloway argues that Milkman ‘has so much womanness in him that he alone gains the power to return to the feminine myth of the song, learn his heritage, and share this sustaining myth in an intimate reconnection of the men and women who have been “dead.”’ (7) Naomi Van Tol argues that ‘[o]nly through knowledge of the names that have gone before can Milkman arrive at an understanding and acceptance of his own name, and at last feel true love for himself and his people.’ (8) When Milkman becomes comfortable with the earth, he finally ‘understands and accepts his name for what it is: “‘Milkman’ as a testimony to his mother’s need for love after the loss of her father, ‘Dead’ as a testimony to his father’s need for possessions after the loss of his father”(Rushdy 316)’. (9)

Names are also significant for the whole of the Dead family, because of their practice of randomly choosing a name from the Bible. Van Tol argues that power for Morrison is associated with ‘the power to name, to define reality and perception’, in particular Pilate’s attachment to her name, which she wires through her earlobe. Pilate’s recognition of the importance of the name to Jake and the use of Sing’s box means that she ‘links her past and present together with the unshakeable love needed to create the possibility of a real future.’ (10) Only when Pilate can understand her past can she create a positive future.

The importance of song is also a key link to the ancestors: ‘The solution to Milkman’s quest is found in the words and the rhythms of a song, the same song his aunt Pilate sings’. (11) This is most obvious in Pilate’s “Sugarman” song that unconsciously links her to her grandfather, Solomon. What is ironic is that while Solomon abandoned his children, ‘it was the children who sang about it and kept the story of his leaving alive.’ (12) Later when Milkman hears the children singing he realises that his family exist in the song. What the children are singing are ‘the plaintive words sung by Solomon’s wife, Ryna, who died of sorrow after his Africa-bound departure’. (13) However, Pilate’s urge to sing resulted from a confused message from the ghost of Jake. Her confusion of Jake’s command, ‘Sing, sing’ (14) leads Pilate to sing in order to relieve her depression. However, the act of singing is ultimately linked to her mother, Sing. Singing is a positive link to the Dead ancestors because of its appeal and comfort, even for Macon Dead the second, who lurks outside Pilate’s house listening to their song. At the end of Song of Solomon, Pilate passes on the importance of singing to Milkman, and ‘like Ryna and Hagar before him, Milkman pleads in abandoned despair: “Sugargirl don’t leave me here...”.’ (15) The songs express a sense of loss as well as remembrance.

Arguably, the complexity of the male-female relationships in Song of Solomon can be traced back to the ancestral myth. The key figures in the myth are the males: ‘Ruth’s father is her only important parent; Pilate’s mother dies giving birth and is little remembered by her elder brother, Macon Dead’ (16) therefore the male-female relationships are inevitably unequal. The original male-female relationship is that of Solomon and Ryna. Solomon is admired for his amazing ability to fly, and this miraculous feat tends to overshadow his abandonment of his wife and children. Little is told of Ryna except that Solomon’s abandonment of her sends Ryna crazy. Susan Byrd tells Milkman about Ryna’s Gulch, where Ryna’s memory lives on. When Solomon left Ryna it was reported that she ‘screamed and screamed, lost her mind completely’ and Susan Byrd defines Ryna as the kind of woman who cannot live without ‘a particular man.’ (17) Whereas Solomon lives on in the memory of the song, Ryna is remembered only through her screams that echo through Ryna’s Gulch.

This is followed, chronologically though not in Morrison’s novel, by the relationship between Jake and Sing. Jake is remembered alongside Solomon in the song because he was the son that Solomon chose to take with him. When Jake is dropped, Sing’s mother, Heddy Byrd adopts him. However, Jake becomes known as Macon Dead, a name that Sing makes him keep. Like Ryna, little is known about Sing except that she was one of the women who ‘loved too hard’ (18), which sets the tone for the outcome of the relationship between Hagar and Milkman. When Circe tells him the story of Sing, Milkman immediately thinks about Hagar and her obsessive love. It is apt then that Sing dies in child labour and is forgotten by her children, Macon Dead the second and Pilate. Only the ghost of Jake reminds Pilate of Sing in his uttering ‘Sing, sing’. Sing’s memory is only resurrected when Milkman embarks upon his quest, but she is only important to Milkman in her relationship with Jake.

Macon Dead and Ruth Foster’s relationship is destroyed because of their past. The root of their rift is Ruth’s relationship with her father, Dr. Foster, and Macon Dead’s loss of his father, Jake. What is vital to the relationship of Macon and Ruth is that there is not a single truth, but two different stories about Ruth’s relationship with her father. The ‘conflicting and irreconcilable versions of the past that he hears from each of his parents’ (19), determines the impossibility of a future for them. Macon rejects his wife because he ‘believes he saw Ruth naked in bed with her father’s bloated and diseased body’. However, Ruth defends herself, first with her insistence that she was not naked, second with her ‘overwhelming bereavement’ over the doctor’s death, and finally her loss of a sexual relationship with Macon. (20) Likewise, Macon Dead is affected in turn by his relationship with his father, Jake, who is shot by whites. He internalises his father’s rural accumulation but transfers it to an impulse to ‘‘rent it, buy it, sell it, own it’ by becoming a heartless landlord.’ (21)

Barbara Rigney argues that many women in Morrison’s novels are ‘servile and indulgent, if only with their sons, and thus they are guilty of destroying the very sons about whom they are so passionate’. (22) Ruth’s own bizarre past affects in turn her relationship with her son, Milkman, who she nurses to an unhealthy age. Consequently, Milkman gains his sordid name that acts as a reminder of Ruth’s unnatural behaviour. Ruth blames her inexistent relationship with Macon Dead and the loss of her own father for her morbid attachment to her son. At first, Milkman is filled with ‘shame and impotence’ (23) at the thought of his mother’s breastfeeding, but during his quest, he realises that her over-mothering is a result of love. This is similar to the excessive love that Hagar receives from her two “mothers”, which renders her vulnerable to rejection.

Milkman’s rebellion against his parents’ twisted relationship leads him to seek out the company of the forbidden aunt, Pilate. Pilate exists in order to keep the matrilineal line alive, with her opposing values to Macon’s obsession with materialism. Milkman is drawn to Pilate for ‘the forbidden fruit of her knowledge’ (24) which urges him to find out about his hidden ancestors. Not only is Pilate his spiritual guide, she becomes a kind of surrogate mother to Milkman because of her role in creating and preserving his life. Pilate is an inspiration to Macon because of her ability to ‘fly without leaving the ground.’ (25) However, Pilate displays weakness in her failure to accurately interpret her dead father’s messages, which must be explained by Milkman. Even a strong woman like Pilate is shown as inferior to men. As Davis argues, quoting Beauvoir, ‘women “still dream through the dreams of men”’ (26), therefore, even Pilate needs Milkman to explain her visions. At one stage, Milkman betrays Pilate, by stealing her sack of bones, but his quest teaches him that he should be grateful for the love of Pilate and Ruth.

The past that can be traced through the ancestral myth also affects the relationship between Milkman and Hagar. While Milkman is sexually drawn to Hagar at a young age, he does not love her. After indulging in a sexual relationship with Hagar for nineteen years, he cruelly rejects her by sending her a thank you note and money one Christmas. As Keith Byerman states, Milkman’s rejection of Hagar ‘is the emotional equivalent of his father’s eviction notices’. (27) His lack of knowledge about women and his selfishness means that Milkman chooses the worst way of ending his relationship with Hagar. Because of her pampered childhood, Hagar cannot cope with rejection, and consequently resorts to hormonal violence once a month.

Unconsciously the past is repeating itself because Ryna’s story was not passed down along with the song of Solomon. While Milkman ‘dreamt of flying, Hagar was dying.’ (28) However, the relationship is also determined by the upbringing of Hagar, who is accustomed to receiving anything she asks for. While Corinthians and Lena have experienced male-female relationships, although somewhat limited, at an early age, Hagar has had ‘an insulated and pampered childhood’ (29). Although the close female network provide Hagar with everything she could possibly want as a child, their ‘totally uncontingent and supportive love may have taken from her the development of the strength she needed to survive Milkman’s abandoning her.’ (30) Hagar, like her great-grandmother, Sing, is a ‘victim of obsessive love’. (31) The result of her receiving everything she wants is that she does not know how to give anything up.

Milkman’s relationship with his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdelena called Lena, is characterised by Lena’s accusation that he ‘peed on’ (32) them. Matus argues that this ‘symbolises not only Milkman’s relation to his sisters but more generally that of men to women’ in Song of Solomon. (33) Milkman is completely unaware of his abuse of his sisters until Lena accuses him of ‘ordering us, and judging us’ even as a child. (34) Corinthians’ relationship with Porter provides ‘proof of her status as family property’ (35) because Milkman tries to terminate the relationship out of concern about his reputation rather than her happiness. Although he is younger and less experienced than his sisters are, Milkman assumes that he has the right to command their lives. Ultimately Corinthians’ escape from the family home triggers Lena into her confrontation of Milkman – she may be trapped within the Dead home, but she refuses to remain silent. Ironically, the attack from Lena is ‘the impetus that sends him’ on his quest. (36)

Even to Macon Dead, their father, Corinthians and Lena are used for selfish reasons. The sisters are ‘twin status symbols for Macon to dress up and parade’ (37) during his Sunday drives in the family car, protecting them from the advances of unsuitable men, even in their forties. Lena tells Milkman how Macon ‘displayed us, then he splayed us.’ (38) While Corinthians obtains a good education, Lena regrets that she could not go to college because of Macon – she was ‘afraid of what he might do to Mama.’ (39) Through her work, Corinthians meets Henry Porter who is her escape route from Macon Dead’s house, but Lena is condemned to ‘living as a vestal virgin’ (40). If Macon Dead had his way he would ‘doom them to perpetual virginity’, but the girls refuse to turn into their sex-starved mother. Corinthians throws herself onto Porter’s car in a desperate cry for love in order to avoid the emptiness of Ruth’s world. Whether or not Corinthians loves Porter, her intimate relationship with him can only be an improvement to her role as servant and status symbol within the Dead household.

Only with his relationship with Sweet does Milkman understand the importance of a sharing relationship. His relationship with Sweet encourages Milkman to return the affection and attention that Sweet bestows upon him: ‘He made up the bed. She gave him gumbo to eat. He washed the dishes. She washed his clothes and hung them out to dry.’ (41) However, he ultimately leaves Sweet, just as he does with all the other women in his life. Although Milkman’s original motives are selfish, ‘what he learns finally from his sister’s accusations and from Hagar’s violent love is how to return life to those who gave it to him.’ (42) What Milkman learns from his women guides eventually saves him – he ‘learns in time to listen to the feminine earth and save himself from Guitar’s attack.’ (43) Milkman internalises Pilate’s belief that you cannot just leave a body when he accepts Hagar’s hair as a sign of his responsibility for her death.

Due to his involvement with the Seven Days, Guitar Bains is not able to have a relationship with a woman. Partly responsible for his distance from women is his relationship with his mother, whom he resents for his inability to protect her from the ruthless white men, who pay her forty dollars after the death of his father. Although Guitar displays compassion and understanding to the deranged Hagar, his incapability of having a relationship with a woman leads him to opt for ‘the camaraderie of the Seven Days’. (44)

Milkman’s quest originates from a greed for gold, but yields the richness of a personal ancestry of the Dead family. What Milkman learns from this ancestral myth is vital for its implications on present relationships between males and females as well as a whole community. Whether Morrison’s focus is the origins of the African American race or the issue of gender inequality is unclear because the two themes are so tightly interwoven in Song of Solomon. The ancestral myth is only undermined by Morrison’s comments that disagree with the remembrance of men rather than women. Morrison implies in her portrayal of Pilate that only a strong female line can change the inequality of male-female relationships.


  1. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 9
  2. Ibid. p. 220
  3. Jill Matus, Toni Morrison (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 79
  4. Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, "The Interdependence of Men's and Women's Individuation" in New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison , Karla F. C. Holloway and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, (New York, Westport, Connecticut, and London: Greenwood Press, 1987), p. 88
  5. Naomi Van Tol, "The Fathers May Soar: Folklore & Blues in Song of Solomon", [26 February 1999]
  6. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 160
  7. Karla Holloway, "The Lyrics of Salvation" in New Dimensions of Spirituality , eds. Holloway and Dematrakopoulos, p. 112
  8. Naomi Van Tol, "The Fathers May Soar"
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Barbara Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991), p. 8
  12. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 322
  13. Naomi Van Tol, "The Fathers May Soar"
  14. Morrison, Song of Solomon, p. 208
  15. Naomi Van Tol, "The Fathers May Soar"
  16. Matus, Toni Morrison , p. 84
  17. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 323
  18. Ibid. p. 243
  19. Matus, Toni Morrison , p. 82
  20. Holloway, "The Lyrics od Salvation", p. 109
  21. Matus, Toni Morrison , p. 75
  22. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison , p. 96
  23. Ibid. p. 87
  24. Ibid. p. 13
  25. Matus, Toni Morrison , p. 84
  26. Cynthia A. Davis, "Self, Society, and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction" in Toni Morrison , ed. Harold Bloom (New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990), p. 22
  27. Keith E. Byerman, "Beyond Realism: The Fictions of Toni Morrison" in Toni Morrison , ed. Bloom, p. 72
  28. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 332
  29. Demetrakopoulos, "The Interdependence of Men's and Women's Individuation", p. 97
  30. Ibid. p. 97
  31. Linden Peach, Toni Morrison (London: MacMillan, 1995), p. 60
  32. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 213
  33. Matus, Toni Morrison , p. 83
  34. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 215
  35. Demetrakopoulos, "The Interdependence of Men's and Women's Individuation", p. 96
  36. Holloway, "The Lyrics of Salvation", p. 111
  37. Demetrakopoulos, "The Interdependence of Men's and Women's Individuation", pp. 94-95
  38. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 216
  39. Ibid. p. 215
  40. Demetrakopoulos, "The Interdependence of Men's and Women's Individuation", p. 96
  41. Morrison, Song of Solomon , p. 285
  42. Holloway, "The Lyrics of Salvation", p. 112
  43. Ibid. p. 113
  44. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison , p. 87


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    Holloway, Karla F. C. and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York, Westport, Connecticut, and London: Greenwood Press, 1987.

    Matus, Jill Toni Morrison. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998.

    Morrison, Toni Song of Solomon. London: Vintage, 1998.

    Peach, Linden Toni Morrison. London: MacMillan, 1995.

    Rigney, Barbara The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991.

    Tol, Naomi Van "The Fathers May Soar: Folklore & Blues in Song of Solomon"