Song of Solomon

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Ruth Foster Character Analysis

The melancholy wife of Macon Dead II, Ruth attempts early in their marriage to forge a connection with her husband, but ultimately gives up and takes refuge in her own memories, particularly those of her father, Doctor Foster. It’s unclear what their relationship was — at various times, it’s characterized as a sexual relationship but at others as a close, non-sexual relationship. In either event, it’s clear that Ruth feels unfulfilled with her seemingly happy life as the wife of a wealthy man — her big house is a prison for her.

Ruth Foster Quotes in Song of Solomon

The Song of Solomon quotes below are all either spoken by Ruth Foster or refer to Ruth Foster. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Power of Names Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Song of Solomon published in 2004.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

As she unfolded the white linen and let it billow over the fine mahogany table, she would look once more at the large water mark. She never set the table or passed through the dining room without looking at it. Like a lighthouse keeper drawn to his window to gaze once again at the sea, or a prisoner automatically searching out the sun as he steps into the yard for his hour of exercise, Ruth looked for the water mark several times during the day. She knew it was there, would always be there, but she needed to confirm its presence. Like the keeper of the lighthouse and the prisoner, she regarded it as a mooring, a checkpoint, some stable visual object that assured her that the world was still there; that this was life and not a dream. That she was alive somewhere, inside, which she acknowledged to be true only because a thing she knew intimately was out there, outside herself.

Related Characters: Ruth Foster
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Ruth Foster, the frustrated, sheltered wife of Dr. Foster, spends most of her time inside her husband's large, impressive house. Because she's so lonely, she tries to occupy herself with cooking and cleaning, but to no avail. In this quotation, we see Ruth fixating on a tiny water mark on her mahogany table. It's strange to imagine any adult obsessing over something so trivial. And yet Ruth is so lonely that her "friendship" with the watermark, pathetic though it may sound, is practically the only meaningful relationship in her life.

Moreover, Ruth's behavior in this scene indicates her pain and frustration. Ruth is sad with her life, but she's too frightened to escape and find something better. Strangely, she's come to embrace her own pain and frustration--they are a part of herself. By the same token, Ruth embraces the watermark in her house: a tiny, maddening imperfection that she's nonetheless unwilling to do away with.

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Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

They had picture-taking people and everything waiting for the next person to walk in the door. But they never did put my picture in the paper. Me and Mama looked, too, didn’t we?” She glanced at Pilate for confirmation and went on. “But they put the picture of the man who won second prize in. He won a war bond. He was white.” “Second prize?” Guitar asked. “What kind of ‘second prize’? Either you the half-millionth person or you ain’t. Can’t be no next-to-the-half-millionth.” “Can if the winner is Reba,” Hagar said. “The only reason they got a second was cause she was the first. And the only reason they gave it to her was because of them cameras.”

Related Characters: Ruth Foster (speaker), Guitar Bains (speaker), Hagar (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Guitar and Milkman meet Reba and Hagar, the daughters of Pilate. Reba is renowned for her luckiness: she's always the first to win raffles and lotteries. Here, for example, Reba wins a prize for being the five-hundred-thousandth person to walk into a Sears and Roebuck store.

Reba's extreme luckiness tells us a few things about the style of the novel. Above all, her luckiness suggests the magical realism of the book. In real life, almost nobody is as lucky as Reba--and yet within the limits of the story nobody comments on Reba's fortune; it's accepted as a given (the very definition of magical realism). Furthermore, Reba's surreal good luck accentuates the racism of her society. As we learn here, Reba's picture isn't taken after she wins the prize, because the racist newspaper publishers don't want to honor a black woman (they give her the prize money but don't put her picture in the paper). Even with all her luck, Reba still loses out to the racism of her society--a harsh reminder of the extent of all the other black characters' "bad luck."

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“In the bed,” he said, and stopped for so long Milkman was not sure he was going to continue. “In the bed. That’s where she was when I opened the door. Laying next to him. Naked as a yard dog, kissing him. Him dead and white and puffy and skinny, and she had his fingers in her mouth.

Related Characters: Macon Dead II (speaker), Milkman , Ruth Foster, Doctor Foster
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Macon Dead II tells his son, Milkman, the "truth" about Ruth and her father. Macon believes that he's seen Ruth kissing her father in a perverse, incestuous matter: he walked in on her naked and kissing her dying father's fingers. Macon interprets the incident as unambiguously sexual, suggesting that Ruth was locked in some kind of larger sexual relationship with her father.

As we come to see, however, the incident is far from unambiguous. While Macon continues to maintain that Ruth and her father were having an incestuous affair, Ruth herself maintains that her father never touched her, and in fact she was kissing her father's fingers because he was dying, and his fingers were the only parts of his body that he could still feel. Macon--whether he's right or wrong about his wife--has projected his own sexual insecurity onto the incident: i.e., he's so jealous of Ruth that he's assumed she's sleeping with her own father.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?

Related Characters: Milkman , Ruth Foster
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Milkman thinks about Hagar, the woman with whom he's been having an affair. Milkman is attracted to Hagar, but he seems not to think of her as a full human being. As far as Milkman is concerned, Hagar is an "object" for his consumption, not really so different from a beer. Moreover, Hagar isn't even the "first beer"--he's so experienced with women that he thinks of Hagar as a mere indulgence, barely even worth talking about.

Milkman's behavior in this scene is surprising, in no small part because he's being so misogynistic about Hagar. Milkman has no real models for how to treat women: he's surrounded by sexist and women-hating men. Partly as a result, Milkman echoes the mistakes of his father and friends. (The sexism of Milkman's community certainly shouldn't excuse Milkman's behavior, but it provides a partial explanation.) It's also interesting to consider how harsh Morrison is being on Milkman: even though Milkman is the protagonist of the story, Morrison doesn't shy away from showing him in all his faults.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

“…because the fact is that I am a small woman. I don’t mean little; I mean small, and I’m small because I was pressed small. I lived in a great big house that pressed me into a small package. I had no friends, only schoolmates who wanted to touch my dresses and my white silk stockings. But I didn’t think I’d ever need a friend because I had him. I was small, but he was big. The only person who ever really cared whether I lived or died. Lots of people were interested in whether I lived or died, but he cared. He was not a good man, Macon. Certainly he was an arrogant man, and often a foolish and destructive one. But he cared whether and he cared how I lived, and there was, and is, no one else in the world who ever did.

Related Characters: Ruth Foster (speaker), Milkman , Doctor Foster
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ruth tells her son, Milkman, the truth about her own father, Dr. Foster. Ruth claims--contrary to what Milkman has heard from his father, Macon II--that that there was nothing perverse in her relationship with Dr. Foster. Instead, she thought of her father as her protector and only true companion. Ruth knew her father well enough to realize that he wasn't a good man by any stretch of the imagination. But because Ruth was so lonely and sad, she turned to her father anyway; he was the only person who cared about her.

It's important to recognize that while Ruth never specifically talks about any kind of sexual relationship with Foster, she doesn't explicitly deny as much either. Overall, however, we see that she loved her father deeply because he cared about her and protected her. In a world full of sexist men, Ruth had no choice but to lean on her father for support and friendship.

Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

He’d always believed his childhood was sterile, but the knowledge Macon and Ruth had given him wrapped his memory of it in septic sheets, heavy with the odor of illness, misery, and unforgiving hearts. His rebellions, minor as they were, had all been in the company of, or shared with, Guitar. And this latest Jack and the Beanstalk bid for freedom, even though it had been handed to him by his father—assigned almost—stood some chance of success.

Related Characters: Macon Dead II , Milkman , Ruth Foster, Guitar Bains
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

Milkman and Guitar have planned to work together to steal gold from Pilate's house. Milkman wants to steal gold for a number of reasons, but above all, he wants to gain a measure of freedom and independence for himself--he thinks that with the money the gold will provide, he'll be able to travel far away and start a life for himself.

As the quotation indicates, Milkman's desire for freedom and independence is psychological as well as geographic. He's learned a lot about his family in recent months: he knows about the possibly incestuous relationship between his mother and grandfather; his other grandfather's years as a slave, etc. Milkman is, in short, haunted by his family's past, and by the nightmarish legacy of racism as a whole. For now, he thinks that the best way to escape his own past is to make money and use it to "start over."

Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

Amanuensis. That was the word she chose, and since it was straight out of the nineteenth century, her mother approved, relishing the blank stares she received when she told her lady guests what position her daughter had acquired with the State Poet Laureate. “She’s Michael-Mary Graham’s amanuensis.” The rickety Latin word made the work her daughter did (she, after all, wasn’t required to work) sound intricate, demanding, and totally in keeping with her education.

Related Characters: Ruth Foster, First Corinthians, Miss Graham
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we catch up with First Corinthians, the daughter of Ruth and Macon Dead II. First Corinthians has gone to college, and had a wealthy upbringing. And yet after she graduates, she finds that she's unable to get any work for herself, except for humiliating housework. In the end, First Corinthians finds a compromise: she works as an amanuensis, i.e., a literary assistant or secretary, to Miss Graham, a wealthy white woman. Although the work is tiring and extremely basic, First Corinthians is proud that the name of her job is fancy and old-fashioned.

First Corinthians' desire to rename the job with Miss Graham betrays her vanity: she's concerned with how her peers perceive her, and doesn't want to be seen as a failure (a college-educated woman doing unskilled labor). Moreover, the very fact that First Corinthians would only be capable of getting work as an amanuensis suggests the continuing frustrations of racism--to most white employers, an educated black woman is no different from an uneducated one, so when it comes to the practical realities of employment, all First Corinthians' work comes to nothing.

She was First Corinthians Dead, daughter of a wealthy property owner and the elegant Ruth Foster, granddaughter of the magnificent and worshipped Dr. Foster, who had been the second man in the city to have a two-horse carriage, and a woman who had turned heads on every deck of the Queen Mary and had Frenchmen salivating all over Paris. Corinthians Dead, who had held herself pure all these years (well, almost all, and almost pure), was now banging on the car-door window of a yardman.

Related Characters: Ruth Foster, First Corinthians, Henry Porter
Page Number: 197-198
Explanation and Analysis:

First Corinthians has begun a romance with an unlikely suitor, Henry Porter. Henry Porter has a reputation for being an old drunk (indeed, we first see him when he's urinating in public). But in this chapter, Porter seems like a pleasant, self-controlled, middle-aged man. First Corinthians is disgusted with Porter, since she is much younger than he, and comes from a much wealthier family. In the quotation, we see Corinthians repeating her family's legacy like a chant. Pathetically, Corinthians has to remind herself of her family's dignity--her mother's trip to Paris, her grandfather's purchase of a carriage, and other milestones that become increasingly irrelevant with each passing year. Corinthians has no job or husband to be proud of--her only real cultural asset is her family's fading legacy. So although Corinthians might seem snooty and arrogant in the passage, we can also feel sorry for her: she clings to the past because racist society has denied her the present she deserves.

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Ruth Foster Character Timeline in Song of Solomon

The timeline below shows where the character Ruth Foster appears in Song of Solomon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Racism Theme Icon
...outside the building, not in it. The first black woman to be admitted is the daughter of the doctor for whom “Not Doctor Street” is named, which happened the same year... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
The doctor’s daughter sees Smith, wearing blue wings, standing on the cupola and drops the pieces of red... (full context)
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
The next day, the doctor’s daughter gives birth inside the Mercy Hospital, the first black woman to do so. Her child... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Ruth’s son grows up with his older sisters. Ruth is married to an angry, imposing man,... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
At many points throughout the year, Ruth fills a bowl with flowers, twigs, and berries and places it in the center of... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Ruth gets through her days by finding small pleasures, usually when her husband is absent. In... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Based on what he sees, Freddie calls Ruth’s son a “milkman,” and spreads the story of how Ruth nursed him around the Southside... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...he was still bitter. As a younger man, Macon Dead used to enjoy slowly undressing Ruth. He would remove her underwear and roll down her stockings, never revealing her feet, and... (full context)
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...was born, Pilate was extremely interested in the child. She acted like an in-law, helping Ruth and later singing to the child. Pilate used to be Macon’s closest friend, but Macon... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Macon thinks of the first time he met Ruth’s father, Doctor Foster. He was less successful as a landlord at the time, but successful... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 2
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Magdalene, called Lena, and First Corinthians are Macon Dead and Ruth’s daughters. On a Sunday afternoon drive, they sit in the back seat of their parents’... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Lena asks where they are going, and Ruth explains that they’re driving to a beach community. Lena objects that only white people live... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 3
Racism Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...son his business, since it means that his son belongs to him and not to Ruth. While Milkman collects rent, Macon contemplates ways to grow his business. Because he’s black, it’s... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
The last time that Macon hits Ruth occurs when Milkman is 22 years old — and Milkman hits Macon back. Milkman is... (full context)
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
One example of the way Ruth provokes Macon occurs when the family is eating dinner. Ruth describes going to the wedding... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Macon doesn’t believe that Ruth didn’t know about communion, and shouts that Anna Djvorak doesn’t even know Ruth’s name —... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...saddened to have so easily defeated a man whom he once thought unbeatable. Milkman asks Ruth if she’s all right, and notes his sisters, who are 35 and 36, staring at... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...Hagar, and thinks that it has made him kind and generous. He remembers talking with Ruth about going to medical school; Ruth had encouraged him to use his middle name, Foster,... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...room and tells him to sit down, which Milkman does. Macon explains that he married Ruth in 1917, when she was 16 years old. He wasn’t really in love with her,... (full context)
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Macon then adds that after Dr. Foster died, Macon came upon Ruth lying next to her father’s body, kissing him and putting his fingers in her mouth.... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Milkman doesn’t know what to think. He tries to convince himself that he defended Ruth because he loves his mother, but knows deep down that this isn’t true: he begins... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...answer. He thinks to himself that he is thinking coldly and rationally: he’s never loved Ruth, but he sensed that she loved him. He had thought of his visits to Pilate... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 4
Racism Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...his head bashed in. In Tommy’s Barbershop, those old enough to remember joke that Winnie Ruth Judd, a criminally insane white woman who committed multiple murders in the early 1930s and... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...The flowers grow so quickly that soon they’re taller than she is. Milkman senses that Ruth is in danger: she won’t be able to breathe. Guitar asks Milkman why he didn’t... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 5
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...now over sixty, at night. Milkman was coming back from a party when he saw Ruth boarding a bus. He followed the bus to a train station, where he sees Ruth... (full context)
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Milkman confronts Ruth and asks her if she’s here to “spend the night” with her father. Ruth, addressing... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...him. Milkman senses that he won’t die. He thinks back to the previous week, when Ruth learned from Freddie that Hagar was trying to kill Milkman, and that the two of... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Ruth goes to Pilate’s house to talk with her. She hopes to learn that Freddie was... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Pilate tells Ruth that some people choose when they want to die, and others choose to live forever.... (full context)
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...the wine-selling business is thriving during the Great Depression. In the present, Pilate sits with Ruth, telling her all this to distract her from Hagar. (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 12
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
...house and introduces himself as Macon. Susan appears to be around the same age as Ruth; she invites Milkman into her home and introduces him to her friend, Miss Grace Long,... (full context)