Corinthians works as a maid for a white poet, Miss Graham, but she calls herself an amanuensis. She spent three years at college, including one year in France, so it’s unfortunate that her education doesn’t lead to a better profession. Her parents thought she would marry well because of her education and beautiful skin, but bachelors didn’t like her lack of “drive” — she was too pampered, and unwilling to work hard at anything. Many men avoid Corinthians because she is more educated than they are. Eventually, she and Lena accept that they’re probably not going to marry anyone, much less doctors.
We’re finally given a tour of Corinthians’s inner thoughts, and discover that she’s miserable. Raised in a prosperous household, she has to go through the humiliation of remaining single and then working as a humble maid. This isn’t entirely her fault — her college degree, supposedly an asset in finding a career and a husband, actually keeps her apart from others.
Corinthians attended Bryn Mawr, which has prepared her for a life of idleness by making her feel that she’s too good to do any work. Eventually Corinthians becomes a maid, deliberately not telling her family what she does. The woman she works for, Miss Graham, is relatively liberal, and is proud of herself for hiring a black maid. Corinthians never tells Miss. Graham that she’s a college graduate. After a point, she realizes that working as a maid is good, even if it’s sometimes humiliating — she’s paid decently, and more importantly, has her own money.
This is a pretty devastating attack on the college education, but it’s important to take it with a grain of salt (Toni Morrison has spent the last two decades teaching at Princeton, after all). What we’re reading here isn’t Morrison’s opinion, but Corinthians’ — in other words, this is how she sees college. Morrison also describes other characters’ thoughts in free indirect discourse here — for instance, Miss Graham, who is a caricature of the “weak liberal” who hires a black servant, but still treats her as a servant.
Miss Graham is a poet whose work has brought her minor success, culminating in her winning the State Poet Laureateship, though her publishers are reluctant to publish her complete works. Her assistant, Michael-Mary, hires Corinthians almost entirely because of her unusual name, and later offers to teach her to type.
Miss Graham’s weak liberalism doesn’t absolve her from racism — Corinthians is only hired in the first place because she’s exotic, a fact which Michael-Mary freely admits. And Graham is a victim of bigotry as well as a practitioner of it — we sense that her publishers might be unwilling to publish her collected poems because of sexism (though it’s certainly possible that it’s because she’s a lousy poet; indeed, Morrison might be poking fun at all the mediocre, pseudo-liberal writers she’s come across in her long career!)
Corinthians rides the bus to work, and finds herself sitting next to the same man every day. One day, he gives her an envelope containing a poem about friendship. Corinthians ignores the envelope at first, but eventually she starts to talk to the man, named Henry Porter. While she begins to like him, she is glad she hasn’t told anyone about him, since he is a yard worker. She allows Porter to take her to drive-in movies, but can’t hide her shame at going out with a poorer man. When Porter points this out to her, Corinthians tells him that she’s worried that her father won’t approve.
Corinthians’ misery is in some ways self-imposed. She holds herself aloof from other people, condemning herself to loneliness. She also reveals herself to be a grown child — still dependent on her father, even after she’s no longer financially dependent on him.
Porter drives Corinthians home from a drive-in movie, and tells her that he doesn’t want to go out with a woman who’s still afraid of her father. Corinthians realizes that she can’t think of a single “grown-up woman.” She storms out of the car, but then runs back to where he is still parked, realizing, with great shame, that she can’t do any better than a yardman. She remembers carrying rose petals as a small child and watching Smith jump off the roof of the hospital.
Corinthians’s failure to think of a grown-up woman indicates the extent of sexism in America in the 20th century, but it also indicates how sheltered Corinthians has been. There are plenty of grown-up women out there (Pilate?); Corinthians is just too sheltered to search for them.
Corinthians climbs in front of Porter’s car, so that he can’t drive away. Eventually, Porter lets her back into the car; she cries, and he takes her to his home, which Macon owns. The narrator notes that this is the same home where Porter had urinated and waved a shotgun while begging for sex years and years ago.
Morrison confirms what we already suspected — Porter is the same man who made a drunken fool of himself years and years ago.
In Porter’s home, Porter has sex with Corinthians, despite her protests. They fall asleep, and the next day Corinthians notices that Porter keeps old calendars; when she asks him why, he just says that it passes the time.
In one of the darkest sections of this book, Porter — who had seemed to be a fairly nice, charming man — rapes Corinthians. There’s an important lesson here: just because Corinthians holds herself aloof from others doesn’t mean that the “others” are automatically good. Relationships between men and women are never easy in this novel, and women nearly always have it worse.
Porter drives Corinthians back to her house, where she walks in to hear Milkman arguing with Macon. Macon is angry that Milkman has included Guitar in their scheme to steal the gold, but Milkman points out that since the sack they stole contains no gold, there’s no point in arguing over whether to include Guitar or not. Milkman mentions that he and Guitar were thrown in jail for two hours, because the sack they found contained human bones — Macon reveals that he used his money and influence to pay off the cops and free Guitar and Macon. Milkman says he’s grateful, but then laughs — Macon has spend fifty years believing the falsehood that Pilate stole his gold.
Corinthians’s plotline merges and then transitions to the plotline involving the gold. It takes us a while to pick up what’s going on, exactly, but when we do, it becomes clear that Macon and Milkman have become closer, since Macon has used his power to free Milkman from jail. Though Milkman laughs, it’s tragic that Macon has spent all this time hating his beloved sister because of his own irrational greed.
Milkman contemplates his time in jail. Pilate had been called down to the police station, where she confirmed that he and Guitar had stolen the sack — Milkman says that they did so as a joke, to which Pilate adds that the bones belong to her late husband, Mr. Solomon, who had been lynched years ago. After Milkman was released from his cell, Pilate meets Macon and tells him a different story about the bones: after their clash in the cave, Pilate waited until Macon left, and then walked away, singing the whole time. Three years later, she says, the spirit of her father told her, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body.” Interpreting this to mean that she can’t leave the dead body in the cave, she returned and took the bones back to the town.
For all his greed and respect for his father’s power, Milkman has enough decency to feel ashamed that Pilate covers for him and Guitar, if not enough to refrain from robbing her. Again, Pilate mentions the spirit of her father. It’s not clear if we’re meant to take this literally — which would make Song of Solomon a work of magical realism, where supernatural events comingle with realistic ones — or figuratively (Pilate doesn’t actually believe she saw her father, or she does but we shouldn’t take her seriously).
Milkman goes home and thinks about the shame he felt in front of Pilate, mostly the fact that she was willing to lie for him instead of pressing charges. He thinks about everything Pilate has done for him — made him food, shown him beauty, etc. He thinks about Guitar and realizes that he has murdered and will murder again. Shortly thereafter he sees a car in which sit the Tommys, Empire State, a man named Nero, and another whose name he doesn’t know; Milkman realizes that they must belong to Guitar’s Seven Days group.
Pilate’s presence in the novel becomes increasingly Christ-like (ironically, considering her name, that of the Christ-killer). She has a boundless capacity for good and forgiveness, and in her presence, the sins of other people become more apparent: Milkman sees, as if for the first time, that Guitar is a murderer, and that his accomplices are people Milkman knows well.
Soon after, Lena takes Milkman and brings him along to a place where she shows him a tree. Years ago, she had taken Milkman out of Macon’s car to urinate, and planted some twigs she found there. In the years since then the twigs have grown into a tree, but now the tree is dying. Milkman dismisses this sight and makes a joke about it. Lena is so angry that she hits Milkman in the mouth, saying that Milkman is destructive and cruel. She also accuses him of telling Macon that Corinthians has been seeing Porter, a charge which Milkman admits to immediately. Lena insists that Porter is the best Corinthians can do, but Milkman replies that he’s not a good man.
The tree in this passage seems to symbolize the way childish optimism — both Milkman’s and Lena’s — can eventually turn into disillusionment and despair. In another sense, the tree symbolizes Milkman himself — he’s squandered his potential for goodness and happiness, betraying Pilate. It’s unclear who’s in the right here: Lena (with whom we’ve spent little time thus far) seems deeply moral at first, criticizing Milkman for his callousness, but then turns practical, reasoning that Corinthians can’t do any better than Porter (though we know full well that Porter is a rapist). Conversely, Milkman seems petty for tattling to Macon about Porter, but we know that he’s right to protect his sister from Porter, even if he’s doing it for the wrong reasons.
Furious, Lena tells Milkman that for years, Macon has been treating his daughters like jewels to be shown off, and then humiliating both of them. Now, Milkman has turned out much the same way as his father— he has grown into a cruel, selfish man.
It’s not clear how much we’re supposed to like Milkman. Certainly, he can be cruel and callous toward others, especially women. But if Lena refuses to forgive Milkman for his sins, perhaps we should do better, accepting his faults but also encouraging him to be a better man, as Pilate does.