Song of Solomon

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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

Some of the city legislators, whose concern for appropriate names and the maintenance of the city’s landmarks was the principal part of their political life, saw to it that “Doctor Street” was never used in any official capacity. And since they knew that only Southside residents kept it up, they had notices posted in the stores, barbershops, and restaurants in that part of the city saying that the avenue running northerly and southerly from Shore Road fronting the lake to the junction of routes 6 and 2 leading to Pennsylvania, and also running parallel to and between Rutherford Avenue and Broadway, had always been and would always be known as Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street.

Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening passage of the novel, we learn that in the town where the story is set (we're never told what town this is, exactly), there was a street that's important to the story. At various points, this street--which ran through a mostly African-American neighborhood--was known as Doctor Street and Mains Street.

As Morrison makes clear, the two names of the street correspond to two different ways of looking at the black community. "Doctor Street" is a testament to the hard work and professionalism of the community: there was indeed a black doctor who operated in the area. "Mains Street," on the other hand, is a bland, forgettable name--an attempt by the white community to erase the culture and success of their black neighbors. From the very beginning, names are important: by changing something (or someone's) name, one can entrench racist ideas.


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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.

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."

“Boy, you got better things to do with your time. Besides, it’s time you started learning how to work. You start Monday. After school come to my office; work a couple of hours there and learn what’s real. Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next, but not this one. Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too. Starting Monday, I’m going to teach you how.”

Related Characters: Macon Dead II (speaker), Milkman
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Macon Dead II, irritated with his son, Milkman, for spending so much time with Pilate, decides to give him some lessons in "being a man." Macon explains that Milkman must begin adulthood by aspiring to own as much as possible: ownership is the only way to be powerful and successful.

Macon's lessons for Milkman are a stark reminder of how many blacks in the U.S. tried to escape racism and gain independence by making money at all costs (a "tough" strategy famously exemplified by Booker T. Washington). Macon's advice seems harsh and deliberately un-spiritual, hence Macon's observation that Pilate's side of life is only fit for Heaven not Earth. Macon seems to believe that there's no point in being religious or hoping for the next world--the only way to get ahead in life is to own things. He has a point, as financial independence is one way for a black man to escape many of the racist obstacles of society, but at the same time Macon's philosophy seems devoid of any real happiness or spiritual fulfillment.

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“Since I was little. Since my father got sliced up in a sawmill and his boss came by and gave us kids some candy. Divinity. A big sack of divinity. His wife made it special for us. It’s sweet, divinity is. Sweeter than syrup. Real sweet. Sweeter than…” He stopped walking and wiped from his forehead the beads of sweat that were collecting there. His eyes paled and wavered. He spit on the sidewalk. “Ho—hold it,” he whispered, and stepped into a space between a fried-fish restaurant and Lilly’s Beauty Parlor.

Related Characters: Guitar Bains (speaker), Milkman
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Guitar, one of Milkman's friends, recalls his childhood, when his father was killed in a sawing accident. Guitar recalls what happened after his father's death in cinematic detail: the sawmill owner gave him sweet candy. Ever since eating the owner's sweet candy, Guitar has found himself unable to enjoy sweetness of any kind.

Guitar's quotation is important on many different levels. First, we have the evocative conceit of a white store owner offering candy to a black child after the child's father dies. This incident is meant to symbolize the way that white Americans (even the well-meaning ones) deal with racism and oppression: instead of trying to solve the problem or make any fundamental change in their way of life, white Americans try to "paper over" the tragedy with sappy cliches or quick fixes--like giving a child candy. Furthermore, the incident forms an important part of Guitar's character: he's so disgusted with the white man's fake kindness that he seems to abandon kindness altogether (symbolized by his rejection of sugar). Perhaps Guitar goes too far in responding to the tragedy in his life: he becomes too brutal in his desire to obtain justice for the deaths of his friends and family, murdering whites as indiscriminately as his own family was murdered.

“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 6 Quotes

“There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can. If the Negro was hanged, they hang; if a Negro was burnt, they burn; raped and murdered, they rape and murder.

Related Characters: Guitar Bains (speaker), Milkman
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Guitar illustrates the iron law of "blood for blood" that he holds as a member of his secret society, the Seven Days. As Guitar sees it, there is a constant "exchange" between the white community and the black community. Whenever a black child is killed by racist whites, the black community as a whole has a duty to avenge the child's death by killing a member of the white community. While most people in the black community lack the determination to avenge their peers' deaths, the aim of Guitar's secret society is precisely to execute whites.

Guitar is calm and intimidating as he explains this violent rule to Milkman. He never stops to address an obvious moral flaw in the system: he and his peers may be executing innocent white people whenever they avenge the murder of an innocent black person. It may be "just" to punish murder with murder, but it isn't exactly fair to group an entire race together and consider them all equally complicit in a crime. While white people can obviously still be racist and uphold racist structures without actually killing black people, in practice the idea that an innocent white child should be killed in exchange for an innocent black child seems brutal and unjust.

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."

“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Milkman asked. “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” The peacock jumped onto the hood of the Buick and once more spread its tail, sending the flashy Buick into oblivion. “Faggot.” Guitar laughed softly. “White faggot.”

Related Characters: Milkman (speaker), Guitar Bains (speaker)
Related Symbols: Flight
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In this symbolic passage, Milkman and Guitar, preparing to steal gold from Pilate's house, notice a large peacock strutting around outside. As Milkman and Guitar discuss the bird, they notice that it's unable to fly: it is so weighed down with its fancy plumage that it can't fly away from its home on the ground.

The peacock has obvious symbolic resonances for the characters--it's like an inkblot test, revealing the characters' psychology. From Milkman's perspective, the bird seems to symbolize the weight of the past. Milkman sees himself as being weighed down by the legacy of his family--slavery, incest, violence, etc. And yet we, the readers, recognize that the peacock is also an omen of the futility of Milkman's plans to free himself. Milkman believes that by stealing gold, he'll be able to "fly away" to a new place--but we suspect that he, like, the peacock, will get too weighed down by his new wealth to find any real freedom at all. Finally, we should note that Guitar thinks of the peacock as the symbol of white extravagance and complacency: the bird, like the average wealthy white man, is a ridiculous, incompetent figure (no match for a clever, motivated black man like Guitar).

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.

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

“Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’ Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’ And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding.

Related Characters: Guitar Bains (speaker)
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

Guitar makes this speech to Milkman, who's being chased by his jealous, spurned lover, Hagar. Guitar's speech is both self-serving and insightful: he argues that all of the United States looks to destroy "the life of a black man." White men and women think of black men as scary and intimidating: they want black men to be quiet and docile, i.e., dead. Guitar goes on to argue that black women want black men to love them completely--in other words, to commit to monogamy and marriage right away, and to not be angry about the racism they have to face.

Guitar's complaints that black women are too "needy" sound like sexism, however: Guitar seems to have no real respect for black women, meaning that he treats them like sexual objects, not human beings. Guitar's speech is designed to make Milkman feel better about ignoring Hagar. Yet in the process, Guitar makes it clear that his own views of women are quite twisted.

He loosened his collar and lit another cigarette. Here in this dim room he sat with the woman who had helped deliver his father and Pilate; who had risked her job, her life, maybe, to hide them both after their father was killed, emptied their slop jars, brought them food at night and pans of water to wash. Had even sneaked off to the village to have the girl Pilate’s name and snuffbox made into an earring. Then healed the ear when it got infected. And after all these years was thrilled to see what she believed was one of them. Healer, deliverer, in another world she would have been the head nurse at Mercy. Instead she tended Weimaraners and had just one selfish wish: that when she died somebody would find her before the dogs ate her.

Related Characters: Milkman , Circe
Related Symbols: The Earring
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moving passage, Milkman--traveling through the country to track down the mysterious gold and learn about his family history--comes face-to-face with a remarkable woman, Circe. Circe is the nurse who delivered Pilate, as well as Macon Dead II, Milkman's father. Furthermore, Circe has spent her entire life caring for others--not just Macon II and Pilate, but children, dogs, strangers, etc. Milkman stops to contemplate the injustice of Circe's life: if she weren't black, she probably would have ended up working as a prestigious nurse or a doctor. Instead, she lives in squalor, devoting herself entirely to helping others.

The scene is an important turning point, since it marks one of the first times in the novel when Milkman shows genuine sympathy for another person--and a woman at that. Milkman is beginning to change--transforming from a selfish, materialistic brat to a more enlightened, forgiving figure. (The passage is also a great example of Morrison's magical realism--it's almost mathematically impossible that Circe could have tended to the Dead family for so long and still be alive, and yet here she is.)

Part 2, Chapter 11 Quotes

It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death. Deserve. Now it seemed to him that he was always saying or thinking that he didn’t deserve some bad luck, or some bad treatment from others. He’d told Guitar that he didn’t “deserve” his family’s dependence, hatred, or whatever. That he didn’t even “deserve” to hear all the misery and mutual accusations his parents unloaded on him. Nor did he “deserve” Hagar’s vengeance. But why shouldn’t his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who? And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he’d thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone—she had a right to try to kill him too.

Related Characters: Milkman , Guitar Bains, Hagar
Page Number: 276-277
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Milkman comes face-to-face with his own selfish behavior. Milkman has spent most of his life believing that he doesn't deserve what's happened to him. He thinks of himself as the victim of an unjust universe: a black man in a racist society; the victim of an angry woman (Hagar); the reluctant bearer of his family's tragic history, etc. At every point, Milkman has pretended that he's above such pain--he claims that he's entitled to better.

As Milkman studies the language of his own thoughts, however (the word "Deserve"), he comes to see how silly his beliefs have been. Milkman recognizes that he's not "entitled" to anything in life--he must accept his problems and pains. Furthermore, he realizes that he does, in fact, deserve some of the hardship he's experienced: he certainly deserves some pain for mistreating Hagar, for example.

Milkman's epiphany has an unmistakably religious flavor--his thought process is similar to that of Job at the end of the Biblical book of Job. Like Job, Milkman realizes that he doesn't automatically deserve anything in life--everything good in his life has been given to him by someone else, while his sins and misdeeds are partly his own, not just the products of a corrupt world.

Part 2, Chapter 12 Quotes

Guitar looked at the cookie again, then back into Milkman’s eyes. Nothing changed in his face. Milkman knew it sounded lame. It was the truth, but it sounded like a lie. A weak lie too. He also knew that in all his life, Guitar had never seen Milkman give anybody a hand, especially a stranger; he also knew that they’d even discussed it, starting with Milkman’s not coming to his mother’s rescue in a dream he had. Guitar had accused him of selfishness and indifference; told him he wasn’t serious, and didn’t have any fellow feeling—none whatsoever. Now he was standing there saying that he willingly, spontaneously, had helped an old white man lift a huge, heavy crate. But it was true. It was true. And he’d prove it.

Related Characters: Milkman , Guitar Bains
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Milkman confronts Guitar, now his sworn enemy. Guitar believes that Milkman has run off with the gold which the two of them tried to steal from Pilate (in reality, there is no gold). Guitar, who wants the gold to fund his secret society, wants to kill Milkman for his betrayal. He confirms his belief that Milkman is a thief when he sees Milkman at the train station, helping an old white man lift a crate into the train. Although Milkman was only helping the man, he knows that from Guitar's perspective, it looks like he's taking Pilate's gold out of the city.

The irony of the scene is that Milkman has become a good man--but too late. Milkman really was trying to help the old man, but because he's spent most of his life refusing to help anyone, he knows full-well that Guitar will never believe the truth. The passage conveys how greatly Milkman has changed in only a few days. The encounters with Circe, and the general spirit of traveling the country in search of his past have taught Milkman to be a stronger, kinder man--the very antithesis of his former self. Milkman's transformation is nothing short of miraculous--and so of course, Guitar (blinded by his hatred) doesn't believe it.

Part 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

“Look at how I look. I look awful. No wonder he didn’t want me. I look terrible.” Her voice was calm and reasonable, as though the last few days hadn’t been lived through at all. “I need to get up from here and fix myself up. No wonder!” Hagar threw back the bedcover and stood up. “Ohhh. I smell too. Mama, heat me some water. I need a bath. A long one. We got any bath salts left? Oh, Lord, my head. Look at that.” She peered into the compact mirror again. “I look like a ground hog. Where’s the comb?”

Related Characters: Hagar (speaker), Milkman
Page Number: 308-309
Explanation and Analysis:

Hagar--still in love with Milkman, and still furious with Milkman for abandoning her--tries to make herself prettier. She's convinced herself that the reason Milkman left her behind is that she's ugly; therefore, the only solution to her problem is to become more beautiful.

Hagar seems calm and controlled; paradoxically, though, her calmness makes her seem more frightening. Instead of lashing out at Milkman, she's begun to blame herself for her own pain and hardship--a poisonous mindset indeed. Milkman's indifference to Hagar's happiness has left her miserable and self-hating. The tragedy is that Milkman has become a better man as a result of his travels through the country--but too late to save Hagar from her fate.

The people turned around. Reba had entered and was singing too. Pilate neither acknowledged her entrance nor missed a beat. She simply repeated the word “Mercy,” and Reba replied. The daughter standing at the back of the chapel, the mother up front, they sang.

Related Characters: Pilate Dead, Hagar, Reba
Page Number: 317
Explanation and Analysis:

Pilate mourns the death of her own daughter, Hagar. Hagar has died, surreally, of a broken heart, largely because Milkman has romanced her and then abandoned her altogether. In church, Pilate and her other daughter, Reba, sing out on behalf of their dead family member. Notice that Pilate and Reba seem almost psychically aware of each other's presence--even without looking up, Pilate recognizes when Reba enters the church, and keeps singing in perfect time.

The scene shows Pilate at her most religious. Pilate sings beautifully on behalf of her dead daughter, and in general, we see her taking on the qualities of a Christ-figure as the novel nears an ending. Notably, Pilate doesn't show any signs of fury or anger with Milkman--unlike Guitar, she's not really concerned with revenge at all; her concern, above all else, is her love for her children.

Part 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

“Yeah. That tribe. That flyin motherfuckin tribe. Oh, man! He didn’t need no airplane. He just took off; got fed up. All the way up! No more cotton! No more bales! No more orders! No more shit! He flew, baby. Lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew on home. Can you dig it? Jesus God, that must have been something to see. And you know what else? He tried to take his baby boy with him. My grandfather. Wow! Woooee! Guitar! You hear that? Guitar, my great-granddaddy could flyyyyyy and the whole damn town is named after him. Tell him, Sweet. Tell him my great- granddaddy could fly.”

Related Characters: Milkman (speaker), Guitar Bains, Solomon
Related Symbols: Flight
Page Number: 328
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Milkman embraces the knowledge he's just learned. His distant ancestor, Jake, was the son of a man named Solomon--a man who's so famous in some parts of country that his name can be found everywhere. Solomon, according to legend, was a slave who, dissatisfied with slavery, decided to fly back to Africa--and did. Solomon tried to take his favorite child, Jake, back to Africa with him, but failed. Now, Milkman realizes, he is the descendant of Jake--and therefore the inheritor of a rich, magical family legacy.

Milkman's joy in this scene stems from the fact that he's finally found a history for himself. After years of being tormented by the knowledge that his grandfather was a pathetic, abused slave, and his other grandfather might have been guilty of incest, Milkman is overjoyed to finally have a family history to be proud of. The fact that this family history is bizarre and possibly imaginary is never addressed. In other words, it's never clear if Solomon's ability to fly is accepted as a fact according to the rules of the novel (i.e., Solomon's flight is an example of magical realism) or if Milkman is so desperate to find something to believe in that he chooses to believe in a myth. Ultimately, though, the reality of Milkman's family history matters less than the effect it has on him. Milkman has finally found a family for himself--one to be embraced, not despised.

He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness.

Related Characters: Milkman
Page Number: 330
Explanation and Analysis:

After "discovering" (in reality, more like, "choosing to believe") that his ancestor Solomon flew back to Africa, Milkman is in a state of bliss. He rides the bus all the way back to his hometown, no longer the least bit concerned with tracking down the gold that motivated his quest in the first place. As he rides the bus, Milkman stares out the window and sees a universe of names, each with its own special story and history.

Milkman has found something more valuable than gold: the power of language. For most of the novel, Milkman has tried to come to terms with his conflicted family legacy, a legacy full of betrayal, incest, and slavery. As we reach the end of the novel, Milkman seems to realize the truth: he's been struggling to find the right words all along. Finally confident in the strength of his family "name," Milkman can see, very clearly, that the struggle for power itself is a struggle for the right to name. Milkman's realization takes us back to the first lines of the novel, in which Morrison showed us how a seemingly trivial dispute over the proper name for "Mains Avenue" reflected the struggle for power between black and white people in the community.

Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Related Characters: Milkman (speaker), Guitar Bains, Solomon
Related Symbols: Flight
Page Number: 337
Explanation and Analysis:

At the very end of the novel, Guitar--still furious with Milkman for supposedly stealing the gold for himself--tries to kill Milkman, accidentally murdering Pilate in the process. Here, Milkman asks Guitar if Guitar wants Milkman's life, and then runs toward him. It's left to us to decide what will happen next: will Guitar kill Milkman; will they embrace and forgive one another, will Milkman "fly away," etc.

Although Morrison ends the novel on a note of ambiguity, a few things are clear. In the second half of the novel, Milkman has become a better man: more selfless, forgiving, and loving. Here, he seems to be forgiving Guitar for his horrendous crime; indeed, Milkman seems to be surrendering all his anger and desire for revenge, preaching forgiveness and mercy to an extent that Guitar seems incapable of matching.

The key word of this final passage is "surrender." Guitar has lived his life based on the belief that surrender is always a sign of weakness: for example, the black community has largely "surrendered" to the white community's authority. In contrast to Guitar's desire for revenge and aggression, Milkman has surrendered completely: he's given up any desire for bloodshed, material wealth, or power. And yet Milkman is anything but weak; on the contrary, his humility and spirituality give him power (here, for example, he's brave and eerily calm, not even shouting at Guitar anymore).

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