Song of Solomon

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Flight Symbol Analysis

Flight Symbol Icon
Song of Solomon begins and ends with images of flight, and abounds with allusions to flying throughout its pages. The “flight” the opens the book is a failure: Smith tries to fly away from Mercy Hospital, but winds up killing himself. As Morrison has noted in her introduction, this episode with Smith suggests the imprisonment of African-Americans: their segregation from the rest of the country; their poverty, arising from racism and oppression; and of course their ancestors’ kidnapping from Africa. Milkman falls into despair as a small child when he realizes that he cannot fly away; in other words, that he’s imprisoned in his community and his family. As the story progresses, Milkman will achieve “flight” – freedom, escape – but also revise his definition of what flight can be.

Flight Quotes in Song of Solomon

The Song of Solomon quotes below all refer to the symbol of Flight. 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 8 Quotes

“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).

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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.

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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Flight Symbol Timeline in Song of Solomon

The timeline below shows where the symbol Flight appears in Song of Solomon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...Smith, leaves a note on the door of his house saying that he plans to fly from Mercy Hospital to “the other side of Lake Superior”—from the South to the North—at... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
...helping her pick up the petals, and one woman begins to sing “O Sugarman done fly.” Hospital officials gather outside, and though they think at first that they are witnessing an... (full context)
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...Her child grows up quiet and introverted, in part because he learns that he can’t fly. His mother, Ruth Foster, lives in the large house that used to belong to her... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 2
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...she isn’t talking about food at all. Together, she, Reba, and Hagar sing, “Sugarman done fly away.” (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 8
Racism Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...they steal the gold. While they’re talking, they see a beautiful white peacock, which can’t fly because its feathers are too heavy. Guitar calls the bird a “white faggot.” Ignoring the... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 9
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 12
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Milkman returns to Sweet’s home, where he spends the night with her. He dreams about flying, and feels invincible. The next day, he wakes up early to find that Omar and... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 14
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
...differently because Grace was present. Now, Susan tells him that Jake was one of “those flying African children.” (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Milkman asks Susan about the “flying African children,” and she mentions the folktale of the slaves who fly back to Africa.... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 15
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Milkman tells Sweet that his great grandfather, Solomon, could fly. He can’t wait to tell everyone what he’s learned: Pilate, his father, and even Reverend... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Milkman remembers the words Pilate claims her own father told her: “You just can’t fly off and leave a body.” He shouts from the basement to Pilate upstairs that Jake... (full context)
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...to “Sugargirl don’t leave me here.” He realizes why he loves her — she could fly without leaving the ground. (full context)
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Milkman, weeping, runs toward Guitar, asking, “You want my life? You need it? Here.” He jumps into the air, and the narrator says that it doesn’t matter which of them dies.... (full context)