Song of Solomon

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Themes and Colors
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Song of Solomon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon

As important as the relations between blacks and whites is to Song of Solomon, Morrison is equally interested in dramatizing the relationship between men and women.

In spite of (or even because of) the racism they endure from white culture, many black men in the story are abusive and cruel to black women. Guitar, for instance, regards women as inferior beings to men, even muttering to himself that Hagar is worthless because Milkman has decided that she is worthless. Most of the other women in the novel endure abuse from men: Reba, who’s attacked by a man she brings home; Ruth, who’s beaten by her husband, etc. Even Solomon, according to the history that Milkman constructs from talking to Susan Byrd and Circe, is a cruel man, who when he flies home to Africa also abandons his wife, Ryna, who goes insane with grief shortly thereafter.

Setting aside the specific actions that men take against women, it’s clear that women and men are both, in a sense, trapped. Women are confined to the roles and places to which the rules of femininity confine them, while the same goes for men and the rules of masculinity. Most of the women in Song of Solomon are confined to the house, and occupy themselves with housekeeping duties. Ruth spends much of her adult life at home alone. At first she tries to use stereotypically feminine pastimes like decorating and cleaning as opportunities to bond with her husband, Macon. She makes decorative bowls full of fruit and flowers, but they do nothing to impress Macon — gender roles keep Ruth and Macon in their separate spheres. Similarly, Corinthians finds herself unable to find work after graduating from Bryn Mawr; she also finds it difficult to find a husband (Morrison hints that men are intimidated by intelligent women.) Eventually, she’s forced to work as a maid — one of the most stereotypically feminized jobs there is — an occupation she finds humiliating.

If women tend to stick to feminine jobs and pursuits, then men do the same, and in much the same sense, they’re trapped there. Milkman, for instance, doesn’t get to go to college and see the rest of the country because, as the son of Macon Dead, he must stay behind to help his father run the family business. For years, he’s imprisoned by his own devotion to money — both the company finances and his own greed. However, while men have many obligations and duties that women don’t, they enjoy much greater freedom than women do. Business obligations aside, men have an easier time traveling safely than do women; both Guitar and Milkman venture to Virginia, for example. Men also have an easier time moving from one sexual partner to another. It is Milkman who tires of Hagar, not the other way around; perhaps this is because Milkman’s culture encourages men to develop their sexual potency, while women are demonized for infidelity.

If the world of Song of Solomon is split into feminine and masculine spheres, what to do about it? As usual, Pilate sets a good example. Though she’s a devoted mother and grandmother, she also blurs gender norms by working as a bootlegger, a stereotypically masculine profession, and when Milkman first meets her, she’s wearing men’s clothing. Milkman seems to be following Pilate’s example at the end of the book — instead of resorting to violence, a stereotypically masculine endeavor, he seems to be offering Guitar love and friendship. The rules of masculinity and femininity can’t be changed overnight, Morrison suggests, but individual people can help to change them.

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Masculinity and Femininity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Masculinity and Femininity appears in each chapter of Song of Solomon. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Masculinity and Femininity Quotes in Song of Solomon

Below you will find the important quotes in Song of Solomon related to the theme of Masculinity and Femininity.
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

“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

“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 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.

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.