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.
Masculinity and Femininity ThemeTracker
Masculinity and Femininity Quotes in Song of Solomon
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.
“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.”
“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.
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?
“…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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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?”