Song of Solomon

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Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Analysis

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Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon

As Morrison has written in her introduction to Song of Solomon, the novel moves from a state of no mercy to mercy. In the early chapters, we’re confronted with a cold, cruel world where even the hospital nurses aren’t very sympathetic when a man jumps off the roof. Macon is ruthless in collecting rent from his tenants, and Feather is equally stubborn in refusing to allow Milkman the child into his pool hall, simply because he hates Macon.

These last two examples of “no mercy” are significant, because they’re identical: Macon’s cruelty to Feather leads directly to Feather’s cruelty to Milkman. It’s the ancient principle of “an eye for an eye,” and it’s this principle with which mercy must be contrasted. We see “no mercy” in perhaps its most extreme form with the Seven Days group, which balances out every murder of a black person with the murder of a white person. This is Guitar’s harsh, unfeeling definition of justice: every crime must be countered with an equal crime.

The doctrine of “no mercy” has no conclusion— it just leads to an endless cycle of action and reaction, crime and punishment, revenge against previous acts of revenge. Guitar’s revenge will never be finished, and neither will Macon’s unpopularity in Michigan. If “no mercy” is to be converted into mercy, the novel suggests, the change must begin with individual people who, either through their own innate goodness or a sudden, spiritual epiphany, decide to forgive others.

The most compelling examples of mercy in the novel come from Pilate and Reba, who seem almost innately good. Even when they’re victimized, they respond with as much mercy as they can muster. When Guitar and Milkman steal Pilate’s bones, for instance, Pilate goes out of her way to think of a lie so that they wont be kept in jail. Even when Milkman’s cruelty leads to Hagar’s depression and death, Pilate doesn’t kill Milkman; she hits him over the head with a bottle and later lets him go. If Guitar were in Pilate’s position, he’d kill Milkman without a second thought. Mercy, then, is the suspension of “an eye for an eye,” and it hinges on the principle of forgiveness.

The final scene of Song of Solomon sets mercy and no mercy — forgiveness and “an eye for an eye” — against one another. Either Milkman will avenge Pilate’s death and restore a “balance” of justice, or he’ll forgive Guitar for his sins, remembering all the love and help Guitar has given him over the years. Ultimately, mercy is a personal choice — there’s no logic or argument that can “prove” that mercy is better than no mercy. In this way, Morrison ends her novel by passing moral responsibility from herself to us: Milkman has to choose between mercy and no mercy, and so does the reader.

Mercy and Forgiveness ThemeTracker

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

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


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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).

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

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

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

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).