Six months have passed since Milkman argued with Guitar. Milkman lies in Guitar’s bed, thinking about being stabbed by an icepick. Five hours earlier, he came to Guitar’s home, and the two of them talked playfully. Since their argument, they’ve been friendlier with each other, largely because Guitar has kept Milkman safe in the last six months, though the narrator doesn’t explain how.
The beginning of Chapter Five is disorienting — we don’t know when we are, we don’t know what’s happened, and we don’t know what sort of danger Milkman is in.
As Milkman and Guitar talk, it becomes clear that Guitar has traveled through the North. Guitar muses that the North is only north because the South is south, even though they’re all part of the same country. Northerners, he admits, are different from Southerners in being pickier with their food. Guitar makes tea, and Milkman jokes about being a soft-fried egg, prompting Guitar to point out, half-jokingly, that a Black man can be a crow or a baboon, but not an egg.
Beyond the fact of Guitar having traveled, Morrison doesn’t give details of what he did or why he traveled. At the same time, Guitar’s discussion of the relationship between North and South, and his comments on what a Black man can and can’t be, shows that he has a sophisticated understanding of race relations. There is no white without Black, just as there is no North without South. White people try to control what Black people do, but also what they imagine; thus, they portray Black people in crude stereotypes of apes and others animals.
Milkman asks Guitar if he can have Guitar’s room for the night. Guitar doesn’t believe that Milkman would want to be alone the night before his own murder; Milkman responds that he’s already “Dead.” Guitar mentions a woman with a knife who tried to kill Milkman, but doesn’t name the woman. He leaves Milkman alone in the room.
Milkman seems weirdly unconcerned with the prospect of being killed; this is especially disconcerting because we don’t know who the killer would be (we might guess that it’s Hagar, since the breakup probably didn’t go well, but we still don’t know for sure). Milkman is becoming increasingly hopeless, resigned to the “Deadness” in his name.
Milkman thinks about the time he hit his father years ago. He hasn’t done anything truly independently since then, he realizes. He thinks back to the previous week, when he followed his mother, who is now over sixty, at night. Milkman was coming back from a party when he saw Ruth boarding a bus. He followed the bus to a train station, where he sees Ruth climb onto a train — Milkman does the same, and gets off at Fairfield, where he follows Ruth to the cemetery where her father is buried.
The mystery of where Ruth spends her nights promises to be solved in this chapter. We had initially thought that she was seeing other men, but this seems unlikely now. Milkman plays the part of the “private eye,” much as he did when investigating the Tommys knowledge about the saddle shoes in the previous chapter.
Milkman confronts Ruth and asks her if she’s here to “spend the night” with her father. Ruth, addressing Milkman as Macon, explains that her father wasn’t a good man, but he was the only man who ever cared about her. She and Milkman’s father stopped having sex after her father died, before Milkman was born; it was at this time that Ruth began visiting her father’s grave to talk to him and feel at peace. Shortly thereafter, Pilate moved to town, and gave Ruth aphrodisiacs to put in Macon’s food. They worked, Ruth says, and Macon began having sex with her once again. Macon was suspicious, and threw Pilate out of the house. Ruth admits to kissing her father’s fingers, but says that she did so because they were the only part of his body unaffected by disease. When Milkman reminds her of how she nursed him after he was too old, she insists that she did no harm to anyone.
Here Ruth tells her version of the events leading up to the moment when Macon found her kissing her dead father’s fingers, and it is very different from Macon’s version. Further, her story revolves not around female sexual infidelity or incest, but rather around male coldness and control and how that resulted in a life of loneliness for her. Further, Ruth makes an important point in her argument about nursing Milkman. Macon and other men seem to see such things as “breaking rules of morality.” But Ruth argues that since she didn’t harm anyone, then what sort of importance is there in breaking the rule? This way of looking at the situation seems kindler, and gentler, and perhaps one might say more feminine. And yet, at the same time, it also isn’t clear that Ruth’s version of events is the “real” version either. Perhaps there is no “real” version.
Milkman sits in Guitar’s room, thinking about his mother. He hears footsteps, and knows that Hagar is coming to see him. After Milkman broke up with Hagar, he began seeing another woman; the sight of this made Hagar so furious that she tries to kill him multiple times, failing on every occasion. Hagar thinks of Empire State, who married a white woman from France, then found her sleeping with another Black man, and was henceforth silent and mentally unstable.
Here, Milkman’s life becomes almost theatrical — the stereotypical story of the jealous lover seeking revenge becomes real. This “story’” is paralleled with that of Empire State, whose relationship with a white woman comes crumbling down when it becomes clear that she is more interested in Blackness than Empire State himself.
Milkman listens as Hagar enters the house, and thinks that either she or he will die. Hagar approaches Milkman and gives him a small cut with a butcher knife. She raises the knife again, but can’t force herself to stab him. Milkman senses that he won’t die. He thinks back to the previous week, when Ruth learned from Freddie that Hagar was trying to kill Milkman, and that the two of them had been having an affair for years. Ruth is hurt, because she realized that Milkman had been keeping secrets from her for years. She remembers giving birth to him when he was only a pain in her body, nursing him until Freddie caught her, and admiring his beautiful hands, the only thing he inherited from Dr. Foster. She’s so upset by the realization that she doesn’t know Milkman at all that she tries repeatedly to close the cabinet door under the kitchen sink, angrily slamming it shut when it opens each time.
Milkman seems resigned to his “deadness” once again. Hagar’s cutting parallels Pilate’s action in the earlier chapter, except that unlike Pilate, her choice not to kill stems from her love for Milkman, not her prudence. The changes in perspective here are almost dizzying: Milkman to Hagar to Milkman to Ruth to Pilate — it’s almost impossible to keep up. Along the way, though, we learn new information about all the characters. That Ruth thinks that Milkman has her father’s hands oddly echoes her kissing of Dr. Foster’s fingers, and suggests that maybe there was something odd there. Her frustration with herself and her relationship her son is aptly symbolized by a door that won’t shut — she may be trying to forget her desires (the things hidden beneath the sink) , but she can’t close them off altogether.
Ruth goes to Pilate’s house to talk with her. She hopes to learn that Freddie was wrong, that Hagar and Milkman aren’t having an affair. At Pilate’s house, she finds Hagar herself, and tells her that if she hurts Milkman, she’ll kill her. As she and Hagar argue, Pilate enters the room and tells them that they’re ridiculous for arguing over a man. The narrator notes how different Pilate and Ruth are: one is dependent on money, while the other is indifferent to it.
Pilate plays the part of the critic, pointing out that the story Ruth and Hagar are acting out — jealous lovers vying for the same man — is corny and clichéd. In further pointing out how Ruth is dependent on money the novel seems to connect money to the masculine world. Ruth is dependent not just on money but on that world, while Pilate is not.
Pilate tells Ruth that some people choose when they want to die, and others choose to live forever. Ruth thinks to herself that her father wanted to die, but doesn’t admit that Pilate is right. Pilate says that she can barely remember her own mother. She tells Ruth about being 15 years old, living in a camp of migrant farmers, and sleeping with a man. The man told his friends that Pilate had no navel; later, a woman asked her about her body, and Pilate realized that she was different from other women. Afterwards, Pilate traveled to Virginia to look for her family, working as a washerwoman along the way. In Culpeper, Virginia, Pilate slept with a man who wanted to marry her; Pilate refused, since she was afraid that he’d be afraid of her missing navel. Still, she gave birth to a child, which she named Rebecca, or Reba for short, after asking others for a good Biblical name.
We learn a great deal about Pilate in the remainder of this chapter. One of the most important points of information is that Pilate is well-traveled. Unlike the other characters in the novel, who seem imprisoned in particular places or states of mind, Pilate travels freely, seemingly enjoying herself. Her lack of a navel symbolizes her freedom — she doesn’t have any connection to her father or mother, meaning that, unlike Milkman or Ruth, she doesn’t have to worry about pleasing her family. At the same time, Pilate must deal with the way her lack of a navel makes her different from other people and her shame at that fact.
While traveling through Virginia, Pilate claims to have seen the ghost of her father, who told her, “Sing,” which she did, beautifully. She remembered her father’s death, and thought that she and Macon were responsible for it. Nevertheless, she continued to take good care of Reba, and acted the part of a healer and a peacemaker during her travels, frequently breaking up fights between women. She began making wine and whiskey to make a living.
Pilate learns to overcome her shame through art — in this case song, and through her vision of her father this singing connects her to her past. It’s not clear if we’re supposed to believe Pilate truly had this vision or not — perhaps it’s more important to think about what it accomplishes (it teaches Pilate to be optimistic) than to debate whether or not it’s literally true. Pilate develops the skills that Milkman later loves her for, such as healing, peacemaking, etc. Finally, she blurs gender norms by adopting a stereotypical man’s job — bootlegging. Her ability to stand outside of norms of all kinds brings her great freedom.
As Reba grew older, she gave birth to her own child, Hagar, and so Pilate decided to find her brother Macon, who she thought would help to provide for them. She finds him, and is able to pay for travel to his town, since the wine-selling business is thriving during the Great Depression. In the present, Pilate sits with Ruth, telling her all this to distract her from Hagar.
The perspective shifts suddenly back from Pilate’s life to the present, when Ruth is talking to Pilate in Pilate’s house. We remember that the story we’ve been listening to has a purpose beyond memory itself — it’s supposed to calm Ruth down and distract her from her anger, to forestall any act of anger or revenge.