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
Mercy and Forgiveness Quotes in Song of Solomon
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.