Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Toni Morrison divided Song of Solomon into two parts. This study guide provides a summary and analysis of the individual chapters in each part.

Summary

Part 1, Chapter 1 opens with an insurance agent named Mr. Smith preparing to jump off the roof of No Mercy Hospital in an attempt to fly across Lake Superior. This event happens close to Not Doctor Street in a Michigan city near the lake. Mr. Smith has attracted an audience consisting of curious passers-by and the people who happened to read his note announcing his flight. When a pregnant black woman sees Mr. Smith emerge on the hospital roof, she drops a basket containing velvet rose petals, causing her two daughters to scurry about picking them up. Then a poorly dressed woman begins to sing a song about Sugarman flying away. Soon Mr. Smith jumps from the hospital roof.

The next day the lady gives birth to a boy. The boy longs to fly, but when he reaches age four he realizes only "birds and airplanes could fly," which dulls his imagination to such a degree he loses interest in himself. His mother, named Ruth Foster Dead, lives in the large house of her deceased father with her son, two daughters, and husband. The daughters, Lena and Corinthians, spend their afternoons making velvet roses to sell to a department store. Ruth's husband, Macon Dead, rules the household with a harsh hand.

Ruth is an insecure woman who is dominated by her husband. Feeling impoverished by a lack of love, Ruth breastfeeds her son during his first four years in an attempt to gain some joy in her life. One day the mother is caught in the act of nursing, making her ashamed. His mother's response tells the son that these breastfeeding interludes are wrong. Ruth stops her breastfeeding; however, the news about her strange nursing habit spreads, and people in the neighborhood begin calling Ruth's son Milkman. The name sticks.

Macon Dead never learns exactly how his son Macon got the nickname of Milkman, but he doesn't like it. Even though he wanted a son for years, Macon feels disgust toward him. For some reason Macon has cut off any sexual intimacy with his wife. A successful landlord who owns many houses, he ruminates with contempt while at his office about the history behind the names in his family. A drunken Union soldier had thoughtlessly given his family the surname of Dead. Adding insult to injury, Macon's illiterate father (the first Macon Dead) gave his children first names by choosing a word in the Bible based on how it looked. As a result, his daughter received the name of Pilate. As she grew up, Pilate came to value her name and placed it written on a piece of paper in a little brass box. She attached the box to her ear, like an earring.

After Milkman's birth, Pilate comes to Macon's house to help Ruth. Years ago Macon had an angry separation from his sister when she was 17. Before their separation Macon was close to Pilate, but these former sentiments seem to have no effect on him. Also Macon seems ashamed that Pilate lives in a rustic manner. Therefore he kicks her out of his house. Macon remembers how owning houses gave him the confidence to court the doctor's daughter. Macon didn't realize that the doctor was anxious to get rid of his daughter because she was unnaturally close to him.

Macon confronts a drunk tenant named Porter, who is perched on an attic window threatening to shoot himself. Macon tells him to go ahead but first to hand over the rental money he owes him. Porter falls asleep and Macon gets his money.

On the way home Macon secretly stops by Pilate's place when he hears her singing with her daughter and granddaughter. Pilate lives with her family, making wine. Macon relishes the song, which makes him remember his rural roots. He continues to secretly gaze at Pilate and her family, which he apparently does every so often.

Analysis

In Part 1, Chapter 1 Toni Morrison presents the theme of searching for identity. For Morrison African American identity is closely related to the black community, which the author conveys in various ways throughout the chapter. For example, news of the way Macon handles Porter's attempted suicide spreads throughout the neighborhood, thereby confirming Macon's identity in the community as a bold, greedy man who cares only about getting money. In addition when neighbors learn about Ruth breastfeeding her son, who is about four, they give him the name Milkman, which sticks; so the community, not his parents, give Milkman the name he uses in everyday life. The community has already started to shape his identity.

Names offer a significant connection to identity for the community and for the Dead family in particular. Macon is dissatisfied with his family's identity, partly because of the way they got their names. For example, because of his racist attitude, a drunk Union soldier thoughtlessly gives Macon's ancestor the surname Dead. Also Macon's father is illiterate because black people in the racist South were not taught to read. As a result he names his children by picking names in the Bible based on how they look. Macon ends up in a family with strange names, such as Pilate. Macon, therefore, rejects the basic way in which his family has come to be identified, or their identity as black people. Now to make matters worse, Macon's son has somehow gotten the nickname Milkman, which Macon finds disgusting.

The above examples show how Morrison uses naming as a symbol that represents white racism toward blacks. However, Morrison also clearly shows how other black characters view their names as having value rather than being demeaning. Pilate treasures her name, even if it came about because of illiteracy caused by racism, and she makes her name a literal treasure by putting it in a small box and wearing it as an earring. Macon, though, will have none of this. He further rejects his black identity by distancing himself from the African American community. Macon's main concern is getting more money, like the white businessmen and bankers he emulates. If he harms his community through this process, he doesn't care. He is more concerned with his identity in the eyes of white people than how he is viewed by his own community.

Despite Macon's rejection of his community, he still yearns for it. The author shows this by Macon's being drawn toward the singing of Pilate and her daughter and granddaughter. For Morrison singing represents a spiritual connection for African Americans to each other and their origins. When Macon listens to this singing, he thinks of "fields and wild turkey and calico." He connects with the rural origin of his ancestors and, thereby, the deep identity of his family. Macon seems ashamed of this connection, however, so he listens and watches Pilate and her family in secret.

Throughout the novel the author uses flight as a symbol of some essential urge in the psyche or soul of the black male, which has both noble and abusive repercussions. Indeed Morrison opens the novel with a man attempting to fly. The author describes Mr. Smith as person who has become separated from his black community and identity. He attempts to escape from his alienated life by taking flight. In addition Milkman dreamed of flying as a young child but realized at the age of four that "only birds and airplanes could fly." Because of this he loses interest in himself.

After losing faith in the ability to fly, Milkman becomes more of a passive child who depends on his mother for sustenance. Milkman's early identity is shaped by his mother's breastfeeding: he doesn't particularly want his mother to breastfeed him, but he goes along with it. When the black community learns about it, they soon identify the son's passive reliance on others by naming him Milkman.

Morrison explores the theme of identity with Macon's wife, Ruth. She appears to be a woman who has no true sense of who she is as a person. Because of this she attaches herself emotionally and physically to her father after her mother's death. She could be seen as a type of parasite who draws her sustenance from others. When she first marries Macon, she seems physically drawn to him as well. However, some event causes Macon to break from his wife. Ruth draws her need for love from her son by breastfeeding him during the first four years of his life. Again Ruth attempts to gain love by physically attaching herself to someone else. All of the people she has relied on for her well-being are male, and she seems to have no confidence in her identify apart from men.

Morrison also introduces the theme of abandonment of women through Macon's relationship with Ruth. When Macon separates himself from Ruth, he abandons her both physically and emotionally. Part 1, Chapter 1 also begins to explore the theme of racism by showing the segregation at the hospital, the rude behavior of a nurse toward a black woman, and the thoughtless actions of the drunken Union soldier who named Macon's ancestors. In response to this racism, black people continue to uphold their customs. When white officials tell black people to use the name Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street, they continue their practice of using descriptive names for people and places, calling the thoroughfare Not Doctor Street—another nod to the power of naming.

Morrison shows the general theme of the relationship between the living and the dead through the effect of family names of Macon. For him the memory of how his dead relatives got their name continues to have a real effect on how he treats his family. Despite Macon's attempts to separate from his heritage, his memories of his rural upbringing with his deceased father still has a strong hold on him. This can be seen when Macon secretly listens to Pilate and her family singing.

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