Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | Part 1, Chapter 3 | Summary



At the beginning of Part 1, Chapter 3 Milkman works for his father by collecting rents from his tenants. Milkman continues to be close friends with Guitar. One day Guitar takes Milkman to a pool room. The pool room's owner hates Milkman's father because he is a harsh landlord and so will not let Milkman stay. Guitar and Milkman go to the local barbershop, where one of the shop's owners, Hospital Tommy, wonders why the two boys are not in school. Guitar complains about being kicked out of the pool room. Hospital Tommy gets upset about Guitar's attitude and then lists a host of things Guitar will never have in life because he is a black person, such as eating baked Alaska. Later Guitar explains to Milkman that he doesn't like baked Alaska or other sweets because a white woman gave him sweet divinity after his father got killed in a sawmill.

At age 14 Milkman realizes his left leg is half an inch shorter than his right leg. He tells no one about this flaw and disguises his limp by walking with a strut. Because of his leg Milkman knows he could never be like his father, who doesn't have any physical imperfections. Milkman tries to separate himself from his father as much as he dares, dressing and styling his hair differently. Even so Milkman tries to please Macon by doing his work the way his father wants it done. Milkman's assistance in the business delights Macon, who now has more time to focus on buying lucrative properties.

By age 22 Milkman has begun to view females differently because of his sexual relations with several women. He no longer sees Ruth as a nurturing mother but instead as a frail woman. So when Macon hits his wife at the dinner table, Milkman hits his father and then storms off to his bedroom. Macon goes to his son's room and explains to him why he hit Ruth. Macon hated Ruth's father, Dr. Foster, who seemed like a dignified man but in reality sniffed ether. Also black people worshipped him, but he didn't care about them. In addition Ruth insisted that her father deliver her babies, which Macon found to be improper and disgusting. For Macon the final straw happened after Dr. Foster died. Macon found Ruth naked in bed with her father's corpse, sucking his finger. Macon became infuriated, and to this day certain actions by Ruth set him into a rage.

Milkman feels burdened by this new information and doesn't know how to handle it. He feels sympathy for his father but still affirms that he should defend his weak mother. Milkman gets angry at his strange family and their secrets. Then he recalls a disturbing memory of his mother nursing him when he was wearing knickers. Milkman realizes he got his nickname from this incident and feels ashamed. He has always taken his mother's love for granted but now questions it. Milkman wonders if anyone likes him for who he is as a person. He feels Pilate and Reba might like him in this way.

Milkman decides to talk to Guitar about what Macon just divulged. Milkman finds Guitar at Tommy's Barbershop listening with other men to a radio announcement about a young black man from the North named Till being murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. The men at the barbershop become enraged by this news. Guitar goes with Milkman to a local tavern. Milkman relates the incident of hitting his father and his father's explanation of his actions. Guitar intuits that Milkman feels burdened by this new information and tells him to forget it all. He asks Milkman if he feels bad because he doesn't like his nickname. Milkman admits this is true. Guitar says black people get their names "the best way they can." Milkman is not satisfied with this answer and wants to ask Pilate what his real name is.


In Part 1, Chapter 3 Morrison continues to develop the theme of searching for identity by describing Milkman's identity crisis. Milkman feels alienated and vaguely dissatisfied with his place in his family, and his difference is reflected in Milkman's left leg being slightly shorter than his right leg. He disguises this flaw, not feeling confident enough to expose it. Even so he tries to express his unique identity by doing things in a manner different from his father, such as dressing differently. This expression, though, is superficial. In reality Milkman behaves in the way his father wants by doing acceptable work for him.

Milkman thus feels stuck in the identity his father and family have placed on him. He is dissatisfied with this identity to such a degree that he doesn't even like the way he looks. Even though many women consider him handsome, Milkman senses that his face lacks coherence. His separate features seem fine but, in Milkman's view, fail to come together and form a whole person. For Milkman his face reflects his incomplete identity.

Milkman also links his dissatisfaction with his identity to his name. For example, when Milkman remembers his mother breastfeeding him when he could stand, he realizes with shame how he got the name Milkman. His nickname reflects his dependence on his family and fails to identify his true self, whatever that is. Milkman senses that Pilate might know his real name because she values names. Also Pilate seems to like Milkman for who he is instead of for what he can do for his family.

Milkman's confusion about himself and his family comes to a head when his father reveals why he hit Ruth. When Milkman learns about Ruth's unnatural connection to her father, Milkman questions if his mother or anyone in his family truly loves him or even likes him, except perhaps for Pilate and Reba. Also Milkman learns he comes from a family line that seems ashamed of its own black identity. Dr. Foster had white skin and felt superior to most black people, referring to them as cannibals. Although Macon hated the way Dr. Foster and Ruth looked down on him, he decided to beat them at their own game and become a wealthy man. As a result Macon separates himself from the black community and rejects his ancestral roots and his identity. Although Milkman does not verbalize how his family has separated themselves from other blacks, he senses intuitively that the path toward finding his true self lies with Pilate, who has continued to practice the rural way of life of her ancestors.

In addition the story about Ruth and her dead father conveys the theme of the relationship between the living and the dead. The deceased Dr. Foster continues to be a live presence in the Macon family, influencing how Macon relates to his wife. When Milkman learns about this influence, he begins to question the love of his mother and father because they seem to relate to him based on past grievances rather than out of affection for him.

Also in this chapter Morrison strongly emphasizes the theme of racism through Hospital Tommy's tirade against Guitar and the Till incident. Hospital Tommy angrily spews a long list of things that Guitar will never enjoy in life because of white racism. However, because of racism Tommy has limited his vision for his own life. He begrudgingly accepts the limitations placed on his life and stews in his own hatred. Later when the men at the barbershop learn about the Till incident, they show how the anger caused by racism can divide the black community. Some people, like Freddie, blame Till because he should have known better than to whistle at a white woman. Others, such as Guitar and Porter, defend Till and feel hatred toward white racists and frustration about the injustice of the system. The anger of blacks concerning racism seems like steam building in a pressure cooker that threatens to be released in some way; later Morrison reveals one of these releases is revenge through outlets like the Seven Days group.

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