Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | Part 1, Chapter 4 | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 4 starts with Milkman feeling bored about his life. He has been having sex with Hagar for years and has begun to get bored with her because he doesn't have to struggle to win her. Milkman decides to break off his relationship with Hagar. When Milkman was a teenager, he was in love with Hagar. Milkman remembers going to Pilate's house to buy some wine when he was 17. He happened to walk in on a domestic crisis involving Pilate using a knife to threaten a man who was beating Reba. Pilate scared the man off. Then she took Reba to the hospital, leaving Milkman alone with Hagar. After talking a while Hagar and Milkman had sex in her room. Early in their relationship Hagar often teased Milkman, not seeing him for months and then welcoming him. As Milkman gets older, however, Hagar begins to depend on him more. By the time Milkman reaches age 31, Hagar is 36 and wants some security in their relationship, but Milkman does not want to get serious with Hagar. So instead of giving her a Christmas present, Milkman writes her a good-bye note that includes some cash. This note devastates Hagar.

Milkman sits in his father's office and does the bookkeeping, but he has difficulty concentrating. He feels troubled, not about Hagar but rather because of Guitar and a police search for the murderer of a white boy. The police saw a black person with bushy hair running away from the scene of the crime. Milkman remembers the men at Tommy's Barbershop talking about this murder. He gathered hints that the murder could actually have been done by a black person. Later Milkman asks Guitar about the murder, but his friend doesn't want to talk about it. Milkman gets offended about Guitar treating him like a kid. Guitar then tells Milkman that he isn't a serious person and because of this can't handle difficult truths.

In his father's office Milkman closes the accounts and ruminates about how Guitar has lost interest in fun things, like women and getting high. All Guitar seems to think about is politics. Milkman then questions whether he really is interested in anything more than trivial pursuits. He does good work for his father but has no real interest in rents and property. Milkman admits to himself that Guitar is partly right. He thinks "there was nothing he wanted bad enough to risk anything for." Milkman knows, however, that the politics that obsess Guitar bore him.

Freddie the neighborhood snoop visits Milkman at Macon's office. Freddie talks about ghosts and how his mother once saw a ghost. Milkman finds the story hilarious. Freddie says Milkman can laugh all he wants but strange things do happen. Freddie then tells about Guitar hanging out with a seemingly mentally handicapped man called Empire State. Milkman finds this hard to believe because Empire State doesn't talk. Freddie says, "He don't talk. That don't mean he can't." According to Freddie, Guitar seems to be helping Empire State avoid the police. Freddie then reminds Milkman about Emmet Till being murdered, which was soon followed by a white boy being murdered in the same manner. Milkman finds Freddie's suspicions hard to believe.


In Part 1, Chapter 4 Morrison explores the theme of searching for identity by describing a kind of malaise that Milkman had fallen into. Since hitting his father Milkman has given in to the comfort of working for him and living a carefree life. As a result Milkman has gotten bored with life, including his relationship with Hagar. Perhaps because Milkman lacks a real sense of his deeper identity. he avoids making any serious commitments in his life. Nothing seems worth getting invested in because he doesn't know himself well enough to know what he really wants. Guitar points this out to Milkman, saying that his friend avoids anything serious and can't handle difficulties. Guitar says, "If things ever got tough, you'd melt." Milkman has to admit that there is some truth to what Guitar says. Milkman doesn't believe in anything strongly enough to take risks for it or die for it. He sees no future for his life except an endless series of taking rents for his father. Such a future is enough to make Milkman despair. Milkman's disillusionment as a four-year-old about not being able to fly still haunts him. Stripped of any belief in the glorious possibilities of life as a black man, Milkman settles for a boring, aimless life.

Morrison explores Ruth's and Milkman's identities through Milkman's dream about his mother. In the dream Milkman watches Ruth in a garden, passively allowing tulips to overwhelm and smother her. However, as Guitar points out, Milkman does nothing to help his mother. Ruth's passive identity seems to have been inherited by her son.

Milkman still senses that something richer and deeper than his meaningless life could be found with Pilate, Reba, and Hagar. Because of this he ignores his father's order not to visit Pilate and continues to be friends with her, even getting sexually involved with Hagar at the age of 17. His relationship with Hagar, which at first seems exciting and different, gets submerged into his malaise. Like everything else in his life, having sex with Hagar seems too easy and thus unimportant.

Also in this chapter Morrison shows how racism affects Milkman. Milkman knows that some of his friends such as Guitar have found something to take seriously. Milkman, however, sees their identity as being based on racism. Milkman wonders, "Who would they be if they couldn't describe the ... oppression ... their lives ... were made up of?" For Milkman, Guitar and his friends seem to excuse all their actions because of racism. Milkman seems to reject this identity but has not found anything else to believe in. In addition Morrison shows how the racism of white people has caused some black people to view whites as inferior. Because of this some black people cannot conceive of a black person doing a senseless act of murder. Only a white person could do something so crazy.

Morrison conveys the theme of abandonment of women mostly through the scene of the man beating Reba and Pilate's reaction to this. Reba has gotten involved with a man who wants to take advantage of her by taking her money. She has been looking for a husband for a while but can't find one. Pilate has also been unable to find a steady man. As a result Pilate has forged a strong family bond with her daughter and granddaughter. She takes on the role of the father by protecting her family, and she fills this role very well. Pilate's strength amazes Milkman as he watches her clutch the man threatening Reba and point a knife at his heart, leaving him helpless. Milkman, though, continues the pattern of men abandoning or abusing Pilate and her family by breaking off his relationship with Hagar.

In addition Morrison touches on the theme of the relationship between the living and the dead through Freddie's story about his mother seeing a ghost. For Freddie this story is very real, as is the presence of ghosts. However, at this point Milkman views this story as ludicrous. Freddie, though, warns, "they's a lot of strange things you don't know nothin about." By showing this scene, the author foreshadows how Milkman will move from skepticism about the connection between the living and the dead to belief in it.

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