Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | Part 1, Chapter 5 | Summary



At the beginning of Part 1, Chapter 5 Milkman lies in Guitar's bed, imagining what it would be like to be killed by an ice pick. Milkman remembers arriving at Guitar's apartment and asking if he could stay at his place. Guitar knew someone has been trying to kill Milkman and didn't want any police trouble. Milkman claimed he had gotten tired of trying to avoid the woman. Guitar allowed Milkman to stay and then left.

As Milkman lies on Guitar's bed, he feels both a fear of death and an eagerness for it. Milkman wants to escape the burden of his family and being acted upon by others. He recalls secretly following his mother to a cemetery where her father is buried. When Ruth left the cemetery, Milkman confronted her about her relationship with her father. Ruth explained that she depended on her father because he had been the only person who loved her. When Macon cut off intimate relations with her, Ruth became desperate for love. She secretly gave Macon an aphrodisiac made by Pilate. Macon had sex with Ruth several times, and Ruth got pregnant with Milkman. Macon tried to force Ruth to abort, but she refused with Pilate's help. Milkman asked Ruth why she continued to nurse him when he was too old. Ruth said she also constantly prayed for him on her knees, and wondered what harm she caused him on her knees.

Milkman recalls breaking off relations with Hagar. She became consumed with jealousy about him being with another woman. As a result she has ineptly attempted to kill Milkman several times. Milkman hears Hagar open the window and climb into the apartment. Milkman remains motionless with his eyes closed. Hagar raises her knife and freezes, unable to lower her arms. Milkman stands, tells her to stab herself, and leaves. Hagar remains frozen with the raised knife.

A week earlier Ruth learns that Hagar tried to kill her son several times. Ruth remembers Macon making her attempt various methods to abort Milkman. Giving birth to Milkman was the only successful act of defiance Ruth ever committed against Macon. Now Hagar is trying to take away Ruth's triumph over her husband. At Pilate's house Ruth warns Hagar that she will kill her if she harms Milkman. Hagar says she will try not to hurt Milkman, but can't promise. Pilate tries to make Ruth understand why Hagar is acting the way she is.

Pilate then relates some of her life story to Ruth. When Pilate's father died, she was 12. Pilate and Macon stayed together for a few days but then had an angry separation. Pilate headed for Virginia because she remembered her folks came from there. Pilate joined a migrant family and slept with the son of one of these families. But she met with difficulties when the son's parents found out she didn't have a navel. The parents viewed such a deformity as unnatural and told Pilate to leave. After this Pilate joined a group of black families on an island. She took a lover, got pregnant, and gave birth. Pilate then saw her dead father, who she believed was telling her to go back and collect the bones of the man she and her brother had killed. So Pilate did this, leaving her baby in the care of a family. A month later Pilate returned carrying a sack. When Reba reached the age of two, Pilate got the urge to wander, which she did with her child for the next 20 or so years. Eventually Pilate decided not to hide her lack of a navel but met with prejudice because of this. She became determined to live her life the way she wanted to, instead of the way society told her to live. Also Pilate continued to see visions of her father. When Reba grew up she had a daughter, Hagar. Pilate decided prissy Hagar should be raised in a more traditional family setting. So Pilate and her family went in search of Macon. When they found him, however, Macon didn't want anything to do with Pilate and her brood.


In Part 1, Chapter 5 Morrison explores the theme of searching for identity through Milkman, Ruth, Hagar, and Pilate. Milkman's passivity has consumed him to the degree that he even decides not to avoid Hagar, who is trying to kill him. Morrison effectively demonstrates this passiveness by having Milkman lie in Guitar's bed for a long period, waiting for Hagar to arrive. During this time Milkman recalls talking to Guitar, confronting his mother, and breaking off his relationship with Hagar. However, he doesn't really do anything but lie there. In a way Milkman's passiveness becomes a weapon to defeat Hagar's attempt to take his life. By remaining inert Milkman forces Hagar to make a decision, namely either to kill him or (as Milkman hopes) to kill herself. As it turns out Hagar is unable to murder Milkman and remains frozen with the knife raised while he walks out.

The "victory" by Milkman, though, is a hollow one. He knows the only really assertive action he has taken is to hit his father. Other than that Milkman has become a dumping ground for other people's problems. Although Milkman doesn't want these burdens and doesn't think he deserves them, he lacks the aggression to get out of his family's control. So his passive identity has prevented him from breaking free and finding his true, deeper identity.

Morrison also reinforces Ruth's identity from the character's own viewpoint. Ruth sees herself as a "small woman." In other words Ruth thinks she is a weak person who needs to rely on stronger males for sustenance. Ruth does rely on Pilate to protect her from Macon. As the reader has seen in the previous chapter, however, Pilate has taken on the role of the strong father protector for her family. Therefore Pilate could be seen almost as a surrogate male. Pilate in some ways grooms herself like a man by cutting her hair short and wearing men's shoes. When Milkman confronts Ruth about nursing him when he was too old, Ruth retreats back into her weaknesses to get his sympathy. When Ruth asks Milkman, "What harm did I do you on my knees?" she is suggesting that such a weak person as herself couldn't harm Milkman. She uses her weakness to nullify her treatment of her son.

Hagar's identity has come to revolve entirely around Milkman. When Milkman comes into her life, Hagar expects him to stay with her forever. However, Milkman denies what Hagar wants, and she is unable to deal with that denial. Her entire identity is focused on Milkman, and she can't imagine life without him. She obsesses about killing him because this is the only way she can remain in contact with him. When it comes down to committing the murderous act, though, Hagar is unable to do it. She remains a person entrapped. Hagar can't kill Milkman because she loves him, but she can't let him go because she feels she needs him to continue living.

Pilate's identity stems from her oddity of not having a navel. If she had a navel Pilate probably would have remained with the first migrant family she encountered, married a son in this family, and worked picking crops. Pilate herself admits she enjoyed being with this family. However, when the family finds out that Pilate lacks a navel they are horrified and tell her to leave. Pilate then gets work wherever she can find it. Whenever people discover her oddity, they tell her to go. Eventually Pilate gets fed up by people's judgmental attitude about her oddity. She lives her life the way she wants and, in the process, discovers her true, deep identity. Pilate realizes she has gifts of healing and compassion for troubled people. She is not ashamed of the rural practices of her ancestors, but instead relishes them as she values her name, no matter how she got it. By singing Pilate maintains a connection with her father and her ancestral past. Pilate forms a bridge to her family's roots, which Milkman can follow to find his true identity.

Also through Pilate, Morrison shows the theme of the relationship between the living and the dead. Pilate often sees the ghost of her father and bases decisions in her life on what this ghost tells her. For Pilate her ancestral heritage is not something in the past to be venerated but rather is a real, live presence in her life, which she constantly relates to.

Hagar's situation also conveys the theme of abandoning women. Through Hagar's relationship with Milkman, Morrison explores more deeply the dynamics of this theme. Milkman claims he left or abandoned Hagar because he became bored with her. However, as Morrison shows, Milkman is bored not only with Hagar but also with his entire life. For Morrison, Milkman's boredom comes from being disillusioned about the potential of an exciting life for a black man. He believes that dreaming is futile. After all people can't really fly or transcend their situation. Milkman's abandonment of Hagar comes from his malaise. To relieve his ennui, he gets drunk and has sex with women. When Hagar becomes tiresome he lets her go and finds pleasure with other women. As a person who coasts through life, Milkman doesn't comprehend deep, vital relationships. He doesn't empathize with Hagar's agony and treats her callously.

Morrison touches on the theme of racism through Guitar's humorous dialogue with Milkman. Guitar teases Milkman about black people believing that tea bags are crops that can be harvested and white people not liking brown eggs. By doing this the author shows how racist attitudes can be ridiculous. In this conversation Guitar is having fun with broad generalizations about racial groups. Later Morrison shows how Guitar takes some of these generalizations much more seriously.

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