Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | Part 2, Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

In Part 2, Chapter 10 Milkman approaches the "big, crumbling house" in the woods. He had been driven to this location by a 13-year-old. Milkman feels tired from the bus ride from Pittsburgh to Danville. He had enjoyed the plane trip to Pittsburgh, which made him feel exhilarated and invulnerable. Also he feels good about getting away from his family's burdens.

Milkman tells Guitar about the possibility of the gold's still being in the cave. Guitar seems interested, but Milkman says he needs to make the trip alone. Guitar is suspicious about this. Milkman promises to divide the money from the gold among himself, Guitar, and Macon. Guitar then admits he needs money desperately for his Seven Days group.

In Danville Milkman visits Reverend Cooper, who recognizes the name of Macon Dead and seems happy to meet Macon's son. Cooper remembers how Circe hid Macon and Pilate. Cooper claims rich folks named Butler who owned the house where Circe worked killed Macon's father. They wanted old Macon Dead's land. The Butlers all died off, and the house has fallen into ruin. Finally Circe, who must have been well over 100, also died. Cooper offers to drive Milkman up to the Butler house and the farm. However, Milkman has to wait a few days for the car to be fixed.

During the next few days, the many people who knew Milkman's grandfather come to visit Milkman, who is staying at the Cooper's place. These folks looked up to old Macon Dead as a kind of hero for the way he built up his place into one of the best farms in the county. He showed black people in the region what an African American can accomplish. But when old Macon Dead was shot to death, the life seemed to go out of the black folks who knew him. Milkman tells stories of his father's successes in Michigan, which the listeners drink up like animals dying of thirst.

Cooper's 13-year-old nephew drove Milkman to the Butler's place. Milkman enters the "big, crumbling house" in the woods and meets an ancient woman surrounded by a pack of "golden-eyed dogs." The old woman invites Milkman into her room. Milkman introduces himself as Macon's son and asks the woman if she's Circe. The woman says she is. Milkman says that Macon and Pilate are alive and well. Circe claims she birthed everyone in the county all successfully, except for Milkman's grandmother. She recalls the grandmother being partly Indian. Her name was Sing Dead. Sing met her husband on a wagon of ex-slaves going north. They were coming from a town in Virginia called Charlemagne. Circe remembers that Pilate came back to the Butlers' house after her baby was born. At that time the bones of Old Macon were in a cave. Milkman says he wants to visit the cave even though the bones have probably disintegrated. Circe gives him directions. Circe says she stays at the Butlers' place because she hated the family. The Butlers loved this house, and she wants to make sure all of it falls into ruin. Before Milkman leaves, Circe tells him that she thinks his grandfather's real name was Jake.

Milkman leaves Circe and, eager to find the gold, heads through a thick woods to the cave. He searches the hole in the cave but does not find any gold. Milkman heads back through the woods and gets a lift to town. At the diner in the bus station, Milkman realizes someone stole his suitcase. He goes to the freight yard in search of Reverend Cooper (who works there part time) but doesn't find him. While there Milkman helps a worker lift a crate onto a platform. Milkman then catches the next bus heading south to Virginia.

On the bus Milkman thinks about Pilate going back to the cave to collect the white man's bones. He wonders why Pilate did not find her father's bones, which Circe must have told her about. Then Milkman reasons that Pilate had returned to the grave earlier, before her father's body was dumped there. During this earlier visit, she took the white man's bones and the gold and headed for Virginia.

Analysis

In Part 2, Chapter 10 Morrison continues to explore the theme of searching for identity while intertwining the symbols of gold and names. Milkman begins his search for the gold, which he believes is still in the cave in Pennsylvania where his father found it. However, Milkman is also starting another search that he is unaware of. This secondary search is for his true identity as a black man. As Milkman tries to locate the cave, he comes in contact with many of the people who know his father, aunt, and grandfather. Milkman inadvertently starts to piece together his ancestral past. As he listens to Cooper talk about Macon and Pilate, the stories that his father told him start to become real. Milkman begins to sense that these stories are not abstract fables but real events that are a part of who he is as a person. As Milkman listens to the townsfolks' glowing stories about old Macon Dead and the farm he built, he also realizes what he is missing. He has been missing the tangible relationships of the black community, of being a part of this whole. Also Milkman realizes that his grandfather was not a passive person but instead grabbed hold of life and tried to make something of it. Because of old Macon's efforts, the townsfolk look up to him as a type of hero. In the same way, they look up to Milkman's father for being successful in Michigan. For the first time Milkman feels pride in what his father has accomplished.

As Milkman heads for the cave where the gold is supposedly located he comes into contact with ancient Circe. Through this conversation Milkman again finds out more about his true identity as he searches for the gold. Circe can be seen as a type of ancient birth and death figure who as a midwife helped to birth many people living in the county and who also witnessed the deaths of the Butlers. Time seems vague to Circe, and the past seems as real as the present. Because of this Circe at first thinks Milkman is his father. But time is also Circe's weapon. The name Circe comes from a Greek mythological figure who was a female sorceress. This sorceress could change men into animals. For instance, she changed Odysseus's men into swine and then changed them back. The Circe of the novel, by living so long, has seen the Butlers change from arrogant people into desperate creatures. She stays at the house to make sure the Butlers' transformation is complete and the house that they loved falls into ruin. Also in a way Circe has helped changed swine into men by giving Milkman information that helps him find his true identity.

Also through the stories told by old Macon's friends and Circe, Morrison conveys the theme of the relationship of the living and the dead. Old Macon had such a strong influence on his friends that this influence is still felt decades after his death. The dead, in the form of old Macon, continue to shape his friends' identities. They believe because of old Macon's example that a black person can persevere against racism. Even so old Macon's death has drained the life out of them. Circe's memories about the dead help Milkman piece his identity together by learning the location of his ancestral home and the name of his grandmother.

Morrison uses the symbol of gold throughout the chapter to spur Milkman on in his quest. The lure of gold starts Milkman on his adventure into Pennsylvania and causes Guitar to be suspicious of his friend. This desire for gold wells up in Milkman as he talks about his father's successes, thereby motivating him even more to find this wealth. The gold becomes an obsession for Milkman as he makes his way across a stream and through a thick forest toward the cave. Finally Milkman's failure to find gold in the cave spurs him on to continue the search not only for the gold but also for his true self.

Morrison intersperses the symbolism of names throughout the chapter as Milkman pieces together his identity. Milkman realizes that the naming of black people is a complex matter that is linked to white racism. As Circe puts it, "White people name Negroes like race horses." He also learns, however, that black people could be proud of these names. Milkman finds out his grandmother's name was Sing Dead, and she was proud of this name. In fact she insisted her husband keep the name Dead. Milkman realizes his grandfather did not let his unusual surname hold him back. It didn't matter to old Macon Dead that he was an ex-slave, had the strange name of "Dead," and had a dead daddy. Despite all this, old Macon persisted and established a home for himself and his family.

Morrison also draws on the theme of racism by showing its influence on various characters in the chapter. For example, Guitar would not eat the peppermint candy bought with the humiliating $40 payout after his father's death. Racism instilled a hatred for white people in Guitar at an early age. Racism also shaped the events around the murder of old Macon. The black people knew the wealthy Butlers would not be prosecuted for this murder. They did nothing about it except witness the downfall of the Butlers as they became impoverished and died off. As Reverend Cooper says, "If you live it out, just live it out, you see ... it always works out." Finally the racist attitude of the Butlers instilled a righteous anger in Circe, who became determined to outlive this family and see their house decay.

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