Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | Part 2, Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

Part 2, Chapter 11 begins with Milkman in a backwoods hamlet of Virginia. He wants to find a town called Charlemagne where his grandfather came from and finds out that the town is really called Shalimar. Milkman buys a car and drives in search of this village. The car, though, breaks down in the hamlet in front of Solomon's General Store.

Milkman goes inside the store, gets a cherry soda to drink, and finds out from the owner that he is in Shalimar. The owner mentions that a friend of Milkman's stopped by looking for him. The friend left a message for Milkman, which is something like "your day is here." Milkman realizes this friend is Guitar, which makes him afraid. Milkman tries to rationalize away his fear, reasoning that Guitar is looking for him because he's in trouble. Outside the store Milkman watches children playing as they sing a nursery rhyme. Milkman heads back inside the store and inadvertently insults the men sitting nearby. Soon the men pick a fight with Milkman. He breaks his soda bottle and fights a young man with a knife. Both of them get cut in the face before the fight is broken up. The fight has made Milkman furious at the people in the town.

A group of middle-aged men invite Milkman to go hunting. Milkman accepts, thinking that the men want to test him. Milkman broods about people trying to kill him, like his father before he was born, Hagar, and the young man in town. He feels disappointed about Shalimar, expecting to find his "home" and instead finding nasty black folks. The men dress Milkman in more appropriate clothes than his three-piece suit. They go hunting at night, each one carrying a lantern and a shotgun, accompanied by several hunting dogs. As they search in the dark for their prey, Milkman hears a strange sound, like a "woman's voice, sobbing," which is caused by the wind hitting Ryna's Gulch in a certain way.

Exhausted, Milkman can't keep up with the hunters and rests against a tree. He reflects about how searching for the gold has resulted in his going on a hunting expedition. Milkman begins to feel sorry for himself, thinking he doesn't deserve the hostility of the people in Shalimar, his family's dependence on him, and Hagar's vengeance. Milkman just wants to be loved. Lying against the tree in the dark, Milkman begins to feel as if his own self is disappearing. Here in Shalimar his money and family connections don't help him. All Milkman can rely on is his own senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and perhaps a sixth sense that isn't as well developed. It seems to Milkman that the men on the hunting expedition have developed this sixth sense. They can communicate with each other and their dogs through sounds, not words. Milkman senses that someone is behind him. Suddenly a person wraps a wire around Milkman's throat, squeezes, and says, "Your Day has come." Milkman knows the person is Guitar. As Guitar tries to strangle his friend, Milkman grabs his gun and fires it twice into the dark. Guitar hurries away. The hunters arrive, shoot a bobcat out of a tree, and laugh at Milkman for firing his gun wildly.

The next dawn as the hunters skin the bobcat, Milkman reflects on everyone wanting the life of a black man and the importance of love. Milkman eats breakfast with the men and tells them about his relatives coming from this area. He asks if any of them have heard of a person named Sing. The woman serving them says she heard of a Sing who belonged to the Byrd family near Solomon's Leap. Susan Byrd still lives there. Milkman decides to visit her. He stays with a woman named Sweet, who treats his wounds and makes love with him.

Analysis

In Part 2, Chapter 11 Morrison focuses on the process of Milkman's losing his current identity and beginning to find a new, more authentic one. This process involves various stages. At first Milkman finds himself in a small hamlet somewhere in the backwoods of Virginia. He thinks he's lost but in fact he has found the place he's looking for, namely Shalimar—where his grandfather might have come from and where the gold might be located. Milkman immediately senses that it's a very different place from the urban environment he knows. For instance, the women don't carry anything; Milkman realizes that he "had never in his life seen a woman on the street without a purse." Despite the strangeness of Shalimar, Milkman so far has enjoyed his trip. He finally feels that he is the director of his own life instead of doing what other people want. So the first stage involves a sense of strangeness and independence.

After this Milkman's urban identity clashes with the rural identities of some men in town. Milkman accidentally insults these men and ends up fighting with one of them. This conflict can be seen as a rite of passage. For Milkman to find his true self, he must at first confront the hostility of a strange land where he feels out of place. Also he must choose to take an aggressive action instead of just passively accepting what happens to him. The only aggressive action Milkman has taken before this is hitting his father.

Milkman has proven to the townsmen that he has the courage to fight. But his initiation continues. In the next stage Milkman goes hunting with some of the men. During this period Milkman starts to lose the false identity provided by his family, which is mirrored by his surroundings while he's lost in the dark woods full of the sound of hunters and barking dogs. The narrator states, "his self—the cocoon that was 'personality'—gave way." Milkman realizes that he can no longer rely on his family's money. Indeed many of the belongings that Milkman brought with him on his trip have been lost, such as his suitcase with all of his clothes. Milkman must rely on his own senses, which makes him aware of a sixth sense. He realizes that the hunters and dogs are using this sense through their communication without using language. For Morrison the sixth sense connects with the earth and physical surroundings. Milkman gets more in touch with this sense as he "[sinks] his fingers into the grass." His newfound awareness has come just in time to help him defend himself. Milkman senses Guitar behind him and thus is able to partially grab the wire around his neck. In this stage as Milkman begins to lose his old identity and becomes aware of a new identity, he has to fight against a force from his old world, namely Guitar's vengeance. Having allowed himself to be vulnerable, however, Milkman feels a sixth sense that allows him to defend himself. He becomes aware of a potential for a new type of strength.

In the final stage Milkman is accepted by the men of the town, who tease him in a good-natured way. Milkman has become part of his ancestral community. When this happens Milkman feels more of a connection to the earth. The narrator describes him "walking it [the earth] like he belonged on it; like his legs were stalks, tree trunks"—and notes, too, that he's lost his limp. Soon Milkman begins to question and reflect about his old life as the men carve up the bobcat. The dissection of the animal parallels Milkman's dissection of his life. He comes to the conclusion that what really matters is love, even if it involves criticism and difficulties.

Throughout this process Morrison intersperses the symbols of singing, flight, and names. Milkman watches the children playing and singing a mysterious rhyme. The song uses the name of Solomon and so seems in some way connected with this town, with Solomon's General Store, and perhaps Milkman's ancestry. At this point though, the relationship is not clear. But soon, after Milkman listens to this song, he remembers being disillusioned as a child about not being able to fly. So flight, or the ability to transcend problems, seems related to the rhyme.

Also while hunting, Milkman hears the eerie singing from Ryna's Gulch. Morrison uses singing as a connection to the Dead family's ancestral past, such as Pilate's singing. Therefore, the singing from the gulch can be seen as a calling out to Milkman from his ancestors. It is important to note that soon after Milkman hears Ryna's singing, he begins to let go of his old identity and find his connection to a deeper, older identity.

In this chapter the theme of the relationship between the living and the dead incorporates Milkman's search of his identity, the abandonment of women, and the use of symbols. When Milkman arrives in Shalimar, he enters the world of his dead relatives. This is where his ancestors lived, worked, and died. Because of this the dead continually influence Milkman, even though he doesn't realize it. For example, the nursery rhyme could be seen as a message passed on by oral tradition from the dead to the living. This message uses the symbol of flight, which Milkman senses is somehow important. Also the moaning from Ryna's Gulch is an ongoing expression of the suffering of the dead, caused by the abandonment of women, to the living. Finally the various names, such as Shalimar and Ryna, are clues left by the dead to help Milkman find his true identity.

Racism plays a role in this chapter through Guitar and his hunt for Milkman. Earlier Milkman warned Guitar that he might not be able to contain his killings. Guitar might start to kill blacks as well as whites. Milkman's warning appears to have come true. Guitar wants to kill Milkman, perhaps because he thinks Milkman betrayed him about the gold. In any event Guitar's hatred caused by racism has become a wild force, making him lash out at any perceived threat.

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