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Song of Solomon | Themes

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Morrison's themes are interrelated in complex ways. For example, racism has been instrumental in separating the Dead family from their ancestral heritage. As a result Milkman goes on a search for his identity, which involves regaining this heritage. Along the way he must acknowledge his complicity in the abandonment of the women in his life. The dead ancestors in Milkman's family have also suffered from racism and the abandonment of women, which affect the living members of this family.

Searching for Identity

Searching for identity is the central theme of Song of Solomon. For Morrison ties to one's community and ancestral past are key to one's true, deep identity. Without these ties, life is disconnected and it is difficult to relate in truly meaningful ways with others. All people yearn for this connection; however, like Milkman people often disregard at an early age this yearning and thereby become disconnected and disillusioned about life. For example, Morrison uses the metaphor of having faith in the ability to fly as central to black men's identities. Flying represents the ability to assertively deal with and transcend life's difficulties. Milkman lost this belief when he was young but eventually regained it as he embraced his ancestral heritage.

Morrison conveys the theme of searching for identity mainly through Milkman, Pilate, and Macon. Pilate has kept a strong connection with her family roots, enabling her to heal people and show compassion for them. Because of a misunderstanding, however, her sense of family unity remains incomplete. Perhaps this is why she wandered throughout the United States for many years. Macon has disconnected himself from the black community where he lives and also from his ancestral past. Milkman grows up disconnected like his father but eventually goes on a quest to find his true self. Morrison also shows how for some women, such as Ruth and Hagar, a sense of identity is based on their connections to men and abandonment results in a severing of identity. Ruth believes she needs to attach herself to a strong male figure to endure life. As a result she becomes unnaturally close to her father and to her son for the first four years of his life. Hagar becomes obsessed with having a man, which drives her insane.

Racism

Morrison conveys the theme of racism by showing its effect on the friendship of Guitar and Milkman and on members of the Dead family. For Morrison racism is an alienating force that drives wedges between people. People affected by racism tend to view life in opposing terms. For instance, the Butler family is racist because they believe white people, most of all the members of their family, are superior to black people. Because of this belief they treat blacks in abusive ways. Also Morrison shows how racist perceptions can spread to the people being abused. Such is the case with Guitar. Since childhood he has suffered from the horrors of racism, causing him to develop a hatred for white people. He sees the entire white race as being unnatural or inferior. As a result he has no qualms about murdering innocent white people.

Morrison also shows how the hatred caused by racism can split a person's inner self, as with Guitar, who becomes a divided person. One side of him loves his friends, including Milkman; another side becomes an avenging force fueled by hatred that can be directed at anyone, white or black. In addition Morrison delves into how racism can harm a family. The racist Butlers cheat Jake out of his land and murder him. Shocked by this killing, Jake's son Macon pushes away his ancestral past and focuses on owning things and getting money from what he owns, attempting to find security in these actions. Macon's adopted way of life, however, has severe consequences on his family, including Milkman.

Abandonment of Women

Morrison explores the theme of the abandonment of women by linking it with the search for identity. Morrison shows how the idea of flight, which is central to the psyche of black men, can have negative implications for women and families. For example, Morrison describes Solomon as a patriarchal figure who lived in Virginia with his wife, Reba, and 21 sons and worked hard as a farmer, likely a sharecropper. Solomon escapes the burdens of his life by literally flying away. As a result, though, he abandons his wife to take care of the family. Devastated, Reba goes insane. The dynamics of this story are evident throughout the Dead family. Although Milkman had intimate relations with Hagar for more than 10 years, he harshly breaks off their relationship. As a result, Hagar goes insane. And in an emotional and physical way, Macon abandons his wife, Ruth, which has severe consequences for her and her children.

Women whose identities involve reliance on men, such as Hagar and Ruth, are more severely affected when they are abandoned. Similarly, black men who derive their identities from white communities, such as Macon Dead I and II, are devastated when those communities abandon them. In contrast Morrison shows Pilate as a woman who can persevere against such abandonment. When people find out that Pilate does not have a navel, she is abandoned not only by her male lover but also by the entire migrant community she works with. However, Pilate's life does not revolve around having a man. Instead she has a strong connection with her ancestral heritage, which helps her endure abandonment and other hardships. Pilate serves as a role model for both women and black men seeking to discover an identity rooted in ancestral heritage.

The Living and the Dead

In Song of Solomon the relationship between the living and dead forms a broad theme that includes the themes of searching for identity, racism, and the abandonment of women. Morrison conveys this comprehensive theme in three ways: the connection between the living and ghosts, the influence of dead ancestors on family dynamics, and the stories of the living about the dead. However, no matter how this theme is conveyed, Morrison shows the relationship between the living and the dead to be a concrete reality that has a powerful influence. For example, Pilate's relationship with the ghost of her father is as real for her as her relationship with her brother. Because of this, the spirit of old Macon Dead helps shape how Pilate lives.

The manner in which the theme of the relationship between the living and the dead incorporates the other three themes can be seen in the character of Milkman. As Milkman searches for his identity, he has to constantly deal with how his dead relatives have affected his family dynamics. For instance, Ruth had a strong dependence on her father. After his death she searches desperately to regain the intimate connection she had with him. She nurses Milkman for the first four years of his life, thereby forever affecting her son's identity. Also Milkman takes more responsibility for his abandonment of women, especially Hagar, when he learns about his deceased great-grandfather abandoning his wife. In addition, through the stories about his ancestors, Milkman learns not only how racism has harmed his family but also how his family has triumphed over racism. Finally, when Milkman comes to believe in the reality of the spiritual world of his dead relatives, he becomes more empowered. He realizes his life has possibilities for transcendence beyond the confines of the material world.

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