Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, published in 1977, follows the life of Macon Dead III, nicknamed "Milkman," from childhood to his adult years. The novel explores Milkman's genealogy, personality, and relation to African American folklore through familial roots.

Morrison was influential in bringing African American literature into the American literary mainstream, and Song of Solomon was cited in particular when in 1993 she became the first African American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Today Morrison is regarded as one of the greatest contemporary American literary figures, and Song of Solomon stands as one of her most frequently read, studied, and analyzed works.

1. U.S. President Barack Obama called Song of Solomon his favorite book.

Obama, who was elected the 44th president of the United States in 2008, listed Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon as his all-time favorite read. Morrison was also an admirer of President Obama's writing. She said of Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, that the book is "impressive...unique...[and not the] routine political memoir biography."

2. Morrison had a radical change in perspective when writing Song of Solomon.

Morrison once stated she despised the concept of the artistic muse, or another individual having a profound influence on a work of literature or art. She later noted, "Writing Song of Solomon destroyed all that." During the writing process she incorporated the voice of her late father to guide her through the creation of a male protagonist.

3. The character Pilate is often viewed as a Christ figure.

Pilate's compassion and selflessness have led many scholars to view her as a Christlike or divine character. Other scholars claim that, as Milkman's spiritual guide, she represents the force of creation itself. Ironically, her name derives from Pontius Pilate, the biblical figure responsible for condemning Christ to death.

Christ in front of Pilate

Christ in front of Pilate Déri Museum

4. Morrison wrote a scene in Song of Solomon based on a painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

A scene showing Milkman walking against a crowd moving the opposite direction was inspired by the 1892 Edvard Munch painting "Evening on Karl Johan Street." Morrison explained:

I was having some difficulty describing a scene in Song of Solomon...of a man running away from some obligations and himself. I used an Edvard Munch painting almost literally. He is walking and there is nobody on his side of the street. Everybody is on the other side.
Evening on Karl Johan Street

Evening on Karl Johan Street Edvard Munch

5. Nearly all the female characters in Song of Solomon have biblical names.

The names Ruth, Magdalena, Hagar, Pilate, and Corinthians all derive from scripture. Some female names, such as Circe, do not come from the Bible but instead from classical mythology. In contrast, Morrison assigned her male characters names with more physical connotations, such as Milkman and Guitar.

6. Song of Solomon was influenced by Morrison's hometown.

In Song of Solomon Milkman lives in a city in the Great Lakes region of Michigan. Although Morrison grew up in Lorrain, Ohio, her hometown was also in the Great Lakes area, which inspired the aesthetic of the novel's locale.

7. Morrison has said she didn't notice racial tensions until her teenage years.

Morrison grew up in an integrated area during the 1930s and noted, "When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read." This experience allowed Morrison to cultivate an interest in literature, along with the study of Latin.

8. Morrison's family moved to Ohio to escape Southern racism.

Although Morrison's parents grew up in the South, they moved to Lorrain, Ohio, before her birth because of the persecution of working-class African Americans. Her parents helped inspire her love for literature by telling her traditional African American folktales.

9. Song of Solomon includes allusions to Greek mythology.

The concept of Milkman attempting to escape oppression through flight is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, a father and son who attempt to escape imprisonment with homemade wings. Though the wings function properly, Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting the wax and causing him to plummet from the sky.

Daedalus and Icarus

Daedalus and Icarus Anthony van Dyck

10. Morrison's university thesis focused on suicide in classic American literature.

While attending graduate school at Cornell University, Morrison's thesis, completed in 1955, focused on the theme of suicide in the works of American and British writers such as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She would later incorporate this theme in Song of Solomon, describing the fatal "flight" of the insurance agent.

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