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Milkman in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”

Song of Solomon is one of the most famous novels by Toni Morrison written in 1977. Milkman Dead III is the main character of the novel who embodies both the positive and negative features of a man. Morrison depicts Milkman in mythic terms. Not only does his story follow a cohesive pattern of miraculous birth, youth/alienation, quest, confrontation, and reintegration into the community, but Morrison also infuses it with both Western and African-American myths which blend the mundane with the magical and the factual with the fantastic.

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Morrison juxtaposes her mythic variations with the “reality” of Milkman’s conservative, middle-class family which, like himself and his community, is fractured by the absence of historical or cultural identity. This juxtaposition is central to the novel in that Morrison uses myth to tie Milkman and his people to their historical and cultural past and, more importantly, to underscore their need for a black cultural and historical context. Thesis The character development of Milkman Dead portrays his journey into self, and the search is for his true identity and values.

Milkman is born during the winter season that symbolizes death, and the specter of his birth is greeted by Ruth’s red velvet roses which also symbolize death; but more importantly, they are artificial roses and thus suggest an impoverishment to the extreme. And finally, the most obvious (and humorous) inversion in this mythic reenactment is that Milkman is born Dead. If anything, Milkman is born into and lives an entirely unnatural existence; his life is grounded from the very beginning by distortion and disaffection. The remainder of the novel encompasses Milkmans’ attempts to overcome his disaffection, to learn to fly (again), and thus to transcend the unblissful inauthenticity surrounding his life (De Charles Arman 57).

Milkman, for a time, passively accepts his father’s selfish code and, as a young adult, works for him in the real estate and rental business. In short, the atmosphere surrounding the Dead family hardly constitutes what one might call a loving and warm one but is, instead, cold and cruelly comical (Morrison’s use of irony and hyperbole is worth noting here): During Milkman’s childhood, he is sheltered and nurtured to an extreme; his mother breast-feeds him beyond infancy, and in doing so, she feels “like the miller’s daughter-the one who sat at night in a straw-filled room, thrilled with the secret power Rumpelstilskin had given her: to see golden thread stream from her very own shuttle”(Morrison 13).

All of these introductory images of barrenness, celebration, subterfuge, and shelter lend a kind of simple fairytale quality to the story; and further, beyond these moments, Milkman’s childhood itself has a certain vagueness to it, which is also inherent in a traditional story of the mythic hero. Myth, according to Roland Barthes, “abolish[es] the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences… , it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves” (Morrison 143). And indeed, with the imposition of myth, Morrison appears to have provided a clear foundation for a traditional story of heroic quest (Furman 46).

As Milkman matures, he feels “burdens” of the family’s unsubstantial rituals. He feels a desire, a “concentration on things behind him,” and senses that there is “no future to be had” (Morison 35). The cultural deadness of his family and the anger and isolation of his home provides the impetus for liberation. Milkman’s second stage of growth, the period of alienation and desire for understanding, reflects the ordering principle behind the mythic pattern. He begins to acknowledge a vague yearning for wholeness in his otherwise other-directed existence. At the age of twelve, he befriends a more worldly boy, Guitar, who takes “him to the woman who [has] as much to do with his future as she [has] his past” (Morrison 5).

Milkman sees a family who, unlike his own, lives their lives simply: “They ate what they had or came across or had a craving for” (Morrison 29). The three women treat him with generosity, kindness, and love; and, as he thinks, “all of them [have] a guileless look about them…” (Morrison 46).

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He and we have entered into what appears to be a social utopia, an alternative world of blissful clarity where difference articulates a form of liberation from the predictable and reified world of Macon Dead. Milkman’s hegira as he moves from tardy and extended machismo adolescence comes to fulfillment very near its end. Traveling at his father’s insistence into a southern culture that threatens his hypocritical superiority, Milkman plays the archetypal role of Telemachus to his wrongheaded father. What he finally learns–and this from Pilate–is that the value is the human; it is love, not gold, that people thirst for. And all too often, the loss of love is the crippling element in lives.

Once Milkman sees that his disdain for a woman’s love has killed her, once he has admitted his guilt, he can begin to grow. “Milkman smiled and let his shoulders slump a little. It was a good feeling to come into a strange town and find a stranger who knew your people”(Morrison 230). The ending of the novel forces the reader to see that Milkman too flies–and, more important, to see that whether Guitar dies, or Milkman dies, or both, or neither, the significance of their struggle has been in their journey. While Guitar accepts a rigidly prescriptive and senseless plan for avenging the whites’ killing of blacks, his awakened political consciousness serves no real purpose. He murders Pilate, the only capable and sane character in the book, in his vendetta to kill his friend (Smith 722).

Milkman sees himself as lacking coherence, “a coming together of the features into a total self” (Morrison 70). Still, he wishes to shrug off the distortions in his life and family. And as the narrative moves quickly over the 31 years of Milkman’s life, he concludes that “above all he want[s] to escape…” from all that he knows. Feeling “put upon” (Morrison 120) by his family, Milkman yearns for some identity separate from what he considers his family’s abnormalities.

Morrison questioned the notion of “hero” throughout the book, but by inverting the idea of the quest as a means of instructing the protagonist she also undermined the trope of consistent forward progress. If Milkman was a hero figure, searching for meaning as he made the journeys his father had sent him on, then he would have learned from those treks. His primary impulse to understand came again and again from the influence of Pilate rather than from his father–and he could have learned what Pilate had to teach him with much less traveling. Part of the African American vision was that being heroic did not mandate nobility; it rather reflected the process of learning to become as good a soul as was possible.

Milkman, therefore fore, did not need to erase the tawdry life he had lived on the way to becoming a man Pilate could be proud of, a man who could take up her role as a singer of the song of the family’s history–a role he assumes at the moment of her death (Weever 147). Morrison writes: “Milkman closed his eyes and opened them. The street was even more crowded with people, all going in the direction he was coming from. All walking hurriedly and bumping against him. After a while he realized that nobody was walking on the other side of the street” (Morrison 78). Milkman could have been fairly typical bildungsroman heroes, kids finding themselves despite cultural pressures to avoid maturing.

Milkman, better fixed economically through working for his pompous father, grows further and further from becoming either adult or human. But in the subtly quiet inter-chapters of the book, where Morrison tells the story of Pilate, Reba, and Hagar, she wreaks havoc with the more recognizable narrative of men’s lives. Pilate, her daughter, and her granddaughter are the poor of the earth, but they are also its salt (Royster 421).

Milkman has not developed any kind of “deep concern for and about human relationships.” He yearns instead to run away in narcissistic flight beyond his increasingly enclosed, static existence. For her part, Hagar responds with a stalking desire to kill Milkman whose life ironically becomes further enclosed as he tries to avoid and hide from her. Milkman’s mixture of frustration, isolation, and alienation becomes the impetus for his open motion toward independence and eventually to collective engagement. Any comparable sensations send Hagar “spinning into a bright blue place where the air [is] thin” (99). Both the presence and absence of Milkman have hurled her into a misdirected flight away from any self-identity or visioned responsibility to the self. Her identity has become fully subsumed in Milkman’s gaze (Blake 77).

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Milkman seeks freedom from all those whom he believes have treated him “like a garbage pail,” dumping into him all of their “actions and hatreds” (120). But while Milkman wishes to deny the obvious, those characters surrounding him reveal to him and the reader just how detached and distorted Milkman has become. Both Milkman and Guitar represent two reactions and two alternatives to their distortion.

While Milkman tentatively identifies with his father’s middle-class ideology, Guitar embodies the displaced rural Southerner whose alienation, unlike Milkman’s, is ensconced in racial hatred. Rather than pursue what will ultimately be Milkman’s ameliorative flight toward tradition and ideals, Guitar chooses instead to right social wrongs with acts of vengeance against the dominant culture (Branch 55). His position is a reaction to the primal trauma of his life when, as a boy, his father is cut in half in a sawmill accident and as recompense, his mother willingly accepts forty dollars from the white owner. His perceptions of his mother’s moral cowardice and betrayal convince Guitar that his commitment to and love of black people must find its expression in hateful aggression (Carmean 46-47).

Through the character of Milkman, Morrison creates the mystery of Milkman’s ancestry, the fascination of the varieties of his contemporarily dysfunctional family, and his own offensively limited maturity, the obvious ironies of her novel’s title first resonate, and then dissipate (Spallino, 515). The Wisdom of Solomon, who saved the life of a baby by threatening to divide it, seems nonexistent at first until the reader sees that the hardly heroic Milkman has learned through dogged persistence to unearth some basic truths. Armed with the knowledge he gleaned from the children’s songs that he was not too sophisticated to hear, he could then advise both Pilate and Macon about their heritage, and instruct them in suitable roles as peacemakers for the family line (Cooper 146).

The character development of Milkman Dead is closely connected with African American cultural myths and values. Morrison portrays that black people can fly, and this very theme underpins Milkman Dead’s journey in the novel (Harris, 71). Milkman identifies with Solomon which fuels his desire for personal identity and independence, for a freedom that transcends his blighted world. However, Pilate’s interposition furthers the mythic contradiction because she rightly blames Milkman for Hagar’s death; like Solomon, he had flown off and left a body.

Milkman begins to comprehend this contradiction, and by doing so, he experiences a true metamorphosis and eventual reemergence into his community. He makes the connection between his desertion of Hagar to Solomon’s desertion of Ryna and the twenty-one children, as he wonders to himself, “Who looked after those twenty children? Jesus Christ, he left twenty-one children!” (Morrison 336). Milkman realizes that the locus for his identity is inextricably linked to Pilate’s principle of responsibility to others. And thus, he learns that objectification and commoditization of people only serve to further his sense of distortion and alienation (Royster 420).

In sum, readers perceive and understand the character development through the eye of other characters and the actions of Milkman himself. Milkman’s primary search is for himself. Again, Milkman looks for the identity of Pilate’s burden, her sack of bones, a trial that she understands is the purpose of her life-giving reverence to the dead, no matter who they are.

At the end of the novel, Milkman’s reintegration into the community depends upon his acceptance of individual relationships which, in the end, he can only achieve through personal heroism. In choosing to “ride” toward Guitar, Milkman must take his ultimate risk which may very well end in his death, but as the novel’s open ending suggests, his flight forever sets in motion an open and necessary dialectic between a communal spirit and a factional reality.

Works Cited

Blake, Susan L. “Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon,” MELUS 7 (1980): 77-82.

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Branch, Eleanor. “Through the Maze of the Oedipal: Milkman’s Search for Self in Song of Solomon,” Literature and Psychology 41 (1995): 52-84.

Carmean, K. Toni Morrison’s World of Fiction. Whitston, 1993.

Coleman, James W. “Beyond the Reach of Love and Caring: Black Life in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” Obsidian II (1986): 151-61.

Cooper, B. E. “Milkman’s Search for Family in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” CLA Journal (1989): 145-47.

Furman, J. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: a Casebook. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

De Charles Arman. “Milkman as the Archetypal Hero: ‘Thursday’s Child has Far to Go’,” Obsidian 6 inter 1980): 56-59.

Harris, Leslie A. “Myth as Structure in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” MELUS 7:3 (1980): 71.

Morrison, T. Song of Solomon. Plume, 1987.

Spallino, Chiara. “Song of Solomon: an Adventure in Structure,” Callaloo 8 (1985): 510-24.

Royster, Philip M. “Milkman’s Flying: The Scapegoat Transcended in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” CLA Journal (1981): 419-40.

Smith, Valerie. “The Quest for and Discovery of Identity in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” Southern Review21 (1985): 721-32.

Weever, Jacqueline de. “Toni Morrison’s Use of Fairy Tale, Folk Tale and Myth in Song of Solomon,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 44 1980): 131-44.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 15). Milkman in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/milkman-in-toni-morrisons-song-of-solomon/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 15). Milkman in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”. https://studycorgi.com/milkman-in-toni-morrisons-song-of-solomon/

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"Milkman in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”." StudyCorgi, 15 Oct. 2021, studycorgi.com/milkman-in-toni-morrisons-song-of-solomon/.

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StudyCorgi. "Milkman in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”." October 15, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/milkman-in-toni-morrisons-song-of-solomon/.

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