Song of Solomon, set primarily in the mid-20th century, is the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead, a young Black man trying to figure out life—his own and African American life in general—and why it seems forever full of pain and conflict. He believes that some of his problems could be solved if only he had a lot of money (not that he’s particularly destitute; he is the son of a successful businessman and is being groomed to take over the business). He comes to believe there may be a large quantity of gold accessible to him, and he seeks to help himself to it, first by trying to steal it from a relative who has been one of the few primarily positive figures in his life, and then by traveling through multiple states in which he suspects it might be hidden, or at least where there might be clues as to where it is and how he could get it. The lure of the gold gradually lessens however as he comes to realize that the true value of his quest is in finding out more about himself and his people. Ultimately he becomes more focused on an Alex Haley-like search for his roots than on his search for the gold.
Song of Solomon is a moderately interesting read just as far as having a plot worth following and some entertaining characters. But as one might expect from a novel written by a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (Toni Morrison), there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s the kind of novel that feels meticulously crafted, like every event depicted, and every word chosen to relate every event depicted, is precisely what it is for a reason, the kind of novel whose symbolism, allegories, and various messages could be (and I’m sure have been) given book-length analyses of their own.
Symbolism and such is not a strong suit of mine, to put it mildly, and I’d probably need to read a book like this many times plus do independent research about it in order to appreciate the bulk of what’s packed into it, lurking beneath the surface. But as it is I found it thought-provoking and feel I got a fair amount out of it. I’ll mention just a few of the things that occurred to me as I read.
I experienced the book as perhaps more dark and depressing than I suspect it was intended or than most readers would experience it, though I’m not confident I can articulate fully why.
It feels like the family in this book, and African American people in general in this book, exist in a very insular world. White people are almost entirely offstage in Song of Solomon. What little presence they have is predictably negative, but you really don’t get to know any white people as individuals, and the book doesn’t explore relationships with white people, even oppressive or unhealthy ones. You’re told of occasional bad things they do, and you can infer that in a more indirect sense they’re the source of much of the suffering and dysfunction in the African American community, but the explicit content of the book is far more about those consequences than about the causes.
It gives you the sense that African American people are focused almost exclusively on each other, and that whatever interaction there is between the races is too insignificant to be worthy of inclusion. Or perhaps too phony. W.E.B. DuBois wrote of the way African Americans had of necessity developed a “double consciousness”—the way they acted, spoke, and even thought in relation to each other, versus in relation to white people. It’s as if Morrison has chosen to focus on how her characters really are, that is how they relate to other African American people in segregated contexts, and not depict their relationships with white people, which are just for show anyway.
But I think that’s at least a part of why I experienced the book as something of a downer. I felt excluded. I don’t mean just in the sense that the book isn’t about people “like me”—in that case I’d have the same reaction to a book about Samurai warriors in the 16th century or female sweat shop workers in the early industrial revolution, or killer whales or comets for that matter. This felt more like an active exclusion, like a “you’re not one of us, so you don’t matter to us or our stories” kind of snubbing.
But partly because of that factor that most or all of the significant characters in Song of Solomon seem of the type who would be uninterested in connecting with anyone of my race, and partly because these are mostly really damaged, dysfunctional people, often frankly creepy (to me anyway, and again that may say more about certain unconscious racial attitudes I have or whatever than anything else), I felt like there would be almost no prospect of sitting down with anyone in this book and enjoying each other’s company, being honest and real with each other, and wanting to be a part of each other’s lives.
No doubt many of the people in the novel are intended to be positive characters, and will be experienced as such by many readers—maybe the most obvious example being Milkman’s Aunt Pilate—and while certainly I can step back and recognize in the abstract their good qualities, and for that matter recognize that in some sense their flaws aren’t their fault but are attributable in part to the racist society that shaped them, even those characters rubbed me the wrong way more often than not.
Of course I’m not saying that whether you would like the characters in real life is a particularly important factor in determining if a book is worthwhile or not—I mostly didn’t like these folks but mostly do think the book is worthwhile—but I’m just reporting my reaction.
One passage stood out to me more than any other in the novel, and it relates to my experiencing the people of this insular Black world as being so damaged and mostly unpleasant. It occurs in a conversation between Milkman and his best friend “Guitar”:
Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why.
Much of the book is precisely about these “funny things,” these destructive and self-destructive things people do because of the perverse circumstances they’ve been raised in. There’s much stupidity, cruelty, and mostly insanity in this book.
It’s like a study in socially-induced mental illness. Characters commit, attempt, or contemplate suicide and/or murder because they can’t make sense of the world and find a place in it free of such excesses.
Ignorant superstition and magical thinking abound in the novel. Probably this isn’t even intended by Morrison as a depiction of damage but of positive aspects of traditional African American culture, but to me such irrationality isn’t something to be appreciated and celebrated.
Which leads to another reaction I had to the book, which is that I found it disappointing that it goes beyond depicting the characters as having certain supernatural beliefs—which is probably quite accurate as it relates to people in such a community—but seems to endorse those beliefs, to suggest that they’re accurate.
A lot of that is fuzzy and could be read multiple ways. Does anyone in the book actually fly (objectionable) or are they just delusional enough to think they can (unobjectionable)?
But there’s at least one example I recall that doesn’t have much of that saving ambiguity, and that’s a character that if you do the math would have to be something like 150 or 200 years old.
In writing about Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, I noted that the obscure and poetic ending struck me as one of those cases where a writer compromises a bit on a story’s logic, clarity, and/or plausibility in order to achieve some other end. I had that same feeling reading Song of Solomon. People in the story do and say what they need to do and say to further some symbolism or allegory or make some moral point about race, but some of it doesn’t flow particularly well in terms of the story as a story.
For example, multiple people try to kill Milkman without succeeding. Would all the attempts really be as inept as they’re depicted here? I can sort of accept that his unstable girlfriend is too messed up to succeed at murder, but even there you’d think the quantity of the attempts would eventually do him in even if the quality is lacking, given that she tries over and over and over. (Think Nately’s whore in Catch-22, but without the humor.) Even less believable, though, is a particularly lame unsuccessful attempt by a skilled and experienced killer.
So I infer that there was some theme about African American men and immortality or something that Morrison wanted to include in her novel, and so multiple unsuccessful attempts on the protagonist’s life were necessary for that purpose, regardless of how plausible or implausible the resulting narrative might be.
I mentioned above that the novel includes multiple accounts of people flying or attempting to fly, most of which don’t violate any principle of realism because either the attempts fail (e.g., a delusional man jumps from a building to his death) or the reality of them is left open but a rational reader can easily choose to interpret the ambiguity in favor of the obvious fact that people can’t fly. One or more of them may well be intended to imply actual flight though, especially the ending.
It’s clear that flight is one of the important themes in the novel. Many of the characters, most notably the protagonist Milkman himself, dream of flying, attempt to fly, are fascinated by flying, etc. And it’s literal flying they value; when Milkman is told of legends about an ancestor who flew away, he insists on knowing if they’re talking about actual physical flying or if they just mean he left hurriedly.
Flying is freedom, flying is escape. It is presented as a fantasy of African Americans whose lives are severely restricted, stressful, and miserable.
Though generally flying has positive connotations for the characters, there is one point in the novel when Milkman pauses to consider that when you get right down to it, if you fly away from your life you’re flying away from your responsibilities too—like if you have children, say—which isn’t so hot after all. That concerns him only momentarily though, and then he’s back to wishing he could fly.
It’s as if Morrison wants to remind the reader that there is a downside, or at least a moral complexity, to any dream or goal, but that in the end, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to be that free?”
Another of the major themes of the book is incest. There are numerous rumors, accusations, and fantasies, though generally nothing you can pin down as a definitive case of incest. But it’s a taboo that seems to be in the back of everyone’s mind in this community.
What exactly that’s supposed to symbolize I’m not sure, but what it put me in mind of is that when you lack healthy outlets for your impulses, when you lack healthy relationships, unhealthy ones suddenly become live options, or at least ominous possibilities to be feared.
The character that the incest theme is particularly relevant to is Milkman’s mother Ruth. Ruth’s marriage contains virtually no intimacy, sexual or otherwise. Twice in the book she is caught in an ambiguous, quasi-sexual encounter with a family member. Once is with her toddler son, and once is with the body of her recently deceased father, whom she adored (and her husband strongly suspects their inappropriate contact was going on in some form or other well before that, when the father was alive).
For these incidents she is judged, ridiculed, despised, shamed, and, in her eyes, misunderstood. She may not be clear herself exactly what she’s doing or why, but the feeling one gets is that this is a deeply unhappy woman who craves the intimate touch of another human being whom she loves and who loves her, and that she takes it in whatever form she can get it. She derives pleasure from it, but does all positive human connection that involves physical contact come under the umbrella of sex? Maybe in some very broad sense, but once the notion of sex has been broadened that much, is it still objectionable, still incestuous, when it occurs between two family members?
I’m more inclined to feel pity for her than to be grossed out.
There is a great deal more of significance in Song of Solomon that I haven’t even touched on. I wouldn’t rank it near the top of novels that have touched me, that have meant the most to me in my life, but I appreciated it, and my guess is that most serious readers would enjoy it even more than I did.