Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

In this lesson, we will discuss Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Through the story of a young man's awakening as a kind and loving human being, this novel explores themes such as flight, racial injustice, and abandonment.

Song of Solomon: The Story Begins

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison

Song of Solomon, the 1977 novel by American author Toni Morrison, is set in an unknown city in Michigan. One of the first characters we encounter is Robert Smith, a member of the Seven Days, a society of black men who reciprocate every unpunished murder of a black person by murdering a white person in a similar way. Smith jumps from the roof of Mercy Hospital, calling his successful suicide a 'flight,' though the motive for his suicide is never revealed.

While everyone is still talking about the suicide, Ruth Foster Dead gives birth, making her the first African-American woman to give birth in a hospital. Her son, Macon Dead III, is eventually given the nickname Milkman because he nursed far longer than was necessary. Milkman become the protagonist to our story.

The Characters Emerge

As Milkman grows up, he is close with his paternal aunt Pilate, who is an eccentric, positive influence in his life and serves as Milkman's moral guide. His best friend Guitar Bains also plays a major role in Milkman's life, though he leads the protagonist down a road that will ultimately prove to be disastrous.

While working as a young man for his dad, running errands and keeping the books, Milkman falls in love with Pilate's granddaughter Hagar. His dad, Macon Dead Jr. is against a relationship between Hagar and Milkman. His dad believes that money is the most important thing in life, and as a result of his influence, Milkman becomes a shallow man who is not interested in making deep human connections. He is loved without question by his family, but he does not reciprocate.

Milkman is a morally weak man with no real purpose in his empty life, but the reader sees glimpses of possibilities for his betterment. Milkman and Hagar are in a relationship for fourteen years, but Milkman loses interest and ends the affair. This is a pattern in Milkman's behavior: He is unable to give all of himself to anything. His focus is narrow, and he is only able to zero in on what might be best for him. She does not take the breakup well and even tries to kill Milkman.

When Milkman notices that his dear friend Guitar is acting suspiciously, Milkman confronts him. Guitar reveals that he has become a member of the Seven Days society. Their relationship becomes strained, as Milkman does not approve of Guitar committing murder. This is the first time we get a small inclination that Milkman has a conscience--that he might be able to grow and emerge as a better man.

Milkman Takes Charge of His Life

Always thinking in the best interest of himself, Milkman decides to steal something from Pilate: a bag he believes is filled with gold that Pilate and Macon Dead Jr. may have once found in a cave in Pennsylvania. Milkman recruits Guitar to help him, and the theft is successful. However, the bag doesn't contain gold--only bones.

They are caught and arrested, but to their humiliation, Pilate and Macon Dead Jr. help get them out of jail. This experience puts a spark under Milkman, and he decides to go after the gold, which he is convinced is buried in a cave. On his fruitless quest for the gold, he meets old friends through whom he learns about his ancestry. In Pennsylvania, he meets Circe, the midwife who delivered him and an old friend. Circe reveals that Milkman's grandfather's name was Jake and his grandmother's name was Sing.

He's led to believe the gold is further south. He travels to Shalimar, Virginia, an all black town where he is treated poorly. He goes hunting with the men, and on that trip he begins to learn to appreciate life and finds a sense of humanity he had been lacking.

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