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Literature / Song of Solomon

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Song of Solomon is a 1977 novel written by Toni Morrison.

The story follows Macon Dead III starting from the very day he was born, which was also the day Robert Smith committed suicide at the very hospital where Macon III was born. Macon is more commonly known as Milkman due to an embarrassing incident witnessed by a neighbor when he was about five. Milkman has a mother who loves to the point where it almost seems excessive, a father who is ashamed of him, and two elder sisters. His friend Guitar introduces a twelve-year-old Milkman to Pilate Dead (Milkman's aunt), along with his cousin Reba, and her daughter Hagar, who he immediately falls in love with.

In the midst of Milkman's life is the controversy and discrimination his fellow African-Americans have to deal with on a daily basis; a struggle which Milkman has never had to face due to his father's wealth.

As Milkman grows older his life starts to seem less interesting. He has the girl he wanted, but when they make love it no longer thrills him like it used to, and everything seems to have lost the enjoyment it once brought him. Milkman is just working for his father who has grown to be proud of him but has still failed to be the father he should be. Milkman's value of family and friends is virtually nonexistent, and despite the number of violent crimes that white people have been committing on black people, the only thing of Milkman's concern is himself. There are many people who love him and he couldn't care less.

Bored with this uneventful life, Milkman wants change. He wants to get out and make his own way in life, the only person he needs being his best friend Guitar. Yet even they begin to grow apart, a wedge being pushed between them, and Milkman sets off on a journey to find the lost gold his aunt had supposedly hid, the history of his family, and eventually, the Song of Solomon.

The title has nothing to do with a book from The Bible of the same name (also referred to as the Song of Songs), though the title was chosen in reference to this. The Bibical Song of Solomon is a collection of love songs, and love is one of the central themes in this book.

This story provides examples of:

  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: After Milkman and Guitar complain to Railroad Tommy about being denied a beer by the proprietor of their neighborhood's local gin joint, Tommy busts out with an epic rant about all of the finer pleasures in life that, as Black men in the 1960's, they'll never get to experience. Just as he's finished, and Milkman and Guitar are turning to leave, he adds, "And no baked Alaska! None! You never going to have that!" Guitar, who's stayed calm through the whole rant, finally cries out in horror, "No baked Alaska? You breaking my heart!"
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: The story begins with a man named Robert Smith on the roof of the hospital, falling to his death as he attempts to fly with a suit he has created. One of the women in the crowd of onlookers goes into labor, and the next day gives birth to the protagonist, Milkman, the first black child born in that same hospital. He then grows up and learns to fly himself. Maybe.
  • Bittersweet Ending: For First Corinthians at least, she moves out of their father's house and with the guy who was part of the Seven Days and it's implied she gets her job back.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The book ends with an unarmed Milkman running to confront Guitar, just after Guitar has shot and killed Pilate from a distance. In her narration, Morrison makes it clear that it doesn't matter which of them dies in the confrontation, as Milkman has fully come to terms with his mortality in the course of his journey to the South.
  • Born from a Dead Woman: Pilate Dead is born moments after her mother Sing passes away during childbirth.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Guitar, upon thinking about what happened to his father as a young teenager, feels the need to smoke some weed.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Pilate has constant communication with the ghost of her dead father.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Christmas is mentioned at least once in the story, as the time that Milkman decides to break off his relationship with Hagar as he finds that it's getting stale and Hagar seems to want something more from him.
  • Domestic Abuse: Macon Dead II at one point slaps around his wife Ruth. Milkman, who witnesses the incident, comes to his mother's defense and hits his own father. Milkman's two sisters, however, just stare at him as if not appreciating what their own brother was doing, and as Milkman later learns from his sister Magdalene, they see him as just an inheritor of the abuse throne who can do anything he wants with his own sisters. Also, given the sexless relationship between Macon II and Ruth, she confesses that the slap was one of the rare times her husband would actually touch her.
  • Doomed New Clothes: Hagar buys new clothes and makeup in order to impress Milkman Dead, but since she was in such a hurry to get home and try out the stuff, she has to deal with the rain and her bags tearing on her way there. By the time she does get home and put all that stuff on, Pilate and Reba see that her new clothes suffered major damage, to say nothing about her smeary makeup and wet hair. This leads to her death from a fever that she never recovered from.
  • Driven to Suicide: The last member of the Butler family which Circe the housekeeper was serving until the family's fortunes were exhausted, who killed herself by throwing herself from the top of a staircase, eventually dying from her injuries.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Dead family, natch. If they actually got along, there wouldn't be a story.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Milkman Dead, the nickname of the third Macon Dead, is called this his entire life after a neighbor caught his mother breastfeeding him long after he was too old to be breastfed.
  • Excrement Statement:
    • One of the Seven Days members, Henry Porter, urinates on the women surrounding him while Macon Dead tries to talk him down from suicide.
    • Milkman Dead accidentally urinates on his sister Magdalene when the family stops by the side of the road for Milkman to relieve himself.
  • Family Theme Naming: The Dead family have Biblical-themed names: Milkman Dead's sisters are Magdalene (called "Lena") and First Corinthians (occasionally nicknamed "Corrie"), his mother is Ruth, his aunt is Pilate (after Pontius Pilate), his cousin is Reba (which is a shortened form of Rebecca, although there is a Reba in the Bible), and his second cousin is Hagar (Abraham's maidservant). And of course, there's Solomon, the ancestor of the Dead family.
  • Foreshadowing: Pilate threatens one of her daughter's ex-boyfriends when he tries to hurt Reba. When Milkman breaks up with Hagar and is quite cold to her, Pilate knocks him out and ties him up in the basement after Hagar dies of a fever.
  • Gainax Ending: Did Milkman die? Did he kill Guitar? Did they kill each other? Did he learn to fly while any of that was going on?
  • Generational Saga: Has elements of this.
  • Godwin's Law: In-universe, Guitar tries to cite the Nazis' actions as proof that Whites are inherently evil.
  • If I Can't Have You…: When Hagar sees Milkman with another woman, she snaps and sets on killing him.
  • Kissing Cousins: Milkman Dead and his second cousin Hagar.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The Butler family responsible for the death of Macon Dead I and many others to gain their property eventually lost their wealth and went into decline and by the time Milkman visits, the house is decaying.
  • Literary Allusion Title: As mentioned above, it is based on a book from The Bible.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Guitar claims that he and the other members of the Seven Days are killing white people because they love black people. Guitar tells Milkman that he's doing it for Milkman and for his people. Milkman refutes it, saying that the Seven Days could kill anybody that they don't like, and eventually Guitar proves it by coming after Milkman by the end of the story.
  • Love Potion: During the time when Ruth was yearning for another child after the births of First Corinthians and Magdalene (called Lena), she turned to Pilate for help, and Pilate gave her something to mix into her husband's meal that would get him desiring to make love to her. After it wore off, though, Macon Dead II found out his wife was pregnant and threatened her to get rid of the child. Pilate in turn threatened her brother with a Voodoo Doll to get him to not do any harm to the child.
  • Magical Realism: A classic example from American literature. Though the book is a family saga about the African-American community in the 1960's, it involves (among other things) secondhand stories about encounters with ghosts, a man who may or may not have discovered the power of flight, a woman who crawled out of her dead mother's womb as a baby, and a few albino animals that show up in the middle of urban Michigan without warning.
  • Mama Bear: You either learn to stay the hell away from Hagar or Reba when Pilate's nearby, or you'll find yourself choked by the throat with a knife lodged inches from your heart.
  • Marijuana Is LSD: Played with in one chapter, where Milkman and Guitar see some pretty bizarre things after smoking marijuana to calm down; first they see an albino peacock, then they see Pilate seemingly changing appearance when she arrives to pick them up at a police station. Considering this is a Toni Morrison novel, though, it's quite possible that they weren't hallucinating.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Quite a few examples (see Magical Realism). Maybe Shalimar really did have the power to fly, maybe it was just a family story; maybe Pilate really can speak to the dead, maybe she's just an eccentric woman with a dodgy reputation; maybe the albino animals were honest-to-god spirits, maybe they just escaped from a zoo.
  • Meaningful Name: Macon Dead III gets called Milkman because he was caught being breastfed by his mother long after he was able to put on his own pants as a child.
  • MockGuffin: Milkman Dead hits his head on a sack hanging on the ceiling within Pilate's house, which he tells his father. His father then assumes that it must be the gold that he and Pilate found in the cave that Pilate wouldn't let her brother get his hands on, that she actually went back when they separated and took the gold for herself. Milkman Dead and his friend Guitar Bains then break into Pilate's house in the middle of the night to steal the bag, only to later find out that all it contained was the bones of a man that Pilate and her brother had killed in the cave. The bones actually turn out to be those of Pilate and Macon II's dead father.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Out of all of his Aunt Pilate's..."eccentricities", Milkman is most fascinated by the fact that she can fry an egg perfectly.
  • Naturalized Name: Milkman's slave grandfather got one at the end of the Civil War, when he had to register himself with the Freedmen's Bureau. The drunken clerk asked him his birthplace ("Macon, Virginia") and his parents' whereabouts ("They're dead, sir") and mistakenly wrote his answers down as his given name and surname, saddling him with the name "Macon Dead" for life. The main arc of the novel chronicles Milkman's efforts to understand his family history by discovering his grandfather's true name.
  • No Navel, Novel Birth: Pilate Dead, the sister of the second Macon Dead, was born without a belly button, as she crawled out of her mother's womb after she died in the throes of childbirth.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. There are two men in Milkman's neighborhood named "Tommy", who are frequently seen together. One of them works at the railroad, and the other works at the hospital, so they're universally known as "Railroad Tommy" and Hospital Tommy", respectively.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Milkman, largely because he resents having the same first name as his father.
  • Oral Fixation: The character Pilate is described as always chewing something: orange seeds, pine needles, a rubber band.
  • Parental Incest: Milkman Dead's father Macon Dead II assumes this kind of relationship was going on between his wife Ruth and her father, even at his death bed. Ruth tells Milkman that this wasn't the case.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Magdalene called Lena gives Milkman an epic one after he sabotages First Corinthians' relationship.
  • Rule of Seven: The Seven Days take their name from their practice of employing exactly seven assassins, corresponding to the seven days of the week. Whenever they want to avenge the murder of a Black person, they choose the assassin based on which day of the week the murder took place on.
  • Sexless Marriage: Mostly the case for Macon Dead II and his wife Ruth.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Pilate and Macon. One is an eccentric ex-bootlegger who's widely suspected of being a witch, the other is an uptight wealthy landlord in a loveless marriage.
  • Stealth Pun: The majority of the book's action takes place during The '60s, and despite being born into his father's wealth and being looked after all his life by his mother and sisters, Milkman remains bitter and indifferent to his family's travails. It's safe to say he's not a member of the Grateful Dead.
  • Sweet Tooth: Inverted with Guitar, whose strong aversion to sweets is one of his defining traits. He has been unable to stand the taste of sugar since he was a child, when a mill owner in his hometown gave him a handful of candy after delivering the news that his father had been killed in an accident on the job. Now, just the thought of sugar is enough to make him dry-heave.
  • Talking Down the Suicidal: Macon Dead II does this to Henry Porter, who tries to commit suicide because he's been without a woman for so long. Eventually Porter just collapses without any harm being done except urinating on some women.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: First Corinthians moves out of her father's house and lives with her first boyfriend. While he is a killer and she only has a job as a maid, it's an improvement.
  • Uncanny Valley Makeup: Hagar's cosmetics were ruined in the rain, and because she was in such a hurry to put all that stuff on, this became the unfortunate effect when she showed it off to Pilate and Reba.
  • Unfortunate Name: Milkman's grandfather got stuck with the legal name "Macon Dead" because a drunken Freedman's Bureau clerk accidentally screwed up the forms when he was registering him as an American citizen. Somewhat spitefully, he ended up passing the name to his own son, who passed it onto his son.
  • Vocal Dissonance: Circe, the housekeeper of the Butler estate, is a very old woman with the mellifluent voice of a twenty-year-old.
  • Voodoo Doll: Pilate threatened Macon Dead II with a voodoo doll around the time that Ruth was pregnant with Milkman and Macon wanted Ruth to abort the child.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Seven Days, a cabal of professional killers who carry out assassinations against Whites to balance out acts of violence against Blacks.
  • Yandere: Hagar. She's so in love with Milkman that, after their relationship has ended, she constantly goes after him to kill him when she starts seeing him with other women. Milkman's grandmother was also described as having an obsessive love for her husband.