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Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon

The cultural heritage often surpasses the whole generations waiting for being claimed through the ritual initiation. The quest for parental connections often turns into the life mission where success allows the seeker to acquire the priceless gift of communal belonging. Some literary critics argue that the theme of initiation is the central motive of Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon that follows the European traditions of the genre. The opponents of that assertion, however, claim that the artistic masterpiece is more related to the cultural diversity of the world literature. While the novel may exemplify the typical story about the initiation quest, Morrison essentially extends the limits of the genre by advocating the black nationalism.

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Initiation quest

The theme of cultural revival is the leitmotif of Morrison’s novel, while the assertion is a current subject of debates among the notable scholars. According to some literary critics, the novel is the typical quest for the initiation, whereas the main male character, Milkman, undergoes the process of spiritual growth and liberation from the conventional bounds (Lee 109). A young man eventually shifts his attention from the quest for gold to the search for the ancestral knowledge (Morrison). The change of priorities signifies maturity and reconnection with the cultural traditions of the African people. In fact, Song of Solomon is replete with the calls for recollecting the racial heritage. The main character is frequently confronted with the need to acknowledge his ignorance and indifference. Therefore, Milkman must surpass his emotional backwardness. According to Morrison, he has “stretched his carefree boyhood out for thirty-one years” while living an overly aimless life. Milkman still lives with his parents and collects rents for his father, while demonstrating the total indifference toward his family members (Morrison). Several factors stimulate his emotional development. First, the main hero gets under the beneficial influence of his aunt Pilate, who releases him from arrest only to stir his interest in his family roots (Morrison). Second, he survives the confrontation with his sister. Lena bursts into sincere act of outrage at Milkman’s intrusion in the personal life of his sister Corinthian. In her words, he mistakenly thinks that “hog’s gut that hangs down between… legs” gives him the right to decide his sister’s life by ruining the relationship with the allegedly unworthy suitor (Morrison). The whole chain of events brings Milkman to the gradual realization of his selfishness and shallowness.

According to the typical pattern of soul-searching journey, the main hero leaves his home to travel to South. Lee argues that Milkman’s trip to the African American South is an essential part of Morrison’s variant of initiation story (109). The reconnection with the larger family liberates him from the stereotypic features imposed by the American culture of capitalism, mercantilism, and flamboyance (110). The metamorphosis happens during his participation in the ritual hunting. The choice of method is not accidental; the author underscores the emotional connection of the main characters with their southern ancestors. Milkman undergoes the process of the sensual death during the night hunt only to realize the futility of his existence (Morrison). Later, he develops a deep feeling of connectedness with the locals during his search for relatives (Morrison). Eventually, the voices of the children singing a song about Solomon and his twenty-one kids allow him to find the proper connection and identify his family origin (Morrison). The main hero establishes the family connection with Susan Byrd, his grandmother’s niece, and his great grandfather Solomon – a flying African who abandoned his children while returning to homeland (Morrison). The discovery of all pieces of a puzzle essentially helps Milkman to acquire a new understanding of his family and reduce the overall ignorance about his origin. The young man may justly celebrate the achievement of spiritual matureness as he obtained the vitally important sense of belonging to someone.   

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Cultural significance of racial heritage

Promoting the black cultural nationalism, the writer goes further to define the fundamental meaning of claiming one’s racial identity. Some critics argue that Morrison deliberately deviates from the European standards of initiation story by incorporating the Afrocentric logos (Heinze 87). Morrison seems determined to prove the crucial role of the cultural heritage in the lives of her characters by emphasizing the element of the African culture in her narration. First, the author notes that the enchanting singing is extremely important in the main characters’ reconnection with the past. The song about Sugarman, performed by Pilate and her family, evokes the sense of euphoria in Milkman as voices reached “what little pieces of heart he had left to call his own” (Morrison). Similarly, Pilate performs the sacred ritual during Hagan’s funeral. The grieving grandmother interrupts the Christian sermon “Naked came ye into this life and naked shall ye depart” with cries “Mercy!” and receives an answer from her daughter Reba “I hear you.” Both females start singing the old song “In the nighttime. Mercy…” in a duet (Morrison). Reed argues that the service members and funeral attendants have witnessed the times of African ritual, the initial meaning of which was lost for the contemporary generation of listeners (59). The episode translates into the revival of the African tradition of black music, whereas the call-response pattern is common for the rhythmical performance (59). At the same time, the verbal references to the daily activities “in the evening,” “in the morning,” and “at my bedside” reflect the African views on death as “an end and a beginning” (Reed 59). Moreover, singing allowed Hagan’s relatives to express their overwhelming sense of loss. The phrase from Pilate’s next song “I’ll find who’s botherin [sic] my baby girl” indicates the depth of her deprivation and desire to comfort the young girl even after her death (Morrison). The assertion suggests that Pilate appealed to the spiritual maternal link between the generations that transcends physical death.

Alongside the musical traditions, Morrison promotes the African institution of the matriarchal rule. Reed justly notes that the writer strives to compensate the notable lack of attention to the black female characters in the literary works of the modern period (52-53). Therefore, Morrison advises to admire the world and follow the example of several women that function as the maternal guides for Milkman during his spiritual growth. Among the female characters, Pilate has the closest ties with her African heritage. While being a source of unconventional wisdom, Pilate radiates unearthly strength to resist the Western influence. It is highly evident from her shunning attitude to the modern niceties and womanly obsession with fashion (Morris). Her refusal to settle and preference to live in the woman-dominated household is likely to signify the ability to withstand the pressure of social ostracism. Pilate is essentially impartial toward the popular rumors about her birth deformity and lack of social status (Morrison). She continues to reconcile with the superior attitude of her professionally accomplished brother Macon (Morris). As the story unfolds, Pilate assumes the role of a storyteller. It is from her that Milkman receives precious information about his father’s childhood and early adulthood (Morrison). Her wisdom drives Milkman to start his journey to the Southern states in order to uncover his family name (Morrison). Evidently, Morrison depicted her main character with the acute capability to play the leading role in the lives of her family members.

The assertion is especially relevant, since Pilate’s adherence to the cultural heritage of the African ancestors creates mythical and magical oriole around her persona. For instance, she ignores traditional medicine and conventional methods of personal protection while helping Ruth to conceive Milkman by means of spiritual ritual. She overthrows Macon’s efforts to force Ruth to make abortion by pacing a male voodoo doll under his office chair with the red circle on its stomach and a chicken bone between his legs (Morrison). On another occasion, Pilate helps Milkman to decipher her father’s words. Dr. Smith argued, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” (Morrison). The phrase essentially indicates the liberation from slavery. The entrapment refers to the emotional boundaries that restrain the main character from embracing his African heritage. In Milkman’s words, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (Morrison). The statement indicates that the compulsory possession of the ancestral knowledge is necessary to master one’s fate. In general, evidence suggests that the institution of maternal power should be revived, since the African females seem to embody the strength of will and source of unconventional wisdom.       

African-American dichotomy

As the narration unfolds, the writer persistently contrasts the African origin of the main characters with their embracement of the American lifestyle. The male heroes, in particular, embody the desire for enrichment and self-realization. Macon Dead, for instance, is the vivid personification of the American assertiveness. The audience may clearly observe his desire to take the commanding role in the family household. Morrison explains that Macon developed the distinguishable sense of paternal leadership “after years of creating respect and fear wherever he put his foot down.” Apparently, the sense of power made him commit regular acts of abuse. The children appear overly unsurprised as Macon hit their mother as a punishment for open defiance. Morrison suggests that Milkman involuntarily rushed to defend Ruth out of the pure desire to stop the endless circle of violence. It also indicates the systematic nature of domestic abuse in the Dead family. In fact, Macon regularly exhibits the despotic tendencies. The main character strives to control the social life of his son by forbidding him to visit his aunt (Morrison). Moreover, the assertiveness of his character drives him to pursue dream of enrichment. Macon exhibits an acute sharpness of mind while making the detailed calculations. He proves to be a skillful business manager, perfectly capable “to think, to plan, to visit the bank men, to read the public notices, auctions” and predict changes in the national economy (Morrison).

His desire for enrichment may be partially attributed to the loveless marriage, since the absence of the family harmony drove him further into the persistent aspiration to climb the social ladder. Macon married Ruth despite the strained relationships with her farther – Dr. Foster; the tension resulted from the overall pride of the latter (Morrison). The end of their marriage came soon after the discovery of Ruth’s blind subjugation to her father’s will as well as the suspicion of the incest relations between two close relatives and the subsequent affairs of Milkman’s mother (Morrison). While the alleged inferiority of his position rendered Macon unworthy in the eyes of Ruth’s father, the main hero was likely to feel the sense of resentment from Ruth that was followed by the endless stray of lovers until her elderly age. This fact largely explains his need to maintain control over the household.

The image of his sister Pilate, on the contrary, embodies the ascetical lifestyle, i.e. the deliberate refusal to enjoy the benefits of modernity. She lives in “a narrow single-story house” with her daughter and granddaughter without electricity, gas, and water supply (Morrison). The elderly woman provides for her living as a wine-seller but had no desire for profits and contemporary luxuries (Morrison). According to Morrison, her earnings “evaporated like sea water in a hot wind— going for junk jewelry for Hagar, Reba’s gifts to men” while the household members survived on bread, butter, and “what they had or came across or had a craving for.” Undoubtedly, Pilate does not trouble herself with collecting the attributes of material wealth. Heinze argues that the heroine’s livelihood contradicts the American entrepreneurial spirit by rejecting the generally praised “middle-class respectability” (92). 

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Her daily routine, by contrast, resembled leisurely time spending, which is evident from her striving for perfection. On one occasion, Pilate tried to teach Milkman and Guitar to make “a perfect soft-boiled egg” (Morrison). The tone of her voice, the pleasant aroma, and sunny atmosphere put both listeners in the state of trance (Morrison). The homely interior of her dwelling evokes the same fascination in her twelve-year-old nephew. Heinze compares Pilate’s private space with a refuge, i.e. the complete opposition to her brother’s “tastefully decorated, efficiently managed, culturally middle-brow” house (92). The difference in their lifestyles easily translates into the dichotomy of the worldviews. While Macon possesses the features of the successful and unhappy businessman, Pilate derives her joy from simple things. Her only treasures appear to be human bones, geography book, collection of rocks, and an earring as a reminder of her mother (Morris). Therefore, Morris highlights the primary significance of spiritual nourishment that is overly detached from the earthly struggle for enrichment and empowerment. The assertion allows to trace the underlying negation of the American materialism that is closely intertwined with overwhelming consumerism.

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Meanwhile, Hagan’s tragedy illustrates the danger of exposure to the mainstream culture. The writer assumes that the American cultural stereotypes threaten to evoke the potentially hazardous attitude toward oneself and the surrounding people. Her reaction to the break-up with Milkman illustrates the depth of her self-deprivation. Hagan initially spies on her former boyfriend as Milkman enjoys the company of copper-haired girl, stalks him for months, and tries to kill him six times (Morrison). The tragedy of her passionate quest for revenge may be attributed to the lack of guidance from the elderly generation and peers. Guitar acutely suggests that the delusional woman needs “chorus of mamas, grandmamas [sic], aunts, cousins, sisters, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, best girl friends” (Morrison). In other words, Hagan should have sought help and support from the family members. According to Ahmad, the integration into the female-headed black community would overly give her healing strength while effectively nurturing her ability for self-sustenance (64). Conversely, Hagan exhibits the deep sense of negation toward her racial features. In senseless delirium, she whispers about the lack of “silky hair… lemon-colored skin… thin nose… gray-blue eyes,” in essence, about the stereotypical features of the white beauty that attract Milkman’s attention (Morrison). Ahmad justly notes that the failure to resist the Westernized standards of outer perfection is the reason for her death (66). Hagan’s fate exemplifies the compulsory necessity for reconnection with one’s cultural identity by building the healthy and beneficial relations with the representatives of the racial community. In Hagan’s case, asking for help from the black relative would facilitate the embracement of her African heritage as well as free the young woman from the obsessive inclinations.

In conclusion, Song of Solomon strikes the audience with the open calls for acquiring one’s cultural identity. The book is an exciting and psychologically complex story of metamorphosis from a careless youthful man into a serious and mature person. The discovery of larger family signifies Milkman’s liberation from aimless existence and embracement of his African origin. The female characters, in their turn, impersonate the spiritual guide during his soul-searching process by revealing his shortcoming and preserving the element of ancestral memory. In general, Morrison succeeded in extending the limits of the genre by promoting the black cultural nationalism while raising the philosophical issues of cultural divergence and continuation of inherited traditions.   

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