Song of Solomon takes an unconventional approach to conventional elements such as plot and setting. Morrison is renowned for her powerful metaphors and her use of detail to establish a tone or mood. For example, in Chapter 1, to establish the fact that Southside residents tend to rely on local gossip for their news rather than on newspapers, which often ignore events affecting the black community, the narrator tells us that "word-of-mouth news just lumbered along." To illustrate the crushing poverty of Southside residents, we see women "getting ready to go see what tails or entrails the butcher might be giving away." And in Chapter 11, to establish the feeling of a small, rural community, the narrator introduces us to the women of Shalimar, Virginia, who "walked as if they were going somewhere, but they carried nothing in their hands."
While the story of Song of Solomon involves numerous fictional and historical events, the plot focuses on Milkman's quest for his inheritance, which he believes to be Pilate's elusive bag of gold. The novel begins and ends with scenes of flight. It moves from the present to the past, from the North to the South, from innocence to experience, from ignorance to wisdom. Like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Song of Solomon focuses on the individual's need to achieve self-knowledge, identity, and visibility as a complex, real human being.
Morrison, by beginning the novel in medias res (in the middle of things), challenges readers to reconstruct the events leading up to the opening scene by piecing together fragments of stories and snippets of conversation supplied by various characters. Because Milkman cannot be confined by the boundaries of the community, movement is outward rather than circular, from Milkman's personal perspective, to the black community, to the community at large. We can imagine Milkman's life as a ripple in a pond and his experiences as creating an ever-widening series of concentric waves that touch the lives of those around him. In this way, we are given a universal view of human development through the experiences of the individual, for we realize that by following Milkman's growth and development, we are also witnessing the growth and development of the human psyche.
Milkman's life can be seen as a microcosm of one element of black experience. By reading his story, we can imagine what it's like to be a young black male living in a white male-dominated society. Along the way, we learn that although society creates seemingly insurmountable obstacles (such as racism), it is up to us to overcome those obstacles and create full, meaningful lives for ourselves, using our inherent skills and talents. We also learn that how we view ourselves and our lives is more important than how others view us, and that seeing ourselves as a part of a larger community of people and recognizing that we have the right to choose our response to situations empower us to transcend boundaries. In effect, readers, like Milkman, learn that obstacles are not insurmountable barriers but can be viewed as hurdles on the path to success.
In terms of both time and place, setting plays a key role in Song of Solomon. Although the novel spans approximately a hundred years, documenting three generations of the Dead family's history, it focuses on Milkman's life from birth to age 32. The novel begins in 1931 and ends around 1963. Thus it encompasses two major movements in African-American history: the Harlem Renaissance (1917–35) and the Civil Rights movement (1955–70s).
The year 1931 marks the pinnacle of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement heralded as a golden age of black art in the United States. It also marks the rise of the "New Negro," an articulate, sophisticated bourgeois class of intellectual blacks immersed in cultural and aesthetic pursuits, convinced that their literary and artistic achievements would elevate their social and political status in American society by demonstrating to whites that Negroes are not inferior human beings. Ironically, the phrase "New Negro," coined by Alain Locke (1886–1954), the first African-American Rhodes scholar, was rejected by black writers such as Langston Hughes, who believed that authentic artistic expression had its roots in the real-life experiences of "common folk." As Hughes observed, "The ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any."
Similarly, 1963 also marks a milestone in black history. According to historian Lerone Bennett in Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, "It was a year of funerals and births, a year of endings and a year of beginnings, a year of hate, a year of love. It was a year of water hoses and high-powered rifles, of struggles in the streets and screams in the night, of homemade bombs and gasoline torches, of snarling dogs and widows in black. It was a year of passion, a year of despair, a year of desperate hope. It was . . . the 100th year of black emancipation and the first year of the Black Revolution." In other words, it was a year of the black Civil Rights movement.
Song of Solomon's physical setting is the Midwest, which, as Morrison notes, "is neither ghetto nor plantation." Geographically, it moves from an unnamed town in Michigan to the fictional town of Shalimar, Virginia. Numerous clues suggest that the mysterious, unnamed Michigan city is Detroit, "the Motor City," birthplace of the famous "Motown Sound." Culturally, the novel's setting moves from the industrial North, heavily influenced by the materialistic values and traditions of white society, to the rural South, steeped in traditional values and nurtured by a strong sense of history. Along the way, it takes us — via the characters' memories or actual wanderings — to a variety of U.S. cities and towns: Macon, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Danville, Pennsylvania; Shalimar, Virginia; and Jacksonville, Florida.
As Milkman sets out to discover his inheritance, the setting shifts from the North (Michigan) to the South (the fictional town of Shalimar, Virginia). This shift from North to South presents a sharp contrast between the contemporary black northern community and the traditional black southern community. It also reverses the traditional freedom trail of enslaved Africans since Milkman finds freedom not by escaping to the North but by returning to the South. Upon his arrival in Shalimar, Milkman becomes acutely aware of his estrangement and alienation from his cultural roots. By participating in the initiation rituals thrust upon him by the men of Shalimar, by listening to the children sing Solomon's song, and by ridding himself of the mental shackles that bind him to the distorted sense of white, capitalist values espoused by his father, Milkman finally learns the meaning of love and the value of history and tradition.