Summary and Analysis
Milkman returns to Shalimar, finds Sweet, and convinces her to go swimming with him in a nearby river, where he excitedly tells her what he has discovered about his ancestors. Then he boards a bus and heads back to Michigan. On the way, he thinks about his experiences and his newfound knowledge and speculates on the meaning of names and on Guitar's role in his life.
When Milkman arrives back home, he stops at Pilate's house. But when he starts to tell her about his discoveries, instead of welcoming his news, Pilate hits him over the head with a bottle and throws him into her cellar. When he regains consciousness, Milkman senses that Hagar is dead and realizes that Pilate's behavior against him was prompted by grief. He calls out to her and tells her that the bones she has been carrying around are those of her father. Finally he convinces her to go back to Shalimar with him to bury the bones. Pilate gives him a box filled with Hagar's hair, which he takes home with him.
Milkman and Pilate return to Shalimar. After a reunion with the people in the community, Pilate and Milkman go to Solomon's Leap to bury the bones. Pilate stoops down and drops her earring containing her name into the grave along with the bones. When she stands up, she is shot in the back of her head by a rifle fired by Guitar, and she dies in Milkman's arms as he sings Solomon's song to her. As he holds her, two birds circle around them, and one dives into the grave, then flies off with Pilate's earring.
Knowing Guitar will shoot him as soon as he stands up, Milkman intentionally stands and calls out to his friend, then leaps into the air toward Guitar, who is standing on another flat-headed rock.
Milkman's symbolic baptism and rebirth at the river complete his transformation from "Milkman" — the immature, irresponsible youth — to "Sugarman" — the subject of Pilate's/Solomon's song; he is the heir to Pilate's role as the transmitter of his people's culture and history. But even at this stage of his spiritual growth, he is unaware of the cost of his quest. For example, when he tells Sweet the story of his great-grandfather Solomon's flight back to Africa, he doesn't understand the meaning behind her question, "Who'd he leave behind?" Not until he returns home and learns his final lesson of love from Pilate is he able to understand that his freedom (like Solomon's) has come at the expense of the people he left behind — namely, Hagar. Consequently, his challenge is not only to reclaim the gift of flight but to break the legacy established by Solomon and followed by Jake and Macon of men who abandon those who love them.
Ironically, despite his transformation and newfound awareness, Milkman's victory is tenuous and has little impact on his family or community. Upon returning home, he learns that Hagar is dead due to his cruelty and inability to love. He also finds that although Pilate is surprised to discover that the bones in her sack are her father's, she is generally unmoved by this knowledge due to her reverence for all life and her close relationship to her father before and after his death.
By giving Milkman the box containing Hagar's hair, Pilate entrusts him with her granddaughter's soul. According to the voodoo religion, the hair and fingernails of the deceased contain the dead person's soul and generally are burned to keep them out of the hands of individuals who might want to harm the soul of the deceased or keep it from finding peace in the afterlife. Pilate's action also reflects her adherence to her father's philosophy: "You just can't fly on off and leave a body." Because Milkman is responsible for Hagar's death, he must assume responsibility for her soul, thus carrying on the tradition Pilate has established by caring for the bones she thought belonged to the white man whom her brother supposedly killed in Hunter's Cave.
By burying her father's bones, Pilate demonstrates her faith that the legacy of the Dead family will live on through Milkman. Now that Milkman knows his true name, Pilate is able to bury her name, contained in her brass earring. Having completed her task, she accepts her death as she listens to Milkman sing Solomon's song. But even in death, Pilate's concern is not for herself but for Reba, the daughter she must leave behind: "Watch Reba for me," she instructs Milkman. Her only regret is not having known more people so she could have "loved 'em all." Thus Milkman's quest is secondary to the lessons on grace and mercy that he learns through Pilate's wisdom and unconditional love.
Although numerous critics have commented on the novel's ambiguous ending as unsatisfactory, Morrison views it as keeping with the context of the novel, which focuses on duality and ambiguity. Consequently, it is up to each reader to fill in the spaces of the narrative concerning Milkman's fate. Given that Milkman has inherited Pilate's and Solomon's gifts of flight, perhaps his ultimate fate is secondary to the direction of his flight, which, unlike Solomon's, is not toward freedom but toward the "killing arms of his brother."
quarry an excavation pit from which ore is mined.
iridescent brilliantly glowing.
water moccasins a type of water snake.
tee double you ay a vulgarized pronunciation of TWA, or Trans World Airline, a major United States airline carrier.
ocher an orangish yellow color.
Algonquins a Native-American people who lived in the Ottawa River area, in southern east-central Canada, around 1600. Driven from their homeland by the Iroquois, eventually they were absorbed into other Canadian tribes.
Muddy Waters McKinley Morganfield (b. 1915), famous blues singer.
Jelly Roll Ferdinand Joseph "Jelly Roll" Morton (1885–1941), renowned jazz composer.
Fats a reference either to pianist and composer Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904–43), or to Antoine "Fats" Domino (b. 1928), renowned pianist and rhythm-and-blues singer.
Lead-belly Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter (1885–1949), a folk singer.
Bo Diddley Otha "Bo Diddley" McDaniels (b. 1928), renowned rock-and-roll singer.
B. B. Riley "B. B." King (b. 1925), a famous blues singer.
Lemon "Blind Lemon" Jefferson (1897–1930), the most influential African-American blues singer and guitarist of his time.
Tampa Red Whittaker Hudson (1903–81), a blues singer also known as "the Guitar Wizard."
Shine a black folk hero who — like Stagolee, John Henry, and High John the Conqueror — epitomizes the "bad nigger," or outlaw trickster.
Staggerlee The story of Stagolee (also known as "Stackolee" or "Staggerlee") originated in a black folk ballad about two gamblers, Stagolee and Billy. When Stagolee catches Billy cheating, he shoots him dead, then brags about his deed and steals Billy's wife.
Katherine Hepburn (b. 1909) gravelly voiced American film actress best known for her starring role in The African Queen (1951), with Humphrey Bogart, and her long-term love affair with Spencer Tracy, with whom she starred in nine films.
lodestar a star by which one directs one's course; a guiding principle or ideal.