Critical Essays Levels of Language and Meaning in Song of Solomon


Song of Solomon is a richly textured novel that functions on multiple levels. For example, the theme of flight, which pervades the novel, alludes to numerous flights: Mr. Smith's flight; the mythical flight of Solomon/Sugarman; the literal flight of birds, pilots, and airplanes; the historical flight of black people from slavery, poverty, and violence; and the metaphorical flight of Pilate, who transcends the arbitrary boundaries of society. Allusions to flight pervade the novel. In addition to frequent references to birds (hens, chickens, ravens, peacocks) and to characters whose names allude to birds (Singing Bird, Susan Byrd, Crowell Byrd), readers should also note references that suggest bird imagery — for example, Pilate's eggs, Ruth's "peck basket" of rose petals, and Feather's pool hall.

Understanding the significance of Solomon's song is a key to understanding the novel since it is the language of the song that eventually reveals the secrets of Milkman's past. Once Milkman deciphers the song's code and understands its language, he also understands the meaning of his inheritance. Consequently, he is able to view his life not simply as a series of random, disconnected events but as part of a vital link between the past and future. (This tension between fusion and fragmentation, which emphasizes the need for the individual to gather the bones of experience in order to recreate himself into a unified, whole — albeit imperfect — human being, is a key theme in the novel.)

In addition to presenting us with the first of numerous biblical allusions, Solomon's song introduces us to the intrinsic role that religious and secular songs, in the form of spirituals and the blues, play in defining and transmitting African-American culture. Although Solomon's song is a children's rhyme here, it provides divine guidance, leading Milkman from mental bondage to spiritual freedom. Thus, although different in form, it fulfills the function of the old Negro spirituals — such as "Steal Away," "Wade in the Water," and "Follow the Drinking Gourd" — which often served as "signal songs" to guide escaped slaves along the path to freedom. To these slaves, "Steal Away" often signaled a secret church meeting that would put them in touch with other runaways; "Wade in the Water" warned them to walk in shallow creeks and river beds, thus making it more difficult for bloodhounds to pick up their scent; and "Follow the Drinking Gourd" reminded them to use the Big Dipper to find the North Star. For Milkman, Solomon's song contains the secrets to his inheritance, the path back to his "people."

Throughout the novel, characters' abilities to manipulate language reveal their abilities to cope with reality. Note, for example, Pilate's language, which incorporates puns, proverbs, parables, and folk sayings, and which flows freely from standard English, to black vernacular, to the poetic/sermonic language of the Bible, as opposed to Macon's language, which is marked by literal statements, nonstandard English, and racial epithets. (Other examples include Hospital Tommy, who "talks like an encyclopedia," Corinthians, who uses language to disguise her reality, and Freddie, the town crier, who uses language primarily to spread his skewed version of "truth.") Also note Morrison's use of Homeric epithets, which underscores the message that this story of one young man's quest for identity is part of the universal quest for identity common to all humanity. (Attributed to Homer, Homeric epithets are compound adjectives, such as "wine-dark sea," "bright-eyed Athena," and "rosy-fingered dawn.") Examples of this kind of epithet in the novel include "the cat-eyed boy," "the baked-too-fast sunshine cake," and "ice-pick-wielding Hagar."

Song of Solomon also challenges readers to consider the definitions of concepts such as "success" and "progress." Although Macon Dead has achieved a certain measure of material success, the drive for success has left him morally and spiritually bankrupt and unable to relate to himself, his family, or his community. Macon's dilemma symbolizes the dilemma of contemporary middle-class blacks who find that the trappings of success — a big house, a new car, and name-brand luxuries — do not guarantee them respect and social equality. Consequently, Morrison challenges us to consider the price of success in our capitalistic society and to ponder the progress made by African Americans over the last several decades, given that — despite the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s — many are still struggling for basic human rights.

In addition to the various levels of meaning inherent in the novel in general, readers should be alert to the multiple meanings of words and phrases — that is, literal versus figurative language — and to the relationships between oral and written language (how words sound versus what they mean within a specific context). Readers should also note Morrison's use of verbal irony, which explores the meaning behind seemingly innocuous words and phrases, such as "agent," "mercy," and "life insurance." They should also be familiar with the concept of "signifying," a type of wordplay originating in African-American culture.

Morrison expects readers to note not only what is being said but what is left unsaid. As she points out in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," "Invisible things are not necessarily 'not there,' [and] a void may be empty, but it is not a vacuum. . . . Certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves." Consider, for example, Pilate's missing navel, which is conspicuous by its absence. Consequently, Song of Solomon challenges readers to examine the various ways language can be manipulated to reveal or conceal information, and to consider how silence can be used to send subtle but powerful messages. For example, in Chapter 1, the narrator relates how the "official notice" informing Southside residents of the naming of Mains Avenue is posted "in stores, barbershops, and restaurants." Left unsaid is the fact that the notice is not posted in churches, schools, or libraries. The narrator also refers to a time "when black men were being drafted." Left unsaid is that in the not-too-distant past, black men were not being drafted and were, in fact, barred from serving in the military.

The motif of music — with an emphasis on the blues — resonates throughout the novel. Readers should note the numerous references and allusions to music, including references to musical instruments (drums, guitars, trumpets, pianos); references to musical terms (notes, keys, scales); references to blues musicians (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Fats Waller, B. B. King); references to sounds made by humans and animals (the humming Weimaraners, the screaming hounds, the shouting men); references to radios, records, and jukeboxes; and plays on words such as "grooves" and "jam."

Another key to the novel is the vital role of "the ancestor," who plays a pivotal role in African and African-American culture. In her essay "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," Morrison defines ancestors as "timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and [who] provide a certain kind of wisdom." According to her, the role of the ancestor is to render a source of comfort or solace. Consequently, the function of the ancestor in African-American literature is equivalent to "the contemplation of serene nature" in white mainstream literature. Morrison contends that, in order to build and maintain a strong, culturally rooted African-American community, each member of that community must assume responsibility for keeping the ancestor alive; killing the ancestor is equivalent to killing oneself. In Song of Solomon, Pilate is the ancestor who provides solace and guidance for her family and community, and whose wisdom enables Milkman to "fly."

Throughout the novel, Morrison blends fantasy and reality. But rather than adhering to the conventional belief that fantasy — in the forms of magic, superstition, and voodoo — limits or contradicts "real world" scientific knowledge, she illustrates, through the character of Pilate, that individuals in touch with nature and their own spirituality develop alternate ways of knowing that ultimately enhance their knowledge. In this way, she addresses the issue of "discredited knowledge" among black people. As she points out, blacks were often stigmatized and discredited by racist attitudes that held that blacks were morally and intellectually inferior to whites. Consequently, their knowledge was also discredited. By comparing Pilate's innate wisdom to Corinthians' external, academic knowledge — which leaves Corinthians totally incapable of coping with the brutal reality of contemporary society — Morrison stresses the power of knowledge that comes from within and challenges readers to question the value of formal education if that education does not equip individuals with the tools required to survive in the real world.

In tracing Milkman's spiritual development, note that his strength and awareness increase as he recognizes the links that bind him to his past and comes to terms with the present and future through his relationships with members of the black community. His development demonstrates a classic Afrocentric principle: The community is essential to the survival of the individual. Contrary to the Western Eurocentric perspective, which emphasizes individualism and competition, the Afrocentric perspective emphasizes community and cooperation. This concept is illustrated in the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child." It is also expressed in the African proverb "I am because we are," which sharply contrasts Descartes' assertion, "I think; therefore, I am." In short, although Milkman must ultimately define himself, he is also defined by his relationships. Therefore, he cannot learn his lessons in isolation; he can learn them only within the context of the community.