Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 1
On February 18, 1931, about fifty black people have gathered to watch Robert Smith — a black insurance agent who works for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company — prepare to fly, using homemade blue silk wings, from the roof of Mercy Hospital across Lake Superior. The group of onlookers includes a stout woman with several children, a gold-toothed man, and a well-dressed pregnant woman — "the dead doctor's daughter" — with her two daughters. Startled to see Mr. Smith perched atop the hospital roof, the pregnant woman drops her basket of red velvet rose petals, which temporarily distracts the spectators from the spectacle of Mr. Smith. Suddenly, as the crowd scrambles to help the woman's daughters save the rose petals from being trampled in the snow, another woman, wearing an old quilt and a navy-blue knitted cap, starts to sing.
The hospital's white staff, who have been watching the black spectators from inside the hospital and are relieved that the crowd has not gathered to riot, cautiously venture outside the hospital and begin moving through the crowd, shouting orders and creating confusion. As the crowd anxiously awaits the arrival of the fire truck summoned by one of the hospital staff, they marvel that a quiet, unassuming man like Mr. Smith would attempt such a daring feat.
Meanwhile, the singing woman advises the pregnant woman to keep warm because her expectant baby will be born the next morning. Suddenly, a roar from the crowd interrupts the two women's conversation as Mr. Smith temporarily loses his balance. Immediately, the singing woman shifts her attention back to Mr. Smith and resumes her song. By the time the fire truck finally arrives at the hospital, Mr. Smith has already leaped to his death. The next morning, as the singing lady foretold, the pregnant woman gives birth to her baby, a son, who is the first "colored baby" born inside Mercy Hospital.
The narrative now shifts to four years later, and the dead doctor's daughter, Ruth Foster Dead, is entertaining guests in the spacious house she inherited from her father. As Ruth's guests eat her nearly inedible sunshine cake, they discuss her "peculiar" four-year-old son, Macon Dead III, who is also in the room. Noticing her son's discomfort, Ruth allows him to escape upstairs, past the room where his sisters, Lena and Corinthians, are making red velvet roses.
After her guests have gone, Ruth retires to what used to be her father's study, where she proceeds to breast-feed her "peculiar" son and lose herself in daydreams and fantasies. Consequently, she is startled and embarrassed when Freddie, the "gold-toothed man," comes to pay his rent and interrupts her secret afternoon ritual of suckling her son. Soon after this incident, Ruth learns that the townspeople are referring to her son as "Milkman."
The rest of Chapter 1 focuses on the background and history of the Dead family: Ruth and her husband, Macon; their daughters, Lena and Corinthians; their son, now nicknamed Milkman; and Macon's sister, Pilate, "the singing woman," a bootlegger who lives in a remote house in the woods with her daughter, Reba, and granddaughter, Hagar. Macon is a domineering, abusive misogynist who hates his wife and sister, is disappointed in his daughters, and generally ignores his son. Ruth and Macon have been married for approximately twenty years but have not had sex since Ruth's father died several years ago. Macon, who makes his living in real estate, is hated and feared by blacks, who detest his arrogance, and is ignored by whites, who use him to control the town's black population. We learn that Freddie, one of Macon's tenants, works for Macon and imagines himself a friend of the Dead family. Knowing Freddie to be an incorrigible gossip, Macon relies on him for information concerning his tenants, totally unaware that Freddie is responsible for nicknaming his son "Milkman."
As we follow Macon through a typical workday, we share his daydreams concerning his father, his sister, and his early days with Ruth, and we witness his confrontations with two of his tenants, Porter and Mrs. Bains, the "stout woman." That evening, as Macon walks home after his stressful day and passes Pilate's house, he pauses to listen to Pilate, Reba, and Hagar singing. Reluctant to return to his own house, where "there was no music," he heads back to Pilate's and, under the cover of darkness, again listens to the women singing and watches their peaceful evening ritual.
Chapter 1 introduces us to Song of Solomon's main characters and the narrative's unique structure, in which Morrison intermixes the present, the past, and the future and presents numerous stories from various characters' perspectives. Because the narrator functions only as a detached observer who simply reports things as they happen, the characters tell their own stories, and the community comments on or responds to these characters' actions. This call-and-response pattern between the characters' individual voices and the community's collective voice, which originates in the African oral tradition, resonates throughout the novel. The opening chapter also illustrates Morrison's emphasis on participatory reading: She expects readers to participate in the novel's construction by filling in the spaces of the narrative, connecting various seemingly unrelated details as they are revealed. For example, Chapter 1 poses several questions: Who is Mr. Smith? Why is he about to fly from the roof of Mercy Hospital? And why does he ask the community's forgiveness?
The chapter also introduces Morrison's concept of history as "rememory," an approach that views history not as a series of significant public events marked by wars and other national crises but as a compilation of stories filtered through the personal memories of individuals. Consequently, readers receive apparently disjointed fragments of stories that are understandable only in retrospect. Viewed from this perspective, history is not "the master's tale," publicly recorded in newspapers, textbooks, and historical documents that generally reflect a white male perspective and discount the contributions of people of color and women; history is a master tale, or master text, composed of collective experiences, including songs, poems, and personal stories.
Mr. Smith's note introduces the concept of language as a powerful tool for transmitting information and manipulating reality. The note, which proclaims Mr. Smith's promise to fly, performs much the same function as the city legislators' notice proclaiming Mains Avenue as the new, official name of the former Doctor Street. However, the street name notice is posted in "stores, barbershops, and restaurants" but not in schools, churches, or libraries, which are important places for blacks to gather socially. Ironically, the black community recognizes the legislators' notice as official correspondence — note the legal language of the proclamation — but generally ignores Mr. Smith's "unofficial" note, which contains a far more important message in terms of its impact on the black community. Although the black community acknowledges and appears to accept the legislators' notice, it resists the notice's message by manipulating the content of the proclamation. Appearing to acquiesce and accept the name of Mains Avenue, the community holds onto its memories by referring to Mains Avenue as "Not Doctor Street." Complying with the letter rather than the spirit of the law, the community effectively resists the city's racist power structure without confronting it directly. Thus, the emphasis on writing notes and recording information provides an insightful commentary on the function of written language and indirectly mocks the national legislation created to protect black citizens' rights.
Mr. Smith is "the little insurance agent" who keeps each of his insurance records on a "little yellow card" and who lives in a "little yellow house." This repetition of "little" not only refers to the language of racist whites who attempt to demean black men by addressing them as "boys" but also suggests the community's attempt to diminish Mr. Smith's life. Also note that Porter's ranting speech later in the chapter, when he is threatening to kill himself, is oddly similar to Mr. Smith's note. Porter yells, "I love ya! I love ya all"; Mr. Smith's note reads, "I loved you all." In addition, Porter cries, "Oh, God have mercy"; Mr. Smith writes, "I will take off from Mercy." These similarities are clues to what we later learn about these two men: At one point in their lives, both belonged to the Seven Days, a group of seven men who retaliate against whites for their senseless killings of African Americans.
The scene of Mr. Smith's flight from Mercy Hospital also demonstrates Morrison's delight in wordplay and her skill in merging fact and fiction to create a new reality. For example, Mr. Smith, a fictional character, works for North Carolina Mutual Life, an actual black-owned insurance company. February 18, 1931, the date of his proposed flight, is Morrison's birth date.
Morrison's emphasis on the transforming power of language is illustrated by her fluency in the language of domination and submission, which enables her to convey the race and class of various characters solely through their interactions — mannerisms, choice of words, body language, and forms of address. For example, when the white hospital nurse initially addresses Mrs. Bains, the "stout woman," outside the hospital with a gruff "You," Mrs. Bains' eyebrows "lifted at the carelessness of the address." But note Mrs. Bains' change in character when she realizes that a white woman is addressing her: "Then, seeing where the voice came from, she lowered her brows and veiled her eyes."
The "You" with which the nurse addresses Mrs. Bains raises another important theme in the novel: legal names. Except for Mr. Smith, whose radical act places him physically and psychologically outside the community's control, characters are not referred to by their legal names. Instead, they obtain their identities — "the dead doctor's daughter," "the gold-toothed man," "the singing woman" — from the community, which functions as a chorus, or social commentator. This distinction between what people are named and what they are called is important: For African Americans, community identity often supersedes individual identity.
The vital link between the community and the individual is further emphasized by the black spectators' and the white hospital staff's different opinions of Mr. Smith: The black spectators see Mr. Smith as a member of their community, but the staff sees him as a problem. Ironically, the white staff, symbolic of early twentieth-century white society, is blithely unaware that they are responsible for "the Negro problem," which they are now attempting to resolve: "They wondered if one of those things that racial-uplift groups were always organizing was taking place." Morrison's message is clear: The two groups cannot communicate because they speak different languages. Consequently, they hold different views of reality.
Readers should also note Morrison's multifaceted approach to language, which often reveals hidden meanings behind seemingly innocuous words and phrases. For example, Ruth's cloche (hat) marks her as a well-dressed woman, but since the term also designates a covering for delicate plants, it supports the evolving image of Ruth as a fragile, vulnerable female. Similarly, the reference to the cupola (dome-like, cloche-like structure) on the roof of Mercy Hospital suggests an image of the hospital as a church, but the hospital offers neither mercy nor charity. Another example of hidden meanings here in Chapter 1 is when the narrator says, "Then in 1918, when colored men were being drafted . . ." Left unsaid is the fact that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when black men were barred from serving in the United States military. Although black soldiers participated in all U.S. wars from the 1776 American Revolutionary War forward, African Americans were not granted the right to vote until 1944, and the armed forces remained segregated until 1948.
By drawing more attention to seemingly trivial details — for example, the velvet rose petals — than the main event of Mr. Smith's flight, Morrison introduces another recurring theme in the novel: Events that are trivialized, discounted, or ignored are often more important than those that command our attention. The novel also provides a biting social commentary on contemporary American culture, in which people are often judged in terms of race, gender, or material wealth rather than on the basis of their personal character and integrity.
Because color symbolism plays a key role in the novel, readers should be aware of the themes and images suggested by various colors. In her essay "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," Morrison discusses color symbolism and writes, "The composition of red, white, and blue in the opening scene provides the national canvas/flag upon which the narrative works." In other words, the red velvet rose petals, the white snow, and Mr. Smith's blue silk wings mirror the colors in the United States national flag. Consequently, we can surmise that Milkman's story is the story of a young man struggling to come to terms with his dual identity as both an American and as a black man in white America. Other key color references in Chapter 1 include Pilate's navy-blue cap and Ruth's gray coat, which allude to the Union blue and Confederate gray during the American Civil War, fought in large part over the issue of slavery, and the white linen that covers Ruth's mahogany table — an image of whiteness concealing, or negating, the blackness of mahogany.
Ruth's fantasy, in which she envisions herself as a "cauldron issuing spinning gold," provides a rare moment of insight into her true character and probes the origins of her spiritual death. It also introduces gold as a "thread," an image that recurs throughout the novel and further establishes the theme of the quilt — Pilate has a quilt wrapped around her as she stands outside the hospital — as a symbol of African-American culture.
"Stunned into stillness" by her husband's hatred, Ruth has grown accustomed to repressing her feelings and emotions. Only through fantasy can she reunite the fragments of her shattered self-image and see herself as a whole, functioning human being. Subjected for nearly twenty years to her husband's contempt, Ruth has internalized his vision of herself as a depersonalized object, stripped of such human emotions as hope and fear. She uses the water mark on her father's mahogany table as a means — "a mooring" — to confirm that she is alive, which is why she looks at it several times daily: "She knew it was there, would always be there, but she needed to confirm its presence" and thereby confirm her own. Although Macon has shattered Ruth's self-image, he has not succeeded in completely destroying her. By transcending her limited existence, which discounts her experiences and denies her reality, Ruth maintains her personal, private desires through her reveries and her fantasies.
To convey Ruth's surrealistic vision, Morrison merges elements of feminist creation mythology, European fairy tale, Greek mythology, and African folk tale. Ruth depends on external cues — for example, the watermark on her mahogany table — to confirm and validate her fragmented existence as both "the keeper of the lighthouse and the prisoner." However, in her fantasy, she relies on internal cues and sees herself as a divine female endowed with the power of creation. The image of the miller's wife spinning straw into gold clearly relates to the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin," in which a miller's daughter will be allowed to keep her child if she can guess the name of the little man who helped her spin the king's straw into gold. The image of the cauldron "issuing spinning gold" also recalls the Greek myth of the three Fates, sister goddesses who preside over the birth, life, and death of humans: Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures its length and character, and Atropos cuts it off with her shears. In addition, the gold thread image alludes to Anansi the Spider, a creature popular in African folklore and known for its magical powers.
Although the story of Rumpelstiltskin appears to dominate Ruth's vision, it is only one, and perhaps the least significant, image associated with spinning thread. Therefore, we can surmise that despite her materialism, which reflects the values of a white, Western culture, Ruth is deeply rooted in her African heritage. We can also speculate that Ruth's scenes here in Chapter 1 reflect Morrison's belief that women — especially black women — who allow themselves to be defined by men and who believe that beauty, material possessions, and self-denial — rather than creativity, spirituality, and personal responsibility — will lead them to a "happily ever after" life are destined for failure and heartbreak.
Contrasted with Ruth is Pilate, who is "as poorly dressed as the doctor's daughter was well dressed." Ruth, pregnant and standing outside of the hospital, wears a "traditional pregnant-woman bow at her navel"; Pilate has no naval, in part, Macon surmises, because his mother died before giving birth to Pilate, and the unborn baby "had come struggling out of the womb without help from throbbing muscles or the pressure of swift womb water." Pilate's inching her way "headfirst out of a still, silent, and indifferent cave of flesh, dragging her own cord and her own afterbirth behind her" is one of many images of nature linked with the woman. For example, her father chose the name "Pilate" for her because he saw in the group of letters "a large figure that looked like a tree hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of smaller trees." Pilate's house is backed by four large pine trees, whose needles she stuffs her mattress; Macon notes that his sister has always chewed on plants or bits of wood; and the chapter ends with the image of Pilate swaying "like a willow over her stirring."
Although Pilate and Macon are sister and brother, no two characters in the novel are more different from each other. The nature imagery associated with Pilate is contrasted with the urban imagery of Macon, best exemplified in his ring of keys, symbolic of his materialism. Morrison describes Macon's obsession with his keys as almost sexual: He "curled his fingers around them, letting their bunchy solidity calm him. . . . [H]e fondled them from time to time." Note also that the important theme of naming also differentiates Macon from his sister. Whereas Pilate physically carries her folded-up name inside her dangling brass box earring, Macon struggles to understand why the "giving of names in his family was always surrounded by what he believed to be monumental foolishness." He wants to believe that at least one of his ancestors "had a name that was real," but he is not willing to chance his material possessions to find out. Instead, that spiritual journey will be pursued in the second half of the novel by his only son, Milkman.
Already in Chapter 1, Morrison situates Milkman as the only living member of his family who has the potential, although deeply buried, to fly, an act that symbolizes movement from the material world toward a better, more spiritual and free existence. Pilate, Milkman's aunt and spiritual advisor, says to Ruth while the two women stand waiting for Mr. Smith to fly, "A little bird'll be here in the morning." That little bird is Milkman, who, as Pilate foresaw, is born the next morning. Readers should note that a bird is traditionally a common symbol for the soul. Consequently, Pilate's words not only predict her nephew's birth, but they also imply that eventually Milkman will transcend the arbitrary limits placed on black people. However, that time is long in coming, for when four-year-old Milkman realizes that "only birds and airplanes could fly — he lost all interest in himself." Milkman awakens to reality and realizes society's limitations on him. This awareness illustrates the dilemma of many blacks in white America, who learn early on that their opportunities for social, economic, and political successes are limited because of their skin color. Milkman will unquestioningly accept his father's skewed, materialistic view of the world because Macon has forbidden his son to interact with the one person who can help Milkman spiritually: Pilate.
Lindbergh Charles Lindbergh (1902–74), the American aviator who made the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris, in 1927.
corsets constricting undergarments worn by women to shape their waists and give them "hourglass" figures.
cupola architecturally, a domed structure atop a roof.
peck basket A peck equals eight quarts of any dry material; the peck basket that Ruth drops could hold a maximum of eight quarts of red velvet rose petals.
pregnant-woman bow Traditionally, pregnant women attached decorative bows to their clothes at the stomach to announce that they were pregnant.
cloche a bell-shaped hat that fits snugly over the ears and forehead.
galoshes rubber overshoes used to protect footwear during inclement weather.
racial-uplift groups During the early 1900s, white liberals and black nationalists founded several organizations dedicated to "uplifting the race." These pioneering groups included the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the National Urban League; and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
jumpers protective one-piece garments worn over clothes.
Father Divine a storefront preacher popular during the 1930s, hailed by some as a black messiah. Here, Father Divine "reigns" in Philadelphia, "the city of brotherly love," the home of the Liberty Bell, and the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The reference emphasizes the ironic fact that African Americans were being denied the "divine right" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
nutwagon here, an insane person.
reaper meaning the Grim Reaper, traditionally a symbol of death.
Hoover Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), the thirty-first president of the United States (1929-33). The people from whom Mr. Smith collects insurance money jokingly wonder if Hoover knows of Mr. Smith's regularity in collecting their money; Hoover failed to correct the financial crash of 1929, which began the Great Depression.
"Right on time." Pilate's words allude to the African-American proverb, "He [Jesus] may not come when you call Him, but He's always right on time."
sedan a two- or four-door car; the term "sedan" has become somewhat antiquated today.
caul According to superstition, a baby born with a caul — part of the membrane that protects the fetus — was destined to have good luck. According to African legend, a baby born with a caul has the power to combat evil spirits and the ability to see ghosts.
sunshine cake a light, airy, circular cake, made with either a yellow cake batter or a white cake batter and then frosted with yellow icing.
gross equaling 144 items.
lilt a happy, upbeat manner of speaking.
salt cellar a salt shaker or a small, shallow bowl from which salt is pinched.
rennet dessert a cheeselike dessert in which rennet, a dried extract made from the stomach lining of a small animal, usually a calf, is the major ingredient.
iodine here, a reference to iodic acid, a disinfectant powder used to clean surfaces.
linseed oil an oil made from the seeds of flax, a plant widely cultivated for its seeds and stems, and used in paints and varnishes.
pussy willow a deciduous North American shrub having clusters of large, silvery, fuzzy flowers.
Scotch pine a pine tree native to Europe and Asia having a flattened top and triangular cones.
grosgrain ribbon a ribbon made from grosgrain, a coarse-textured silk or rayon fabric.
bodice the fitted part of a dress from the waist to the shoulder.
perspiration shields pads, probably made from cotton, that women wore underneath their armpits so that their sweat would not soil their clothes.
onyx skin Onyx is a crystal-like substance indigenous to India and South America and found in many colors; onyx skin would be a deep, black-colored skin.
fluky odd; eccentric.
relief check here, a government-issued check made payable to low-income individuals and families.
tetter spots skin eruptions caused by various skin diseases, including psoriasis and herpes; tetter is common chiefly in the southern United States.
town crier an antiquated term for a person hired to make public announcements in the streets; here, a public gossiper, a person who feels it necessary to tell everyone's business to everybody.
caught the eagle got paid. The phrase alludes to the African-American folk saying "The eagle flies on Friday" — Friday is payday.
wild turkey a wild variety of turkey and the ancestor of the domesticated North American turkey.
calico a brightly printed cloth.
India rubber erasers erasers made from India rubber, cultivated from the rubber plant, an evergreen fig plant native to India and Malaysia.