Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 3
Spanning a period of ten years, Chapter 3 traces Milkman's life from age twelve to twenty-two. The chapter begins and ends with conversations between Milkman and Guitar. Milkman works at his father's real-estate office and likes his job because it gives him more time to visit Hagar at Pilate's house and to meet people who live in Guitar's Southside neighborhood.
As the chapter opens, Guitar and Milkman have decided to skip school and "hang out" in Southside. They stop first at Feather's pool hall, located in a rough part of Southside known as the Blood Bank. At Feather's, they see several men playing pool, including three awe-inspiring air force fighter pilots. When Feather refuses to admit Milkman into his establishment or sell him a beer because he dislikes Milkman's father, Guitar and Milkman continue down Tenth Street to the local barbershop, owned by two old men, Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy. Hospital Tommy asks the boys why they aren't in school and then lectures Milkman on how unfair he'll always be treated, painting a dismal picture of the things he'll never have, the least of which is a bottle of beer. After the boys leave the barbershop, they continue through the Southside neighborhood. Along the way, Guitar tells Milkman the story of his father's death and Guitar's subsequent aversion to sweets.
The narrative then shifts to fourteen-year-old Milkman and the changing relationship between him and his father. Knowing that he can never be like his father, Milkman determines to be as different from him as possible. Meanwhile, Macon is happy to have his son working with him because it relieves him of the job of collecting rents and makes him feel that his son now belongs to him rather than to Ruth. To Macon, Milkman is as much a possession as the rental property he owns.
The story line again shifts, this time to twenty-two-year-old Milkman seated at the dinner table with his family. After Ruth tells a story about her embarrassing behavior at the wedding of the granddaughter of one of her father's former clients, Macon slaps her. Milkman jumps up to defend his mother, knocks his father to the floor, and threatens to kill him if he ever abuses Ruth again. Later, Macon, who has gained a new respect for his son, tells Milkman the story behind his estranged relationship with Ruth. Overwhelmed by his father's sordid story concerning how his mother lay naked with her father after he died, sucking his fingers, Milkman leaves the house and heads for Southside, hoping that Guitar can help him sort out his confusing thoughts. Along the way, he begins thinking about his mother and suddenly recalls, in fragments, how she used to breast-feed him even after he was old enough to walk. This new awareness makes him ashamed and adds credibility to his father's story about his mother's perverseness.
Milkman finds Guitar at Tommy's Barbershop among a group of men gathered around the radio, listening to a news report about a fourteen-year-old black youth found stomped to death after whistling at a white woman. A heated discussion among the men about the boy's murder leads to an exchange of war stories concerning the abominable treatment of black soldiers during World War II. Milkman distracts Guitar from the conversation and talks him into accompanying him to Mary's bar for a drink. At the bar, he questions Guitar about the origin of his own nickname and tells him about the confrontation with his father. Empathizing with Milkman's ambivalent feelings toward his mother, Guitar tells him a story about a hunting trip in Florida during which he accidentally shot a doe. When Milkman fails to see the connection, Guitar tells him to try to understand Macon's reasons for acting the way he does, "but if you can't, just forget it and keep yourself strong."
As the chapter closes, the friends' conversation turns to names and naming. After telling Guitar the story behind his family's surname, Milkman resolves to ask Pilate about Hagar's last name, which he believes will help him discover his own "real" name.
Chapter 3 establishes the tradition of storytelling as a means of passing on culture and tradition and examines the use of oral versus written language. By introducing Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy, who talks like an "encyclopedia," Morrison challenges the concept that Black English is synonymous with poverty. Note that Milkman learns his history from the community, not from school textbooks — much like his grandfather, who could neither read nor write, learned his history. And after Macon tells Milkman the story of his surname, Milkman relates the story to Guitar. The chapter also paints a vivid picture of a traditional black small-town community, with its distinctive rhythms and traditional establishments — bar, pool hall, barbershop, beauty parlor, and fried-fish restaurant — and illustrates how these establishments serve as gathering places for the people to discuss the day-to-day events that affect their lives. It also continues the community-as-chorus theme as community members comment on the actions of Milkman and his family, as well as on national events.
With the introduction of the Southside community, we are plunged into the heart of the black community. Whereas in Chapters 1 and 2 we were inducted into Macon Dead's sterile, silent household and were provided only a quick glimpse into Pilate's house and into the pretentious beach community of Honoré, Chapter 3 introduces us to the people who work to support the affluent lifestyles of the black (and white) middle class. Like Chicago's Southside district, noted for its crushing poverty and violence, Guitar's Southside is also characterized by crime and violence, as indicated by its notorious nickname, the Blood Bank. Still, people gather in barbershops, beauty parlors, and pool halls to relax, tell stories, and pass the time.
The scene in Hospital Tommy's and Railroad Tommy's barbershop is especially effective in relating the real lack of opportunities, both social and economic, for African Americans during the mid-twentieth century. Note that their names refer to the types of labor blacks were often required to do: working as hospital orderlies and railroad porters. Also note the allusion to two barbers — John Merrick and Alonzo F. Herdon. Although they may have been readily dismissed by the white community as two "Uncle Toms" based on their menial jobs, the two men were the organizing forces behind the founding of the first major black insurance companies: North Carolina Mutual (1898) and Atlanta Life Insurance Co. (1905).
Note Morrison's use of negation as a stylistic device, similar to when she described Macon's Packard in Chapter 2. Railroad Tommy's double negatives, characteristic of black vernacular dialogue, emphasize Milkman's and Guitar's bleak futures at this point in the novel: "And I'll tell you something else you not going to have. You not going to have no private coach with four red velvet chairs that swivel around in one place whenever you want 'em to." Additionally, this quote recalls — and deflates — Lena and Corinthians' private fantasy of riding in a royal chariot driven by a "powerful coachman."
Note, too, the recurring image of velvet: In Chapter 1, Lena and Corinthian's red velvet rose petals spilled in the snow outside the hospital; in Chapter 2, Pilate told Milkman and Guitar that she likes her egg yokes the consistency of "wet velvet"; here in Chapter 3, sitting in red velvet chairs is one more experience Milkman and Guitar will never have. The only things the two will have are broken hearts and "folly. A whole lot of folly."
Guitar's painful past, inextricably linked to his aversion to sugar, alludes to the vital connection between sugar and the African slave trade. In 1645, when the first American slave ships sailed from Boston, African slaves were forcibly brought to the West Indies in exchange for sugar, tobacco, and wine, which were then sold for manufactured goods back in Massachusetts. African slaves also worked on United States sugar cane plantations in the South. This crucial piece of black history is documented in geographic names, including Harlem's Sugar Hill, a section of New York City once populated by prosperous African Americans. Thus, it is no accident that the Flying African (Solomon/Shalimar) in Pilate's song is referred to as "Sugarman."
Chapter 3 reveals an important physical characteristic about Milkman: His left leg is half an inch shorter than his right. More important, this physical limitation affects him psychologically. Morrison writes, "The deformity was mostly in his mind. Mostly, but not completely." Because Milkman has an affected walk and therefore can never be completely like his father, he decides to be different from Macon "as much as he dared." And while he imagines himself to be as much a part of the Southside community as Guitar is, he is unable to communicate with the Southside men, whose "crisscrossed" conversations elude him. He is effectively separated from both his father and the Southside community.
Milkman's hitting Macon is the first assertive action we have seen Milkman take and is the first step in his emotional development. Afterward, he thinks to himself, "His action was his alone." However, he also realizes that standing up to his father "would change nothing between his parents," nor, ironically, does it change his own passivity; he remains as uncommitted to everyone and everything as he was in the past. "Infinite possibilities and enormous responsibilities stretched before him," Morrison says, "but he was not prepared to take advantage of the former, or accept the burden of the latter." The incoherence he recognizes in his face symbolizes the incoherence of his "total self." Ironically, immediately after Milkman ponders what his face looks like in the mirror, Macon enters his bedroom and tells his son, "You have to be a whole man. And if you want to be a whole man, you have to deal with the whole truth." Macon's words indicate his willingness to acknowledge his son as a man. But by accepting only part of his father's story, Milkman indicates that he is not yet ready or willing to assume full adult responsibility. His words also allude to the biblical phrase, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" — Christ's promise to the Jews that they would find freedom and salvation through knowledge of the truth. Milkman is not yet ready for the whole truth or for the responsibility of his own freedom.
In addition to facing his father, Milkman's emotional growth involves acknowledging his mother, Ruth, as an individual person and not solely as his mother. Although he reels from the story that Macon tells him about his mother's seemingly incestuous relationship with her father, Milkman, for the first time in the novel, feels for another character rather than only for himself. For example, of Ruth, Milkman thinks, "Never had he thought of his mother as a person, a separate individual, with a life apart from allowing or interfering with his own." Milkman unconsciously assumes that everyone with whom he interacts exists for him, that they do not have needs or lives outside of their relationships to him. As Lena says to him later, in Chapter 9, just prior to his leaving home to search for Pilate's gold, "Where do you get the right to decide our lives?"
Inversely, Milkman is forced to recognize the possibility that if he takes advantage of people without loving them, perhaps they merely accept him without truly caring for him: "He wondered if there was anyone in the world who liked him. Liked him for himself alone." Unable to make sense of his father's story about his mother and how his own life fits into their relationship, Milkman runs from his problems and tries to find Guitar. His confusion turns to anger, and he instinctively tries to push his family's "strange" past from his mind: "He didn't want to know any of it. There was nothing he could do about it. The doctor was dead. You can't do the past over."
Milkman finds Guitar at Hospital Tommy's barbershop, where a group of men are listening to a news report on the radio about a young black teenager who was "stomped to death" because he whistled at a white woman. Here, Morrison incorporates actual African-American history to emphasize not only the horrendous racist conditions against which blacks struggled during the mid-twentieth century but the lack of viable opportunities a boy like Milkman has growing up in the United States. On August 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old black youth from Chicago, visiting his grandparents in Money, Mississippi, was tortured and killed, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. His two white murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury — even after one of the accused men admitted his guilt.
Milkman, still upset over the scene at his home, and Guitar, troubled by the death of the young black teen, escape to Mary's bar. Note the surreal, fantasy-like atmosphere of Mary's: "For in Mary's the lights made everybody beautiful, or if not beautiful, then fascinating. . . . And the food and drink provoked people into behavior that resembled nothing less than high drama." Morrison's understatement in describing the bar's atmosphere — "high drama" — emphasizes the escapism sought by the people in the bar from the real, outside world in which black teenagers are brutally murdered by whites who can laugh about their crimes and still walk free.
Milkman and Guitar's conversation at the end of the chapter involves the theme of naming, but here the theme is expanded as commentary on both the racist white society in which African Americans must survive and on Milkman's continued interest only in himself. When Milkman admits to Guitar that he doesn't like his own name, Guitar responds, "Niggers get their names the way they get everything else — the best way they can. The best way they can." That Milkman is more upset about his name than about the murder of Emmett Till signals that emotionally he is still a child whose only concern is himself.
Red Cap a brand of beer. Interestingly, "Red Cap" is also a term originally used to describe black railroad porters and attendants, who could be identified by their red caps.
332nd Fighter Group a highly decorated group of black World War II fighter pilots. The 332nd Fighter Group included the legendary 99th Fighter Squadron, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Calling themselves the "Lonely Eagles," the Tuskegee Airmen became known as the "Black Birdmen" by their enemies because of their courageous, daring, and highly successful missions. A total of 450 black pilots fought in the aerial wars over North Africa, Sicily, and Europe during World War II.
sabbatical a leave of absence.
galley a kitchen.
Wild Turkey a brand of straight bourbon.
humidor a container used to store cigars at a constant level of humidity so that the cigars do not dry out.
Rothschild '29 and Beaujolais two expensive wines, symbolic of aristocracy and elitism.
baked Alaska a dessert made of angel food cake, ice cream, and meringue, and often topped with heated brandy, which is set ablaze for a dramatic presentation.
diabetes a common metabolic disease in which the body does not produce a sufficient amount of insulin, which regulates the body's use of carbohydrates and fats. Diabetics suffer from increased sugar in the blood and urine, excessive thirst, and frequent urination.
divinity traditionally, a white, creamy Christmas candy, usually made with nuts.
polio poliomyelitis, an infectious viral disease that affects children and adults. Polio causes inflammation of the spinal cord and brainstem and can lead to paralysis and the deterioration of muscles.
President Roosevelt Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), the thirty-second president of the United States (1933–45), was crippled by polio.
Truman Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), the thirty-third president of the United States (1945–53).
Committee on Civil Rights a committee established on December 5, 1946, by President Truman, that eventually recommended anti-lynching and anti-poll-tax legislation, and the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, an oversight commission charged with eradicating racism and unfair labor practices in the workplace.
four-in-hand a necktie tied in a slipknot with the ends left hanging.
rhododendron a common shrub or small tree found in North America, Europe, and Asia that prefers cool temperatures and acidic soil. They have white, pink, or purple flowers and tough leaves.
dahlias tall, spindly, coarse-blossomed flowers with large, showy heads of white, yellow, red, or purple.
geraniums hearty, heavily scented house or garden plants that have white, pink, or red flowers.
tuberculosis sanatorium Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by tubercle bacteria and characterized by fatigue, weight loss, coughing, and hemorrhaging of the lungs. In 1903, a person with the disease would have been sent to a sanatorium to prevent further infection of the general public; today, methods of early detection have reduced the incidence of the disease.
cod-liver oil oil extracted from the livers of cod, fish of northern Atlantic waters; a source of vitamins A and D.
host a consecrated wafer that is consumed by Christians, predominantly of the Catholic faith, during Communion in remembrance of Christ's death. The wafer symbolizes the body of Christ.
Corpus Domini Nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam Latin, meaning "The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, who watches over our souls."
communion the part of a Mass in which the Eucharist — the host — is received in remembrance of Christ's death.
ether a colorless, highly flammable liquid that has an aromatic odor and a sweet taste. Ether is used as an anesthetic in medical practice, which helps explain how Dr. Foster could so easily get the substance that ultimately killed him.
Waterford bowl a glass bowl made in Waterford, Ireland, a town known for its craftspeople's intricate glass-carving.
Erie Lackawanna here, a railroad. The U.S.S. Lackawanna was a United States warship stationed in Hawaiian waters during the 1860s, supposedly to guard American interests in Hawaii's sugar plantations. In 1893, American military troops invaded Hawaii and overthrew its government; in 1898, Hawaii was forcibly annexed to the United States. By linking the name of the warship with the name of the fictitious railroad, Morrison links the devastating impact of United States colonialism in Hawaii with British colonialism in Africa. In both instances, white colonialism led to the annihilation of many indigenous people and the destruction of their cultures.
Radiathor an experimental drug used to test the effects of atomic radiation on humans. The term alludes to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
King of the Mountain a children's game in which participants try to topple the person standing on top of a mound, usually made of dirt; also, an allusion the fairy tale "King of the Golden Mountain." Both references are from the realm of fantasy/make-believe and indicate that Milkman is only "playing" at being a man, believing he has usurped his father's leadership role in the family.
knickers loose, baggy pants that are gathered just below the knee, exposing the calves.
Ovaltine the brand name of a powdered nutrient supplement for babies, mixed with milk, for children.
Till The reference is to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago black youth who visited relatives in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955. Unused to the South's fierce racism, he allegedly spoke to a white woman. A few days later, he was abducted by several white men, beaten, mutilated, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
Scarlett O'Hara the female protagonist in Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, which was released as an epic film in 1939. Along with Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, which dramatized the American Civil War and Reconstruction, was denounced by blacks for its racist portrayal of blacks as unfit for freedom and was criticized for ending any hopes for getting anti-lynching legislation through the United States Congress.
Tom Sawyer Land Hannibal, Missouri, the fictional setting for Mark Twain's classic novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The sarcasm is directed toward the ignorance of any black man who thinks that the South is as harmless as the plot elements of Tom Sawyer. In that novel, "danger" is always synonymous with fun-filled adventures for young boys.
Bilbo country Here, Freddie alludes to the South as "Bilbo country." Because "Bilbo" is capitalized, the initial reference is to the infamous, racist two-term governor of Mississippi and its multi-term senator, Theodore G. Bilbo, whose name is synonoymous with prejudice and corruption. Coincidentally, "bilbo," with a lower-case "b," refers to an iron bar to which ankle clamps are attached; it was used to shackle slaves during slavery and to shackle chain gangs during the 1950s.
crackers slang for poor white people, usually uneducated and usually racially prejudiced.
"Remember them soldiers in 1918?" The men in Hospital Tommy's barbershop recall the atrocious behavior toward black soldiers who fought in World War I. After suffering discrimination in the military, they returned to the United States to face extreme hostility for daring to think that their military service had earned them the right to equal treatment in society. The hostilities led to the lynching of hundreds of African Americans, many of them soldiers still dressed in their uniforms, and culminated in the violent "Red Summer" of 1919, during which race riots erupted around the country, especially in such major cities as Detroit and Chicago.