Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 4
In the early '60s, during his last-minute Christmas shopping at a Rexall drugstore, Milkman contemplates how to break off his twelve-year relationship with Hagar. He reminisces about the beginning of their relationship following a domestic crisis involving Reba and one of her male friends. Milkman decides to write Hagar a farewell note rather than face her in person. Rather than buy her a gift, he decides to give her money, which he encloses in an envelope along with the note.
Later, while finishing up some work at his father's office, Milkman recalls a discussion with Guitar about the grisly, serial-like murders of a white boy and four white men. While the black community suspects that the killings were committed by Winnie Ruth Judd, an escaped, convicted murderer, the police claim that a witness to the boy's murder saw a "bushy-haired Negro" running from the crime scene. Milkman recalls how the news report about the story led to a discussion among a group of men, including Henry Porter, Guitar, and Hospital Tommy, about all of the murders and the corrupt criminal justice system, and to his own suspicions that one or more of the murders had been either witnessed or committed by a black person. Milkman also recalls an argument with Guitar over middle-class values and Guitar's reaction to Milkman's vision in which he watches his mother being suffocated by tulips but does nothing to help her.
While Milkman sits wondering about the recent changes in Guitar's behavior, Freddie taps on the office window, and Milkman invites him in for a drink. As they sip their drinks, Freddie tells Milkman that he was abandoned as a child in Jacksonville, Florida, after his mother died from seeing a woman change into a white bull. When Milkman laughs at Freddie's "white bull" story, Freddie is hurt and warns Milkman that a lot of strange things are going on around Milkman but that Milkman is too self-absorbed to recognize what is happening. When Milkman asks him to explain, Freddie becomes evasive and tells him to ask Guitar or Corinthians for more information.
Milkman's decision to end his relationship with Hagar, his vision of his mother being suffocated by tulips, and his reaction to Freddie's "white bull" story reveal a number of things about Milkman's character, his attitude toward women, and his role as a black, middle-class male. Although the three scenes seem unrelated, each illustrates Milkman's selfish, egotistic approach to life, his lack of respect for women, and his indifference to the pain and suffering of others. These scenes also illustrate Milkman's refusal to accept responsibility for his life, his inability to make decisions, and his lack of awareness concerning the impact that his actions have on the lives of others.
Milkman's boredom in selecting a gift for Hagar indicates his general lack of interest in her. That he shops for her on the day before Christmas Eve and limits his purchases to mundane drugstore items demonstrate that he approaches his task as an unpleasant but necessary chore. In the past, he had his sisters select his Christmas gifts for Hagar; now, although he is aware of Hagar's eccentric taste for unique, impractical items, he inconsiderately decides to give her money, instead. Furthermore, his depiction of their long-term relationship as a cheap sexual affair that has lost its luster, his use of vulgar language and animal imagery to describe the relationship, and his cruel reference to Hagar as "the third beer" illustrate his insensitivity and disregard for Hagar's feelings and his sexist, chauvinistic attitudes.
Milkman's surrealistic vision of Ruth being suffocated by tulips becomes more meaningful when we remember that Ruth wears a cloche, which is a hat, but which also means a covering for delicate plants, and that in Chapter 3, Milkman described his mother as a "frail woman content . . . to grow and cultivate small life that would not hurt her if it died." Milkman's indifference toward his mother's plight also becomes more meaningful if we recall the scene in Chapter 1 in which Ruth, while nursing Milkman, is painfully aware of "his restraint, his courtesy, his indifference." Given that the discussion of Milkman's vision of tulips suffocating his mother follows his argument with Guitar over the destructive impact of middle-class values, we can surmise that the vision of Ruth's tulips sucking up "all the air around her and [leaving] her limp on the ground" symbolizes the destructive powers of a racist society that methodically wears down its citizens to the point that they no longer have the will to fight for their personal rights. That Milkman does nothing to help his mother implies that he has become part of that system. He grudgingly admits that Guitar, who chastises Milkman for not helping his mother, is "right — partly. His life was pointless, aimless, and it was true that he didn't concern himself an awful lot about other people."
Ruth attempts to express her creativity, but instead of nurturing her vibrant red tulips, she creates lifeless red velvet roses and nourishes the gray suede flower on her mahogany table with "nutritious" glances. In short, she focuses her energies on materialistic rather than spiritual values and dwells on the past instead of dreaming of the future. Consequently, she remains trapped in her limited life, constricted not only by being a black female in a white male-dominated society but by her own spiritual emptiness and lack of faith. Her tulips, however, refuse to be constrained by any boundary. Ruth is obsessed with death, which she views as a "more interesting subject than life." Even Milkman sees her as welcoming death: She abdicates her role as wife and mother, preferring to play the part of "the dead doctor's daughter"; she creates lifeless roses out of red velvet; and she passively accepts her role as a helpless, fragile wife. Her inability to nurture her creativity is symbolized by her inability to nurture her son; society's indifference toward black women is symbolized by Milkman's indifference toward his mother.
Milkman's reaction to Freddie's "white bull" story illustrates his total lack of empathy for others' feelings. Instead of realizing that Freddie is revealing a painful part of his past by sharing the horrifying vision of his mother's death, Milkman laughs at his story. Comparing Milkman's reaction to Freddie's story with Guitar's reaction to Milkman's vision of his mother and her tulips, we realize that Guitar is much more compassionate than Milkman. Clearly, Freddie's story is no more fantastic than Milkman's vision; both form a part of each storyteller's individual reality. But while Guitar accepts the reality of Milkman's vision, Milkman rejects the reality of Freddie's story and in doing so assumes the destructive role of the white majority culture, which systematically denies the reality of black existence by refusing to validate the credibility of black experience. Thus, Milkman's indifference to his mother's plight echoes the Jacksonville townspeople's indifference to the plight of Freddie's mother and to Freddie. Note too that earlier in the chapter, Milkman, listing the many things with which he is bored, thinks to himself, "The racial problems that consumed Guitar were the most boring of all."
The image of the white bull lends itself to many possible interpretations. Given the theme of broken promises prevalent throughout the novel, we might conclude that "white bull" is a metaphor for the lies and broken promises of whites. In classical mythology, the image alludes to the myth of King Minos of Crete, whose wife, Pasiphae, mates with a white bull sent by the god Poseidon. Their union produces the Minotaur, a monster with a human body but the head and tail of a bull. However, if we consider that Freddie is telling the story as it was told to him as a child, presumably by an adult hoping to shield him from the true horror of the situation, then by placing Freddie's story in a historical context, we can surmise that the incident he describes occurred in the early 1900s, when the Ku Klux Klan spread its reign of terror across the South, and when many black Americans, still rooted in their African culture, acknowledged the existence of ghosts and spirits. Given that white sheets are associated with both ghosts and Klansmen, we might conclude that the person who told Freddie the story substituted ghosts for the hooded figures of Klansmen. And since no one would provide a home for Freddie because of the circumstances surrounding his mother's death, we might also speculate that people were afraid to help him for fear of retaliation by the Klan. Because no one can corroborate or dispute Freddie's story, it remains shrouded in mystery.
chubby a waist-length jacket, often made of fake fur.
snood a cap made of fine netting that women use to hold their hair in place.
rutabaga Also called a Swede turnip, it is a vegetable whose edible root is purplish with yellow flesh.
B-52 an American military bomber plane, used extensively during the Vietnam War (1954–75).
Prince Charming here, meaning the perfect man. In Walt Disney's film-length cartoon Snow White and the 7 Dwarves (1937), Prince Charming kisses the sleeping Snow White and releases her from an evil witch's enchantment.
MGM Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a major United States movie studio whose most famous years were around the middle of the twentieth century.
dragnet a systematic law-enforcement operation to catch criminals; a "sting" operation.
pot of mustards "Mustards" refers to mustard greens, leafy plants whose leaves are rinsed and cooked much like spinach.
saddle shoes Popular in the 1950s and '60s, saddle shoes are flat-looking white shoes with a leather band — usually black — across the instep.
Sam Sheppard In 1954, a Cleveland jury found Dr. Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder of his wife, Marilyn. In 1966, a new jury found him not guilty. In the late 1990s, Sheppard's son, Sam, authored Mockery of Justice and filed for DNA testing to further clear his father's reputation.
men of the Ninety-second an all-black United States Army regiment that fought during World War I.
Belleau Wood a small forest in northern France, site of a World War I battle (1918) in which United States military forces stopped a German advance on Paris.
Orval Faubus a former governor of Arkansas. On September 4, 1957, Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to keep nine black prospective students from entering. Despite the United States Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed segregation of public schools, Faubus was determined to keep the schools segregated. The nine students later became known as "The Little Rock Nine."
we've been tight Here, "tight" means "good friends."
Kennedy or Elijah refers to President John F. Kennedy (1917–63), who was renowned for his promotion of civil rights legislation, and Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975), who founded the Nation of Islam, a religious organization that promotes self-reliance.
gnome a mythological dwarflike creature who lives underground.