Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 5
Milkman goes to Guitar's apartment to wait for Hagar, who has stalked him for the last six months, ever since he sent her the Christmas note breaking off their relationship, and has threatened to kill him. Having survived her bungled attempts on his life thus far, Milkman has resigned himself to death. As he lounges in Guitar's bed, he recalls a conversation he had with his mother a week earlier, after he followed her on one of her secretive trips to Fairfield Cemetery to visit her father's grave.
Milkman hears Hagar breaking into Guitar's apartment and awakens from his daydreams, but he doesn't move from the bed, not even when she makes a half-hearted attempt to kill him with a butcher knife. Finally, realizing that she is unable to follow through with her plan to kill him, he rises from the bed, condescendingly pats Hagar on the cheek, and walks away in disgust, only slightly wounded.
Ruth, who only a week earlier had learned from Freddie about Hagar's repeated attempts to murder Milkman, resolves to stop Hagar. She goes to Pilate's house and confronts her niece. Pilate intervenes and, determined to distract Ruth from Hagar's attempts to kill Milkman, tells Ruth stories about her birth (Pilate's) and childhood, her father's death, and her physical and emotional split with Macon. She also describes her wandering lifestyle and her decision — following her granddaughter's birth — to leave Virginia and move her family to Michigan. Pilate hoped to reconcile with her brother, but Macon was cold and angry, ashamed of her, Reba, and Hagar.
Chapter 5 presents a series of contrasts and mirror images that reflect the tenuous relationships between various characters and provide conflicting perspectives on love, sex, and survival.
Milkman's pondering his impending death at the hands of Hagar, his distraught ex-lover, at the beginning of the chapter evokes many similar references to the presence of death throughout the novel. For example, note that Milkman's picturing his own death as a "spurt of wine-red blood" foreshadows Hagar's funeral scene at the end of Chapter 13, when a "sympathetic" wino drops his liquor bottle, "spurting emerald glass and jungle-red wine everywhere." Resigned to let Hagar kill him if she wants to and can, Milkman is almost exhilarated by thoughts of death: "Gradually his fear of and eagerness for death returned." His death-wish mirrors his mother's own obsession with death, "a more interesting subject than life."
The scene in which Milkman criticizes Guitar's efforts to make tea, followed by his joke about being a "soft-fried egg," recalls the friends' visit to Pilate's house in Chapter 2, when she introduced them to the ritual of making a perfect soft-boiled egg. Consequently, even as Milkman feels like a "garbage pail for the actions and hatreds of other people," we realize that within him lies a seed of spiritual awareness planted by Pilate that has the potential to counter his destructive self-image and overpower his morbid death-wish.
Milkman's following his mother to Fairfield Cemetery mirrors Hagar's stalking Milkman through the streets of Southside. This similarity also establishes a contrast between the white community of Fairfield, distinguished by its sheltered suburbs, and the black community of Southside, noted for its bars and barbershops. Additionally, Ruth's visit to the graveyard, ironically another type of "graveyard" love, highlights the racist practice of establishing separate cemeteries for blacks and whites.
By confronting his mother at the cemetery and demanding to know why she breast-fed him for so long, Milkman hopes to confirm his father's assessment of Ruth as a "silly, selfish, queer, faintly obscene woman." Instead, Ruth's refusal to defend her behavior prompts Milkman to see his mother in a different light and to grant her a grudging respect. Ironically, whereas in Chapter 3 Milkman emotionally matured enough to view Ruth as an individual rather than only as a mother, for Ruth, Milkman has never been a person; he's always been a "passion," a "beautiful toy," and a "plain on which, like cowboys and Indians in the movies, she and her husband fought." And later in the chapter, when Ruth confronts her niece, Hagar says to her aunt concerning Milkman, "He is my home in this world." Ruth's one-sentence response to Hagar is forceful because of its brevity: "And I am his." Ruth continues to claim Milkman as a son and not as his own person. Ruth's not defending her behavior also forces Milkman to contemplate the connections between love, sex, and violence. Note that Ruth's question to Milkman, "What harm did I do you on my knees?" echoes Guitar's question in Chapter 3 when, hoping to persuade Feather to let Milkman "hang out" at his pool hall, he asks Feather, "What harm can he [Milkman] do?"
Morrison's juxtaposing Milkman's apathy toward life and his contempt for Hagar — "Die, Hagar. Die. Die. Die." — with Ruth and Pilate's passion for him provides a sharp contrast between Milkman's selfish, egocentric existence and the two women's relentless struggles to protect him from Macon, from Hagar, and from his own self-destructive tendencies. Morrison notes that although Pilate and Ruth are two different women in terms of skin color, dress, and education, their similarities are "profound": Both are "vitally interested" in Milkman, and both have "posthumous communication with their fathers." Speaking to Ruth, Pilate says of her father, "I tell you he's a person I can rely on. I tell you somethin else. He's the only one." Earlier in the chapter, Ruth spoke very similar words about her own father: "Lots of people were interested in whether I lived or died, but he cared. . . . But he cared whether and he cared how I lived, and there was, and is, no one else in the world who ever did."
By linking Hagar's "focused meanness" and Empire State's empty, mute "graveyard love" with Ruth's and Pilate's nurturing love for Milkman and their fathers, Morrison explores the concept of love as a double-edged sword with the power to create or destroy life. She suggests that loneliness and despair are not necessarily linked to external events but often stem from our inability to recognize and accept the pain and pleasure of love as an integral part of life.
Milkman's confrontation with Ruth parallels Ruth's confrontation with Hagar: Ruth tells Milkman the stories of his birth and of her father's death to distract him from his obsessive interest in her nursing ritual; Pilate tells her life story to Ruth to distract her from Hagar's murderous mission. However, unlike Ruth's story, which is told mainly in flashback and dialogue, Pilate's story gradually merges with the main narrative of the text. Essentially, Pilate's voice supplants the narrator's voice and establishes her story of birth, awareness, and self-creation as central to the novel's themes of flight and mercy.
Similarly, Hagar's mission to kill Milkman sharply contrasts with Pilate's mission "to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her." Hagar becomes a "wilderness," wild and out of control, but Pilate remains calm and rational; Hagar sees her choices as limited and governed by external forces — if she can't have Milkman's love, she'll settle for his fear; Pilate, who "must decide on whether to get to Virginia or settle in a town where she would probably have to wear shoes," transcends the limiting concept of binary thinking — choosing one of two possibilities, but not both — and decides to do both. And while Milkman's rejection of Hagar destroys Hagar's fragile sense of self and compels her to resort to a murderous rage that rivals the "focused meanness of a flood or an avalanche of snow" and the "calculated violence of a shark," Pilate's rejection by the men who are terrified of her because she does not have a navel, her "defect," empowers her and enables her to channel her rage into a more creative, constructive outlet — namely, living. Ultimately, Hagar is devastated by Milkman's rejection of her and reduced to a "ghost," but Pilate survives because she has learned to love and value herself, regardless of others' opinions.
Earl Grey an expensive brand of brewing tea.
old man Lipton's instant refers to a brand name of a popular instant tea.
miscegenation a sexual relationship between two people of different races.
Congo an African country that gained independence from France in 1960.
phosphorous a poisonous chemical that is highly reactive. Milkman avoids Guitar's eyes because he knows he will see a venomous, agitated look in them.
Pall Mal a brand of cigarettes.
Planter's a brand of peanut products, including peanut butter.
Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice the Michigan state motto; Latin, meaning "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you."
Jack Daniel's a medium-priced whiskey.
infanticide infant-killing; a person who kills an infant.
grits ground dried-and-hulled corn kernels that are boiled and eaten.
lye a white, crystalline substance, derived from ash and lime water, used to make paper, detergent, soap, and aluminum.
enema injecting liquid into the rectum, which then expels the liquid and all waste.
Argo cornstarch a brand name of cornstarch, a thickener in cooking.
pistil the seed-bearing sex organ of a flower.
nicotiana commonly called flowering tobacco and native to South America; an annual or perennial flower with branching stalks and starburst-like flowers of white, pink, yellow, red, or green.
anaconda a large South American snake that suffocates its victims. Morrison characterizes Hagar's feelings for Milkman as an "anaconda love" because Hagar's love is all-consuming.
haint ghost, from the vernacular spelling of haunt.
a root worker a fortune teller, or spell caster, using various root concoctions.
Society of Friends the Quakers, a religious denomination. Quakers were instrumental in helping runaway slaves reach freedom in the North.
the crash of 1929 refers to the United States stock market crash of 1929, which precipitated the Great Depression and contributed to a worldwide financial collapse.
truculent in a fighting mood.