Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 8
Milkman tells Guitar about his plan to steal Pilate's gold, and Guitar agrees to help him. Although Milkman realizes that he doesn't really need Guitar's help, he is inspired by Guitar's sense of fearlessness and his passion for living life "on the cutting edge."
The next day, the friends meet on a street far from their black neighborhood to plan how to steal the green sack from Pilate's home. Suddenly, Milkman spots a white peacock in a nearby used-car lot. Temporarily distracted from their mission, Milkman and Guitar initially try to catch the peacock but fail. When the peacock jumps onto the hood of a blue Buick and spreads its tail, they laugh at its ostentatious display. Fascinated with the peacock, the friends forget about planning the burglary and spend the rest of the afternoon fantasizing about how they'll spend Pilate's gold. Later, when Milkman realizes that Guitar has agreed to steal the gold because he wants to use it to support the vigilante activities of the Seven Days, he becomes uneasy but feels he has gone too far to back out now.
The following night, they steal Pilate's green sack, not realizing that the almost-seventy-year-old Pilate saw them.
Guitar's visions of "little scraps of Sunday dresses" at the chapter's beginning provide the reason for his willingness to help Milkman steal Pilate's sack of gold. More important, however, this phrase emphasizes the fierce racism that remains as a backdrop throughout the novel. This reference is to the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A bomb, planted by whites protesting school desegregation, exploded and killed four black schoolgirls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson — and injured twenty-one people. As the Seven Days' Sunday man, Guitar is expected to avenge the four deaths by killing four little white girls.
Milkman and Guitar's encounter with the white peacock recalls the scene in Chapter 7 in which Macon, upon discovering the sacks of gold nuggets, imagines a life of luxury that "fanned out before him like the tail-spread of a peacock." Noted for its ostentatious and brilliantly colored tail, the peacock symbolizes pride and vanity. Guitar says of it, "Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can't nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." Here in Chapter 8, the peacock, although stripped of its colors, maintains its vanity, suggesting that the white peacock is a fitting symbol of American society, which is marked by arrogance and white-male dominance.
The peacock, with its heavy tail that hinders its ability to fly, symbolizes Milkman's inability to fly. Hindered down by his materialistic values, his family's expectations, and his own apathy, Milkman is unable to free himself of "the shit that weighs [him] down." Fearful of his parents' past "threatening to become his present," he acknowledges that he avoids commitment and "strong feelings" but can do nothing to change himself. He even characterizes the plan to steal Pilate's gold as a "Jack and the Beanstalk bid for freedom" — a fairy tale attempt.
The references to ginger and spices at the chapter's end link Song of Solomon to Song of Songs, in which the male lover likens his beloved's fragrance to that of precious scents, including saffron, cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh. That the "spice-sweet" smell of ginger is strongest in the Southside neighborhood suggests that Southside residents are more closely connected to their African roots than blacks living closer to white neighborhoods. The phrase "this heavy spice-sweet smell that made you think of the East and striped tents and the sha-sha-sha of leg bracelets" emphasizes a theme that resonates throughout the novel: Black history is world history, which can be traced far beyond the era of slavery in the United States when, for millions of Africans, leg irons replaced their traditional decorative leg bracelets.
To Milkman and Guitar, the spice smell represents "the way freedom smelled, or justice, or luxury, or vengeance." Ironically, these qualities mirror those concepts which Macon thought of in Chapter 7 when he discussed Pilate's gold with Milkman: life, safety, and luxury. All three men idolize the gold in worshipful terms. Morrison writes of the green sack at the end of Chapter 8: "It hung heavy, hung green like the green of Easter eggs left too long in the dye. And like Easter, it promised everything: the Risen Son and the heart's lone desire. . . . Guitar knelt down before it."
greenbacks slang for paper money.
legal tender currency, or money.
White Castle the name of a restaurant chain that serves small hamburgers.
a yard and a half slang for $1500.
a deuce and a quarter a Buick Electra 225. Popular during the 1960s, the car was noted for its sleek, streamlined style and powerful engine.
acridness bitterness; constant irritation.
cop here, slang for steal.
clarion call a trumpet call that signals the start of a hunt. The phrase emphasizes Milkman's inability to fly and his eagerness for the hunt.
salt According to African myth, black people could fly until they ate salt, introduced by the white man; according to superstition, putting salt on a bird's tail keeps it from flying away; and in the Bible, as Lot and his wife flee the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt when she turns to watch the cities burning (Genesis 19:15–22). By linking apocalyptic biblical imagery with allusions to hunting and grounded birds, Morrison not only creates a vivid image of the powerful bond between Milkman and Guitar; she also foreshadows the rift between the two friends, brought about by their hunt for Pilate's gold.
ginger a plant native to tropical Asia and Indonesia whose tuberous roots are used in cooking; ginger has a pungent, spicy taste.
clove an evergreen tree native to the Molucca Islands, also known as the Spice Islands, a group of islands in Indonesia. The tree's small purple flower clusters are dried to produce cloves, a common spice used in cooking.
Accra the capital of Ghana, West Africa. (On August 27, 1963, renowned writer, scholar, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who greatly influenced Morrison, died in Accra, his adopted home, at age ninety-five.)