Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 9
Overwhelmed by the emptiness of her life, Corinthians decides to go to work. However, unable to find a professional position despite having attended college for three years, she finally accepts a position as a maid in the home of Michael-Mary Graham, the State Poet Laureate. Ashamed that she has to do domestic labor, she resolves to hide the nature of her employment from her family and the community.
One day, while riding the bus, Corinthians meets Henry Porter, who works as a yardman — the same Henry Porter who, in Chapter 1, got drunk and threatened people with a shotgun from inside his apartment building, which Macon owns. Although ashamed to be seen with him in public, Corinthians begins meeting him in secret. When Porter invites her to his apartment, Corinthians declines, citing feeble excuses about her father censorious tirades. Realizing that she will always be ashamed of him, Porter decides to end their relationship. However, panicked at the thought of spending the rest of her life alone, Corinthians relents and spends the night with him. Near dawn, as she sneaks back into her house, she hears Milkman and Macon arguing about Milkman and Guitar's botched burglary of Pilate's "gold."
The next day, Milkman thinks about how he and Guitar were randomly stopped by the police after stealing Pilate's green bag and subsequently arrested. He also recalls how Pilate came to the police station to help them by telling the police that the bag contained her dead husband's bones. Disgusted with his treatment by the police and overcome by his embarrassment at having his father bail him out of jail, Milkman is especially upset over Pilate's "Aunt Jemima" act at the police station, which he realizes she put on just to save him. Remembering her willingness to humiliate herself in order to ensure his freedom and her love and support in the past, Milkman is overwhelmed by guilt, shame, and self-hatred.
Later, as Milkman leaves his house to look for Guitar, he sees Guitar, Porter, and several other men talking near a gray Oldsmobile parked near Guitar's house. Recognizing the car as the one he has seen Corinthians getting out of near home, he suddenly realizes that the men are the Seven Days and that Porter is one of them. Instead of attempting to talk to Guitar, he walks away and goes on a two-day drinking binge.
As Milkman stumbles up the stairs to his room during the end of this two-day drinking binge, Lena confronts him. In a loud, angry voice, she vents her hatred of him because of his treatment of her, her sister, and their mother. She also tells him that because he told their father about Porter and Corinthians, Macon has forced Corinthians to quit her job, has forbidden Corinthians to see Porter, and has evicted Porter from his apartment. Unable to respond to or defend himself from his sister's wrath, Milkman merely listens, then continues on to his room. When Lena tells him to get out of her room, Milkman suddenly decides to leave home.
This chapter focuses on two key story lines: the relationship between Porter and Corinthians, and Milkman and Guitar's failed burglary attempt. Each story, in turn, reveals important information about the characters connected directly and indirectly with each incident.
In the first story line, Corinthians resolves to break free of her stifling existence within the Dead family household and assume responsibility for her own life. Unable to find a professional position despite her impressive credentials, she accepts a position as a maid for Michael-Mary Graham, the State Poet Laureate. Morrison, by drawing comparisons between the two women, parallels the roles of black and white women in 1960s American society. Miss Graham's inheritance includes her father's mansion and the legacy of white Southern aristocracy. Consequently, she tries to recreate the tradition of old Southern gentility, with Corinthians as her servant/slave. In short, Morrison contrasts the white woman's inheritance of wealth and privilege with the black woman's legacy of poverty and slavery, which forces Corinthians to struggle for economic survival in a white, racist culture that denies her opportunities to pursue her dreams and use her impeccable academic credentials.
Morrison also exposes how whites reap the benefits of black labor and how white women, who are also subject to subjugation by males, are part of the oppressive force that perpetuates racism. By giving Miss Graham the first name "Michael," Morrison is "signifying" — using the language of an oppressive society to indirectly confront that society — on a tradition common during the Victorian Age of the nineteenth century, when female writers such as Mary Ann Evans, who used the pen name George Eliot, often adopted male pseudonyms in order to get their works published. By hyphenating the names "Michael-Mary," Morrison also suggests the link between white males and females in perpetuating the subjugation of black Americans and plays on the concept of "hyphenated Americans" (African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans).
Through Corinthians' story, Morrison roundly indicts the American educational system for failing to provide black Americans with an education that will enable them to function as educated citizens and assume leadership roles in their communities. Her position echoes that of historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), who argued that America's educational system is designed to enslave the minds of blacks and to perpetuate the myth of black inferiority. Woodson contends in his ground-breaking book The Mis-Education of the Negro, "Taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro's mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. . . . When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. . . . The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability to the race. The difficulty is that the 'educated' Negro is compelled to live and move among his own people whom he has been taught to despise."
Corinthians' contempt for "those women" on the bus and for Porter, who works as a yardman, clearly indicates that she has fallen prey to the type of brainwashing Woodson describes and has become part of the system that routinely discredits the uneducated blacks. Instead of preparing her to assume a leadership role in her community, Corinthian's Western Eurocentric education has taught her to despise her own people, whom she believes need civilizing, and has alienated her from her African roots. That she is able to break free from her misguided thinking and does not seek refuge in fantasy, like her mother, indicates that Corinthians has managed to liberate herself from the mental chains that bind her to a false sense of reality and a capitalistic society. Note that as she bangs on Porter's car-door window, images of Mr. Smith's bloodless death fill her mind. We can surmise, therefore, that the crippling images of Mr. Smith's "doll-broken body" and of Ruth's pregnant body confined to a wheelchair give Corinthians the strength to break free from her suffocating lifestyle and "escape the velvet."
A key element of this section is its sensual language and its explicit description of the sex act as a ritual that involves the man as aggressor and the woman as passive recipient. Also significant is Porter's note to Corinthians, which recalls Mr. Smith's note to the community and Milkman's note to Hagar. In each case, the note indicates the writer's unwillingness or inability to speak, emphasizing not only the lack of communication among community members but the lack of communication between men and women.
The central image in the second story line is Pilate's bag of bones, which alludes to the biblical allegory of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). According to this story, the bones were re-clothed in flesh and restored to life, symbolizing the resurrection of the dead, a motif prevalent in the book of Revelations, which focuses on the Last Judgment. Consequently, the bones symbolize the past (memory and experience), which must be reconstructed in order to understand the present.
Pilate's "Aunt Jemima" act at the police station demonstrates her willingness to swallow her pride to protect those she loves. Ironically, the policemen's readiness to accept her story indicates that her tale of murder and violence is all too familiar. Also significant is the vulnerability in Milkman's reaction to having been frisked by the policeman: "The touch of the policeman's hand was still there [on his body] — a touch that made his flesh jump like the tremor of a horse's flank when flies light on it. And something more. Something like shame stuck to his skin. Shame at being spread-eagled, fingered, and handcuffed." The scene alludes to the degrading roles blacks historically have had to assume because of fear for their physical safety.
Guitar's unwillingness to recognize Pilate's behavior as an act of selfless love indicates his inability to view life within the context of individual experience. To him, Pilate's "Aunt Jemima" act recalls the humiliation and degradation of blacks forced to play subservient roles just to please whites. He appears totally ignorant of the fact that these "acts" were often a matter of survival, a means of people's masking their true selves. Guitar's criticism of Pilate's behavior also illustrates the inability of young blacks to relate to the hardships suffered by their ancestors and to understand that many of the indignities the earlier generations were forced to endure helped gain the freedoms that the younger generations enjoy today. Consequently, Pilate's subservient actions at the police station provide a vital link between the past and the present. Interestingly, while disgusted with Pilate's "mammy," Guitar seems totally unaware of Macon's role: that of the black man who can buy his way out of trouble with the law.
Lena's tirade when she confronts Milkman and accuses him of peeing on her and Corinthians and stunting their growth like that of the dying maple tree outside her bedroom window marks a turning point in her character when she declares to Milkman, "I don't make roses anymore, and you have pissed your last in this house." Milkman's failure to respond to her passionate appeal or to defend himself demonstrates his complete detachment from his family. Consequently, in the next chapter, his leaving home physically underscores the fact that, like Macon, he has always been psychologically absent. Note that Chapter 9's last sentence, "He closed the door," recalls one of Morrison's reasons for why people leave home: to hear the door click behind them.
amanuensis a person who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.
Bryn Mawr located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a private women's college founded in 1880.
Fisk, Howard, Talledega, Tougaloo secondary educational institutions whose students are predominantly black.
Queen Mary a luxury British steamship, launched in 1934 and retired in 1967.
Contes de Daudet French, meaning The Short Stories of Daudet; Alphonse Daudet (1840–97) was a French short-story writer noted for his humorous characterization of life.
loafers comfortable, flat-soled shoes.
rummy slang for a drunkard.
Walden a book of eighteen essays by Henry David Thoreau, published in 1854. The book records Thoreau's experiences of living a solitary life in the woods for over two years.
Bohemian carefree; a person who disregards conventional standards of behavior.
entrez French, meaning enter.
slicks slang for glossy, high-end magazines that cater to the social and economic elite.
print peignoir a loose-fitting dressing gown. Michael-Mary's has a print design, probably very bright, showy, and somewhat ostentatious, or gaudy.
tripe here, something that presents itself as valuable but really is worthless.
men rose like giants from dragon's teeth alludes to the story of Jason and the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece. To prove himself worthy of the Golden Fleece, Jason sowed a freshly plowed field with dragon's teeth, which then sprang up as armed men who attacked him. Jason defeated the dragon-teeth men and escaped with the Golden Fleece.
Louise Beaver[s] and Butterfly McQueen black actors known for their servile maid-Mammy roles in white films. Louise Beavers (1908–1962) played Claudette Colbert's maid in the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, famous for its portrayal of the "tragic mulatto." Butterfly (Thelma) McQueen (1911–1995) played Prissy, Olivia de Havilland's scatterbrained slave, in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind. She uttered the regrettably unforgettable line, "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies!" Because she refused to keep playing similar parts, her professional career was ruined and she ended up working as a clerk and dishwasher.
Only The Shadow knows refers to the 1950s mystery radio program The Shadow.