Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Chapter 10
As Milkman stumbles through a forest headed toward a "big crumbling house," he recalls his airplane flight from Michigan to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then his bus ride from Pittsburgh to Danville. He also relives his last conversation with Guitar before leaving home and the series of events that prompted his hunt for Pilate's gold.
Upon arriving in Danville, Milkman encounters an old, oddly dressed black man, who tells Milkman that Reverend Cooper can help him locate Circe, Macon and Pilate's caregiver, who, Milkman hopes, will lead him to the cave containing Pilate's gold.
At Reverend Cooper's, Milkman receives a warm welcome. He learns that the reverend remembers Macon and Pilate as the children of the town's local hero, Macon Dead, Sr., the creator of Lincoln's Heaven, and that Reverend Cooper's father made Pilate's brass earring. Milkman meets many of the town's old black men and listens to their stories of when they were young and personally knew Milkman's father and grandfather. As he listens to these stories, Milkman begins to feel as if something is missing from his life. For the first time, he is able to visualize his father as a young man and to envision the loving relationships that once existed between his father and aunt and between his father and grandfather. Sensing that the men are hungry for news of Macon and Pilate, Milkman indulges them with his own stories, embellishing the truth to satisfy their curiosity and preserve their cherished memories of Macon Dead, Sr., and his two children.
When Milkman tells Reverend Cooper that he wants to visit the site of his grandfather's farm, named Lincoln's Heaven, the reverend's thirteen-year-old nephew (called "Nephew") drives Milkman to it, from which Milkman sets out for the old Butler mansion, the house where Circe worked and where she hid Macon and Pilate after their father was killed — ironically, we learn, by the Butlers.
Arriving at the crumbling mansion, Milkman enters through the front door and is assaulted by the stench of animals and decay. Suddenly the stench is replaced by the sweet smell of ginger, and he sees an old woman at the top of a staircase. The woman is Circe, whom Reverend Cooper honestly led Milkman to believe was dead. Circe, mistaking Milkman for his father, embraces him, but when Milkman identifies himself as Macon's son, Circe quickly loses interest in him. Fortunately, Milkman persuades her to tell him the stories of his grandfather's murder and of Macon and Pilate's escape from Montour County.
Through his conversation with Circe, who is living in the mansion with a pack of German hunting dogs, Milkman learns about his father's parents: Macon Dead, Sr., whose real name was Jake, and his part-Indian wife, Sing. Circe tells him that she has continued to live in the mansion even after the death of the last Butler family member, who committed suicide after she spent all of the family wealth rather than live as a poor white woman. Circe is intentionally letting the dogs destroy the mansion.
Circe gives Milkman directions to Hunter's Cave, where he secretly hopes to find the gold. However, when Milkman finally locates the cave, he discovers that there is no gold. Realizing that Nephew, who was to drive him back to Reverend Cooper's, has already come and gone because of how late it is, Milkman hitches a ride back to the Danville bus depot. Hungry, exhausted, and disillusioned, he heads for the freight yard to say goodbye to Reverend Cooper, but the reverend has already left for the day. Then, continuing on his hunt for the gold, he boards a Greyhound bus to Virginia, convinced that Pilate left the gold in Virginia before heading to Michigan.
The fairy tale beginning of this chapter, including references to "Hansel and Gretel" and "There Was An Old Woman," emphasizes the illusory world in which Milkman still lives. Completely caught up in finding Pilate's gold, he is "oblivious" to the "wood life" through which he struggles. Only during the airplane ride to Pittsburgh has Milkman ever felt a "feeling of invulnerability." Morrison comments about him, "In the air, away from real life, he felt free."
The episode between Milkman and Guitar prior to Milkman's leaving for Danville highlights once again the racism faced by blacks — especially black men — in a white-dominated society. Remarking on the herculean demands placed on black men, including those by black women, Guitar explains to his friend how "they" — white men and women, and black women — "want your living life." His comment "What good is a man's life if he can't even choose what to die for?" sheds light on how and why Guitar became a militant member of the Seven Days: When his father was literally split in half working at a sawmill, the white sawmill owner gave Guitar's mother only forty dollars as compensation for her husband's life. In other words, to the owner, a black man's life is worth only forty dollars.
Milkman's subsequent encounters with Reverend Cooper and Circe also mark a major turning point in his personal development. Like the biblical Prodigal Son, who is welcomed back by his father after squandering his inheritance (Luke 15), Milkman is welcomed by his father's "people." His return "home" symbolizes the Northern Negro's return to what author James Baldwin, in Nobody Knows My Name, calls "the Old Country," a place that Milkman has "never seen, but which [he] cannot fail to recognize."
During Milkman's trek through the forest toward Circe's house and onward toward Hunter's Cave, his materialistic trappings, including his hat, his Longines gold watch, and his Florsheim shoes, are either stripped away or disfigured. Note also that in crossing the creek, he first slips to one knee and then is completely submerged in the water. Many readers will interpret these actions as symbolic of Milkman's being re-baptized. Later, he discovers that the bag he has left at the bus depot is now missing — he had told Nephew to pick it up for him, but now he can't locate Nephew. By the time he leaves for Virginia, he is symbolically stripped of most of the trappings of his old identity.
The episode in which Milkman tells his story to Danville's old men alludes to a scene in the Odyssey in which Odysseus, at a royal banquet, tells the story of his wanderings. Triggered by Reverend Cooper's exclamation "I know your people!" the stories function as "links" — Milkman's own word — that connect the past and present. But whereas Odysseus' story is the highlight of the banquet, Milkman's is not. Although his story ignites the imagination of the old men, who look to Milkman to "rekindle the dream and stop the death they were dying," it is the exchange of stories that fuels the local legend of Lincoln's Heaven and creates the magic that transforms Macon Dead, Sr., a simple farmer, into a mythical hero akin to High John the Conqueror, a black folk hero. The stories further support Morrison's use of cultural geography: The old men in Danville tell many of the same stories as those told by the old men in Southside.
The creation of Lincoln's Heaven, depicted in powerful sermonic language, is a key passage in this chapter. Sermonic language refers to language characteristic of old Negro sermons, which are noted for their vivid imagery, their call-and-response pattern, and their repetition of key phrases. The phrase "We got a home in the rock" recalls the spirituals "I Got a Home in Dat Rock" and "Rock of Ages." In these spirituals, the "rock" of salvation is Jesus; in the novel, the "rock" is the land. Emphasizing the sacred legacy of the land, the sermonic passage also alludes to Moses' speech to the Israelites upon their arrival to the land of Moab, following their forty years of wandering in the wilderness: "The Lord your God has now laid the land open before you. Go forward and occupy it in fulfillment of the promise which the Lord the God of your forefathers made you; do not be afraid or discouraged" (Deuteronomy 1:21). But discouraged is exactly what Danville's old men are: If Macon Dead, Sr., the best of them, can be killed for fulfilling his dream, what hope do the rest have of succeeding?
Milkman's discovery that there is no gold in Hunter's Cave marks another major turning point in his spiritual development: Soon after his emergence from the womb-like cave, symbolic of the initial stage of his spiritual rebirth, he discovers that his inheritance is not the gold. Consequently, he learns that the "nothing" he finds in the cave is, in fact, everything. The scene alludes to the biblical story in which Jesus' followers discover His empty tomb but fail to recognize it as evidence of Christ's resurrection. In addition, it embraces the Buddhist philosophy that true existence and understanding come from emptiness.
Chapter 10 marks a major turning point in Milkman's transformation from an apathetic, egotistical over-thirty man to a man who is preparing to assume his role as a culture-bearer for his people. By the chapter's end, Milkman, like Odysseus, has survived numerous perils, including an encounter with the dead — he thinks of Circe, "she had to be dead" — and a visit to the underworld — the cave. Headed now toward Virginia, where he believes Pilate took the gold, "Milkman followed in her tracks" — tracks both physical and, for Milkman, newly spiritual.
nape the back of the neck.
macadam small, broken stones, mixed with tar, and used in making roads.
Cutty Sark the name brand of a blended scotch liquor.
the gold Longines obviously, an heirloom from Milkman's father. Longines were very expensive, very elegant watches, dating back to the nineteenth century.
Western Union a communications company best known for its telegraph division. In 1861, the company completed the first transcontinental telegraph line in the United States.
A.M.E. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Incorporated in New York in 1801, the A.M.E. Zion Church is the oldest black church in the United States. In 1821, the church was formally founded and held its first annual conference. Its worship services generally incorporate traditional African and Afro-centric elements.
cane-bottomed chair a chair whose seat is made of interweaving cane, a strong but flexible stem from certain reed plants.
Philly Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Armistice Day November 11 of every year; originally celebrated in the United States to commemorate the United States' signing the armistice that ended World War I, today it is part of Veterans Day, which honors all veterans of the armed forces.
rheumy mucous-covered; filmy.
hip-roofed barn a barn whose roof and sides slope out outward.
AKC American Kennel Club, the premier organization of dog breeders in the United States.
Weimaraners a breed of hunting dog developed in the former German Republic of Weimar, which was dissolved in 1933 after Hitler became chancellor.
celluloid a colorless material used to make photographic film.
stile generally, a set of steps used for crossing a fence or wall.
muslin a sturdy cotton fabric.
brocade a heavy fabric with a raised design.
Shirley Temple Adored by American film audiences, Shirley Temple, with her hallmark dimples, corkscrew golden curls, and twinkling blue eyes, was the highest-paid child actress of the 1930s and early 1940s.
Wells Fargo founded in 1852, originally an express-service and banking company noted for its overland mail and stagecoach business. Today, the company is a successful banking conglomerate.