Summary and Analysis
Milkman arrives in Virginia and asks for directions to Charlemagne. After several unsuccessful attempts, he learns that the correct name for the town he is seeking is Shalimar. He buys an old car and continues on his journey, only to have the car break down in front of Solomon's General Store, where he is welcomed by Solomon, the store's owner, and discovers that he has reached his destination. Through a brief conversation with Solomon, Milkman learns that Guitar has been there and is looking for him. Although initially alarmed, Milkman reasons that Guitar must be in trouble and that he simply left a cryptic message to inform Milkman of his whereabouts.
After Milkman makes several comments about the town of Shalimar and its women, comments perceived as arrogant and insulting by a group of younger men in Solomon's store, Milkman is goaded into a fight. Although wounded, he is saved from serious injury when two women intervene and plead with Solomon to stop the fight.
An older man who introduces himself as Omar invites Milkman to go hunting with him and his friends. Milkman agrees to meet the men at sundown. At the designated meeting place, the men (Omar, Calvin Breakstone, Small Boy, and Luther Solomon) outfit Milkman in army fatigues, a knit cap, and a pair of old, sturdy shoes. As they drive to the hunting spot, Milkman notices a car speeding past them; earlier, he had wondered if someone else was meeting them for the hunt, but now he realizes that there are no others in the hunting party.
During the hunt, Milkman is initiated into the ways of the hunters, learns the legend of Ryna's Gulch, and begins to feel connected to nature. After becoming separated from the group, he is attacked by Guitar, who tries to strangle him with a wire. Having sensed Guitar's presence seconds before the attack, Milkman manages to escape.
The hunters kill a bobcat, and Milkman participates in the ritual of skinning the cat and cutting up the carcass. He also accepts the honor of lifting out the bobcat's heart from within its ribcage. Later, Omar gives Milkman directions to the home of Sweet, a woman who takes him in, bathes him, and makes love to him.
Chapter 11 marks a major turning point in Milkman's spiritual growth and depicts marked changes in his cultural awareness, his sensitivity toward others, and his ability to commune with nature. It also illustrates Morrison's focus on "the transforming power of language."
Milkman's arrival in Shalimar, he hopes, will mark his return to a kinder, less threatening world, one that initially appears to be the direct opposite of Southside. Seemingly free of violence, Shalimar is depicted as a friendly, peaceful place where men gather at Solomon's store, women stroll down the street unafraid and empty-handed, and children sing and play nearby, surrounded by an assortment of docile farm animals. As Milkman enters this idyllic, Edenic setting, blissfully unaware of its social dynamics, he is the proverbial stranger in the village. A Northerner unfamiliar with Southern customs and traditions, he has blindly accepted the myth of Southern hospitality. Consequently, he is surprised to discover that "these people" are not eager to accept him into their midst based solely on the color of his skin. Instead, they perceive him as an outsider, a white man in black face, and, therefore, a potential threat. What's more, they resent his arrogance and "city ways." Determined to test his true identity, the men goad him into a vicious verbal battle that quickly escalates to physical violence, and only after two women intercede on his behalf is Milkman saved from serious bodily harm. Soon thereafter, Omar, one of the men sitting on the store's front porch, invites him to go hunting. Determined to show the men that he can "play their game," Milkman accepts. During the ritual of the nighttime hunt, he communes with nature and proves himself worthy of acceptance into their brotherhood of men. Thus, like the hero of folklore and fairy tale, Milkman successfully meets the challenges placed before him and is rewarded with the beautiful princess — Sweet.
In Shalimar, the first indication that Milkman is beginning to pay attention to his surroundings and view the world from a different perspective is his ability to appreciate the beauty of the small town's women, who, unlike the women he is accustomed to, are comfortable with themselves and proud of their African features. Consequently, he is finally able to recognize the beauty of black women within the context of black culture.
Also significant is Milkman's participation in the black cultural ritual of verbal sparring — "signifying" — with the men at Solomon's General Store, which indicates his ability to relate to black men and to reconnect with the heart and soul of the black community. In Shalimar, Milkman has matured enough to recognize the verbal challenges, whereas in Southside, he was not even aware that verbal sparring was a form of challenge: "Everybody smiled, including Milkman. It was about to begin." Unlike his futile attempts to participate in this form of word play with the Southside men, this time Milkman proves himself a worthy contestant in Shalimar.
By playing with the various spellings of words with similar sounds — Solomon/Shalimar/Sugarman/Charlemagne — Morrison explores the vital link between the sounds and meanings of words and between written and oral languages. By focusing on the sounds of the spoken word rather than on the spelling of the written word, she emphasizes the primacy of black vernacular and oral tradition over written language and Standard English as they relate to the transfer of black culture. She also lends credence to the saying that language defines who we are. What's more, she focuses the reader's attention on words as "codes" or "signals" that can be used to test someone's identity, a concept that becomes crucial for Milkman as he proceeds on the quest for his inheritance and that alludes to a biblical story in which the pronunciation of a word is literally a matter of life and death. According to the Old Testament (Judges 12:6), the victorious Gileadites devised a simple plan to keep their enemies, the Ephraimites, from escaping by crossing the Jordan River. After setting up barricades, the Gileadites ordered each person seeking passage to pronounce the word "shibboleth." Unable to pronounce the sh sound, the Ephraimites pronounced it incorrectly as "sibboleth" and were killed.
In order for Milkman to fulfill his mission and decode the meaning of Solomon's song, he must first learn to listen and to relinquish his sole reliance on external cues such as road maps and written records as primary sources of information. In short, Milkman must learn to focus on orality (sound and pronunciation) rather than literacy (spelling and definition). For example, although Milkman hears the children of Shalimar sing their song, which begins with the line "Jay the only son of Solomon," he does not listen to the words or display any particular interest in their game. Instead, the song serves only to remind him of his own childhood and the beginning of his friendship with Guitar. Later in the chapter, however, during the hunting episode, Milkman comes to realize the importance of orality. He discerns the hunting dogs' different barking sounds and the hunters' responses to them: "The men and the dogs were talking to each other. In distinctive voices they were saying distinctive, complicated things." Morrison characterizes this orally symbiotic relationship as primal, existing before language.
Milkman's growing spiritual awareness is revealed through the ritual of the hunt, during which his newly acquired ability to "listen with his fingertips, to hear what, if anything, the earth had to say," ultimately saves his life, enabling him to sense Guitar's presence just before the attack. Also, the scene in which the hunters give Milkman the honor of pulling out the bobcat's heart indicates his ritualistic initiation into the tribe — the community of hunters — and his readiness to assume his role as the hero, generally described as a "man with heart." The image of the cat's heart falling away from its chest "as easily as yolk slips out of its shell" recalls Pilate's speech to Milkman in Chapter 2 concerning the perfection of eggs.
Milkman's growing awareness is also illustrated in the scene between Milkman and Sweet, in which he demonstrates, for the first time, his ability to participate in a mutually nurturing relationship with a woman and to view lovemaking as more than merely a sexual act designed solely for short-lived physical gratification. For example, at no time during his relationship with Hagar would he have offered to bathe her as he does Sweet. Note that the chapter's last paragraph mirrors the reciprocal relationship between Milkman and Sweet. Morrison begins the sentences in this paragraph with altering masculine and feminine pronouns followed by a verb, the effect of which is a balanced "He did . . . / She did . . ." singsong effect.
Shalimar a word derived from "sheol," Hebrew for pit, cavern, womb, or underworld. In its earliest forms, sheol was the virgin's "enclosed garden of flowers, fruits, fountains and fairy-nymphs," called Shal-Mari ("land of souls") in Tibet and Shalimar in India (Women's Encyclopedia).
Red Cap a brand name of beer.
Cherry smash a brand name of soda pop.
shotgun houses narrow, single-level houses with the rooms arranged in a straight line, one directly behind the other. A bullet fired from the front room would pass through all the other rooms and exit through the back.
corduroy a heavy fabric with vertical ribs.
straights here, long pants without gatherings; the opposite of straights are knickers.
Neanderthals disparaging slang for illiterate, primal-like people.
sweet gum tree native to North and Central America, a tree with prickly fruit clusters and used to make furniture.
talcum a soft powder made from talc, a fine-grained mineral.
witch hazel a shrub or small tree found especially in the eastern United States. Sweet uses a liquid solution made from the bark and leaves of witch hazel to soothe Milkman's swollen neck.
gumbo a soup made with okra and commonly eaten in the South. The word "gumbo" was originally introduced by slaves forcibly captured in Africa and brought to the United States.