Summary and Analysis
In a flashback to the beginning of Chapter 6, Guitar returns to his home to find Hagar in a state of shock following her aborted attempt to kill Milkman. He carries her outside, then borrows a car to drive her home. During the drive, he tries to console her, but Hagar remains silent and unresponsive. Guitar finds himself mentally comparing Hagar to his own two sisters, who were watched over by the entire community and grew up feeling loved and protected. He concludes that Hagar's lack of such support has led to her crippling sense of low self-worth.
At home, Pilate and Reba do everything they can think of to support Hagar, who takes to her bed and remains severely depressed. Finally, in an attempt to cheer her up, Pilate gives her a compact mirror. When Hagar sees her disheveled reflection, she rouses herself from her stupor and announces that she needs to go shopping so that she will appear more beautiful — and desirable — to Milkman. Elated that she has finally emerged from her stupor, Reba pawns her diamond ring to finance Hagar's shopping spree. However, when Hagar returns home from shopping, rain-soaked, exhausted, and disoriented, and realizes that her efforts have been in vain, she succumbs to tears. Burning with fever, she becomes delirious and eventually dies — of a broken heart. Because Pilate and Reba have no more money left for her funeral, Ruth passively coerces Macon to pay for it. The chapter closes with Reba and Pilate's emotional tribute to Hagar at the girl's funeral.
Hagar's frenzied shopping spree, followed by her physical death, recalls Milkman's shopping at a Rexall drugstore in Chapter 4 while contemplating the end of his and Hagar's relationship. It also illustrates Morrison's ability to paint a vivid portrait of the tragicomedy of life.
Convinced that Milkman has abandoned her because she fails to meet his expectations, obsessed with her "graveyard love," and seduced by the promise of consumerism — that the "right" product will magically solve her problems — Hagar resolves to recreate herself into what she envisions as Milkman's image of an ideal woman. When she realizes that her efforts have been in vain, she fixates on the idea that he doesn't love her because he doesn't like her kinky hair.
Morrison has said that the concepts of physical beauty and romantic love are two of the most destructive forces in civilization. Here, she illustrates the powers of these destructive forces through Hagar, who not only has been socialized to accept both concepts but has internalized them as primary values that define her identity and self-image. Although Hagar's obsession with her hair may seem trivial, it symbolizes the black woman's frustrated efforts to meet white standards of beauty, epitomized by blue eyes, fair skin, and long, flowing hair. Thus when Guitar speculates that Hagar's low self-esteem stems from her lack of support from the black community, he fails to take into account the damage inflicted on Hagar's self-image by the beauty myths fostered by white-dominated society and perpetuated by the mainstream media. Like Macon, Hagar is so caught up in trying to create an acceptable image that she has lost touch with herself — with her self. And like Ruth, she tries to cope with reality by escaping into a fantasy world. When she is no longer able to sustain her fantasy and realizes that, unlike Sleeping Beauty, she will not be saved by love, she loses the will to live and dies.
Pilate's plea for Hagar to recognize her own unique beauty alludes to the words of Malcolm X, a powerful advocate of black pride and the "black is beautiful" concept: "Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? . . . Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself . . . [and] to hate . . . what God gave you?" Although Pilate tentatively blames Milkman for Hagar's immediate despair, she realizes that he is merely an agent of the indifferent, impersonal capitalistic system whose perverse perspectives on race, sex, and class have led to Hagar's physical, emotional, and psychological destruction.
To offset the impending tragedy of Hagar's death, Morrison interjects humor for comic relief. For example, when Guitar reminisces about his two sisters and recalls "the litany of their growing up," we can't help but smile at the snatches of humorous dialogue cast in the language and rhythms of black vernacular. And as we witness Reba's determination to cheer up her daughter by investigating the "mysteries" of jello-making, we are again temporarily distracted from Hagar's suffering.
Morrison also depicts the different ways in which men and women cope with crisis, suggesting that while men tend to express their feelings and become angry, women tend to internalize their feelings and become depressed. For example, in Chapter 9, when Milkman panics following the bungled burglary of Pilate's green sack, he becomes angry, blames others for his feelings, and embarks on a drinking binge. Hagar, however, becomes depressed, blames herself for Milkman's behavior, and blissfully believes that shopping will cure her damaged relationship with Milkman. Note, however, that when Hagar loses her purchases while stumbling home in the rain, she has nothing with which to replace her shattered faith in consumerism. However, when Milkman loses his material possessions while sloshing through the shallow river leading to Hunter's Cave, eventually he is able to replace his distorted values with a spiritual inheritance. Morrison also hints that the hunt for a lover may be just as deadly as the hunt for wild game: Milkman has "ripped out" Hagar's heart as surely as he pulled out the heart of the bobcat. Thus Hagar, the hunter, has become Milkman's prey.
In describing Hagar's funeral, Morrison evokes the African-American funeral service as homecoming ritual, in which the deceased is perceived as going home to Jesus and death is seen as a means of escape from a land of trial and tribulation to a place where there is no more pain and suffering. The bereaved are consoled by eulogies extolling the virtues of the deceased and by sermons denouncing death and focusing on the glory of eternal life in the hereafter. A gospel choir singing inspirational spirituals such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away to Jesus" often highlights such a service, emphasizing the release from earthly troubles and depicting the glorious journey "home." The culmination of the homecoming ritual is generally a moving and highly emotional sermon designed to reassure the bereaved that the deceased has gone to a better place.
But Pilate has no time for sermons or rituals. Placating platitudes and soothing songs cannot console her. She refuses to accept the pat answers to life's difficult questions offered by organized religion. Ignoring tradition, she bursts through the church door shouting "Mercy!" and begins walking toward Hagar's coffin, shaking her head as if to deny the reality of Hagar's death. After Reba joins her in her mournful plea for mercy, Pilate walks up to the coffin and softly sings a lullaby to her granddaughter, as though Hagar were a little girl who had simply gone to sleep. Watching Pilate, we perceive her song as somehow inadequate in capturing the tragedy of Hagar's death. But when Pilate proceeds to affirm her granddaughter's life by acknowledging her as "My baby girl," we realize that she is commemorating Hagar's memory by singling her out from all others who have died before her.
In describing the funeral scene and the events leading up to it, Morrison uses a number of stylistic devices, including sense impressions, allusions, and color symbolism. For example, we can hear Pilate's song, see Hagar laid out in her satin-lined coffin, and feel Pilate's and Reba's anguish. Note that Hagar lies in bed, consumed with a burning fever, for three days, after which (like Jesus and Lazarus) she rises and makes one final effort to confront her personal demons. The colors red, black, and green that so dominate the funeral — embodied by the "jungle-red wine," the "total blackness" of Pilate's dress, and the "emerald glass" — have replaced the red, white, and blue imagery of Mr. Smith's death in Chapter 1. In essence, the American flag has been replaced with the Pan-African Liberation flag. Created by Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, the flag reflects the colors of Jamaica's Rastafarian movement, as noted by Leonard E. Barrett, Sr., in his book The Rastafarians: "The red signifies the blood of martyrs of Jamaican history, including heroes from the time of the Maroons down to Marcus Garvey. The black represents the color of the Africans whose descendants form ninety-eight percent of all Jamaicans. The green is the green of Jamaican vegetation and of the hope of victory over oppression." Essentially, Hagar is not only "going home" to Jesus; she is also "going home" to Mother Africa.
In this chapter's final scene, Pilate is portrayed as a trumpeting elephant, an animal native to both Africa and India. Picturing her as this great, lumbering beast, we are reminded of earlier references to her as a protective cedar. If we consider the connections between these two images, we realize that despite the powerful imagery associated with Pilate, she is, ironically, quite powerless to protect herself or the people she loves. The trumpeting elephant symbolizes a creature — Pilate — so overwhelmed by grief that words cannot express her pain.
Also significant is the image of Pilate and Reba bending over Hagar like two divi-divi trees, which are native to South America and the West Indies and are noted for their highly astringent qualities. Associating the two women with the healing properties of these exotic trees again underscores the ironic fact that they are powerless to heal Hagar. And considering that divi-divi trees are not native to either Africa or the United States, we can surmise that through death, Hagar, like Mr. Smith, is finally able to transcend the boundaries that limited her physical and emotional life.
mangoes edible citrus fruit from the mango tree, native to Asia.
fuchsia bright purplish red.
bath salts a perfumed salt solution used for softening bath water.
placket a slit in a piece of clothing, such as a dress or skirt.
to truck slang, meaning to get into a dispute with.
sluicing leaking and sloshing water.
bolero an open-front, short jacket.
bier a stand on which a coffin is placed — for example, during a funeral.