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Song of Solomon: The Language of Flight

Kirsten K. Huffer

Kirsten Huffer (class of 2015) is from Tallahassee, Florida. Although she has yet to decide on a major, she hopes to continue her studies in biology, art history, and classics and perhaps eventually pursue a career in scientific research or art conservation. She spent the past summer interning in an analytical chemistry laboratory. Outside the classroom, Kirsten loves to travel, visit museums, skate, knit, and bake. If Kirsten could have one “superpower,” she would choose flight. Her essay, “Song of Solomon: The Language of Flight,” was written for Dr. Elizabeth Mills’ Writing 101: The Hero’s Quest.

Throughout Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison creates depths of meaning for her readers to plumb and ponder. In particular, Morrison obfuscates the novel’s conclusion, leaving it open to interpretation. Does Guitar show Milkman mercy, or does he pick up his rifle and shoot Milkman in a twisted act of “love?”1 Or, does Milkman save himself by wrestling the rifle from Guitar’s grip? How could Milkman even leap from one ledge to the other? Propelled by the supernatural, does Milkman take flight? Does his flight precipitate Milkman’s death? And does, or would, death compromise the success of Milkman’s quest? These and many other questions arise during the novel’s intentionally ambiguous conclusion, exemplifying the provocative power of Morrison’s language. By raising complex questions rather than providing straightforward answers, Morrison allows her readers to discover her message for themselves: having uncovered his African roots (and having discovered his own worth in the process) Milkman takes flight, both literally and metaphorically.2 Whether or not Milkman dies at the novel’s end is unclear—and unimportant—for Milkman, by then a hero, has already fulfilled his quest.

Before Milkman embarks on his quest, his journey southward, “homeward,” he is hardly the traditional portrait of a hero. “Sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful”—these are the verbal barbs Lena hurls at her own younger brother after Milkman breaks up Corinthian’s relationship with Porter.3 “All [his] life,” Lena insists, Milkman has been “pee[ing] on people,” “distort[ing] life, bend[ing] it, for the sake of gain,” just as his own father has.4 Milkman hates his parents and sisters for not treating him as well as heSongofSolomon4-150x150 Song of Solomon: The Language of Flight “deserves.”5 He manipulates his lover, Hagar, using her love to make himself “a star, a celebrity.”6 He even steals from Pilate, abusing the kindness she has always shown him.7 So selfish is Milkman that his own best friend, Guitar, is later prepared to kill Milkman because Guitar does not—cannot—believe Milkman capable of a simple, spontaneous act of kindness, of helping another man lift a crate onto a weighing platform.8 Although Milkman remains unaware of the shortcomings of his character for much of the novel, he does perceive from the outset that his left leg is shorter than his right, a deformity that readers may recognize as an outward manifestation of Milkman’s internal flaws.

Deeply flawed, Milkman leaves home in search of gold and the financial freedom it would guarantee him; however, as Milkman’s journey progresses, his motivations change. While listening to Reverend Cooper recount stories about Milkman’s father, aunt, and grandfather, he feels a “glow” of interest, a glow that soon blazes into a genuine desire to understand his family’s past.9 Not until his near-death encounter with Guitar in the woods outside Shalimar, however, does Milkman take his first “living breath.”10 And unlike the “death” that Milkman once lived, his new life includes meaningful interaction with others, interactions that involve both taking and giving, as the tender bathing scene featuring Milkman and the prostitute, Sweet, illustrates.11 Thus, during the course of the narrative, Milkman undergoes a dramatic character transformation—a metaphorical flight from the depths of his former torpor to the soaring heights of the greatest happiness he has ever known. Rich with literary possibilities, the leap Milkman takes at the end of the novel symbolizes his resurrection after his lifelong death and his freedom from self-imposed slavery. Having released himself from the chains of his peacock-like vanity and “all the shit that weighs [him] down,” Milkman learns firsthand “what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”12

Now a hero, Milkman cannot fail, for death cannot strip him of his wings, nor can it erase from readers’ minds the memory of Milkman’s soaring transformation and resurrection.

But does Milkman literally ride the air? Does he fly? Again, Morrison offers no forthright answers. Some might argue that, without a bird’s wings or a plane’s aerodynamics, riding the air is impossible, and indeed, any realistically-attuned reader would have to agree. However, Morrison is no realist. She writes in the genre of magical realism, where the real and the magical blend seamlessly. On the wings of Morrison’s language, anything is possible. Indeed, in Milkman’s world, magic pervades the mundane. His own left leg, once shorter than his right, gradually grows to equal its partner. Milkman observes Pilate undergoing a similar transformation: conveniently shrinking into a shriveled “Jemima” before entering the police station to bail out Milkman and Guitar, she mysteriously resumes her full height during the car ride home. Later, when Milkman opens the door to the Butler’s crumbling mansion, “[a] hairy animal smell, ripe, rife, suffocating” greets him.13 But in the few seconds it takes Milkman to back out of the door and vomit, the smell becomes “a sweet spicy perfume. Like ginger root—pleasant, clean, seductive.”14 Inside the house, Milkman meets the living dead: Circe, a woman whose very name bespeaks magic. By Reverend Cooper’s reckoning, Circe “[w]as a hundred when [he] was a boy.”15 By Milkman’s reasoning, “[Circe] had to be dead. Not because of the wrinkles, and the face so old it could not be alive, but because out of the toothless mouth came the strong, mellifluent voice of a twenty-year-old girl.”16 And yet, despite her enchanting voice and colorless skin, Circe is no specter, for she does not merely haunt Milkman, she hugs him with hands “like steel springs rubbing his back,” rubbing in the incredible reality of her existence.17 Is it impossible for a woman to be well on her way to her bicentennial? Not in the world Morrison has fashioned. Indeed, Milkman himself ultimately reaches the conclusion that, since “Pilate did not have a navel. . .anything could be true”—even the astonishing story of his own ancestor, Shalimar’s, flight out of slavery through the skies far above the Underground Railroad.18 And so, if the “dead” live and living morph, physical flight no longer seems so impossible. In fact, given the history of “flying African[s]” in Milkman’s family, physical flight actually seems probable. ((Morrison, Song of Solomon 322-24.))

But more important than the type of flight Milkman makes is the act of flight itself and what flight represents: an affirmation of his transfiguration. Long before Milkman embarked on his quest, before his mother even gave birth to him, Mr. Smith, an insurance agent, leaps from the rooftop of Mercy Hospital in his own vain attempt at flight.19 Some readers may argue that Mr. Smith’s SongofSolomon4-150x150 Song of Solomon: The Language of Flightflight and Milkman’s eventual soaring are equally unsuccessful; however, in making that argument, they overlook the underlying differences in the two characters’ situations. In the “Forward” to Song of Solomon, Morrison says that Mr. Smith, “the insurance man[,] leaves a message saying his suicide is a gesture of love, but guilt and despair also inform his decision.”20 One might argue that Mr. Smith’s decision to end his own life was, as an assertion of control, a victory rather than a defeat. But how can a victory be informed by guilt and despair be anything but a defeat? In contrast, neither guilt nor despair inform Milkman’s decision to end his own life by leaping toward Guitar into the void. In fact, far from ashamed or despondent, having embraced both risks and his roots, “[Milkman] was as eager and happy as he had ever been in his entire life.”21

Thus, Milkman bases his decision instead on his new-found sense of self, which he demonstrates first when he sets out alone for Danville, and again when he unexpectedly encounters the irate Guitar on the road to Shalimar.22 In the gathering gloom outside Shalimar, Guitar matter-of-factly informs Milkman, “Your day has come, but on my schedule.”23 Guitar, however, underestimates the profundity of Milkman’s nascent independence. Only moments before, as Milkman was considering whether to return to Susan Byrd’s house to retrieve his watch, and, in doing so, risk being caught “defenseless” in the dark by Guitar, Milkman concludes: ” ‘I can’t let him direct and determine what I do, where I go or when. If I do that now I’ll do it all my life and he’ll run my off the earth’.”24 Thus, rather than allow Guitar to become the puppet master who controls—and ultimately cuts—the strings of his life, Milkman freely gives his life to Guitar. By ending his own life on his own terms, Milkman asserts his will to take responsibility for his life, to abandon the mental liability of “I deserve,” and to serve as “his own director.”25 At last, realizing his childhood dream, Milkman flies—and he flies “alone.”26

Because Milkman achieves flight, his ultimate fate—whether he lives or dies, kills his “brother,” or is embraced in his brother’s killing arms—is irrelevant; just as Milkman “could not fall” from the sky in his dream, he cannot fall from glory in death. Now a hero, Milkman cannot fail, for death cannot strip him of his wings, not can it erase from readers’ minds the memory of Milkman’s soaring transformation and resurrection. Once, while contemplating the importance of names and their meanings, Milkman remarks, “When you know your name, you should hang onto it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do.”27 In the final scene, Morrison confirms the significance of names: a bird snatches Pilate’s earring from her grave and takes flight, ensuring that Pilate’s name, scrawled on a scrap of paper within that earring, will not be buried with her.28 Similarly, Milkman makes an heroic flight that simultaneously defies his slave name, “Dead,” and ensures his name will outlive him. While crafting Milkman’s flight with words, Morrison emblazons Milkman’s name in the readers’ minds. We, the unseen “somebody” in Milkman’s dream, applaud his flight.29 We recognize the possibilities it represents. We remember it. Thus, whether alive or dead, Milkman lives on in our minds, “as fleet and bright as a lodestar,” guiding us, inspiring us to take to our own skies.

Bibliography

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage, 1997.

  1. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon (New York: Vintage, 1997). []
  2. Morrison, Song of Solomon 337). []
  3. Morrison, Song of Solomon 216. []
  4. Morrison, Song of Solomon 214, 300. []
  5. Morrison, Song of Solomon 300. []
  6. Morrison, Song of Solomon 301. []
  7. Morrison, Song of Solomon 186. []
  8. Morrison, Song of Solomon 296. []
  9. Morrison, Song of Solomon 231. []
  10. Morrison, Song of Solomon 279. []
  11. Morrison, Song of Solomon 285. []
  12. Morrison, Song of Solomon 179, 337. []
  13. Morrison, Song of Solomon 239. []
  14. Morrison, Song of Solomon 239. []
  15. Morrison, Song of Solomon 233. []
  16. Morrison, Song of Solomon 240. []
  17. Morrison, Song of Solomon 239. []
  18. Morrison, Song of Solomon 294. []
  19. Morrison, Song of Solomon 9. []
  20. Morrison, Song of Solomon xiv. []
  21. Morrison, Song of Solomon 304. []
  22. Morrison, Song of Solomon 219, 297. []
  23. Morrison, Song of Solomon 297. []
  24. Morrison, Song of Solomon 294. []
  25. Morrison, Song of Solomon 260, 281. []
  26. Morrison, Song of Solomon 298. []
  27. Morrison, Song of Solomon 329. []
  28. Morrison, Song of Solomon 336. []
  29. Morrison, Song of Solomon 298. []
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