Mutilation and Disfigurement
The story is filled with images and metaphors of violence, of mutilation and disfigurement. The constant violence against African-Americans through lynching and bombing and shotguns forms the background, but even in the foreground, Milkman is self-conscious because one of his legs is shorter than the other, making it hard for him to walk properly. He feels this as a symbolic slight on his manhood. Pilate is born without a navel, a fact that makes her an outcast as a woman with her lovers. The subjugation of the race makes all black men and women feel sexually inadequate and impotent, as Empire State feels about his white wife's infidelity.
The violence in the book is seen in the tearing apart of bodies, such as the shotgun blasting of Macon Dead I off his farm fence. His bones remain in the cave or carried around in a bag by his daughter until he is buried many years later. Guitar's father was torn in half by a saw in a mill. In the racial killing of Emmett Till and the four girls killed by a bomb in the church in Birmingham, the bodies are dismembered. The story starts with the suicide of Robert Smith jumping to his death from the hospital roof. Ruth Dead kisses the fingers of her dead father because it is the only part of his body not ravaged by decay and disease.
Hagar keeps trying to kill Milkman with a knife but instead turns it symbolically on her own body as Milkman told her to do. She destroys herself, dying from grief and derangement. While Milkman hunts and kills the bobcat with the men of Shalimar, Guitar hunts him and puts a wire around his neck to choke him. As Pilate carries around her father's bones, Milkman must carry a box of Hagar's hair as a penance for his part in her death. Pilate supposedly chooses the girl's hair for Milkman because Hagar was convinced that Milkman disliked her hair and preferred silky light colored hair.
These images help the reader to feel the historical violence that characterize slavery and its aftermath for African-Americans. Yet even the white Butler family is shown decaying in their mansion, and Circe accepts that she will be food for the dogs when her body drops. Death is an ever-present reality for all, and this pushes the narrative to the basics. Characters must consider the meaning of their lives in such an atmosphere of constant physical insecurity. Even the name of the Dead family implies that life is fragile and brief.
Biblical Imagery and Naming
The book is filled with Biblical imagery and references. The title of the book is the name of the Old Testament “Song of Solomon,” a love song between a man and a woman, reconfigured to mean the name of the family song and legend about the flying Africans who were able to escape slavery by flying back to Africa. Solomon is thus a name for a Jewish king, and the African ancestor of the Dead family. The fact that it is a love song indicates a theme of reconciliation, rather than of hate.
Biblical imagery is used but reconfigured throughout the story, reflecting on the fact that Christianity was forced on slaves. They turn its names and images to their own meanings. Macon Dead I uses the Bible to name his daughter, but since he cannot read, he picks the name “Pilate” for her. The midwife Circe objects that this was the name of the Roman who authorized the killing of Christ, but the bereaved father feels that his daughter killed his wife in childbirth, and he does not care about Jesus, whom he begged all night to spare his wife. Pilate's brother takes her name to mean that of a traitor, for he never trusts her and calls her a snake, imagining she has taken the gold. Pilate, however, makes something positive of her name. She takes the scrap of paper her father wrote the name on and puts it in her mother's snuffbox, making an earring out of it.
The Dead daughters also have Biblical names that do not seem to fit. Magdalene, called Lena, is Biblical rhetoric rather than a warm human name. Lena in the story is never more than the oldest daughter doing her duty. First Corinthians is also a strange name, the name of the letter the disciple Paul wrote to the people of Corinth exhorting them to stay pure. First Corinthians in the story does not stay pure, but she does want love, not the kind of spiritual love Paul was speaking of, but the human kind. The name of the black terrorist group, the Seven Days, appears to mock the story of the Biblical creation in seven days. Pilate's granddaughter is named “Hagar,” an inauspicious name, since the Biblical patriarch, Abraham, owned her as a slave and cast her and their illegitimate son, Ishmael, into the desert.
The characters are rarely referred to by their christened names but rather by their nicknames, seemingly random associations. Guitar earns his name by wanting a guitar as a child, something he never has. Hospital Tommy and Railroad Tommy own a barbershop but their names come from their former jobs. Sing Byrd Dead is the prophetic name of the Indian mother of Macon and Pilate.
Milkman reflects on names as he travels, seeing the Indian names for places with European names inscribed over them and realizing that “Under the recorded names were other names” (Chpt. 15, p. 329). Similarly, the black residents call Mains Street “No Doctor Street.” Once Milkman has his African family name of Solomon, he thinks “When you know your name, you should hang on to it” (Chpt. 15, p. 329).
Morrison makes her narrative into what might be called magic realism, with its insertion of supernatural events into a realistic story. Pilate, for example, is born without a navel. This makes her a freak to some, but she seems to have extraordinary power, speaking to her father's ghost, prophesying Milkman's birth and protecting him, a conjure woman with the knowledge of medicinal roots, and her own source of sustaining wisdom and light. Her singing has a spiritual quality that transforms what is happening into something divine, such as her song to Robert Smith as he jumps to his death from the hospital roof. She sings her granddaughter from a tragic death into heaven with the assertion that Hagar was loved and will receive mercy.
Milkman also seems to have inherited the family's supernatural ability. His aunt and mother conspire to make Ruth pregnant with Milkman. Ruth tells how Macon tried to get the fetus to abort, but Milkman was protected by Pilate both before and after his birth. Even Hagar with her monthly attempts on Milkman's life is unable to kill him, and Guitar's first attempt fails, though we do not know the final outcome of their struggle. Milkman feels invulnerable when he learns he is a descendent of Solomon, the flying African patriarch of his family.
Flying is an important metaphor in the story for transcending circumstances or turning them to a positive direction. Morrison is one of the modern black authors who makes famous the myth of the flying Africans, based on a slave revolt of 1803, when a group of Igbo slaves brought from Western Africa, took control of the slave ship as it reached the shores of Georgia and drowned the white crew. They then came ashore and committed group suicide by drowning themselves rather than be slaves. Legends arose about Dunbar Creek on St. Simon's Island in Georgia, that the ghosts of the slaves are still there, or that they were turned into buzzards and flew back to Africa.
Robert Smith, who opens the novel by committing suicide in a pair of blue silk wings, is a reference to the fate of these early martyrs. Milkman discovers his ancestors were the original flying Africans and believes they made it back to Africa. He too jumps off the cliff at Solomon's Leap where the slaves returned to Africa. It is not clear what happens to him, whether Milkman's flight is literal or metaphorical, but his flying is taken as a spiritual triumph. Earlier, Milkman and Guitar had seen a white peacock, a bird without functional wings. Guitar tells him it can't fly because it has all that pride in its tail: “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (Chpt. 8, p. 179). There is the sense that Milkman achieves this kind of flight.