Throughout Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon, many characters within the Michigan community of North side form relationships with each other. However too often, are the female characters in these relationships emotionally and physically abused or even abandoned by their male companions. Such abuse goes without reprimand and instead is instilled as heroism on the behalf of the men who pass this ideology onto their sons. Toni Morrison ridicules this masculine domination by satirically empowering the male characters and blinding them to their ignorant conduct while emphasizing the extremities of abuse that women must endure during the story. However through Milkman’s discovery of what it truly means to be a man, the development of many females characters in the novel and the use of a woman, Pilate, as the most powerful character in the book, Toni Morrison attempts to transcend the subjugation of women and demolish the stereotypic characterization of women’s dependency on men.
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The entire story is centralized around the male protagonist, Macon Dead Jr., nicknamed Milkman, and his development from adolescence into adulthood. During his youth, most of what Milkman learns about society and his role within it are from other male characters. Consequently, these bias and sexist teachings gives Milkman a rudimentary foundation in the methodologies in which to systematically abuse and oppress the women around him for much of his early adulthood. However through his journey to find his father’s lost gold treasure which later develops into a self-discovery of his manhood, Milkman’s maturity allows him to appreciate females as sexual and intellectual equals. First, in order for Milkman to develop himself as a respectful and modern man, he had to shed himself the ignorant preconceived notions taught to him by his father and male relatives. The men in the story have “a definite need to exercise dominion over place and people” (Bloom 195) and this need to exercise authority inevitability translates into the lust for influence and wealth by any means necessary (Woolliams 1). Milkman demonstrates that need for control by objectifying women as symbols of power based on how many he can rule under his sexual dominion. However as his journey transpires, Milkman’s priorities for meaningless sex and money are superseded for intangibles such as respect, love, and trust from women around him. Milkman vows to be a moral contemporary and to gain the respect of women rather than control them through money and fear, setting him free from the sexist dogma of his male predecessors. Milkman soon understands how disillusioned he was before his journey, seduced by the power of wealth and possession which he ignorantly correlated with the true worth of a man. Second, through his newly gained enlightenment of female equality, it allows Milkman to take on a monogamist rapport with a woman, Sweet, for the first time in his life. Milkman’s relationship with the prostitute, Sweet, and the respect he shows her regardless of her questionable profession exhibits Milkman’s respect for women regardless of creed or social status. Milkman’s bathing, cooking and love-making to Sweet all signify his growth into a man, who yearns for self-respect and love for others (Carr Lee 8). These seemly small tasks done by Milkman for Sweet demonstrates the final development of his new morals and desires for his manhood; one which includes women as sexual equals in which he can finally form meaningful connections with beyond the stipulations of money and social status. Finally, Milkman`s recognition of Hagar as a person instead of a sexual object, though after her suicide, confirms his commitment to become a better man and treat women respectively. While Milkman lies trapped in Pilate’s cellar, he laments “What difference did it make? He had hurt her, left her, and now she was dead- He had left her. While he dreamt of flying, Hagar was dying…it was his fault, and Pilate knew it” (Morrison 332). Though her death is not entirely Milkman`s fault, his profound willingness to accept the blame placed upon him demonstrates his new perspective on women. Instead of rationalizing the blame as someone`s else fault as Milkman did throughout most of the novel, he finally acknowledges that his degrading treatment and abandonment of Hagar was not her fault but because of his own weaknesses. Milkman`s discovery of his manhood is a pinnacle part in the story, which allows him to finally respect those around him, especially women who he consistently abused in his past. Though Milkman`s journey does consume most of the story, the development of female sub characters extensively illustrates the hardships of women in the novel.
Milkman is surrounded by an abundance of family characters throughout the story. His mother, his twin older sisters, his aunties and cousins, all of whom are in some way subjugated by their men. However through the development of these women into independent and educated females, they demonstrate women’s empowerment and independence even in the face of adversity. To begin, Milkman’s mother, Ruth Dead, is able to free herself from her husband’s tyrannical control over her emotions and wellbeing. Macon Dead II is the wealthiest man in the neighbourhood, feared and hated by the tenants who live in his many rented homes. Angry at his wife for her undying loyalty to her father over him, he verbally and physically abuses Ruth and neglects to have any intimate relations with her. However Ruth refuses to surrender to her husband and continues to love her father regardless of the repercussions. Ruth explains to her son, Milkman, about the fear and depression she experienced when Macon Dead II first began to abuse her and the tremendous strength she had to gather in order to overcome it (Morrison 125). Ruth is by far the most oppressed female character in the novel and though it takes an extreme mental and physical toll on her well-being, she never diverts from her morals and ethics. This act of rebellion by a woman, Ruth, against the most powerful man in the North side community conveys the true power of the female characters in this novel and how willing they are to combat the egotistical and chauvinist mentalities of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. Second, Corinthians is unable to marry the man she loves, Henry Porter, because of her father’s disapproval of Porter and his social class. When her father discovers Corinthians’ relationship with Henry Porter he forces Corinthians to quit her job, forbids her to see Henry Porter and evicts Henry from his rented house. Lena, Corinthians’ twin sister, finally verbalizes both the sisters’ hatred of their father, Macon Dead II and brother, Milkman, to whom they have been servants for their entire lives (Morrison 215). Since they were young girls, Lena and Corinthians have been complacent to every need and want of the men around them. They have grown accustom to habitual neglect from Macon Dead II and only desire respect and love of their father and brother. This expression of loathing for Milkman and Macon Dead II’s comfortable existence within the Dead family, illustrates Lena and Corinthians’ realization of their mistreatment at the hands of Macon Dead II and Milkman. This realization allows them to ultimately vocalize their anger and finally transcend their oppression by confronting their oppressors. Finally, Milkman’s grandmother, Ryna, is abandoned by her husband, Solomon, who is not ridiculed but immortalized as a hero.
Certainly women suffer as a result of the male desire for flight. Milkman’s ancestor, Solomon/Shalimar, was one of numerous slaves from Africa who could fly; according to the story Milkman is told, Solomon launched himself into the air from a cotton field one day, leaving behind his wife and twenty-one children. The cry of the abandoned woman, another primal scream from the jungle of female discourse, still echoes throughout the land in Ryna’s Gulch, a testament to the irresponsibility of men and the proclivity of women to love them” (Rigney 1).
Solomon being seen as a martyr for his escape and Ryna as a bad mother for being unable to care for her 21 children on her own demonstrates the appalling level of social injustice placed on the women of this story. The failure of Ryna as a single mother was not her fault, but that of a man, Solomon, and Morrison ensures this unfairness is conveyed to the reader. Throughout most of the novel women are victims of abuse and neglect, which they must overcome in order to develop themselves as independent persons. However it is the overwhelming physical and mental strength of one particular female character which truly communicates women’s empowerment and self-reliability in the novel.
Pilate Dead is Macon Dead II’s younger sister and the anti-thesis to his westernized lifestyle of superficial respect and materialistic wealth. She is stronger and smarter than any male character in the story; however she does not yearn for wealth and power but prefers a humble almost dilapidated lifestyle. Pilate’s constant source of wisdom, strength and almost supernatural abilities fortifies women’s ability to equivocate themselves or even surpass men in the story. First, at birth Pilate is given one of the most powerful biblical names possible from her father. During Pilate’s birth, though the midwife criticizes his decision, Pilate’s father still chooses to name his daughter Pilate which translates into “Christ Killer” (Morrison 19). In the story of Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate is the roman governor who decides the faith of Christ; it gives a sense of almost ominous power to a child who bares that name. Pilate is a source of unrivalled wisdom in her community and often the deciding factor for those shrewd enough to seek out her advice. Milkman’s self-discovery is entirely the result of him embracing Pilate as a mentor and spiritual guide; Pilate represents a source of female intellect which even the men in the story seek out for guidance. Second, Pilate does not have a naval; therefore her birth is seen as supernatural and even mythological by the other residents of North side. When the subject of her naval arises Pilate questions,
“What’s it for?” she asked. The woman swallowed. “It’s for…it’s for people who were born natural” Pilate didn’t understand that, but she did understand the conversation she had later with the root workers and some other women in the camp. She was to leave. They were very sorry, they liked her and all, and she was such a hard worker and a big help to everybody. But she had to leave just the same…They thought she might hurt them in some way if she got angry, and they also felt pity along with their terror of having been in the company of something god never made (Morrison 144).
Pilate transcending the creation of god, who would be seen as a man, shows Pilate as a woman who is her own creator and therefore decides her own destiny. Pilate’s birth is indeed of supernatural proportions and provides a level of mysticism to the story. The fact that she doesn’t have a naval may ostracizes her from others but it symbolizes her lack of dependence on others, especially men like her brother, Macon Dead II (Smith, 1). Finally, Pilate has the ability to fly away from her troubles like the men do, but chooses not to. Pilate’s choice to confront her problems rather than flee from them through flight like the men did demonstrates the overwhelming strength of the female spirit, which is too often undermined by male chauvinism. Pilate is the ultimate symbol of female strength and endearment in an uncomprehending and unyielding society ruled by men. The presence of Pilate to support and help free the other oppressed female characters of the novel, while guiding Milkman toward the path of moral enlightenment cements her as the destroyer of male dominance and women enslavement.
Toni Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature for her novel, Song of Solomon, a landmark achievement for any writer. The wide range of social issues such as racism, sexism and social structures she attempts to address through the story of Milkman holds much relevance in today’s society. Inevitability women of North side, have the greatest effect on Milkman through the oppression they defeat and free themselves from. Through the guises of Milkman’s discovery of true manhood, the growth of Ruth, Lena, Corinthians and Ryna and the mystical presences of Pilate, the women of North side rise above their subjugation and destroy the stereotypic portrayal of women’s dependency on men.