Song of Solomon

Possible Topics/Themes

  • SEARCH FOR IDENTITY—a QUEST

  • Blindness (the misinterpretation of self and others due to selfishness) and sight

  • The relationship between individual success and responsibility to community: success vs. “selling out”

  • Masculinity and manhood. The novel is dedicated to “Daddy” and if you look at the Foreword, you will see that although Toni Morrison usually writes about women’s lives, she was inspired to write this novel after her father died—she wanted to reflect on the lives of African-American men

  • Freedom from bondage—symbolic images of flying/flight as escape, freedom, and transcendence (rising above) and a return to the ancestral homeland of Africa

  • Going back to go forward: finding your roots (ancestry) to find yourself. Gaining flight by digging into roots (routes via roots)

  • Significance of NAMING to identity: “Dead” family; “Milkman”; “Pilate;” “Not Doctor Street”

  • Morrison explores deeply flawed and human characters who are a mixture of both the good and the bad, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. She writes of people we fear, we dismiss, even perhaps we despise. Morrison invites us to walk in these character’s shoes, and it is a difficult task, because these characters are not saints.

  • Morrison sets black community as the center of the novel and as apart from the white world outside, but the novel is framed by Jim Crow segregation

  • The novel takes place in Chicago’s South Side but Milkman Dead’s father, Macon Dead and his aunt Pilate Dead, migrated from rural Virginia/Pennsylvania: a narrative of migration. African-American history has been a history of movement, of journeys, of migration. It is often a diasporic culture, from the Middle Passage, to the attempts of slaves to escape the South on the Underground Railroad to the North.

  • The novel was published in 1977 yet it encompasses the era of Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights era. It opens in 1931 when Milkman Dead is born, and there are flashbacks to his father and grandfather’s lives; the main action of the novel takes place in 1963 when Milkman Dead is 32 years old. 1963 is the heart of the Civil Rights movement and same year as the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four little black girls.

Informal Writing/
Pre-Reading Questions

Family

  1. What family stories have you grown up with seem to define your family in some way? If you do not have such (a) story/ies, could you make one up that would explain some aspect of who you are, or what your family is like?

  2. Do you have a family story that has several versions? How do they compare?

  3. Do you know your family tree? If so, how did you find out about what happened in your family before you were born? Questioning, oral history or storytelling, or…?

Slavery, the Civil War, and its Consequences

  1. What do you know about the history of slavery in the United States? 

  2. When was the Civil War? When and how did it end?

  3. What do you know about the relationships between blacks and whites in the United States after the Civil War?

  4. What is the Great Migration?

Narrative 

  1. Are all storytellers reliable? How do stories in your family change with each person telling them? Are these “biases,” valuable perspectives, or personal versions?
  2. Think about and reflect on a time when the appearance of some idea, person, place, or event altered for you when you learned more about that idea, person, place, or event.

Discussion Questions by Theme

  1. Racism is a central topic of Song of Solomon. How does it affect the personalities of, and decisions made by, characters in the novel? What are its effects on the way characters relate, or don’t relate, to each other and their families and communities?

  2. Gender is another important aspect of Morrison’s story. Guitar tells Milkman that black men bear the burdens of humanity. What are some of those burdens? What burdens are borne by the women in the story? To what degree are those burdens caused by racism? Do the men in the story, wittingly or unwittingly, cause those sufferings?

  3. Flight is a recurring theme in the novel. Which characters try to fly—in a literal or metaphorical sense? Why do these characters believe they can fly or “fly”? And why aren’t Solomon or Robert Smith discouraged from trying to fly? Finally, is any character’s flight or “flight” successful? In what sense? Is anyone or anything damaged by his or her flight?

Reading Guide

Toni Morrison Song of Solomon

Chapter 1

  • What do you think Morrison achieves by telling the story at bird’s eye omniscient narrator to begin with and then moving in closer to single characters’ perspectives? Which is more accurate? More true?

Chapter 2

  • Compare Macon Dead’s car to Pilate’s house. Chose two-three objects or images that tell the reader how to think about each space.

Chapter 3

  • One page 69, Milkman looks at his face in the mirror. What does he see? What does it tell you about him?
  • How might the men in the barbershop act like a Chorus (from Greek theater)?

Chapter 4

  • Does what Guitar says about Milkman help to explain Milkman’s relationship to Hagar?

Chapter 5

  • The story so far has focused on the men’s perspectives. What is different when Morrison turns in this chapter to the women’s stories?

Chapter 6

  • Why does Guitar say that what he does as part of Seven Days is for love?

Chapter 7

  • We get more of the backstory for Macon and Pilate in this chapter. List three things you learn in this version of the story that shed light on something you heard about the story earlier in the novel.

Chapter 8

  • An allusion is made to 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. What is the significance of this event? How would it influence Guitar?
  • Morrison cites peacocks as avatars for flight; why is that significant? 

Chapter 9

  • What does Lena help you understand about Black womanhood in her family and community in this period?

Chapter 10

  • What purpose do you think Circe serves in the story at this point in the novel?

Chapter 11

  • Why are the men in Shalimar hostile to Milkman?
  • During the hunt, what does Milkman come to realize about himself? What insight does he have?

Chapter 12

  • Milkman denies to Susan Byrd that finding his people is important, but he discovers for himself that it is. What does he begin to realize about Macon, Ruth and Pilate?
  • What has happened during Milkman’s trip to the South, from Danville to Shalimar, that indicates that Milkman is changing?

Chapter 13

  • Guitar has used the word love to describe why he is part of Seven Days. Hagar uses the word love to describe her feelings for Milkman. Do you think love is the right word? Does “love” mean the same thing to each of them?
  • When Hagar says Milkman doesn’t like her hair, Pilate replies, “How can he love himself and hate your hair?” What is Pilate saying here? How is Pilate’s message to Hagar an underlying message of the novel, and the key to understanding how love works in the novel?

Chapters 14-15

  • “How many dead lives and fading memories were buried in and beneath the names of the places in this country? […]  When you know your name, you should hang on to it” (329). How does this quotation represent some of the major themes within the novel?
  • Milkman has found his roots, his people. How has that changed him? What does it mean to him?
  • How do the stories continue to be told in this novel?
  • Pilate says, “If I’d a knowed more [people], I woulda loved more.” Is Pilate’s love love? Is her love different from Guitar’s or Hagar’s, or Sing’s, or Macon, Jr.’s, Ruth’s, Ryna’s?
teaching

Group Projects

Discussion Questions

1. After reading Chapters 1-2, make a family tree of all main characters on the board; split students into groups and ask them to list what we know so far about these characters and any questions we have; map on the board:

  • Macon Dead [whose father was the first Macon Dead, so named when he registered as a citizen after the Civil War] married to Ruth Dead [whose father was Dr. Foster, the Doctor of Not Doctor Street]
  • Children of Macon and Ruth: Milkman [Macon Jr.], First Corinthians, Magdalene called Lena
  • Pilate Dead [sister of Macon], her daughter Reba, Reba’s daughter Hagar
  • by Macon Dead]
  • Freddie [Macon Dead’s flunkie]

2. Ask students in small groups to read and analyze key passages that reveal Macon Dead’s character:

  • Page 17 on keys
  • Pages 20-21 treatment of his sister Pilate
  • Pages 21-22 treatment of Guitar Bain’s grandmother
  • Page 31 on the Packard automobile

Follow up small group activity with whole class discussion: What do these passages show about Macon Dead’s character and what he values? What kind of father and role model is Macon Dead for his son, Milkman? What kind of leader or authority figure in his community?

3. Create a concordance for all characters of significance, except for Milkman, in Song of Solomon. A concordance is an alphabetical index of the principal words of a book […] with a reference to the passage in which each occurs.” Some characters do not show as often as others and so some student groups might be given two characters. Macon Dead II might go to one group but Reba and Milkman’s two sisters might be given to one group (see below for a sample of how to distribute the characters into five groups). Each group’s members will note the page each character shows up on. When the character speaks, record his or her words (quote when significant, otherwise summarize or paraphrase). Record actions. Record details of appearance. If the character is talked about by another character, note that too even if the group’s character is only indirectly part of the scene. Each week, each group should post their citations on the Discussion Board.

Sample distribution:

  • Macon
  • Ruth/Hagar
  • Lena/Corinthians/Porter/Circe
  • Pilate
  • Guitar

Formal Essay Assignments


  1. Do you think that Milkman is a hero in Joseph Campbell’s terms? (i.e., “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”)

     

  2. Consider his strengths and flaws that lead him to act (and, at times, not act) as he does. Within your discussion, compare and contrast his heroism (or lack thereof) to that of Antigone?

  3. Write a letter in Macon Dead II’s voice. He is writing to Pilate. Choose what his concern is and have explain to her what he wants her to do or not do. Next write a letter back to Macon Dead III.

  4. Shift the point of view in a scene of your choice. That is, if a scene is told from Pilate’s point of view, shift to her daughter’s or granddaughter’s point of view. The important thing is to make sure that the other person is there in the scene.

  5. The novel opens with an insurance agent’s leap to his death. The writing is reportorial. Select another scene and write it as a newspaper article. Tell us the who, what, where, when, and how of it—if you really want to challenge, create one or two eyewitnesses and quote them.

  6. Recast one scene into a play. Describe the staging in the stage directions. (Perhaps hand out a chapter or two from Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, in which he explains the importance of using items—statuary, furniture, and others—and detailing where they are, the facial expressions and body movements of each character, the spaces between people and between people and items on stage. Consider also reviewing Susan Glaspell’s Trifles or any other play for such modeling purposes.) In other words, the novel’s characters become actors. They can only speak—show their qualities through words and deeds.

Research Assignments

1.You are writing a critical analysis of one the primary and secondary characters of Song of Solomon. Think of this as a small Wikipedia entry that would be read by anyone. The principal characters are as follows: The Dead Family—Macon Sr, Ruth, Magdalena, First Corinthians, and Macon, Jr aka Milkman Dead; adjacent characters—Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Dr. Foster, Robert Smith Guitar Bains, The Two Tommies – Hospital and Railroad, Empire State, Freddie, Feather.

Think of it as a kind of mini biography, defining who the character is. How do they fit into the story’s arc? What is their motivation? What defining moments and details can you pinpoint from that character that informs their motivations? Desires? Wants? Explain why those details are important to an uninitiated reader. Try to answer some of these questions too: What conflicts does the character experience? How do they overcome there? If they don’t, why not? What can the reader learn from the character? What are the key takeaways or important lessons? Try to end your profile spelling out how the character defines a dominant theme in the novel. Examples: Pilate and faith/mysticism, Macon, Sr. and Wealth/Class or Happiness, Ruth and Grief, Milkman and …?

Try to find at least ONE source from a scholarly article or essay that could support your analytical commentary and profile about the character. Use the Library’s One Search and enter key words such as, “Song of Solomon, Morrison, Gender” and see what peer-reviewed articles come up. 

 

2. Though the main narrative of Song of Solomon follows Milkman’s journey toward self-discovery, it is a complex and deeply layered novel with many richly developed secondary characters. You have been keeping track of these characters in the concordance. For your final essay, choose one of these secondary characters and argue for the reason why the character is important within the structure of the novel’s overall narrative of Milkman’s self-discovery. Examine closely at least three separate places in the novel where the character appears in order to show the way that Morrison is developing that character as way to layer the larger narrative of the novel. You should bring in quotes from the novel as a way of developing your analysis and you should integrate ideas (through a combination of quotation, summary and paraphrase) from three of your four secondary source materials. Use MLA-style in-text citations and include a Works Cited at the end. (Annotated Bibliography proceeds this assignment)

Connections to Antigone

Ideas/Connections to other Columbia Core at Hostos texts

  1. Relationship of individuals to the law: whose “law” are you following?

  2. The duties we have toward the dead & the differences when the dead is part of the family, or not part of the family

  3. Family as identity: who is family? What duties do we have to ourselves? Our families? Our communities? Must disobedience be part of the process of carrying out these duties?

  4. Justice (gender, racial)

  5. Memory: Who controls historical narrative? How does story affect what we remember and determine what we may forget?
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