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Song of Solomon

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Submitted By fourthletter
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Throughout Song of Solomon, readers are treated to a vast array of experiences, which reflect Toni Morrison’s themes of bearing witness to the disturbed past of black people, exploring divisions within a family that has lived through that past, and chronicling personal quests to reconstruct splintered identity at the personal, family and community levels. To create the conscious experience that brings so much of Morrison’s work to life, she imbues Song of Solomon not only with vibrant, directly encountered realism, but also magical themes and experiences. Magical Realism—in essence—is a way of telling a story with two sides. One based on a so-called rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as everyday reality.
Song of Solomon features many instances of the image of flight as it plays a major role in the narrative. Flight signifies true life and the living of it, as well as a sense of freedom and release for the main characters in the book. Of all the characters in the novel, one seems the most affected and that persona is Milkman—someone whom embarks on a journey of self-discovery and discovers the true meaning of flight. Milkman experiences flight in many different ways—through song, imagery and literal experiences. The onus is on us, the reader, to distinguish what is “real” and what is pure mysticism.
The first instance of Morrison's use of the image of flight is at the very beginning of the book. "At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all. Robert Smith, Ins. Agent" (3). Smith is unable to take the pressure of his life any longer and longs for an escape. He finds that escape in flight with blue silk wings, however short-lived it is, and the death following it. Before his death, he was one of the Seven Days, the small group of men devoted to keeping the balance of blacks and whites equal, which is one of the causes of his desire for an escape from life. As he says in his note, he had become one of the Seven Days for love of black people, not for any hate of whites. While the first image does not seem consistent with the images following it, this first use of flight opens the rest of the story to the symbol. Also, it shows that having the joy of flying brings risks, including that of death, as well as freedom.
Milkman, born Macon Dead, the third to bear that name, is born the day after Smith's flight off Mercy Hospital and is the one most affected by the image of flight presented in the book, even from his infancy. "…When the little boy discovered, at four…-that only birds and airplanes could fly-he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft…." (9). For Milkman, the loss, or lack of the ability, of flight is a loss of life and of living. Throughout his life, because of this, he achieves, at least spiritually, his namesake; he is dead to life. "It was becoming a habit-- this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there was no future to be had." (35). Milkman does not look forward to the future. He does not know himself, or his past, and he is unable to find flight and life without knowing those things.
As Milkman grows, he becomes a self-centered person, caring only for himself and what will help him. Anything that does not touch him directly does not exist for him. His father's words to him, "Then you'll own yourself and other people too," (55) are unable to be fulfilled by Milkman. Milkman cannot own himself because he does not know who he is, and he has lost the initiative to discover it when he 'died' from the lack of ability to 'fly'. When he looks at himself, he sees this undefined mess of himself. "…But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self." (69). His father tells him, "…if you want to be a whole man, you have to deal with the whole truth." But Milkman is unwilling to deal with the whole truth: of himself, of his family, or of his life. Until he does, he will never be able to fly.
The peacock that Milkman and his friend Guitar see in the park introduces an important part of the image of flight. The peacock is able to strut and has a beautiful tail, but is unable to fly. The reason for this, according to Guitar, is that, "All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can't nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." In other words, in order to fly-- to live-- one must leave vanity, possessions and fear behind. One can fly only if unburdened, with only oneself to carry, but one must know who that self is and what burdens him before he can shed all in order to attain flight. Pilate, through her inheritance, a bag of old bones, brings in another part of the image of flight. "You just can't fly on off and leave a body," her father's ghost had told her. "He meant that if you take a life, then you own it…. Life is life. Precious. And the dead you kill is yours. They stay with you anyway, in your mind" (208). A person cannot just go on living as usual if he kills someone. That person will always be with him, in his conscience, in his mind. It will hamper one's ability to fly and to live unless that person 'takes responsibility' for the one he killed. Only then can the person return to the skies to fly and to carry on with his life without guilt.
As Milkman's journey to discover himself and his past moves closer to its culmination, flight becomes even more important. "O Solomon don't leave me here, Cotton balls to choke me, O Solomon don't leave me here, Buckra's arms to yoke me, Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone, Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home" (303). Milkman discovers his father's past, as well as his great-grandfather Solomon's past, in a small town in Virginia. According to local belief, Solomon had literally flown off, to freedom, to return to his home across the sea. He had tried to take only one of his sons, Jake, Milkman's grandfather, with him when he flew off, but had been unable to. Instead, the boy had been dropped at a house and taken in by an Indian family. When Milkman discovers all of this about his people's and his family's past, he discovers himself also. Because of this, Milkman returns to his wish during his childhood to fly, and the belief that his great-grandfather had actually flown revives that part of him that had died in the four-year-old.
Milkman realizes that despite his new discoveries and finding of himself, the past will still exist. "No reconciliation took place between Pilate and Macon (although he seemed pleased to know that they were going to busy their father in Virginia), and relations between Ruth and Macon were the same and would always be. Just as the consequences of Milkman's own stupidity would remain, and regret would always outweigh the things he was proud of having done. Hagar was dead and he had not loved her one bit"(335). But in spite of this, Milkman is able to free himself of all this excess “stuff”, to leave only himself in order to take to flight and to truly begin living.
Near the end of the book, just after Pilate's death, Milkman makes another discovery. "Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly"(336). Pilate lived her life to the fullest, never letting anything hold her down. Milkman realizes at this point that that is what flying means-- to be completely alive-- to live life as Pilate had: to the fullest, without jewelry or vanity, holding a person down (just like the aformentioned peacock). The most poignant and meaningful line in the book is the last sentence which expresses the complete image of flight carried through the book. "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it"(337). Milkman, at that point, throws off all that has been encumbering him and not allowing him to fly, including fear of living, of taking risks, and of dying. He surrenders himself to life, to the air, and by doing that, 'rides the air' and lives. He achieves a full revival to life in that moment, willing and unafraid to take the risks necessary to be alive, though it may mean his death. He realizes that if one does not take these risks to live, then he is already dead. All throughout Song of Solomon, the theme of flight is pretty strong-- it is one of self-discovery for Milkman and the subsequent acceptance of the risks of truly living, of taking life as it is and making the most of it, of “flying”, as Morrison presents it. The image of flight portrayed encompasses all that living does: the risks, the dangers, the consequences, but also the freedom, the joy, and most of all, true life.

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