The Theme of Flight in Song of Solomon
After going through a journey of extensive growth, unearthing fascinating surprises about his family’s past, and witnessing the death of his most precious and appreciated family member in his arms, Milkman Dead leaps from the edge of a cliff. It’s unclear whether he plunges or rises, survives or dies, or whether his spirit ascends or descends because of his past actions. However, unlike the outcome of his journey, the motivations pushing him forward remain entirely clear. For the first time in Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon, Milkman realizes that in order to fly, one must first free one’s self of the baggage weighing them down.
Travel is a recurring theme in the book and plays various roles in moving the plot forward. Milkman has completed his journey, and the story has come full circle by the time of his carefree leap. Yet for much of the novel, the concept of flight carries numerous baggage and important connotations. Flight can represent personal growth for several characters, but it always comes at the cost of others. A supernatural component suggests that gliding through the air may be possible, but never without consequence. Also, flying often carries musical and biblical implications that help illumine the story of the Dead family. Throughout the novel, Morrison utilizes flying as a symbol of both escape and abandonment to underscore a growing gender imbalance among the characters, noting that flight was not equally achievable by both sexes due to societal norms at the time.
How it works
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with the flight of Robert Smith and ends with the flight of Milkman Dead. The theme of flying recurs throughout the novel. From Smith’s flight to Solomon’s escape and Milkman’s metaphorical departure from Michigan, it appears that flying as a means of escape is a frequent motif. For Milkman to truly fly, he must surrender everything that weighs on the mind, forego the values of identity and culture, and instead embrace humanity. The peacock serves as a symbol of societal domestication. Only once the peacock sheds the heavy, ornate feathers on its tail can it soar freely without constraint.
While belittling Pilate with his parable about the baby snake that ultimately eats its keeper, Macon Dead also teaches Milkman, “The one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things” (55). Macon Dead was not born affluent; he had to work with nothing more than ambition to reach the pinnacle of the black hierarchy. However, Milkman was born into wealth and took it for granted, which is even worse. Society poisoned Macon Dead’s mind to the extent that he believes “money is freedom. The only real freedom there is” (163). Milkman embraces this idea when he includes money in a breakup letter to Hagar to be released from Hagar’s love, and in doing so, he crafts the word “gratitude.”
Morrison likewise makes use of Pilate’s struggle to reveal the strength that a woman can have in the face of hardship. After years of being shunned due to her acne, Pilate becomes one of the wisest and strongest characters in the book. Practically every essential character in the story seeks her help in solving their troubles. Ruth visits Pilate on numerous occasions along with other individuals. Morrison states, “She was a natural healer… and sometimes mediated a peace that lasted a great bit longer than it should have since it was offered by someone not like them” (150). Due to her struggles, Pilate has been able to help herself and the people around her. Her ability to make the best out of her life warrants no pity because she is entirely capable of dealing with anything that life throws at her.