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Free Study Guide for Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

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SONG OF SOLOMON: FREE STUDY GUIDE / LITERARY ANALYSIS

CHAPTER 3

Summary

Milkman is happy working for his father. He is friendlier than Macon and the people from whom he collects rents tease him and feed him when he comes to their houses. He and Guitar donít see much of each other, but occasionally skip school and spend the day together. One day they go to Featherís pool hall for a beer. As soon as they walk in, Feather tells Guitar to get Milkman out of there because he is Macon Deadís son and because heís too young at thirteen. They go to the barbershop run by Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy. Hospital Tommy asks them why they arenít in school, using the high diction of a professor. Guitar tells them what Feather had said and says they only wanted a beer. This desire provokes Railroad Tommy to launch on a long list of more and more voluptuous descriptions of fine things to do and eat, saying at each point that that is one more thing these boys will never get to do. He ends his lecture by saying the only thing they will get in the world is a broken heart and folly.

The boys leave and walk down the street. Guitar tells Milkman the reason he canít stand anything sweet. When he was a child still living in Florida, his father died and the wife of the owner of the sawmill gave him and his siblings divinity to eat. Now sweets remind him of dead people and white people and make him vomit.

By the time Milkman is fourteen he notices that one of his legs is shorter than the other by about one half an inch. He compensates for it in many ways such as adopting a particular walk, dancing in a stiff legged way, crossing his leg in only one way, and he never tells anyone about it. Macon is delighted to have his son helping him at the office. It means he doesnít have to go collect rents, which he always felt lowered his dignity, and frees him up to plan and visit the bank men. Now that the war is going on in 1945, townlets are growing up around war plans. While as a Black man he canít get the prime properties, he is able to get land no one else thinks about and land that no one wants to sell to Jews or Catholics. He has stopped hating Ruth as much as he had before even though he notices that she still spends occasional nights away from home. He canít imagine what sheís doing, but cares less and less.


When Milkman is twenty-two years old, he knocks his father into the radiator in retaliation for his father hitting his mother. Milkman sees his mother as a frail woman content to invest her love in very small things so their death or departure wouldnít hurt her. Her daughters view Maconís violence toward Ruth differently. Lena canít imagine what provokes him, but Corinthians has begun to analyze the incidents that set Macon off. Ruth will begin with an account of a scene in which she plays an honest buffoon. On the occasion in question, Ruth had told the story of when she was invited to the wedding of one of her fatherís former white patients, whose sonís life he presumably saved. At the mass, Ruth went to the altar with the other wedding guests to take communion, but didnít know the procedure. She had her head bowed and the priest had to say "Sss. Raise your head!" so she could take the communion wafer in her mouth. At the reception afterwards, the priest had approached her and had begun to tell her only Catholics are allowed to take communion when the brideís grandmother, Anna Djvorak, came up and told the priest that Miss Fosterís father had saved her son, the brideís father.

When she finishes the story, Macon is angry. He questions her ignorance of Catholic customs and ridicules her for having gone to the wedding when it was clear Mrs. Djvorak didnít even know her name. He ends with "You are your daddyís daughter," and Ruth smirks and says "I certainly am my daddyís daughter." Macon drops his fork and hits her across the jaw. Before he knows what is happening, Milkman has grabbed him by his collar, lifted him out of his chair, and thrown him against the radiator. He threatens his father that he will kill him if he touches Ruth again. Macon creeps along the radiator in shock that he has been touched after so many years of feeling invincible.

Milkman goes upstairs feeling strange. He doesnít know what to do with himself. He knows he thinks of his mother as a sort of nonentity. He had noticed his sisters looked at him with total hatred when he passed them on the way out of the dining room. He loves and respects his father and has now put himself in a different relation to the man. He looks at a set of brushes his mother had given him with his initials M. D. on them. She had urged him to become a doctor. His father doesnít want him to go to college, thinking that for a young man it is a waste of time. His sister Corinthians went for a short time, but Macon let her go in hopes that she would find a husband.

Milkmanís thoughts are interrupted when his father knocks at the door. Macon tells him that if the wants to begin acting as his motherís protector, he needs some information about his mother. Milkman reluctantly listens as his father tells him of his early marriage with Ruth. She was only sixteen when they married. Mr. Foster never approved of him and always made fun of his business calling it shacktown. Mr. Foster hated the African Americans of his community calling them cannibals. When Ruth became pregnant, she couldnít go to the white hospital and wanted her father to be her doctor. Macon found it improper, but he was overruled. Mr. Foster had plenty of money but shared none of it with Macon. Once Macon had realized a railroad was being built and needed a loan to buy up some land along its projected route. Mr. Foster refused to lend him any money. Now that land is prime real estate. After a while, Macon had begun to wonder who Ruth had married, him or his father-in-law.

Mr. Foster was an ether addict. He began to swell up and became bed-ridden. After a time, he died. Macon was working on a house when he got the news and rushed home. Ruth screamed at him to get out of her fatherís room since he was so dirty from work. Macon went and took a shower and dressed and when he went back to the room, he found Ruth naked on the bed with her dead father sucking on his fingers. He ends his story to his son telling him he is not a bad man and that he has taken his responsibilities in life seriously. He tells Milkman not to speak yet, but to think everything over, and never to hit him again.

Milkman is stunned by the story. He decides to go and find Guitar. He notices that people are only walking on one side of the street and seem to be hurrying. As he walks along thinking of the strange image of his grandfather and mother together sexually, he suddenly recalls the day in his boyhood when Freddie the janitor caught Ruth nursing him. Now he knows where he got his name. He gets to the barber shop and finds everyone in high excitement listening to the radio. A man from the north had visited the south and had been stomped to death by white men for whistling at a white woman and for bragging about being with other white women. When the report is over, the men in the shop discuss the news animatedly, taking bets on whether the white newspaper will even report the incident and whether they will print it on the sports page or the funny pages. The man, Till, had been from the north. Some men in the shop think he was stupid for having acting as he did in the south and some, including Guitar, think he was doing nothing more than acting like a man.

Guitar and Milkman leave and decide to go to Maryís bar. Milkman tells Guitar about having hit his father. Guitar tells Milkman he understands because once, when he was a child, he had killed a doe. He had been a natural born hunter, as the adults would tell him, and when his mother sent him to Florida for summers, he would hunt all summer. Once, he had shot at a deer without seeing it well and it turned out to be a doe. By the time Guitar tells this story, Milkman is close to being drunk. Itís clear to Guitar that Milkman doesnít understand the import of the story. He asks Milkman to tell more about the incident at home, but they miss connections at every point. At the height of his frustration in communicating his feelings to Guitar, Milkman says "Fuck Till. Iím the one in trouble." Guitar looks at him shocked and asks him if he heard him right. Milkman apologizes and then they discuss his name. Guitar says "Niggers get their names the way they get everything else--the best way they can." Milkman wonders what Hagarís fatherís name is. They decide Reba wouldnít know, but Pilate probably would. Milkman tells Guitar his grandfather got his name from a "cracker," (a white man) and that he took it like a sheep.

Notes

The story of Ruthís inappropriate relationship with her father is thrown into doubt by two elements. First, the reader knows how much Macon hates Ruth. Second, the reader has been informed in the last chapter that Macon has forgotten much of what he saw that day of his father-in-lawís death and has actually fabricated much of it. The reader is thrown into doubt about Ruth, but has also been given ample reason to distrust Macon as a reliable narrator, and so has to wait for further revelations.

The differences between Milkman and Guitar begin to show in this chapter. Before, Milkman has admired Guitar and followed him around as a younger boy follows an older boy. Their class positions, though, are quite different. Guitar has known hunger and privation while Milkman has grown up the pampered son of the richest Black man in Guitarís knowledge. The story of the man named Till who is brutally killed for making a sexual advance to a white woman angers Guitar intensely but barely phases Milkman. Milkman is too preoccupied with his own family drama. When he says he has it worse than Till, Guitar looks at him in shock and they patch over the obvious gaff, but the reader is signaled that this friendship will be fraught with conflict.


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