mercilessness to neighbors and his own family members in the same way as Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!, whom Morrison criticizes in her master’s thesis as “blinded by isolation to the point of not even recognizing his own evil”
(“Virginia” 39). However, Morrison opens up possibility of displaying Macon’s humanity when Macon feels lonely, seeing his ghostly houses, as follows:
Scattered here and there, his houses stretched up beyond him like squat ghosts with hooded eyes. He didn’t like to look at them in this light. During the day they were reassuring to see; now they did not seem to belong to him at all―in fact he felt as though the houses were in league with one another to make him feel like the outsider, the propertyless, landless wanderer. It was this feeling of loneliness that made him decide to take a shortcut back to Not Doctor Street, even though to do so would lead him past his sister’s house. (Song of Solomon 27)
In the extract, we see that the houses that are the symbol of his wealth are portrayed as something sinister just as the Sutpen house in Absalom, Absalom!
But as Lorie Watkins Fulton points out, there is a difference between the two:
while Sutpen does not realize his sinful acts in his life at all, Macon feels slightly uneasy about his deeds and visits his sister’s house to find solace from seeing three women singing, behaving as they like. Macon finds out that those three enjoy peace and freedom harmoniously, which does not exist in the Dead family.13
With the exception of the episode above, Macon is always a repressive patriarch; in addition to the two keys, another example of his adhering to his
property concerns his car. Macon drives the big Packard on Sunday afternoon because “it was a way to satisfy himself that he was indeed a successful man” (31).
It is necessarily for him to show off his car, another evidence of his wealth, but the fact that “the Packard had no real lived life” (33) is accentuated in a series of negative sentences, such as “[h]e [Macon] hailed no one and no one hailed him.
There was never a sudden braking and backing up to shout or laugh with a friend.
No beer bottles or ice cream cones poked from the open windows. Nor did a baby boy stand up to pee out of them” (32). We may recall that Morrison describes Macon’s car in the same technique in which she depicts the misery of the Breedlove family in the Bluest Eye.14 The point I wish to emphasize is that the same nature of unhappiness is given to the two families, Deads and Breedloves, although they are just the opposite (the rich and the poor); that is, in Morrison’s novels readers will find happiness not in material property but in the human heart.
Then we will explore the distressful situation in which Macon’s wife, Ruth, is in as a wife and mother in the Dead family. Due to her husband’s cruel treatment of her, she cannot nurture self-respect and is starved of love from others. In the Dead family, Macon’s abuse of the power as a patriarch causes anxiety to his wife and his daughters (“[s]olid, rumbling, likely to erupt without prior notice, Macon kept each member of his family awkward with fear. His hatred of his wife glittered and sparkled in every word he spoke to her. . . and his wife, Ruth, began her days stunned into stillness by her husband’s contempt and ended them wholly animated by it” [10-11]). It must be noted that “the large water mark” (11) on the table in the house of Dead fills two roles at one and the same time for Ruth. On one hand, it shows that the feelings of husband and wife are
miles apart, because it always reminds Ruth that her husband rejects her arrangements of driftwood in spite of her efforts to fill the vase which is placed to hide the watermark. After Ruth removes the vase, the exposed water mark reminds her of her husband’s coldness. However, in a peculiar way, the unpleasant feeling makes her feel that she lives not in a dream but in a real life. It is interesting to note that Macon’s rejection is expressed by his complaints about Ruth’s cooking. It is likely that Morrison expresses the lack in confidence of her female characters through their being incapable of cooking. When Ruth tells him how beautiful she thinks the driftwood, “[h]er husband looked at the driftwood with its lacy beige seaweed, and without moving his head, said, ‘Your chicken is red at the bone. And there is probably a potato dish that is supposed to have lumps in it. Mashed ain’t the dish’ ” (12). Because her mother died early and did not teach her how to cook, Ruth cannot find pleasure in supplying food for her husband and feel a sense of fulfillment as Macon’s wife, because he takes for granted that a wife satisfies her husband by cooking.
Since she fails to fill the role of Macon’s wife, Ruth derives her pleasure from other roles: as a daughter of a father and as a mother of a son. Her incestuous relationships with her father and her son is accompanied not only by psychological love but also by physical touches. “One of her two secret indulgences”
(13) which keeps her life tolerable is to visit secretly at midnights the cemetery in which her father was buried. When Milkman follows her and finds out her secret habit, she tells him that her father is the only person who ever cared about her:
“. . . because the fact is that I am a small woman. I don’t mean little; I mean small, and I’m small because I was pressed small. I
lived in a great big house that pressed me into a small package. I had no friends, only schoolmates who wanted to touch my dresses and my white silk stockings. But I didn’t think I’d ever need a friend because I had him [Ruth’s father]. I was small, but he was big. The only person who ever really cared whether I lived or died . . . ” (124).
The way in which Ruth is crushed in a suffocating house reminds us of Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom!, but the difference between the two is their attitude toward their father: Rosa hates her father, while Ruth adores hers.
Ruth’s desire for him becomes grotesque when she lies down with her father’s dead body being naked. Although Milkman cannot believe his father’s story about his mother’s necrophiliac act at first, we may say that Macon is under no illusion about his wife’s abnormal love of her father since not only Macon but also her father notices it when he finds “the ecstacy that always seemed to be shining in Ruth’s face when he [Ruth’s father] bent on kiss her―an ecstasy he felt inappropriate to the occasion” (23).
The other one of her secret indulgences is to nurse his son, who is big enough that “his legs dangling about to the floor” (13), during her husband’s absence. Ruth’s nursing is depicted as if it were a sexual act:
In late afternoon, before her husband closed his office and came home, she [Ruth] called her son to her. When he came into the little room she unbuttoned her blouse and smiled. He was too young to be dazzled by her nipples, but he was old enough to be
bored by the flat taste of mother’s milk, so he came reluctantly, as to a chore, and lay as he had at least once each day of his life in his mother’s arms, and tried to pull the thin, faintly sweet milk from her flesh without hurting her with his teeth.
She felt him. His restraint, his courtesy, his indifference, all of which pushed her into fantasy. She had the distinct impression that his lips were pulling from her a thread of light. (13)
The purpose of this quotation is to show that Ruth’s nursing of her son, who is too old for mother’s milk, is a kind of child abuse and can be interpreted as a mother’s seduction of her unwilling son. Starving of affection, instead of her husband, she seduces her son, whom she was given by her last sexual intercourse with her husband. Furthermore, if we regard Ruth’s nipple as a penis and her milk as sperm in a figurative sense, we can say that there is a reversal of sexes between the two: the rape of feminized son by a masculinized mother. Although that might be a slightly exaggerated way of putting, it is obvious that Milkman suffers trauma from being nursed for his mother’s sexual pleasure, as we shall see later.
It is likely that his mother’s distorted affection for Milkman plants in his mind a vague fear of women. On one hand, he takes over his father’s role as the head of family by knocking him down and he tends to think little of feelings of women, taking it for granted that they serve him, which his sister Lena blames him for by using a figure of a hog’s gut as we have already seen. But, on the other hand, he fears women, though unconsciously. In fact, his masculinity is seriously damaged both by his mother’s nursing and by his shameful nickname “Milkman,”
which is imposed on him because of her infamous act (Freddie the janitor finds out
the scene and makes it widely known15). Milkman’s recurring dream serves as evidence of this fear; that is, in the dream, what chases after him is a witch:
He [Milkman] had had dreams as a child, dreams every child had, of the witch who chased him down dark alleys, between lawn trees, and finally into rooms from which he could not escape. Witches in black dresses and red underskirts; witches with pink eyes and green lips, tiny witches, long rangy witches, frowning witches, smiling witches, screaming witches and laughing witches, witches that flew, witches that ran, and some that merely glided on the ground. (239)
Although Milkman attempts to escape from creepy witches in the dream, when he sees a “real witch,” Circe (not only her appearance but also her name shows that she is one of the witches) in the house of Butler, the killer of Milkman’s grandfather, he comes to her and holds her voluntarily. I need to quote the following scene at full length because it is essential to show Milkman’s inner conflict:
So when he [Milkman] saw the woman at the top of the stairs there was no way for him to resist climbing up toward her outstretched hands, her fingers spread wide for him, her mouth gaping open for him, her eyes devouring him. In a dream you climb the stairs. She grabbed him, grabbed his shoulders and pulled him right up against her and tightened her arms around him. Her head
came to his chest and the feel of that hair under his chin, the dry bony hands like steel springs rubbing his back, her floppy mouth babbling into his vest, made him dizzy, but he knew that always, always at the very instant of the pounce or the gummy embrace he would wake with a scream and an erection. Now he had only the erection. (239)
Immediately before he catches the sight of Circe, after he vomits because of the terrible smell of animals (it is the smell of Circe’s dogs), he is tempted by “a sweet spicy perfume” “[l]ike ginger root―pleasant, clean, seductive” (239) and goes inside the house. The tempting smell leads Milkman to the realization of his horrible dream, but he climbs the stairs this time, not running away. Paralyzed in fear of castration, the embrace of the witch gives him an erection, contradictory to his fear.
Unlike with his mother, Milkman’s relationships with his father are not so complicated. Like many other characters of Morrison, his sense of inferiority is expressed as a physical defect. To be concrete, Milkman cannot stand straight since one of his legs is shorter than the other, and he is so ashamed of his deformity that he struts so as not to make others notice it. Although Macon is a perfect model of a grown man for Milkman, he gives up trying to emulate him because of his leg; on the contrary, he tries to “differ from him [his father] as much as he dares” (63) in his life-style. A major turning point both for Milkman and for the narrative comes at the time in which he knocks down his father, after his father hits his mother. At first, the event seems to be a standard procedure of struggles between a father and a son, the traditional theme of stories in every
form (“[j]ust as the father brimmed with contradictory feelings as he crept along the wall―humiliation, anger, and a grudging feelings of pride in his son―so the son felt his own contradictions. There was the pain and shame of seeing his father crumple before any man―even himself ”). But situation changes when Macon confides the reason for his contempt for his wife to Milkman. “Father’s narrative”
is about his mother’s incestuous connection with her father, which resurrects Milkman’s traumatic memory of his mother’s nursing. In his memory, he wants his mother to look at him but she does not; in addition, her love of him, which seemed to be natural to that day, disappears.
After listening to his father’s stories about his mother and his grandfather, Milkman becomes suspicious about her behavior, which he has not cared about at all before. Following Ruth going out furtively at midnight, Milkman finds out “her secret indulgence” of talking to her father’s grave. On their way home, Milkman has to listen to “Mother’s narrative” this time. According to Ruth’s version of their past, his father takes his grandfather’s life by throwing away his medicine, which is the fact Macon did not want to share with Milkman. To Milkman’s painful surprise, Macon attempts to kill not only his grandfather but also Milkman before he is born. It can be said that Macon tries to eliminate two men (although one of which is not born yet) whom his wife loves (will love) more than her husband.
Although Ruth does not tell her son what Macon did in order to get her to abort in detail,16 the fact that his own father attempted to kill him is shocking enough for Milkman to sink into his “eagerness for death” (120) more and more.
The point to observe is that the battle between Ruth and Macon over their son is compared to the ones between “Indians and cowboys” as follows:
He [Milkman] became a plain on which, like the cowboys and Indians in the movies, she [Ruth] and her husband fought. Each one befuddled by the values of the other. Each one convinced of his own purity and outraged by the idiocy he saw in the other. She was the Indian, of course, and lost her land, her customs, her integrity to the cowboy and became a spread-eagled footstool resigned to her fate and holding fast to tiny irrelevant defiances. (132-33)
The extract is important because it plainly shows the characteristic of the conflicts between mother and father in Song of Solomon. Ruth, whose son is almost taken away from her by Macon before he is born, is compared to the Indian who lost their land, while patriarchal Macon to the cowboy, the conqueror. What is important here is that neither cares about the land, Milkman, who is caught up in a struggle between his parents. Both of them justify themselves by laying bare their feelings, winning him to his or her side, not paying attention to how he feels about their deep conflicts.
As the last name “Dead” implies, Milkman is a pitiful protagonist in the sense that everyone (his father Macon, his sister Lena, his girlfriend Hagar, his best friend Guitar) except his mother Ruth and his aunt Pilate attempts to take his life. In the first place, he is born on the day Robert Smith, a life insurance agent, commits suicide. Since his jumping off from the roof surprises pregnant Ruth and stimulates labor earlier than the scheduled date, we can say that his birth is closely connected with death. Milkman’s desperate yearning to fly in the sky comes not only from his grandfather Solomon but also from Robert Smith, another ancestor who flies into air in order to kill himself.