Her society tells her she needs one, and when Milkman enters her life, she invests her entire personality in him. When he leaves her, Hagar lacks the self she needs to survive. Pathetically, she tries to create a self that Milkman will want by buying makeup and clothes, turning her beautiful African hair a horrible orange (Milkman has been dating light-skinned redheads), and generally abasing herself.
Morrison certainly deviates from a sterotypical feminist perspective when she criticizes Hagar's possessiveness as well as Milkman's cruelty. When Hagar and Ruth argue over Milkman, Pilate points out that a man is not a house to be owned. Finally, when Hagar is trying to kill Milkman (not able to possess him, she does not know what else to do), Guitar tells her how wrong she is to base her value on the possession of a man. How can Milkman love her if she is nobody without him? Guitar's speech is ironic, since earlier he has told Milkman that he will defend black women from white men because they are his; nevertheless, Guitar is right in this instance. Morrison acknowledges that although men can be cruel to women, women contribute to the situation by being overly possessive and lacking in self-esteem. A white feminist, however, would probably argue that women are possessive because society has told them they are nothing without men, and it is hard for people with little self-esteem to resist the pressures of their culture.
In her first two novels Morrison was critical of black middle-class women who reject their blackness, seeming to show little sympathy with them. However, Song of Solomon presents quite a change in its treatment of Ruth and her daughters, Magdelene and Corinthians. Ruth has been victimized first by her family and then by her husband. Losing her mother at a young age and having no friends, she fastened all her love on her grasping, haughty father. Starved for love, she developed incestuous feelings for him and, according to Macon, was caught in bed with her just dead father, sucking on his fingers.
In punishment Macon withholds sexual contact from his wife for the rest of their marriage, except for a brief interlude when, with the help of a magic potion of Pilate's, Ruth manages to have intercourse with Macon one more time (Joseph, 195). She had hoped Milkman would restore her to Macon's affections, but since Macon had never really loved her anyway (he married her for the prestige of possessing her), she is unsuccessful. In frustration Ruth nurses Milkman long past the time for weaning, this being the only physical contact she has with anyone. According to Ruth, she never was in bed with her father, and had only kissed his hands on his deathbed. Thus, all these years Macon has been deluding himself about incest that existed in thought only. Terry Otten suggests that the relationship was actually one of "cold indifference" on the part of the father, Ruth developing a sick attachment to him because she led such as empty life (Song of Solomon 337).
This sad woman -- she calls herself "small because she was pressed small" (Song of Solomon 124) -- is not really an attractive character, being weak, overly concerned with propriety, regarding her son as a diversion, and having no interest in her daughters because they are female. Nonetheless, Morrison does engage our sympathy by explaining the forces that created Ruth. Belatedly, near the end of his quest, Milkman develops sympathy for his mother's barren life:
If it were possible for somebody to force him to live that way [celibate], to tell him "You may walk and live among women, you may even lust after them, but you will not make love for the next twenty years," how would he feel?... What might she have been like if her husband had loved her? (Song of Solomon 300)
Morrison creates equally sympathetic characters in Milkman's sisters, showing, as Anne Mickelson asserts, a growth in her feminist consciousness (RO 145-146). Magdalene (Lena) and Corinthians (Cory) are raised in a home where all the parental energy is devoted to the pampered son. As girls, they have no function other than to be paraded every Sunday in their best clothes, to sit at home and make roses out of red velvet, and to wait on their brother. Both college educated to be the wives of professional...
When Lena finds out that Milkman has told their father about Cory's romance with Henry Porter, she comes into her own with a speech to Milkman that rings out as the impassioned cry of every woman supplanted by a man:
Our girlhood was spent like a found nickel on you. When you slept, we were quiet; when you were hungry, we cooked; when you wanted to play, we entertained you; ... You have yet to wash your own underwear, spread a bed, wipe the ring from your tub, or move a fleck of your dirt from one place to another. And to this day, you have never asked one of us if we were tired, or sad, or wanted a cup of coffee. ... Where do you get the right to decide our lives? I'll tell you where. From that hog's gut that hangs down between your legs. (Song of Solomon 215)
Though we do not find out what happens to Lena, from subsequent events we assume that relations between Milkman and his sisters will change. Stephanie Demetrakopoulos states, and I agree, that there are few women who do not respond with an inner "yes!" To this diatribe (Demetrakopoulos NDS 95).
Reluctance to Support the Black Struggle
I have been arguing here that Morrison expresses ambivalence and conflict in her desire to support the black struggle and in her interest and sympathy for women's experience. This tension is most obviously shown in the central metaphor of Song -- flying. A black man, one of the Seven Days, tries to fly at the beginning of the novel and fails. Milkman discovers that his greatgrandfather flew back to Africa, and the ending of the novel finds him soaring, too, toward the arms of his "brother" Guitar. To realize themselves, to achieve individuation, black men must fly. Morrison has said she admires that aspect of black male culture that refuses to be tied down, to knuckle under to a dull, constrained life. While working on Song she said: "... black men travel, they split, they get on trains, they walk, they move.... it's a part of black life, a positive, majestic thing." Though she acknowledges that when fathers fly, children are hurt -- girls as well as boys -- they also remember their fathers, "half in glory and half in accusation." In Song the men leave home, and the children remember it, sing about it, and mythologize it (Watkins 50).
In the novel Milkman's great-grandfather Solomon's flight from slavery's unbearable conditions back to Africa is seen as beautiful, liberating, a celebration of the human spirit. However, in flying away Solomon left behind a wife and twenty-one children, one of whom was Jake, Macon Dead's father. Milkman is told by Susan Byrd, one of his distant relatives:
And there's this ravine near here they call Ryna's Gulch, and sometimes you can hear this funny sound by it that the wind makes. People say it's the wife, Solomon's wife, crying.... They say she screamed and screamed, lost her mind completely. You don't hear about women like that anymore, but there used to be more -- the kind of woman who couldn't live without a particular man. And when the man left, they lost their minds, or died or something. Love, I guess. But I always thought it was trying to take care of children by themselves, you know what I mean? (Song of Solomon 323)
When black men "fly," they leave behind suffering women and children, and though Morrison tells us the children remember their fathers not only with accusation but also with admiration, the middle-class white feminist feels discomfort with this celebration of male freedom. As she did with Pecola's rape, Morrison asks the reader to remember the pain of black men who hurt women because society offers them so few ways to realize their manhood. Still, it is difficult for someone imbued with white bourgeois values not to condemn the father who deserts his family. Some critics have questioned this tendency in Morrison to celebrate aspects of black male culture that could be seen as damaging.
A white critic treads gingerly here; when dealing with Afro-American literature, the worry of saying something racist is very real and causes some white critics to avoid black literature. Morrison has spoken out about white critics who have refused to deal with her work (BWWW 121).
Barbara Rigney makes a convincing argument that Morrison's metaphor of…
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