At first glance Song of Solomon seems to be mainly about the ‘flight’ of Macon “Milkman” Dead, a young man alienated from himself and estranged from his family, his community and his own history. However when digging deeper into the brilliant novel of Toni Morrison, a woman known for her distinct writing and her examination of black experience, particularly black female experience, you may realise that the story is really about feminism and women who get left behind due to other people taking ‘flight’. In this essay I am going to discuss those unfortunate and vivid female characters who are taken for granted.
In Song of Solomon there are a lot of women who get abandoned and used by their spouses, the novel shows the heavy and enormous burden these women have to carry each and every day (Morrison, 1977). Getting left behind by the men and society itself seems to be normal and a horrible reality for the women in the novel. For years and years the women have been treated and raised a certain way, a way in which they are taught that they have less value than men and that they can be discarded and abandoned. This results in the majority of women accepting the way life works for them. They felt like they were different and that they should be ashamed of themselves. “Beauty shops always had curtains or shades up. Barber Shops didn’t.
The women didn’t want anybody on the street to be able to see them getting their hair done. They were ashamed” (Morrison, p. 76). The women however do realise to some extend that they are being oppressed and used. Nonetheless these women live in a world where they are afraid that if they stand up for themselves and use the voice given to them, that they will end up all alone. “Morrison does smartly well in projecting black women’s angst under the double oppression of both black men and white ones.”
Numerous female characters in a Song of Solomon, for example Ruth and Hagar, get left behind. The women not only suffer from the abandonment but they are also oppressed by racism, and mostly sexism. They suffer from the ‘flight’ of their husbands, brothers, fathers and lovers. Most of the novel takes place between 1931 and 1963, a time in which the great depression was taking place and African-American people were still seen as lesser people, especially the black woman (Gale, 2001). “One has to consider not only a black woman’s life experience and living environment but also her gender and sex in order to understand Morrison’s fiction well” (The Female Resisters Under the Patriarchy in Song of Solomon, 2015).
Women and especially black women have always been regarded as the lowest position in America and history proves that they not always enjoyed the same rights as men did. Women of colour have suffered enormously, long before slavery began and even after it ended. Not much changed for the women while black men fought for their rights, women followed on a slow pace while fighting the domination of men in general. In the South it was, and one can argue that it still is, normal for a women to be dominated by men. In the end we still live in a man-centred society in which women are regarded as lower and are only just beginning to break the barriers, society placed on them, that hold them back. They have started to grow and claim certain positions once only reserved for males; they are becoming leaders.
An exception in Song of Solomon to this unspoken rule, of women accepting the way they are treated, is Pilate, a different minded character in the novel. Milkman notes that Pilate is able to fly without ever lifting her feet of the ground. managing to be free of subjugation without leaving anyone behind. As a women who does not follow the rules and lives her life the way she wants to, she has mastered flight (Morrison, 1977). A glimpse of Feminism, an unspoken mission in the novel of Morrison herself.
Most of the female characters seem to depend on the men in their lives, they let them rule and dominate them, living lives they never intended for themselves, going in directions they have never wanted to go. They seem to ‘belong’ to the men, “It’s a bad word, ‘belong’. Especially when you put it with somebody you love…. You can’t own a human being” (Morrison, p. 382). Women in this day and age still seem to think that men are superior and that they should depend and follow them wherever they want to go. Morrison pin points the difference between a woman excepting a life and a woman who starts to break free from the chains that hold her back, preventing her from heading in the direction she wants to go.
Simultaneously she also seems to ridicule the way the male characters dominate the women, all the while calling for empathy for the women in the novel who have to endure so much (Christopher, 2012). The normalization by the people surrounding these women goes hand in hand with the way they are discarded so easily. The men however seem to not know any other way to treat these women, as they grew up being taught these biased and sexist ways by other male role models. As is written before; it is just the way society works and has always been.
The struggles the women endure become clear in different female characters. For instance milkman’s mother, Ruth Foster Dead. Ruth has been mentally abused by her husband and lives a loveless existence. Against one’s better judgment, Ruth stays married to Macon Dead II. She knows that she is in fact together but still alone. She is ‘stunned into silence’ by her abusive husband. This can all happen because Ruth believes that she is ‘small’, meaning she is unable to truly stand up for herself. Solomon’s wife and Milkman’s great-grandmother, Ryna, is left behind with twenty-one children to care for. “He just took off; got fed up. All the way up! No more cotton! No more bales! No more orders! No more shit! He flew, baby.” (Morrison, p. 409).
For many years she used to wail after her long-lost husband and could not cope with him leaving her behind. She is broken and thinks that she has been left completely alone. “They say she screamed and screamed, lost her mind completely.” (Morrison, p. 402). Hagar begins an affair with Milkman in her twenties and remains being obsessed with him long after the affair ended. She wants to win him back after he left. She was unable to speak and could not care less about her appearance for three days. It seems that him leaving put a stop to her living. She starts to believe that his leaving is somehow her fault. She believes that he left because of her unattractive presence. Hagar wanted to change, make herself beautiful again. However, after she realizes that Milkman gave up on her for good she goes mad with grief which resulted in her tragic death (Morrison, 1977).
Women who have so much to live for, have such promising futures, let themselves be dragged down because this was deemed normal by the society. Morrison shines a light on these women who have sacrificed so much and are treated in unspeakable ways. They are scarred beyond recognition and broken beyond repair, for they have been relying on the men in their lives while thinking they are lesser and not worth of saving.
Despite this, numerous of these women wanted to fly themselves, knowing full well that they deserve better, looking for a better life which is not only reserved for males. They have learned from women like Pilate that change is possible, but are so emotionally scarred that they are not capable of ‘flying’ away. They just needed to learn one thing and that was that depending on the people that will leave them behind and kept them grounded would not bring them any happiness. “”How come I can’t fly no better than a chicken?” “Too much tail. All that jewellery 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.”” (Morrison, p. 222). In Song of Solomon ‘the shit that weighs you down’ for the women seems to be the men who never regarded their needs but only thought about their own.
Morrison makes a statement to not disregard the importance of feminism so easily. For the reason that in this day and age it is even more prominent that we as women need to stand up for ourselves and take our rightful place; side by side with men, rather than at the bottom of the ladder. The subjects that Toni writes about are still enormously present in this day and age. If we only take a look at the news we realise that not much has changed.
Movements like MeToo and FreeTheNip are needed to make a stand for women all around the world. We can come to the conclusion that men are still seen as superior to women, as so clearly is portrayed in Song of Solomon. We have much more measures to take before we can change the image of women and shatter that glass ceiling which is so prominently in the news.
In today’s society, Song of Solomon should be considered required reading for everyone who reaches the age of for instance twelve. This way adolescents are offered an important perspective not just on feminism, but life in general. Because this beautiful and heart-breaking novel written by Toni Morrison and the female characters in it bring a message into this world which can open the eyes and change the way the new generation is going to think.