Lessons in an Unwritten Language
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is the story of a man on a journey to make sense of the chaotic world he was born into. As countless critics have noted before, Milkman’s quest for self-identity and meaning is aided by his ultimate realization and understanding of community. There is much that can be said about the groups of people Milkman encounters in the southern towns he visits, but also important is the community he discovers one night when he finds himself alone in the woods, without the presence of anyone else at all. It is here that Milkman realizes the oneness of Nature, the community of all things which Pilate is already a part of, that is essential in Milkman’s quest for identity.
Milkman’s first meeting with Pilate signals the beginning of his connection with Nature. In this scene Pilate is described with lots of nature imagery and in a sense becomes Nature for Milkman. In addition to this, Pilate is also the first link he makes to his family history, which later becomes the ultimate goal of his journey to the South. Therefore Pilate is a huge key to Milkman’s discovery of a community with Nature by being, at the same time, a living relic of his past. When Milkman first encounters Pilate she is sitting outside her house on the front steps: “She was all angles, he remembered later, knees, mostly, and elbows. One foot pointed east and one pointed west” (36). From this first description we can already infer that Pilate is going to be a link to Milkman’s past if we visualize her body as a compass, one foot pointing “backwards” to the west, and one pointing “forward”, to the east, and her body being the center. The fact that Pilate is peeling an orange on the steps is also significant since oranges are fruit, created of the natural world. Pilate’s voice is also important. Her voice, the voice that will tell Milkman about his grandfather for the first time, makes Milkman think of pebbles. Pilate is also described as having fingernails “like ivory”, “berry-black lips”, and “looked like a tall black tree”, all these descriptions comparing her physical body to natural things. Pilate’s house is also described with lots of natural imagery, pushing the reader to envision the house as a “slice” of the natural outside world, made private by the construction of walls. There is the “moss-green sack” hanging from the ceiling and the smell of the house, which is described as “the odor of pine and fermenting fruit” (39).
The infusion of Nature within this scene prepares Milkman for Pilate’s significant narrative that follows. Morrison writes “the pebbly voice, the sun, and the narcotic wine smell weakened both the boys, and they sat in a pleasant semi-stupor, listening to her go on and on…”(40). From this sentence we can see Nature and the natural as being like a drug to Milkman which puts him in a state of mind that allows him to soak in the historical information about his grandfather. The following passage is significant in Milkman’s development because it comes at a time when he is feeling fairly hopeless about his future and is beginning to form a habit of concentrating on thins behind him. After Pilate’s story Milkman is introduced to his cousins, Reba and Hagar, and observes their loving interactions which seem so foreign to hi. This is also when Milkman hears the women sing the “Sugarman” song which becomes very important by the end of the novel. This is when we really learn the importance of this visit for Milkman: “Milkman was five feet seven then but it was the first time in his life that he remembered being completely happy…he was surrounded by women who seemed to enjoy him and who laughed out loud. And he was in love. No wonder his father was afraid of them”(47). From this passage we see the beginning of Milkman’s realizations about his father, which cause him to emotionally break away from his family and search for the...
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