Milkman Dead Analysis Essay

Free Study Guide for Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison




Macon "Milkman" Dead

Milkman is one of the new generation of African Americans, his being the first generation to enter some realms of previously all European-American privilege. He is born in Mercy hospital, an all-white hospital which the people of the neighborhood have dubbed no Mercy hospital for its policy of admitting no African-American patients. Milkman’s relation to his material sustenance is so far removed that he never even thinks of money as something for which he needs to strive. He is two generations removed from slavery and has no concept of the continuation of discrimination against his people because he’s been protected from racism by his class position.

Paired with his class privilege is Milkman’s male privilege. He is the only son of the family, therefore he gets his father’s name and his father’s expectation that he will take over the business some day. He gets his mother’s hope that he’ll be a doctor like her father was. His sisters are his reluctant, but generally silent caretakers. When he becomes bored with Hagar, his lover of twelve years, he drops her a thank you note and some money, never bothering to speak to her. He becomes bored with her when she begins to need him.

Morrison chooses such a character for her protagonist in order to examine the group of people who are at the forefront of the new generation of African Americans. She doesn’t draw Milkman as an entirely negative character, but one who needs some correction. She traces his flaws back to his parents’ damaged psyches and she pushes him through change and transcendence by taking him back to his ancestors who teach him the lessons of love, strength, and community. Milkman undergoes a wonderful transition as he learns of his ancestors. He learns a love of the land, a desire to communicate with it and its creatures as country people can, he learns compassion for his parents and forgiveness of their flaws, and most importantly, he learns how to return someone’s love when he receives it instead of accepting it as a negligible privilege. His final lesson is that he has to let go of the encumbrances of class in order to connect with his fellows.

Macon Dead

At twelve he loses his mother and becomes the only mother his baby sister knows and at sixteen he sees his father shot in the back by people who want to take his father’s land. As an old man, he tells his son that he "worked right alongside [his] father" thus communicating the pride he felt in being a partner to the man he admired above all men. When his father dies, he is left homeless, rootless, with only a sister for family. He decides to take his sister to Virginia, where he’s heard his parents say their first home was. At that point, then, Macon Dead wants connection with family. However, when he finds gold and then believes wrongly that his sister steals it from him, he closes his heart up and begins a quest for land and the money that comes with it.

Macon Dead is a collector of property. He is a practical man who sees that as an African American, he is barred from the opportunity to acquire prime real estate and so he acquires land no one else wants and he manages that land with the ruthlessness of the wealthiest capitalist. The reader gets two images of Macon Dead as landlord at the opening of the novel. First, he threatens Mrs. Baines, Guitar Baines’ grandmother, with eviction if she doesn’t pay her two dollars rent, despite the fact that she is an old woman who is taking care of four grandchildren. Second, he waits outside the window of Porter, a man driven crazy by the lack of love, and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t pay his rent, caring nothing for the man at all.

Macon Dead is also a man who thrives on a hatred for his wife. He marries her not out of love but out of desire to connect himself with the most well-respected African-American man in the city. He finds himself ridiculed for his accomplishments by his wife and her father. He nevertheless has exquisite sex with his wife for the first years of her marriage, before he begins to be jealous of her adoration of her father, before he sees her kneel at the bedside of her dead father and kiss his hands. From that moment on, he rejects her body and beats her regularly, fueling his drive with a hatred of her, but staying with her out of a desire for what she owns.

Ruth Foster Dead

She is a woman who lives in such a carefully circumscribed existence that she anchors herself in existence by the sight of a water stain made on a mahogany dining table when she was a young woman. The only daughter of the first African-American doctor in the city, she is brought up to believe in her superiority to other African Americans. She adores her father not because she thinks he’s perfect but because he’s the only person in the world who cares about her existence, how she dresses, how she’s educated, and whom she marries. No mention is ever made of her mother.

Ruth Dead spends her life inside a house. She begins her adulthood as a devoted housewife who reads housekeeping magazines for ideas on how to make her home more beautiful. In one incident, she gets the idea of making a centerpiece for the dining table out of driftwood and dried seaweed. She goes to great trouble to get it and when she asks her husband for his approval of it, he tells her only that she is the worst cook imaginable. From that moment on, she gives up on a centerpiece and she watches the stain where the centerpiece bowl had been, feeling that it locates her in existence from day to day.

Ruth Dead suffers intensely under the reign of her husband’s cold shoulder, his refusal to have sex with her. From the time she is in her early twenties, she goes without sex. She compensates for this loss for a time by nursing her son Milkman far beyond the usual time of nursing until she’s caught and laughed at for doing it. From that time on, her only pleasure is in visiting her father’s gravesite every few months and telling him her stories to her father’s ghost. Ruth’s daughter Corinthians notices that Ruth provokes Macon into hitting her. She makes him see her as a bumbling idiot in front of white people, laughing at herself, reminding him of her devotion to her father, until he hits her, thus giving her the only passionate contact she ever gets.


What formed Pilate’s character more than anything is being cut off from people. Pilate is a magical character in the sense that she is born without a navel. The midwife who witnessed her birth tells Milkman that she birthed herself. Her mother had died, Circe couldn’t hear a heartbeat and suddenly Pilate came out of the womb. From this beginning, Pilate is set apart from the norm.

Yet, Pilate wants to be with people. When she is twelve and goes to look for her mother’s people in Virginia, her goal is to find people to be a part of. Instead, she is rejected by group after group because of her lack of a navel. The ostracism makes Pilate give up on other societal constraints. She cuts her hair short, refuses marriage, and dresses without the obligatory corsets of her day. She questions all established truths and comes up with her own morality. Pilate keeps one thing steadily in mind: a deep respect for people’s privacy.

Pilate lives according to a courageous morality. When her brother wants to take the gold from the cave, she stands up to him ready to fight him to keep him from stealing it. When he doesn’t come back, she begins her life alone even though she’s only twelve years old. When she finds her brother again and sees that his wife is dying for want of love, she concocts potions to make him have sex with Ruth so Ruth can have a baby. Then, when her brother tries to make Ruth abort the fetus, Pilate protects Ruth from him.

Pilate’s connection to Milkman is strong from this point on. She protects him at birth and she is there at the end when he faces death. Pilate isn’t afraid of death. She considers her father’s ghost her closest confidante and advisor. She takes his injunction "You can’t go off and leave a body" to mean that she must take responsibility for the man she thinks she and Macon killed in the cave. She retrieves the bones and carries them with her for the length of her life, believing that since leaving the past behind is impossible, she must carry it with her. Pilate is a folk woman. She’s the strongest character in the novel and its central moral authority.

Guitar Baines

The reader is first introduced to Guitar Baines in the first chapter when he stands with his grandmother and siblings outside Mercy hospital to witness the suicide of Robert Smith. The second time we see him, he is with his grandmother as she tries to convince Macon Dead to let her stay in her home even though she cannot pay the rent. His grandmother tells him there is nothing worse than a Black man in business. It is not at that point though that Guitar’s psychic wounds begin. They begin earlier when his father dies, sliced in half lengthwise in a saw mill. At the moment of his father’s death, Guitar learns about European-American callous disregard for the people who make their profits. The white mill owner gives Guitar’s mother $40 to tide the family over and his wife gives the children divinity. It is this pairing of the sweet with the offhanded disregard that shapes Guitar’s conception of European Americans.

Guitar is a man who is devoted to justice. The first time he meets Milkman, he protects him from a group of bullies who are beating him up. Despite the fact that it is Milkman’s father who evicted Guitar’s family, and despite the fact that Milkman is the privileged son of a moneyed Black family, Guitar recognizes that in that moment, Milkman is the oppressed and he defends him with relish. Guitar’s sense of justice, however, becomes rigid and abstract. Like most African Americans in the first half of the century, Guitar heard stories of lynchings, burnings, and murders and he learned that the white perpetrators always got away with their crimes. His solution to this pervasive violence is an abstract theory. If European Americans continue killing African Americans, they will kill them off eventually. For every African American killed, Guitar tells Milkman, three to five generations are lost. The Seven Days is borne out of this abstract idea. For every African American killed by white men, the Seven Days will kill a European American in the same way, evening things out. In this theory, Guitar departs from his earlier sense of justice which honors the individual being oppressed. He sees only the abstract grid which calls for an equality of violence and death, not the individual lives.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: Free BookNotes Summary

Milkman Dead

Milkman Dead is the protagonist of Song of Solomon. He is the son of Macon Dead, a wealthy black man. At an early age Milkman lost a sense of his true identity. Because of this he becomes a passive person who finds life boring. He coasts through life, helping his father earn money and diverting himself with "fun" activities, such as having sex with women and getting drunk. However, because he is not strongly connected to anyone (except perhaps Pilate), Milkman can treat people harshly, as he does when he breaks up with Hagar. He also often feels burdened by his family's problems but doesn't have the assertiveness to do anything about it. Milkman becomes good friends with Guitar, but this friendship is based on doing fun activities. When Guitar adopts a serious attitude, Milkman feels more distant from him. Deep down Milkman yearns to connect with his true self. As a result he feels a connection to Pilate, who has kept a close link to her ancestral past. As Milkman searches for the gold he's heard about from his father, he begins to learn more about his ancestors. Soon his search for his ancestral roots takes precedence over finding the gold. Eventually Milkman discovers the story of his ancestors, which connects him with his true identity as a member of a black family, thereby empowering him.

Pilate Dead

Pilate Dead is the sister of Macon Dead and the daughter of Jake. Pilate can be seen as an earth mother figure who has kept close ties with her rustic past. Even though she lives in a city, Pilate maintains a rural lifestyle, making wine and living simply. For Pilate her black ancestral heritage means everything, and she is very much alive. For instance, after her father is murdered, Pilate often sees his spirit, which communicates with her. Pilate also places great meaning in family names and delights in the strangeness of these names. As a result Pilate always wears an earring that consists of a snuffbox containing her name written on a piece of paper. Her illiterate father wrote the name; it was the only word he wrote. Pilate doesn't mind that urban blacks view her as strange. She was born without a navel and, because of this, has dealt with people seeing her as odd throughout her life. Pilate decides not to hide her oddity and just live life the way she wants to. As a result she cuts her hair short, wears men's shoes, and has developed skills as a healer. Eventually Pilate realizes she has been living under a misconception. She has a sack filled with what she thinks is the bones of a white man she and her brother killed. But she finds out they are her father's bones. When she and Milkman bury the bones, Pilate senses peace and completeness.

Macon Dead, Jr.

Macon Dead, Jr. is the brother of Pilate Dead and the son of Jake. He lives in a city in Michigan and has become a wealthy businessman who owns houses and collects rent from black tenants. Macon's main goal in life is to own things and make money from what he owns. He enjoys seeing himself as superior to the blacks in his community. Macon rules his family with a harsh hand and has developed a hatred for his wife, Ruth, and disappointment for his two daughters, Lena and Corinthians. When Milkman was a child, Macon disliked him as well. However, when Milkman began to work for his father and make money for him, Macon bonded with his son. Macon has cut all connections with his rural past and family heritage. He seems ashamed that his father was illiterate and, as a result, was cheated out of his farm. Macon was once close to his sister, Pilate, but after their father died, he had a fight with her about gold. Teenage Macon found bags of gold and is convinced that Pilate took the loot. Macon sends Milkman in search of the gold.


Guitar is Milkman's close friend. He is an intelligent, brave man who has a strong loyalty toward his friends. Guitar's family comes from Florida, where his father worked in a sawmill. After his father was killed in a mill accident, Guitar hated the way the racist white owner placated his mother. Since then Guitar has felt hatred toward white racists for their oppression of black people. Because of this, Guitar is drawn into a group called the Seven Days. This group consists of seven black men who kill white people in retaliation for white people's unpunished killings of black people. The white people the Days kill have no direct connection to the crimes committed against the black people. So Guitar kills innocent people and justifies this by saying that the white race is unnatural. Guitar's involvement in the Days splits his personality. One side of him loves his friends, like Milkman; the other side seeks vengeance. Eventually Guitar's hate spills over toward Milkman. Convinced that Milkman betrayed him about the gold, Guitar tries to kill him.


Hagar is the granddaughter of Pilate and the daughter of Reba. As a child, Hagar tends to be prissy, and as a result, Pilate and Reba spoil her in an attempt to placate her. Hagar thus grows up expecting to get whatever she wants. In her early 20s, Hagar becomes attracted to Milkman, who is five years younger. They have sex and start an on-again-off-again relationship. Over the years Hagar becomes more attached to Milkman and, when she reaches the age of 36, wants stability in their relationship. Milkman, though, has become bored with their relationship and harshly breaks it off. Devastated, Hagar becomes obsessed with the idea of Milkman sleeping with other women. She cannot fathom the possibility of not getting what she wants. So Hagar ineptly makes attempts to kill Milkman. However, when Milkman allows her to stab him, she is unable to do so. Hagar falls into a depression because her life revolves around having Milkman.

Ruth Foster Dead

Ruth Foster Dead is the wife of Macon Dead and the daughter of Dr. Foster. Ruth is a refined, educated woman with an artistic sensibility and dubious domestic skills. She views herself as a weak woman who has to rely on a man's love to cope with life. As a result she forms an unnaturally close bond with her father. She thinks Dr. Foster is the only person who loves her. When her father dies, Ruth is married to Macon and has two daughters. However, when Macon realizes the unnatural bond Ruth had with her father, he breaks off sexual relations with her. Ruth develops passive-aggressive tendencies. For instance, she takes pleasure in subtly provoking her husband. Ruth feels her main triumph over Macon is getting pregnant with Milkman and giving birth. Although Macon has stopped having sex with Ruth, she secretly gives him an aphrodisiac made by Pilate. As a result he has sex with her for several days. When he finds out about her pregnancy, Macon unsuccessfully tries to make Ruth abort the child. Suffering from a lack of love, Ruth nurses her son until he is about four years old. When a snoop witnesses the nursing, she stops it.

Macon Dead I

Macon Dead I (Jake) is the father of Macon Dead, Jr. and Pilate and grandfather of Milkman. Jake takes the name Macon Dead when a drunk Yankee soldier makes a mistake registering him for the Freedmen's Bureau, and for some reason he keeps the mistaken name. Eventually Milkman finds out that his grandfather's real name is Jake. Jake is a resourceful, hardworking man who is an excellent farmer. He grew up in Shalimar, Virginia. When Jake was an infant, Jake's father, Solomon, abandoned him, his mother, and his other siblings. After the abandonment Jake's mother goes insane. As a result Jake grows up under the care of a neighbor named Heddy. Jake becomes close to Heddy's daughter Sing. When they reach adulthood, Jake and Sing head from Virginia to Danville, Pennsylvania. Jake and Sing get married and have two children, Macon and Pilate. Jake develops a lovely, prosperous farm. However, the wealthy Butler family wants Jake's land. They trick illiterate Jake into signing a document that gives the farm to the Butlers. Furious, Jake guards his land with a gun, but the Butlers shoot and kill him. After his death Jake appears to Pilate and tells her to collect his bones in a cave and bury them. However, Pilate misinterprets the message.

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