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Milkman's Search for Self in Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is the story of Milkman's search for self. Milkman appears destined for a life of isolation and self-alienation. The Deads exemplify the patriarchal, nuclear family that has been a stable and critical feature of American society. The family is the institution for producing children, maintaining them, and providing individuals with the means to understand their place in the world order. But this nuclear patriarchal family creates many of the problems it should be solving.
What represses the Deads is the father, Macon: his single-minded ambition, his unscrupulous greed, his materialism, and his lack of nurturing his family. Macon does not concentrate on being a loving and nurturing father; instead he concentrates on another aspect of paternity, the acquisition of property. Macon aspires to own property and other people too. His words to his son, "Let me tell you right now the one important thing that you'll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things too. Then you'll own yourself and other people too". The owning of things as well as other people is a rather remarkable statement, coming from a descendant of slaves. Macon has not inherited this trait from his father, even though he mistakenly thinks so. His father had owned things that "grew" other things, not "owned" other things.
Pilate Dead, Macon's younger sister, is a marked contrast to her brother and his family. Macon has a love of property and money, and this determines the nature of his relationships with others. Pilate has a sheer disregard for status, occupation, hygiene, and manners, and has the capability to respect, love, and trust. Her self-sufficiency and isolation prevent her from being trapped or destroyed by the decaying values that threaten her brother's life.
The first part of the novel details the birth of Macon Dead III, the first black baby to ever be born at Mercy Hospital, which has been named by the African American community as No-Mercy Hospital. He acquires the name Milkman when people learn that his mother is still nursing him long after it is considered normal to do so. His father, Macon Dead, is a cold, insensitive man who places undue importance on material wealth and intimidates all he comes into contact with. Macon forbids Milkman to visit his Aunt Pilate because her eccentric ways, her unkempt appearance, and her stubborn insistence in making bootleg liquor embarrass him.
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When Milkman lives at home in Michigan, he perceives the world in the same materialistic terms that are similar to his father's. In the second part of the novel, his search for gold leads him to Virginia. This is an indication that he wants to escape from his past and achieve a sense of identity only by finding material treasure. He assumes that his trip south holds the key to his liberation. But it is not the gold that saves him. Milkman's mental development rests partly on his understanding of the ways in which his life is connected to others' experiences, and partly on establishing an intimate connection with the land and life of his ancestors. These understandings lead to his greater achievement of learning to complete, understand, and sing the song that contains the history of his family.
The character of Milkman undergoes change over time. Initially, Milkman's treatment of his friends and relatives is appalling, and he hurts everyone around him. This is shown in detail through Milkman's treatment of Hagar. The sexual relationship between Milkman and his cousin Hagar is doomed at the start since it breaks this African cultural practice. Milkman loves Hagar at first sight and wants to get to know her better. After many years in which they have sex and are very close, Milkman then drops her and goes after younger girls. It seems as though his desire was not a fulfilling relationship and one that could stand the test of time. He was searching just for the physical pleasure that comes in a short-term relationship.
The Fisher King is a movie that questions the value of material possessions in many circumstances. Jack, a famous radio talk-show host, indulges in his fame and fortune. He is a character similar to that of Howard Stern, brash and rude to the point where some of his callers are hurt emotionally. Jack doesn't expect his listeners to take what he says to heart, but a man who received advice from him was involved in a murder.
Jack loved his celebrity status and could not see his life being any other way. He was not concerned whether his image was good or bad, just the fact that his image was well known was good enough for him. After the murder, he realized the affect his statements had on people and that they actually listened to his show for advice. He had all the material possessions he could possibly want, but the homicide hit a soft spot in his heart and he quit his job. How could he go on loving not giving a damn about what he was saying? He just couldn't, and his sorrow turned to depression, which led to an alcohol problem.
Jack's life was out of control and the downward spiral kept getting worse, until one day when he met a homeless man named Perry. Perry was the complete opposite of what Jack used to be, so unconcerned about luxuries or material possessions. He was happy and content with his life, except for the fact that he had lost his wife. This homeless man seemed like an outrageous and insane character, considering he desired the Holy Grail and always saw a red, monstrous creature. But, really all he wanted was love and happiness. He dreamed of meeting this one woman in hopes to find a more complete happiness. His guidance helped show Jack that money was not the ultimate prize. Money is just a luxury, but love and happiness with your self is most important. Jack begins to realize what Perry is saying and does not see him as a mad man anymore. He helps Perry get together with his dream girl, and thinks he is doing the right thing by helping other people, just like on his talk show. But, in reality, his motives are wrong and he is doing this for all the incorrect reasons. He is doing it for himself, to prove that he is not just one-dimensional. However, his heart is not set on Perry and what he actually wants. He is oblivious to the reasons behind others wants and desires, and only strives to accomplish something for himself.
The novel builds on contradictions of material pursuit and selflessness. Macon desires the money, the power, and the luxuries, much as does Jack. They want to own people and control them. They desire influence and are always concerned with their image. The caring and selflessness that Perry displays throughout the movie while helping Jack get back on his feet is similar to the characteristics of Milkman by the end of the story. He realizes that materials are not what is important. It's the people you know and your past that you should perceive as most important. Helping others and concern for the welfare of others is more beneficial to your complete sense of happiness and content.