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"AND SHE WAS LOVED": TRAUMA AND TESTIMONY IN TONI MORRISON'S
SONG OF SOLOMON
CAMERON C. CLARK
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I would like to thank the members of my thesis committee, Dr. Anne Goodwyn
Jones and Dr. Debra Walker King. I would also like to extend gratitude to the faculty and
staff of the English Department of the University of Florida. Finally, I would like to
thank my family and friends who encouraged me throughout the researching and writing
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S .................................................................................................. ii
ABSTRACT ........ ............... .............. ...... ..................... iv
1 IN TRODU CTION ................................................. ...... .................
2 LOCATING TRAUM A STUDIES ........................................ ......................... 3
3 READING (T)RUTH WOUNDS INFLICTED UPON THE FEMALE BODY .........9
4 HAGAR'S STORY: PRIVATE PAIN AND PUBLIC MANIFESTATIONS OF
TRAUM A ................................... .................................. ........... 15
5 "THE MOST DESTRUCTIVE IDEAS": THE TRAUMA OF SELF-HATE ...........21
6 R A C IA L IN F ID E L IT Y ? ................................................................. .....................32
7 C O N C L U SIO N ......... ...................................................................... .. .......... ..... .. 37
L IST O F R EFE R E N C E S ............. ........................................................... ............... 39
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E TCH ..................................................................... ..................42
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
"AND SHE WAS LOVED": TRAUMA AND TESTIMONY IN TONI MORRISON'S
SONG OF SOLOMON
CAMERON C. CLARK
Chair: Anne Goodwyn Jones
Major Department: English
Trauma narratives gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s with the emergence of
trauma studies as a valid disciplinary field of academic study. No longer relegated to the
field of medicine, the study of trauma allowed for better contextualization of the social,
political, and economic issues, which stimulated the onset of the traumatic experience in
fields ranging from psychology to literature. While Toni Morrison's novel Song of
Solomon has generally been critiqued as a novel concerning the identity formation of the
male protagonist, it can also be read with an understanding of trauma and its relationship
to feminism, psychoanalysis, and race studies. To that end, this thesis seeks to scrutinize
the female characters in Song of Solomon by examining the effects of trauma on the
female body. Rather than using trauma studies as merely an approach at elucidating a
character analysis, this work intends to examine the verbal signification, or testimony, of
the traumatized subjects as a means to better comprehend the experience and reveal
trauma as an instrument of female oppression within the novel.
Generally, one looks to the epigraph of a novel to get some hint of what is to come
within the text. The epigraph to Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon reads, "The fathers
may soar and the children may know their names" (1). The obvious omission within this
statement is the women. While much of the theoretical discourse concerning the novel
deals with Milkman's quest for identity, naming, and ancestry few focus on the trauma
and grief suffered by the female characters. Although the quest is not theirs, most of the
females are unable to live authentically or reach a sense of self-definition without being
valued by a male. Traumatized by being removed from a male embrace many of the
women fall into a state of self-destruction. By utilizing trauma as a framework for
reading Morrison's text, this thesis attempts to relocate psychoanalysis in the unfamiliar
territory of race and gender. It is with an understanding of trauma that one can begin to
understand how the women in the text operate. This thesis will focus on the women in the
novel with regards to the trauma they experience and their testimony of the trauma. As
Christina Zwarg agrees, "Until very recently, critics have been reluctant to deploy the
critical legacy of psychoanalysis in their reading of African-American texts. Certain
political imperatives and concerns have supported this hesitation; all too often the
presupposed subject of psychoanalytic criticism has been white, bourgeois, and male"
(1). This reluctance leaves African American literary criticism at a disadvantage.
However, as Zwarg continues, trauma study is now allowing psychoanalysis to be used
within the study of race. "Indeed, trauma has emerged as the issue most valuable for
showing the blindness and insight of Freud's legacy" (1).
LOCATING TRAUMA STUDIES
The study of trauma has a long and chaotic history. The word "trauma" originates
from the Greek word titrosko meaning "to wound" and before the nineteenth century it
was used exclusively within medical fields. Michael Roth explains, "In the 19th century it
gets reinvigorated as a psychological category meant to point to things that wound us in
ways that cannot be traced physiologically. The concept appears in wartime in World
War I as 'shell-shock,' after the Second World War as 'battle fatigue,' and after Vietnam
as 'post traumatic stress disorder'" (par. 6). It was not until 1980 that the American
Psychiatric Association finally recognized the phenomenon of trauma, as post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) "including the symptoms of what had previously been called shell
shock, combat stress, delayed stress syndrome, and traumatic neurosis, and referred to
responses to both human and natural catastrophes" (Caruth 3). According to the DSM-IV,
trauma is defined as an event in which both of the following were present (1) the person
experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or
threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, (2)
the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror. From this definition
we see that trauma not only involves some type of danger, it is also characterized by a
sense of powerlessness for the individual. That powerlessness causes a wound to the
Recently, we see the word being used in a number of disciplines ranging from
psychology to literature. Cathy Caruth explains, "The phenomenon of trauma has seemed
to become all-inclusive, but it has done so precisely because it brings us to the limits of
our understanding: if psychoanalysis, psychiatry, sociology, and even literature are
beginning to hear each other anew in the study of trauma, it is because they are listening
through the radical disruption and gaps of traumatic experience" (4). The gaps mentioned
by Caruth take on a significant role in the understanding of trauma. Filling in the gaps is
the job of the psychiatrist or psychologist in the case of therapy and the reader in the case
of narratives of trauma to interpret the full meaning of the testimony given by the victim.
In this way we must think of the recovery or remembering of trauma given in testimony
as nonlinear. It returns fragmented, in pieces that must be interpreted.
By understanding the testimony of the victim readers may better understand the
motivations of Morrison's characters. In attempting to study trauma within the novel
Song of Solomon, I will comply with a definition of trauma more in keeping with
Morrison's view of the Black experience in America, rather than a psychiatric definition
because (as mentioned earlier) race has been widely excluded from the study. As Barbara
Hill-Rigney describes, "Her characters are both subjects of and subject to history, events
in 'real' time, that succession of antagonistic movements that includes slavery,
reconstruction, depression, and war [. .] For, in her terms, history itself may be no more
than a brutal fantasy, a nightmare half-remembered, in which fact and symbol become
indistinguishable" (61). Hill-Rigney posits Morrison's traumatized individuals as victims
of an already established world, which is out of their control. When asked about trauma
being passed on through generations Hortense Spillers answers,
In some ways I don't believe in the collective unconscious, or racial unconscious,
because if that were true then that means that we will all never be anything but
haunted, each generation. [.. ] I do think that there is a body of history that's
coded for memory, and that is what's being passed down in some symbolic and
discursive and narratological sense; [. .] But the body of history is something I
would like to think about, the palpable nature of memory and how that gets passed
on. (Haslett par.28)
Thinking of trauma in this sense, as a product of "the Black experience," becomes
particularly relevant when discussing the trauma experienced by the character Hagar in
the novel. It is almost as if she is a reincarnation of a distant female relative who has
fallen victim to the same trauma. Being left by the man she loves also traumatizes Ryna,
her great grandmother. Being abandoned becomes something that many of the women
encounter and their lives become colored by the pain of that event. Trauma then can be
discussed as a type of inheritance. Although it is unwanted, it is nevertheless bestowed.
While all the women in Morrison's novel experience some type of trauma, greater
attention will be paid to the trauma inflicted upon Ruth and Hagar. How they choose to
acknowledge the traumatic occurrence is heard in their testimony. In an interview with
Bonnie Angelo, Morrison discusses a trauma that all too many African Americans
encounter. "Everybody remembers the first time they were taught that part of the human
race was Other. That's a trauma" (qtd. in Matus 23). For Morrison, the experience of
racism for Blacks is a type of trauma. But the same can be said for gender. Connecting
the discussion of trauma to the fiction of Toni Morrison, Jill Matus asserts, "But if we are
to consider the question of Morrison's fiction as testimony to the trauma of racism and to
a history often erased or forgotten, we need to think about both the meaning of trauma
and the special nature of literary testimony as opposed to, for example, testimony in a
courtroom" (23). Matus sets up a very important challenge, for within Song of Solomon
the female testimony is not an accurate record of the events as they took place, it is
instead an outpouring of emotion because of the event. It is a bearing witness to the pain.
The basic trauma that Morrison sets up in the novel is the trauma of loss,
particularly loss of a male the women love and trust. But this is not to say that the men in
the novel do not experience this same loss. They too are victims of the abandonment of a
male figure. However, we see that it is the women who experience greater suffering
because of the desertion. For the women it is not simply as a loss, it is a rejection.
Because they place their value in the hands of men, that rejection has the power to inflict
great damage to the female. We must question this power that the male characters in the
novel wield over the females. Why is it so detrimental to their psyche? I would posit that
the difference resides in how they deal or attend to the trauma inflicted.
Morrison's epigraph quickly alerts her reader to the detail that flight is represented
as a traditionally male action. The myth of the Flying Africans, which the novel brings
into play, dates back to some of the earliest recorded slave accounts. According to Carl
Jung, flight symbolizes "man's [sic] need for liberation from any state of being which is
too immature, too fixed or final" (qtd. in Wilentz). Historically speaking this myth
functions as a symbol of African transcendence as resistance to a life of enslavement.
While crossing the Atlantic, en route to America, and while on the country's soil,
Africans experienced many instances of abuse. They soon understood what their lives
would be like in America. Some chose flight. But this feat does not come without a price.
As Jill Matus explains, "For every joyous escape, every transcendent flyer, there is a
grounded wife or mother" (78). In this statement is the enduring dichotomy of flying men
and grounded women. As an enduring image in the text Morrison bookends the novel
with flying men.
Matus also maintains one of the things that defines trauma is that memory and
interpretation are not factual. They are susceptible to forgetting and distortion. Citing
Allan Young, she calls trauma "a disease of time" (24). The female victims remain
trapped in a traumatized state, which they are unable to remove themselves from without
the return of men to value them. "The quintessential 'blue note' in the Solomon myth is
Ryna, whose weeping and wailing symbolises the distress of those left behind" (78).
Ryna's cries are left to reverberate across the ravine. Hearing and interpreting Ryna's, as
well as, the moan of the other deserted women is left to the reader. Morrison's narrator
offers only fragments of a half remembered song throughout the novel for the reader to
decode along with Milkman. But, if we are given only the pieces of the traumatic story,
how are we to be certain of our translation of it?
In "On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies," Geoffrey H. Hartman reports,
"Trauma theory introduces a psychoanalytic skepticism as well, which does not give up
on knowledge but suggests the existence of a traumatic kind, one that cannot be made
entirely conscious, in the sense of being fully retrieved or communicated without
distortion" (537). So, when committing to doing trauma study it is with the understanding
that some things will remain undisclosed. Hartman confirms that within the study one
cannot count on certainty, but must, rather, attempt to "read the wound" (537). Morrison
is very skilled at presenting the wounded female body in many of her novels. Speaking
particularly of Black women's literature, Mary Helen Washington writes, "In this
literature we hear the voices of those who are unheard in this culture; we see the faces of
those this society has made faceless; it makes visible those who have been rendered
invisible" (Wade-Gayles 199). Morrison gives voice to the women in Song of Solomon
who have experienced traumas of abuse, rejection and abandonment. By allowing them to
testify to their pain, Morrison provides a possible medium for healing the wounds.
READING (T)RUTH WOUNDS INFLICTED UPON THE FEMALE BODY
Ruth Foster Dead is unarguably one of the most physically and mentally wounded
women in the novel. By the age of sixteen she is married to Macon Dead and by the time
she is twenty he has stopped touching her. His refusal of her is brought on by the events
surrounding her father's death. However, Ruth and Macon both have dissimilar accounts
of what actually took place on that day. Macon does admit to his son that he never really
loved Ruth, saying, "I can't tell you I was in love with her. People didn't require that as
much as they do now" (70). And given the lack of affection for her, there was no
emotional connection to stop him from truly despising Ruth because of her relationship
with Dr. Foster.
The relationship between Ruth and her father is quite disturbing. Her mother dies
while Ruth is still a child and she steps into the role of the woman of the house. But as
she gets older her behavior towards her father becomes rather irksome.
Fond as he was for his only child, useful as she was in his house since his wife had
died, lately he had begun to chafe under her devotion. Her steady beam of love was
unsettling, and she had never dropped those expressions of affection that had been
so lovable in her childhood. The good-night kiss was itself a masterpiece of slow-
wittedness on her part and discomfort on his. At sixteen, she still insisted on having
him come to her at night, sit on her bed, exchange a few pleasantries, and plant a
kiss on her lips. Perhaps it was the loud silence of his dead wife, perhaps it was
Ruth's disturbing resemblance to her mother. More probably it was the ecstasy that
always seemed to be shining in Ruth's face when he bent to kiss her-an ecstasy he
felt inappropriate to the occasion. (23)
This inappropriate behavior would certainly fall in line with the characteristics of Freud's
theory of the Oedipus complex. According to Freud young girls have an original
attachment to their mothers; however, "She makes the shift from mother-love to father-
love only because she has to, and then with pain and protest. She has to, because she is
without the phallus" (Mitchell 96). And it is only by the transference of her love from
mother to father that the girl becomes a woman. The transition is probably easier for Ruth
because of her mother's death. The absence of the mother figure makes the transfer
possible. Ruth's complex is represented in her undying love and devotion for her father,
but from the previous passage it is obvious that this attachment resembles a near
incestuous relationship. And Dr. Foster is more than happy to marry her off to Macon.
What is also evident in the passage is that not only is Ruth emotionally involved
with her father, the relationship is somewhat reciprocal. Dr. Foster does not stop coming
to her; he does not stop kissing her. Later when Ruth becomes pregnant Dr. Foster
delivers both of her female children against Macon's wishes. When telling the story to
Milkman he utters, "And both times he was there. She had her legs wide open and he was
there. I know he was a doctor and doctors not supposed to be bothered by things like that,
but he was a man before he was a doctor" (emphasis added 71). Macon's words elicit two
interesting points to be considered. First, the reader gets what appears to be disgust based
on the possible incestuousness of Ruth's relationship with her father, but jealousy can
also be inferred from his thoughts. It is not so much that it is her father, but simply that it
is another man between his wife's legs, that bothers him. He goes on to explain to his son
that he felt like it was Ruth and her father against him.
When Dr. Foster is on his deathbed Macon makes a startling discovery. When he
enters the room he recounts, "In bed. That's where she was when I opened the door.
Laying next to him. Naked as a yard dog, kissing him. Him dead and white and puffy and
skinny, and she had his fingers in her mouth" (73). The cold fingers penetrating Ruth's
mouth are symbolic of the possible sexual relationship Macon believes them to have had.
Uncertain as to whether Dr. Foster had an incestuous relationship with his wife, he tells
Milkman, "Nothing to do but kill a woman like that. I swear, many's the day I regret she
talked me out of killing her" (74). There is no doubt that hearing this story has
traumatized Milkman in some way. While he had never had any strong feelings of love
towards his mother, Milkman wonders about the validity of the story. In trying to
reconcile the story within himself he remembers (in fragments) being nursed by his
mother. As Caruth points out, "Indeed, the literal registration of an event-the capacity to
continually, in the flashback, reproduce it in exact detail-appears to be connected, in
traumatic experience, precisely with the way it escapes full consciousness as it occurs"
It falls to Ruth to explain the truth behind the memory of her nursing him as well as
the story concerning her father. She tells him how Macon had, in fact, killed her father by
throwing his medicine away. She even tells Milkman how Macon attempted to kill him
while Ruth was still pregnant. After Dr. Foster's death Macon and Ruth no longer share a
bed. "I thought I'd really die if I had to live that way. With nobody touching me, or even
looking as though they'd like to touch me," Ruth declares. "I was twenty years old when
your father stopped sleeping in the bed with me" (125). Interestingly, it is not the absence
of their sexual relationship that Ruth begins with; it is with his refusal to touch her. By
not even attempting to lay a hand on her, Macon treats Ruth as if she is untouchable, a
diseased person, who could contaminate him if he came into contact with her. By the age
of thirty, having touch and sexual pleasure removed from the marriage for a decade now,
Ruth acknowledges her fear that she would "die that way" (125). Here Morrison sets up
lack of intimacy as a type of traumatizing rejection inflicted upon the female body.
Nursing Milkman became, for Ruth, a way to hold on to some measure of pleasure in her
life. "She felt him. His restraint, his courtesy, his indifference, all of which pushed her
into fantasy. She had the distinct impression that his lips were pulling from her a thread
of light. It was as though she was a cauldron spinning gold" (13). Ruth continues this
daily in a small room that her father had used as a study until Freddie the janitor
discovers her. It seems almost fitting that a man would be the one to remove that
intimacy and enjoyment from her life once again. Once Pilate comes to town she
intuitively senses a problem between the married couple and questions Ruth, "Do you
want him?" Ruth responds, "I want somebody" (125). Dying from lack of physical
contact and emotional closeness, Ruth follows all of Pilate's magical instructions. Ruth
believes she can get Macon to value her again if sex is reintroduced into the marriage.
And within four days Macon comes to her as if in a trance. Once Macon awakens from
his "sexual hypnosis" and realizes that Ruth is pregnant, he does everything he can think
of to abort the baby.
The traumatic events that Ruth now endures at the hands of her husband are far
worse than when he would not touch her at all. Initially Ruth believes that the baby
would be something to bring the two of them together, but she soon realizes otherwise.
Instead the pregnancy brings something entirely different into their relationship.
Then the baby became the nausea caused by the half ounce of castor oil Macon
made her drink, then a hot pot recently emptied of scalding water on with she sat,
then a soapy enema, a knitting needle (she inserted only the tip, squatting in the
bathroom, crying, afraid of the man who paced outside the door), and finally, when
he punched her stomach (she had been about to pick up his breakfast plate, when he
looked at her stomach and punched it), she ran to Southside looking for Pilate.
In keeping with the characteristics of traumatic recollection, these repressed
memories come flooding back only when Ruth learns of Hagar's murder attempts on
Milkman. This can be considered normal behavior for a trauma victim. As Vickroy
explains, "Fundamental to traumatic experience is that the past lingers unresolved" (12).
She goes on to assert that there are many "triggers or associative conditions that cause
returns to traumatic events" (12). Hagar's attempts at Milkman's life instantly return her
to another time when she had to fight for his survival. But the emphasis of her memories
is not placed on the abuse, but rather on the sex act that precedes it. As the narrator
reveals, "Her passions were narrow but deep. Long deprived of sex, long dependent on
self-manipulation, she saw her son's imminent death as the annihilation of the last
occasion she had been made love to" (134). Hearing of Milkman's impending death, she
does not focus on a time when her life was in jeopardy. Rather, she remembers the
moment when she was in Macon's arms. This clearly relates to Ruth's perception about
the trauma that she has experienced. She has repressed the trauma by disassociating her
need for male attention from the physical abuse inflicted upon her body.
Ruth fights for Milkman's survival, but not her own. The reason may be found in
her testimony, which she spills out to Milkman earlier in the novel. "...I am a small
woman," she utters. "I don't mean little; I mean small, and I am small because I was
pressed small" (124). In the confines of her father's house and in comparison to him she
is made inconsequential. The people in their community refer to her as "Dr. Foster's
daughter." She is not her own person. Her existence is directly related to her father.
Ruth's repetition of the word "small" as a self-descriptor points to her low self-esteem.
And living in the same house under the reign of Macon, she has undeniably been pressed
even smaller even before the trauma. While Ruth has physically survived the trauma, she
is merely a disjointed individual. Vickroy notes, "A diminished, even shattered sense of
self is common in cases of severe trauma of any sort but seems particularly prevalent in
accounts of domestic tragedies and sexual abuse" (23)
HAGAR'S STORY: PRIVATE PAIN AND PUBLIC MANIFESTATIONS OF
With reference to Hagar's attempts to take Milkman's life, I wish to digress to the
traumatic event that precipitated her rage. In the novel Morrison portrays the incestuous
relationship between cousins Hagar and Milkman. Upon their first meeting Pilate
introduces Milkman to Hagar as her brother. Reba, Pilate's daughter, corrects her, saying,
"That ain't her brother, Mama. They cousins." Pilate responds, "Same thing." Hagar joins
in the conversation asserting that there is a difference between the two. Pilate then
corrects her by asserting, "I mean what's the difference in the way you act toward 'em?
Don't you have to act the same way to both?" (44). In this scene Morrison sets up early
on that family is family no matter how they are connected. Realizing that Milkman's
relation to Hagar should be considered that of a brother emphasizes the incestuous nature
of their sexual relationship that will occur years later.
Therefore, Milkman quickly takes to Hagar. From the time he first saw her, when
he was twelve and she was seventeen, he was deeply in love with her, alternately
awkward and witty in her presence" (92). Being five years his senior she initially pays
him little attention. But after some time they consummate the relationship. "When he first
took her in his arms, Hagar was a vain and somewhat distant creature. He liked to
remember it that way-that he took her in his arms-but in truth it was she who called
him back into the bedroom and stood there smiling while she unbuttoned her blouse"
(92). As an older woman Hagar is in control of the situation. Milkman is no more than a
"puppy" in love with a woman.
Ten years later Milkman has become disillusioned by her. "Now, after more than a
dozen years, he was getting tired of her. Her eccentricities were no longer provocative
and the stupefying ease with which he had gotten and stayed between her legs had
changed from the great good fortune he'd considered it, to annoyance at her refusal to
make him hustle for it, work for it, do something difficult for it" (91). Milkman no longer
has to chase Hagar. Even now he does not "take" Hagar, as he desires to do; she willingly
gives herself to him. She has opened herself up to loving him. Why would she refuse
him? Morrison does not write many scenes of the two lovers; in fact, except for their
juvenile meetings the only time they are together is when she is attempting to kill him.
By not allowing the reader to see them in a loving manner together Morrison de-
emphasizes the relationship, possibly in much the same way that Milkman does.
Whenever their relationship is discussed it is in terms of their sexual relationship. This
directly relates to the fact that Milkman is only interested in her sexually; beyond that, he
does not value her.
After Milkman realizes that he no longer wants Hagar, he describes her as the
"[T]hird beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude;
nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one
you drink because it's there, because it can't hurt, and because what difference does it
make?" (91). But it can hurt and all too late Milkman realizes how much his carelessness
has hurt Hagar. Before coming to this understanding he is resolved to end the relationship
during the Christmas holiday. Milkman writes Hagar a thank you note for their time
together and signs it with gratitude. He takes away the one thing that he can control,
himself. This removal hampers Hagar's existence in many ways.
Hagar suffers from an addiction to Milkman. As the novel progresses so does her
addiction. Charlotte Eliza Kasl defines addiction as "a spiritual breakdown, a journey
away from the truth into emotional blindness and death" (qtd. in Schaef 10). Hagar surely
falls under this definition. She is so far removed from the truth of her life. She does not
understand that she can be a whole person without Milkman to value her that she does not
know how to behave without him. Trauma relates to addiction in that the sufferer looks
towards something or someone to help forget the pain inflicted upon them. Hagar,
however, is addicted to the one person who has caused her pain. Schaef explains three
different types of addiction: sexual, romantic, and relationship addiction. Hagar's violent
behavior places her in the category of someone suffering from a relationship addiction.
While the first type of relationship addiction deals with a person being addicted to any
relationship, real or imagined, within the requirements of the second type "a person is
addicted to particular relationship with a particular person" (75). Hagar exhibits many
of the symptoms that Schaef outlines such as fear of being alone, controlling behavior,
and selective amnesia, a symptom that allows the sufferer to selectively forget the bad
parts of the relationship. Hagar is overtaken by what is described by the townspeople as a
"graveyard love," explaining, "They had seen women pull their dresses over their heads
and howl like dogs for lost love" (128). While Hagar has not resorted to this behavior,
she has committed many acts of terror. Schaef goes on to state,
Relationship addicts are constantly anxious and depressed. Since they have made
the relationship the source of their validity, meaning, and security, they must hold
on to it [. .] As relationship addicts become increasingly aware that they cannot
control the relationship, they become more and more desperate, often making
accusations and precipitating battles, with concomitant feelings of desperation. (78-
Hagar has completely lost herself in her pursuit of Milkman. She knows nothing but the
love she feels for him. "She loved nothing in the world except [Milkman], wanted him
alive more than anybody, but hadn't the least bit of control over the predator that lived
inside her. Totally taken over by her anaconda love, she had no self left, no fears, no
wants, no intelligence that was her own" (136-7). While she does experience love and is
valued in the female-centered home of Pilate, she has not been taught about the outside
world; she cannot function outside of the home. Pilate and Reba have always given Hagar
everything she has desired, which only works to strengthen a particular symptom of
addiction, the belief that she can make the relationship happen simply by desiring it. But
Milkman does not want Hagar and she is unable to cope without him in her life.
It is evident that it is not only care or nurturing that Hagar desires because she
receives that from the two maternal figures in her life, Reba and Pilate. Both women
share the responsibilities of raising Hagar. Under Pilate's roof Hagar has flourished. She
has not had to want for anything. But this all-consuming mother love has in many ways
hampered Hagar's life. Gary Storhoff writes, "Song of Solomon is a portrait of
enmeshment-the suffocating bond parents occasionally create with their children that
Morrison calls 'anaconda love'" (Bloom 210). While parental enmeshment is seen in the
rearing of Hagar, Milkman also falls victim to enmeshment in Macon's home. But this
commonality is not enough to keep them together; it is not a source of bonding. If
anything, this enmeshment works to destroy the relationship. The separate home life of
Milkman and Hagar has made them self-centered, controlling, and unable to discover an
authentic self. Fortunately, Milkman has the ability to find himself through the quest.
Hagar does not have this ability because, historically speaking, it is the men who go off
on the quest while the women remain at home. Pilate proves to be the only exception to
this. Pilate has quested throughout the novel, roaming around after she is separated from
Macon after their father's murder. But she finally decides to settle in Macon's town
because Hagar needed a family. Pilate is wise enough to realize that a life on the road is
no life for a child. Settled in a new home, Pilate creates a home better suited to raise a
child. While Hagar's home is matrifocal and nurturing, Ruth's is not.
The home is traditionally thought of as a female domestic space. Macon's family
lives in the home of Ruth's late father. While Ruth should have inherited the house after
her father's death, it is more Macon's home than hers. The people in the community
describe it as big and dark, "more prison than palace" (10). And Macon enters the novel
in much the same way as a violent husband returns home to his abused wife. "Solid,
rumbling, likely to erupt without prior notice, Macon kept each member of his family
awkward with fear. His hatred of his wife glittered and sparked in every word he spoke to
her. The disappointment he felt in his daughters sifted down on them like ash, dulling
their buttery complexions and choking the lilt out of what should have been girlish
voices" (10). The negative feelings that Macon has for the women in his life are evident
in his daily interactions with them. And much like women in an abusive relationship, they
have come to not only expect it, but as Morrison writes, "The way he mangled their
grace, wit, and self-esteem was the single excitement of their days" (11). Not only is this
an abusive relationship, it is also marked by codependency; the women need Macon to
define them and Macon needs them to dominate. Ruth and her daughters, Lena and First
Corinthians, do not thrive in Macon's home. They personify the patronym of their name;
they are all "Dead" women in mind, body, and spirit.
Pilate's home is quite the opposite of Ruth's. Ruth's home is characterized as a
male dominated space, while Pilate's is very female-centered. Ruth's home is one of
violence, where abuse is inflicted upon her body; Pilate's is a home of safety and refuge.
Ruth feels the security of Pilate's home; so does her son. Only Macon fears going to the
house and the women who lived inside it. He was very strict with Milkman about never
going there. But "Milkman is initially fascinated with this matriarchal household because
of its difference from his patriarchal one. Here stories are told, food is tasty and plentiful,
and none of the rigidity of his own home is present" (Byerman 202). When Macon goes
against his own warnings and sneaks up to Pilate's house, he is entranced by what he
sees. "Near the window, hidden by the dark, he felt the irritability of the day drain from
him and relished the effortless beauty of the women singing in the candlelight. Reba's
soft profile, Hagar's hands moving, moving in her heavy hair, and Pilate" (29). Macon
cannot take his eyes off the women. Pilate's home is full of life and music and he realizes
that his is cold and barren. There is no question as to why Ruth's home becomes a site of
violence. There is no spirituality, no sensuality, or connectedness to their ancestry.
Trauma is enacted daily upon the women who live there and they must all venture outside
of the house to receive healing.
"THE MOST DESTRUCTIVE IDEAS": THE TRAUMA OF SELF-HATE
Trauma is not only enacted upon the females because of male separation, but also
because of lack of male value. What men come to value in women is their physical
appearance. There is a stark contrast between the women in Macon's household
compared to the women in Pilate's. Ruth and her daughters are light-skinned, while Pilate
and Hagar are dark-skinned. Also, the women have dissimilar hair textures. While many
instances of self-hate occur throughout the novel, the most traumatic occurs when Hagar
sees Milkman with another woman. The woman, like her female cousins, is physically
the opposite of Hagar. Issues of skin color and hair texture have plagued the African
American community for centuries. In The Color Complex: The Politics of.\kmi Color
Among African Americans, Russell et al take up this very taboo subject matter,
explaining, "In short, the 'color complex' is a psychological fixation about color and
features that leads Blacks to discriminate against each other" (2). In Morrison's first
novel, The Bluest Eye, she tackles color discrimination and self-hate in the life of Pecola
Breedlove. Pecola is a young, Black girl who desires nothing more than to have blue eyes
like her white doll. Pecola's eight-year-old friend, Claudia MacTeer, who despises blond
haired, blue-eyed dolls and is repulsed by Shirley Temple, narrates the story. While
Claudia is unrelenting in her hatred to the extent that she destroys her doll, Pecola is
enraptured by images of whiteness. She is always eating Mary Jane (the picture of the
little white girl on the candy wrapper resembles Shirley Temple) and she repeatedly asks
Claudia if she may drink milk from her Shirley Temple cup. Abdellatif Khayati writes,
"Toni Morrison singles out the figure of Shirley Temple as a dominant icon of this white,
consumer culture, and examines the psychic devastation to which Pecola is subjected as
she imagines herself miraculously transformed into a Shirley Temple with blue eyes"
(par.7). Drinking milk from the cup also signifies her desire to not only possess
whiteness, but to consume it, as if by ingesting it she might become white. In "Tracking
'the Look' in the Novels of Toni Morrison" Ed Guerrero discusses the text asserting,
"The Bluest Eye [. .] holds as its central concern a critique of Western beauty and its
special destructiveness when imposed upon people of color in general and women of
color in particular. Morrison has these women in mind when she asserts in the novel that
the idea of physical beauty is one of 'probably the most destructive ideas in the history of
human thought'" (28). Internalizing these ideas of beauty ultimately works to damage the
self-esteem and self-identity of Black women. This destructive idea of physical beauty
overtakes Pecola. She wants nothing more than to be loved and if she possessed blue eyes
she believed love would inevitably follow.
In Song of Solomon, Hagar deals with many similar false assumptions concerning
beauty and is psychologically damaged by them. After Milkman has dumped her she sees
him in a bar with another woman. Detailing Hagar's murderous rage, the narrator
The thank you cut her to the quick, but it was not the reason she ran scurrying into
cupboards looking for weapons. That had been accomplished by the sight of
Milkman's arms around the shoulders of a girl whose silky copper-colored hair
cascaded over the sleeve of his coat [. .] and Hagar saw her gray eyes, the fist that
had been just sitting in her chest since Christmas released its forefinger like the
blade of a skinning knife. (126-7)
At first sight Hagar thinks the woman is one of his sisters because of her light
complexion and hair. But, upon realizing that this woman is not one of his sisters, she
loses control. The woman emphasizes the European standards of beauty; Hagar possesses
African features like Pilate. Hagar's jealousy is fueled by feelings of inadequacy and self-
hate. She does not fit the type of woman that Milkman should be with. Russell states, "A
Black man is aware that the way others judge him often depends on the attractiveness of
the woman he is escorting. For the dark-skinned Black man, having a beautiful light-
skinned woman at his side instantly communicates to others that he has 'made it"' (109).
It is mentioned earlier in the novel that Milkman does not take Hagar around town with
him. Couched in the explanation of shame for dating his cousin, his reluctance to be seen
with her might also have to do with color discrimination.
According to Russell, "The politics of hair parallels the politics of skin color.
Among Black women, straight hair and European hairstyles not only have been
considered more feminine but have sent a message about one's standing in the social
hierarchy" (82). The hair textures of the two women are also contrasted. While the
woman has "silky, copper colored hair," Hagar's is described as being "heavy." It is not
weightless or silky. By describing it as heavy Morrison is acknowledging that it is thick
and possibly not chemically straightened. The fact that she is braiding her hair may, in
fact, symbolize her connection to her African roots. The significance of braiding hair in
the African American community is highlighted in Noliwe Rooks' "Wearing Your Race
Wrong." Rooks uses an excerpt from Sherley Anne Williams' Dessa Rose to further her
I missed this when I was sold away from home...The way the women in the
Quarters used to would braid hair. Mothers would braid children heads-girl and
boy-until they went into the field or for as long as they had them. This was one
way we told who they peoples was, by home they hair was combed...Child learn a
lot of things setting between some grown person's legs, listening at grown peoples
speak over they heads. This is where I learned to listen, right there between
mammy's thighs, where I first learned to speak, from listening at grown peoples
According to Rooks "braiding comes to symbolize closeness, comfort, and community..."
(287). There are many occasions in the novel in which the women at Pilate's home are in
the process of doing their own or each others hair. While they adhere to the more
traditional African ways of doing hair, many women venture to beauty salons to have
their hair processed with chemicals, or straightened with heat. The narrator alerts,
"Beauty shops always had curtains or shades up. Barbershops didn't. The women didn't
want anybody on the street to be able to see them getting their hair done. They were
ashamed" (62). Morrison does not go into further detail about why these women are
ashamed, but we can assume that shame comes from the psychological trauma of needing
to have their hair altered because they do not naturally posses the European type of hair.
The women are ashamed of the procedure they must go through in order to transform
their hair, transform them even, in order to conform to an acceptable standard of beauty.
Only then when they are considered decent can they come from behind the curtain. Men
must not be allowed to witness this transformation. They can only see and appreciate the
results. Morrison notes that men are not victim to this type of trauma. Barbershops are
not hidden behind veils. The value of the men in the novel is not based on their
appearance. They are valued for property, in the case of Macon and Milkman; for
strength, in the case of Guitar; and for their ties to the community, in the case of Macon's
The process of "fixing" the hair is restricted behind veils, but the act of freeing
one's hair, or letting it down, is symbolic of freedom. When First Corinthians finally
experiences love and spends the night with Porter, she returns home with her hair down.
Dropping her off down the street from her house, he questions, "Hadn't you better fix
your hair?" (202). The narrator qualifies his question revealing, "He thought she looked
beautiful like that, girlish, but he didn't want her excuse to her parents to sound
ridiculous. She shook her head. She wouldn't have collected her hair into a ball at the
nape of her neck now for anything in the world" (202). Wearing her hair down as a
liberating act is reminiscent of Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching
God once she is free from her oppressive relationship with Joe Starks. In detailing this
moment of freedom Hurston's narrator states, "She tore off the kerchief from her head
and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there" (87). She
burns all of her scarves on the night of Starks' funeral. Not having to "fix" one's hair to
conform to an accepted standard of beauty is an act of female liberation and self-
actualization. For always desiring, but falling short of this standard is traumatizing to the
female psyche. In a society that values women based on their appearance, not living up to
the ideal is traumatic. The effects are seen in Hagar's case. She does not experience the
liberation of accepting her hair. It is only by "fixing" it that she thinks she can win
Milkman back. While Hagar cannot remove herself from agony she feels because of
Milkman's preference for lighter complexioned women with long, silky hair, she remains
nonetheless addicted to him and what she thinks her provides her. Her addiction is only
tested. As Schaef asserts, "Even when they know the relationship is destructive, they will
cling to it" (79). Hagar clings to the hope that she can have Milkman again even though
he has caused her pain. She refuses to acknowledge that he has used her for sex. And she
becomes intent on killing him only after reasoning with herself that if she cannot have
him, no one else can.
To address Hagar's addiction to Milkman we must return to a time before the
relationship was formed. On a visit to Pilate's house Milkman and Guitar sit watching the
women make wine. When discussing Reba's winning of groceries in a contest Hagar
alleges that they would have starved to death had she not. Pilate declares that no one
would let her starve, but Hagar contends, "Some of my days were hungry ones" (48).
Reba is hurt by this new information and affirms that they have always gotten her
anything she has ever wanted. "Reba, she don't mean food," Pilate responds (49). The
narrator does not say what it is that Hagar has hungered for, only that realization creeps
over Reba's face. The silence by these women in response to Hagar's alleged emptiness
apparently stems from something that they cannot give her. After a few minutes they
begin to sing, "O Sugarman don't you leave me here [. .] Sugarman done fly away"(49).
Later in the novel we learn that the song is about Milkman's great great grandfather
Solomon who flew back to Africa and left his family behind. It is possible that Hagar
mourns for her missing and unknown father. When Milkman ends the relationship she
experiences severe trauma possibly due to the loss of a constant male figure in her life. In
an interview with Nellie McKay, Morrison answers a question concerning Hagar's death
Hagar does not have what Pilate had, which was a dozen years of a nurturing, good
relationship with men. Pilate had a father, and she had a brother, who loved her
very much, and she could use the knowledge of that love for her life. Her daughter
Reba had less of that, but she certainly has at least a perfunctory adoration or love
of men which she does not put to good use. Hagar has even less because of the
absence of any relationships with men in her life. She is weaker. (qtd. in Appiah
The sorrow she feels at this loss is identical to the mourning of Solomon's wife,
Ryna. When Milkman travels to Virginia in search of gold he learns of his family history,
which includes the story of Ryna. Milkman learns of Ryna and Solomon from his distant
relative Susan Byrd. It is a part of local folklore that once Solomon flew off and left Ryna
she yelled and screamed for days. The ravine near where it happened is named Ryna's
Gulch because when the wind blows across it her cries can still be heard. Susan tells
Milkman, "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" (323). Hagar is a descendant of Ryna; she too has become that "kind
of woman." Almost as if Susan has prophesied it Hagar's addiction to Milkman has
begun to hamper her own personal survival. Possibly better classified as an obsession at
this point, rather than an addiction Kasl explains,
An obsession occupies the mind and is often experienced as a painful intrusion that
can't be shut off at will. It feels like an inescapable presence, another person in
your head. It takes you out of the present, out of control, sometimes for months or
even years. One woman described an obsession about a woman she was attracted to
as 'a knife in my head I couldn't shake off. It was with me every minute. I started
to feel physically sick, I couldn't eat, and I prayed it would go away. (67)
While the woman that Kasl quotes had a knife in her head, Hagar's knife was lodged
within her chest and once a month she would dislodge it by going after Milkman. In her
final attempt at his life, Milkman remains motionless in Guitar's bed as she stands over
him with a knife. As she is poised to kill, Milkman wills her death instead. With the knife
raised high above her head Hagar becomes paralyzed. When Milkman opens his eyes and
gets up he cruelly admonishes, "If you keep your hands just that way and then bring them
down straight, straight and fast, you can drive that knife right smack in your cunt. Why
don't you do that? Then all your problems will be over" (130). But Hagar's problem does
not reside in a part of the body, which can easily be chopped off. Her problem is internal;
it is mental. "An obsession may signal that you are not being honest with yourself.
Obsessive thinking is often the difference between what we know to be true and what we
want to be true. If you want to get over an obsession, you may need to look within
yourself" (Kasl 67). But what would Hagar find from introspection? Possibly what has
already been established, that she may be desirous of a paternal closeness or evidence of
her low self-esteem. When Guitar finds her still frozen in his room he has pity on her and
takes her home. On the drive to Pilate's home he confides,
You think because he doesn't love you that you are worthless. You think because
he doesn't want you anymore that he is right-that his judgment and opinion of
you are correct. If he throws you out, then you are garbage. You think he belongs to
you because you want to belong to him. Hagar, don't. It's a bad word, 'belong.'
Especially when you put it with somebody you love. Love shouldn't be like that.
Hagar's worth is tied to Milkman's desire for her. Without his love she feels worthless.
Hagar remains in a catatonic state for many days. It is not until Pilate puts a mirror in
front of her that Hagar snaps out of it. "Look at how I look. I look awful. No wonder he
didn't want me. I look terrible" (308). She bathes, gets her hair washed, her clothes
ironed and goes off on a shopping spree. She also makes a hair appointment. On her way
home it begins to rain and she is left soaked. She returns home with nothing to show for
her effort. Hagar gives her stilted testimony in the arms of her grandmother. "Why don't
he like my hair?" (315). Her speech is fragmented, consumed with minute pieces of
memory that have traumatized her. She cries about the woman's silky, penny-colored
hair, her lemon-colored skin, gray-blue eyes and thin nose (315-16).
If, as Morrison asserts, racism is trauma then intraracial prejudice is overly
traumatic to the psyche. The wound that Hagar possesses is inflicted upon many African
American women. bell hooks discusses these types of wounds and offers an avenue
towards healing, hooks points to teaching texts by Black female authors as a way to
become more aware of the collective suffering of contemporary Black women.
Recounting their testimonies hooks explains,
When black female students would come to my office after reading these novels
and confess the truth of their lives-that they were terrorized psychologically by
low self-esteem; that they were the victims of rape, incest, and domestic violence;
that they lived in fear of being unmasked as inferiors of their white peers; that
stress was making their hair fall out; that every other month one of them was
attempting suicide; that they were anorexic, bulimic, or drug addicted-I was
In response to this trauma hooks establishes a support group, Sisters of the Yam, with the
hope that "it would be a space where black women could name their pain and find ways
of healing" (13). By naming the pain, or testifying to the trauma women may be able to
recover. However, Hagar cannot. She is on the verge of death and cannot be pulled back.
In Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, hooks discusses the suicide attempt of Velma in
the opening of the novel as a moment of identification for some of her students. hooks
observes, "The Salt Eaters begins with a question, asked by the elder black woman
healer. She says to Velma, who has tried to kill herself and is barely alive, 'Are you sure,
sweetheart, that you want to be well?' Only an affirmative response makes healing
possible" (13-14). Without Milkman, Hagar would have undoubtedly answered in the
negative. Schaef reports, "People die from relationship addiction. [.. .] Addictive
relationships can be fatal, physically, mentally, and spiritually. They just seem to grind a
person down" (81). Hagar's addiction has taken its toll on her and the healing arms of
Pilate are not enough to save her. And although Pilate has fought to love Hagar back by
running her fingers through Hagar's hair, she remains in a traumatized state with her
testimony flowing out in pieces. Pilate can only respond with the words, "Hush. Hush.
Hush, girl, hush" (316). Hagar's testimony is silenced only in death. Why is Hagar not
saved by Pilate's love, why is her testimony not healing for her? As Vickroy relates, "If a
survivor is encouraged to narrate his or her experience and emotionally relive it in a safe
context with an empathetic listener [. .] this 'can actually produce a change in the
abnormal processing of the traumatic memory" and can lead to relief (22). Pilate, while
sympathetic, does not truly listen to Hagar's testimony. She quiets her. In doing so, Pilate
denies the truth behind Hagar's words. While Pilate only means to comfort Hagar, the
refusal to let her speak only negates her experience of trauma. Hagar is smothered by
Pilate's maternal drive to hurry away the pain.
Pilate's trauma is experienced with the realization that she cannot rescue Hagar.
There is no more appropriate space for her to give her personal testimony than at Hagar's
funeral. Pilate begins her testimony with only one word, "mercy," then turns it into a
question, "Mercy?" But, "It was not enough. The word needed a bottom, a frame. She
straightened up, held her head high, and transformed the plea into a note. In a clear
bluebell voice she sang it out-the one word held so long it became a sentence-and
before the last syllable had died in the corners of the room, she was answered in a sweet
soprano: 'I hear you'" (317). Pilate and Reba sing their testimony, Reba in the back of the
church and Pilate looking down upon Hagar's lifeless body. Turning toward the
congregation she mouths the words "My baby girl," speaking the words to each person.
Then, "Suddenly, like an elephant who has just found his anger and lifts his trunk over
the heads of the little men who want his teeth or his hide or his flesh or his amazing
strength, Pilate trumpeted for the sky itself to hear, 'And she was loved!'" (319). Pilate
takes on the form of a powerful, male-identified animal. In her powerful exclamation
Pilate is critiquing a patriarchal society that does not value females. Hagar was valued
and loved in her female-centered home. Pilate is justified in her anger at "the little men"
who would strip her of her sole possession, her grandchild, because they do not see the
value in her. But she does not direct her anger at Milkman for causing Hagar' s pain and
death. While the novel may serve as a critique of patriarchy, the men in the novel are
never directly indicted for the abuse they inflict upon their female victims. So, it comes
as a shock that Morrison's novel would come under such scrutiny for being anti-male.
Toni Morrison, as well as many other Black female authors, has been denigrated
for writing novels that do not conform to a stringent code of black love. These writers are
condemned for airing their dirty laundry. Authors such as Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Toni
Morrison, and Terry McMillan have been criticized for as Lerone Bennett Jr. describes,
"creating a new literature based on the premise that Black America is a vast emotionless
wasteland of hustlin' men and maimed women," which ultimately, functions to construct
a history of falsified relations between Black men and women (duCille 443). However,
those who would condemn these writers for creating female-centered narratives, which
allow their female protagonists to give voice to their pain, are attempting to silence these
traumatized women once more. Critics cannot and should not view these texts as an
indictment of all Black men. Rather they should see them as a "forum for exploring the
oppression, insanities, sorrows, joys, and triumphs of women's lives and [as a
transformation of] those experiences into art" (duCille 456).
In "Phallus(ies) of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical 'I,'" Ann
duCille attempts to discuss the issue of gender essentialism by focusing on the "phallus as
principle signifier and on man as principle referent" (445). In doing so, she teases out the
distinction between what could be considered phallocentric and gynocentric "truths." Her
essay functions as a tool to foreground the ideas of black love that are brought up in
Morrison's Song of Solomon in that the trauma experienced by Ruth, Hagar, and Ryna are
due to loss of love. By focusing on the love of men as the root cause of female
oppression, duCille offers a passage from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were
Watching God as evidence of support. Janie's grandmother tells her, 'Dat's de very prong
all us black women gits hung on [. .] Dis love! Dat's just whut's got us uh pullin' and uh
haulin' and sweatin' and doin' from can't see in de momin' till can't see at night" (449).
Janie's grandmother makes this plight specific to Black women. In doing so she
characterizes Black women as the only victims of an irresistible sexual need. In Song of
Solomon Ruth and Hagar do everything possible to hang on to an oppressive love. But
duCille goes on to claim that it is not only love that keeps Black women hung up, but also
"dat penis-the domain of dominating power" (449).
We see duCille's theory being played out in Milkman's thoughts of the attempts
Hagar makes at his life. He concedes that he was never afraid of her, actually, he was
rather pleased with himself delighting in the fact that his sexual prowess could drive a
woman crazy, "he had the power to drive a woman out of her mind, to destroy her, and
not because she hated him, or because he had done some unforgivable thing to her, but
because he had fucked her and she was driven wild by the absence of his magnificent
joint" (emphasis added 301).
The Black male sex organ has historically been under scrutiny. Interrogating the
trauma surrounding Black male sexuality does not fall within the boundaries of this
paper, it does; however, become significant to discuss why Morrison seems to privilege
the Black male penis within the text by allowing its removal to be so detrimental to
female survival. It may not necessarily be the penis that is privileged, but rather what it
signifies-power. Michael Vannoy Adams writes, "Psychically, however, rather than
physically (or materially), the penis is poetic-at least when it functions symbolically as
the phallus" (162). "The subject, Lacan argues, can only assume its identity through the
adoption of a sexed identity with reference to the phallus, for the phallus is the privileged
signifier" (Segal 85). The penis becomes the privileged signifier for Black males because,
especially in Milkman's case, it allows for spectacle, fascination, and power. Milkman
believes he can assert masculinity and/or power by invoking the phallus. bell hooks
describes this as a "shift of emphasis on patriarchal status (determined by one's capacity
to assert power over others in a number of spheres based on maleness) to a phallocentric
model, where what the male does with his penis becomes a greater and certainly more
accessible way to assert masculine status" (94). Milkman accepts his position of power
not only in his relationship with Hagar, but to all the women in his life (with the
exception of Pilate). As his sister Lena calls him on it scornfully remarking,
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;
and when you got grown enough to know the difference between a woman and a
two-toned Ford, everything in this house stopped for 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. [. .] 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.
[. .] You are a sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man. I hope your little hog's gut
stands you in good stead, and that you take good care of it, because you don't have
anything else. (215-16)
Lena indicts the notion that would lower her status in the world based on what she lacks.
She verbally castrates Milkman with her speech, an act that spurs him on to his journey
Freudian theorists would undoubtedly allege that Ruth and Hagar both suffer from
'penis envy,' desiring from Macon and Milkman what neither of them possess. But we
must push beyond this narrowly conceived theory. As Hillman explains, "The Freudian
error lies not so much in the importance given to sexuality; more grave is the delusion
that sexuality is actual sexuality only, that the phallus is always only penis" (qtd. in
Adams 162). The question then becomes, do Ruth and Hagar experience trauma because
they are denied the sexual pleasure provided by the penis, or what the penis signifies? If
trauma lays not so much in the denial of sexual fulfillment, but rather in the inequality of
power in the relationships, then Hagar and Ruth desire a fundamentally feminist goal,
equality. Hagar and Ruth are powerless in their relationships with Milkman and Macon.
However, Morrison has been very open concerning her interest in and criticism of
relationships. In an interview given by Christina Davis Morrison acknowledges, "I'm
interested also in the relationships of black men and black women and the axes on which
those relationships frequently turn, and how they complement each other, fulfill one
another or hurt one another and are made whole or prevented from wholeness by things
that they have incorporated into their psyche" (qtd. in Appiah 419). It is with an
understanding of this statement that I contend that the root cause of their trauma resides
in sexual denial.
Interestingly, in the beginning of their relationship it is Hagar who wields power
over Milkman. It is Milkman who chases and Hagar who denies. "She babied him,
ignored him, teased him-did anything she felt like, and he was grateful just to see her do
anything or be any way" (92). In this way Hagar controls the situation fully. It is not until
they commit to a sexual relationship that her power is transferred to Milkman. Much like
the nourishment he has taken from his mother, Milkman takes from Hagar; he grows
strong while she weakens, mentally and physically. It is not a coincidence that these
things occur simultaneously. As Trudier Harris asserts, "The pattern is set in a way that
Milkman thrives in direct proportion to Hagar's demise. As he learns more about his
relationship to her and the rest of his family, her physical essence decreases in value. For
each stage on the journey that brings enlightenment to Milkman, that enlightenment
comes directly from Hagar's lifeline" (112). Milkman indeed lives up to the meaning of
Having consulted many texts on the nature of trauma, the one thing that remains
constant is the significance of telling, or narrating the trauma as a way of surviving it.
Judith Greenberg quotes a question asked by Caruth in her essay "The Echo of Trauma
and the Trauma of Echo" asking, "Is the trauma the encounter with death, or the ongoing
experience of having survived it? At the core of these stories [trauma narratives]...is thus
a kind of double telling, the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis
of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the
unbearable nature of its survival" (325). Ruth has survived the trauma inflicted upon her
body by Macon, yet living with the impact of it continues to haunt her. Ruth still lives
without touch, without care and affection from Macon. Hagar, however, has not survived
her traumatic experience. The "crisis of life" proves to be too great for her to withstand.
While both women endure two distinct damaging experiences, the initial trauma is the
same for both of them. They both suffer the rupture of a love relationship, which sets the
tone for the remained of their lives.
Realizing that neither is content to live deprived of the love and affection provided
by their significant others, I return to the epigraph of the novel and my earlier question
contemplating the omission of the women. In Song of Solomon Morrison makes a critique
on a patriarchal society, which devalues women. While some would characterize the text
as a novel about the loss of fathers, I contend that it is rather about the effect the loss has
on the psyche of the women left behind. Certainly, men in the novel experience the
trauma of paternal loss, but they have inherited a coping ability that the women have not.
The very masculinized idea of the quest works to ultimately traumatize the women who
are left grounded. As Milkman realizes at the conclusion of the novel, men have inherited
the ability to fly. Men lose and in return they leave. The women, however, remain
stationary. They remain tied to the land, tied to their children. They are left to pass on the
stories, sing the songs, and mourn the men who have left them. In the end Hagar is left
dead, and Ruth is shattered. Morrison does not offer her readers a happy ending to this
story of love and loss of love. Rather she leaves us with one more woman being left.
Before Pilate dies she tells Milkman to "Watch Reba for me," but Milkman does not
(336). Whether he dies at the hands of Guitar or flies off like Solomon, Reba will be left
alone. Having always depended on Pilate to care for her, one can only wonder what her
testimony will be.
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Cameron C. Clark received her B.A. from Western Michigan University in
Kalamazoo, MI, in April of 2001 with a double major in creative writing and Black
Americana studies. As an undergraduate she was fortunate to participate in the Ronald E.
McNair Scholars Program as well as the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers in
Andover, Massachusetts. She will complete her M.A. in English with an emphasis in
cultural studies in May 2003.