My Last English Paper!
Welcome back to GraceofStorytelling! In the time that I have been gone, I have finished college! To celebrate, I wanted to share my very last English Literature paper I wrote as an English Major: A Critical Paper analyzing a novel we read in my Senior Seminar in English. I was really excited about the topic I picked, worked very hard on in, and I am proud of how it turned out.
“And she was loved!”: Enmeshment, Transformation, and Destruction in
Song of Solomon
In Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, one can easily see the similarities between Milkman Dead and Hagar. They are both spoiled, self-centered, and inconsiderate of the people who take care of them. However, they have completely different fates by the end of the novel. If they are so similar, how do they end up in such different places? The answer lies in their upbringing. Milkman’s father, Macon, and Hagar’s grandmother and mother figure, Pilate, let their own childhood traumas affect their relationships with their children in different ways, resulting in Milkman’s transformation and Hagar’s destruction.
To get to the root of the problem of Milkman and Hagar, one has to go back to the childhoods of the people who raised them: Macon and Pilate Dead, respectively. Macon and Pilate had happy beginnings with their father on their farm, Lincoln’s Heaven. In the article, “‘Anaconda Love’: Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison's ‘Song of Solomon,’” Gary Storhoff describes Lincoln’s Heaven “for both Pilate and Macon a site of domestic concord and cooperation, as they work with their father, Jake. Their family prospers as does the farm itself, and the interaction between all family members is harmonic and cooperative.” Even after the death of their mother during Pilate’s birth, Macon and Pilate’s physical and psychological needs are being met by the security and love they are receiving at Lincoln’s Heaven. Their happiness comes to a tragic end when white men shoot and kill Jake and take the farmland for themselves. The loss of their father and their home traumatizes Macon and Pilate Dead, which leaves them scrambling to recreate what they had and lost in their childhoods.
As adults, Macon and Pilate become parents and their childhood losses create dysfunctional relationships with their children. Morrison calls it “anaconda love” (Morrison 137), Storhoff calls it “parental enmeshment.” Both are defined as “a suffocating bond parents sometimes force upon their children” (Storhoff). As parental figures, Macon and Pilate find themselves enmeshed with the children they raise, which has adverse effects on their offspring when they reach adulthood. According to Storhoff, “Neither Pilate's nor Macon's family is functional; both sets of parents seek to fuse with their offspring to satisfy their own emotional cravings.” The major losses of their childhoods, the loss of ownership and the loss of love, manifest in different ways within Macon and Pilate’s damaging family dynamics.
As a man and a patriarch, Macon Dead is motivated by ownership. Growing up at Lincoln’s Heaven, Macon’s father “owned the land free and clear,” and he is connected to his family and his community (Storhoff). When his father and the the farm are violently taken from the Dead family, Macon loses “the land that was to have been his” (Morrison 52). His father’s ownership of land, especially as a man who was once enslaved, was vitally important to the family’s freedom, so Macon’s primary motivator as an adult is to obtain ownership of property to replace the property that was lost in his childhood. He proclaims that the “one important thing that you’ll ever need to know” is to “own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people, too” (Morrison 55). He accomplishes his goal of owning things in his career as a landlord, shaking down his tenants for rent and threatening them with eviction. He also takes great pride in his Packard, and his weekly drives through town in that car were “a way to satisfy himself that he was indeed a successful man” (Morrison 31). His obsession with ownership extends from land and cars and bleeds into the way he treats his children. A memory his daughter Magdalene associates with the Packard is a moment in her childhood when her father drove her and her sister to an icehouse, where “we stood apart, near the car…And when he talked to the men, he kept glancing at us, us and the car” (Morrison 216). Magdalene remembers her father wanting other men to envy him not just for his car, but for his daughters. In that moment and many others in the book, Macon’s children are just as much his property, an asset, and a status symbol, as his luxury car. This attitude extends to his only son, Milkman. When Milkman is twelve, Macon employs him in the family business by appointing him as a proxy rent collector, and delights in the way having his son work for him meant “his son belonged to him” (Morrison 63). Macon decides to draft his son into his service when he learns that Milkman has met his sister Pilate, from whom he has been estranged for as long as Milkman has been alive. To Macon, the possibility of his son having a relationship with Pilate is a threat of losing his child, his property, similar to the way Lincoln’s Heaven was taken from him in his childhood. Macon takes his traumatic memories his family losing their property and subsequently structures his relationships so that he can have ownership over his own children.
As a woman and matriarch, Pilate is a predominately characterized by her freely-given love. From the moment she meets Milkman, she welcomes him into her home and into her family, and with her dying breath she declares, “I wish I’d a known more people. I would of loved ’em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more” (Morrison 336). Similarly to the way her brother Macon’s obsession with ownership is rooted in the loss of the family farm, Pilate’s deep love comes from the loss and denial of love throughout her life. Pilate admits, “I was cut off from people early” (Morrison 141). First, her father dies and not long afterwards, she and her brother have a falling out, and they go their separate ways. As Pilate grows up on her own without her father or brother, she flits from group to group, but ultimately leaving each community she joins. The source of her constant motion is her lack of a navel. Each time the people around her heard that she was without a navel, a body part “for people who were born natural,” she was asked to leave due to “their terror of having been in the company of something God never made” (Morrison 143, 144). After this happens twice, Pilate learns to keep her distance from others in order to “keep her belly covered,” which results in her own isolation (147). Pilate remains alone until she creates a new family with her daughter, Reba, and Reba’s daughter, Hagar. Simone de Beauvoir said, “I think that if people put so much emphasis on family and children, it is because they live in great isolation; they have no friends, no love, no affection, nobody. They are alone; therefore they have children in order to have somebody” (Storhoff). This is the exact emotional state Pilate is in when Reba, and then Hagar, are born. As a mother figure to both of them (Hagar calls Pilate “Mama,” and her mother Reba by her first name), Pilate builds a family structure with her child and grandchild that is based on her deep love for them, which is displayed by indulging all of their wants and whims. An example of this is found directly after Reba is attacked by a boyfriend and Pilate scares him off:
“All attention turned to Reba, who was having difficulty trying to stand up. She said she thought something was broken inside in the place where he’d kicked her. Pilate felt her ribs and said nothing was broken. But Reba said she wanted to go to the hospital. (It was her dream to be a patient in a hospital; she was forever trying to get admitted…) She was insistent now, and Pilate surrendered her judgement to Reba’s. A neighbor offered to drive the, and off they went, leaving Milkman to buy his wine from Hagar.” (Morrison 95).
Reba does not need to go to the hospital. Pilate likely cannot afford for her daughter to receive hospital care, since her family’s primary income is the sale of homemade wine that has fallen out of demand after the end of the Great Depression (Morrison 49). Still, Pilate agrees to take Reba to the hospital, which is just one example of Pilate’s desire to replicate the familial and community love she had in Lincoln’s Heaven and has been denied for years by over-indulging her family members.
After Pilate and Reba depart for the hospital that night, Hagar and Milkman, two characters descended from the same family trauma and the beneficiaries of different manifestations of anaconda love, are left alone together. While Milkman and Hagar were raised by two radically different people, they exhibit key similarities. They both live their entire lives with everything they could possibly want provided for them. Milkman is so spoiled in his fancy house that he is unable to “get interested in money. No one had ever denied him any, so it had no exotic attraction,” and has never needed “to wash [his] own underwear, spread a bed, wipe the ring from [his] tub, or move a fleck of [his] dirt from one place to another” (Morrison 107, 215). Hagar is raised in the dingy wine house, yet “she liked pretty things. Astonished as Reba and Pilate were by her wishes, they enjoyed trying to fulfill them. They spoiled her” to the point that she becomes a woman “who grew up to be the stingiest, greediest people on earth” (Morrison 151, 306). They each command their respective households. According to Magdalene, “Our girlhood was spent like a found nickel for you [Milkman]. When you slept, we were quiet; when you were hungry, we cooked; when we wanted to play, we entertained you” (Morrison 215). Magdalene compares Milkman’s reign over their household and lack of disrespect towards his female caregivers to urination, saying “there are all kinds of ways to pee on people” (Morrison 214). In Pilate’s household, Hagar finds her own ways to “pee” on the women who raised her. Reeling from being repeatedly rejected by a lover, Hagar impulsively decides that the way to win him back is a complete makeover. In a frenzy, Hagar orders her mother and grandmother around as they quickly draw her bath and wash her hair. When she declares, “I have to buy some clothes. New clothes. Everything I have is a mess…I need everything,” Reba sells her prized diamond ring, sacrificing the one material possession she deemed worth keeping (Morrison 310). For Hagar’s entire life, her mother and grandmother give her everything. She does not even notice the lengths to which they go to make her happy, just as Milkman does not acknowledge his sisters. In their selfishness, Milkman and Hagar most prominently display the effects of their familial enmeshment, especially in the ways they interact with each other.
When Hagar and Milkman are left alone together, they begin a sexual affair that lasts fourteen years, which puts into motion a sequence of events that will drive the rest of the book. Of course, the way Milkman and Hagar behave in their relationship is influenced by their respective parental enmeshment. For Milkman, who was taught by his father to value ownership above all else, his lazy possession of Hagar’s mind and body exemplifies his “notions of women as property” and “shows the perils of allowing oneself to be ‘owned’ emotionally by another” (Hathaway). He cares little for Hagar personally. The affair ends when Milkman decides to call it off. While his pursuit of Hagar’s affections was exciting at first, her love has become “so free, so abundant, it had lost its fervor,” just like Pilate’s and Reba’s love that “was so wholehearted it looked like carelessness” (Morrison 91, 92). Milkman has become bored with Hagar. Continuing his pattern of being spoiled and not caring for anybody else, he ends their relationship with with a gift of cash and a thank-you note. His cold rejection spurns Hagar to drastic action. For months, she hunts down Milkman and attempts to murder him, because his rejection offends “her vast sense of entitlement: she believes that Milkman must love her simply because she loves him. Her feeling of entitlement is a result of Pilate and Reba's enmeshment, their eagerness to give her everything” (Storhoff). Hagar has no experience with being denied something she wants, so she reacts violently. Milkman and Hagar’s behavior at the end of their affair is informed by the way they were raised, and their responses set them down divergent paths for the rest of the novel, and lead them to different fates.
Milkman embarks on a journey to the past, and undergoes a transformation. In his conflict with Hagar, Milkman is passive, barely putting any energy into evading her murder attempts. One time, Milkman hides under a bar when Hagar attacks, leaving his other friends to grab her (Morrison 219). Another time, he just lays in bed, waiting for her to find him. He is barely interested in keeping himself alive. While waiting for his murderer, he thinks:
“Gradually his fear and his eagerness for death returned. Above all he wanted to escape what he knew, escape the implications of what he had been told. And all he knew in the world about the world was what other people had told him. He felt like a garbage pail for the actions and hatreds of other people. He himself did nothing.” (Morrison 120)
After realizing he wants to escape his father’s control and avoiding death by his former lover one more time, Milkman goes to his father and asks to take a year off from the family business. Macon is resistant to the thought of losing ownership of his son, but tells him that if he is able to steal a supply of gold he suspects Pilate his hoarding, he can go (Morrison 172). Milkman’s heist for Pilate’s gold is unsuccessful, but he has the desire to keep searching by traveling south towards Macon and Pilate’s birthplace. He chooses to go on his journey alone, “with no input from anybody” (Morrison 220). By the time Milkman returns from his solo trip, he has no gold, but he has uncovered pieces of the Dead family history that leave him excited to share what he has learned with his family, especially Pilate. In the final chapter of Song of Solomon, Milkman takes Pilate back to Virginia to bury the bones of her and Macon’s father. Milkman, who has spend over thirty years of his life “peeing” on other people, drives Pilate the whole way and digs the grave himself. His desire to break away from his Macon’s control leads Milkman to discover who he is and where he comes from, which allows him to recognize his shortcomings and change for the better.
While Milkman is on his path of self-discovery, Hagar settles on a path of self-destruction. After her last confrontation with Milkman, Hagar is taken home in a state of impenetrable, silent shock. Pilate and Reba dote on her, because “all they knew to do was love her and since she would not speak, they brought things to please her” (Morrison 309). Their version of loving her in the wake of another one Hagar’s murder attempts is to continue to spoil her. Pilate and Reba’s reactions to Hagar’s relationship with Milkman are, in all of its stages, strange. While they discuss with Hagar early on in the book that a brother and a cousin should be treated the same, when Hagar begins sleeping with Milkman, "he assumed Reba and Pilate knew, but they never made any reference to the change in his relationship to Hagar” (Morrison 98). They show no concern about the cousins’ sexual relationship being problematic. When Hagar starts her monthly murderous hunts for her former lover, Guitar asks Milkman, “Why don’t you get her people to do something?” to which Milkman replies, “I am her people” (119). He does not expect Hagar’s mother and grandmother to put a stop to her behavior, which they do not. Besides a mention in passing that Pilate will “whip” Hagar after every murder attempt, Pilate and Reba do not appear motivated to intervene with Hagar’s violent tendencies (Morrison 130). Their indulgence of her continues when Hagar finally moves past the shock of her final confrontation with Milkman. She catches a glimpse of her reflection, and becomes committed to winning him back by completely changing her appearance. Her mother Reba lightly protests Hagar’s hastiness, but Pilate insists she should “let the child take care of herself,” so they give Hagar every penny they have to fund her makeover (Morrison 309). She runs around in a frenzy making purchases with the money from her mother’s diamond ring, only to fall ill and die soon after. Until her dying breath, she wonders why Milkman does not love her, while taking for granted the love of her mother and grandmother (Morrison 316). As Hagar spirals, her closest family members make no effort guide her towards a different, healthier path. Even when Reba questions Hagar’s behavior, Pilate’s love of Hagar encourages the indulgence of her every whim, even when it leads to her own self-destruction.
Hagar and Milkman share similar qualities of being spoiled and inconsiderate of the people who take care of them, yet they end up in drastically different places by the end of the novel. While Milkman goes on a journey that leads him “to a place of self-knowledge, atonement, and rebirth,” Hagar remains “a petulant, self-indulged but essentially empty woman en route to self-destruction” (Hathaway, Heinze). The different styles of parental enmeshment created by Macon and Pilate, while fostering similar qualities in their offspring, inspire different reactions in Milkman and Hagar when the two come into conflict. Milkman realizes that “he just wanted to beat a path away from his parents’ past, which was also their present and which was threatening to become his present as well” (Morrison 180). He wants to get away because his father’s trauma-informed parenting was always negative, openly hateful, and without love. Milkman knew his father’s treatment of him was wrong, so he develops the desire to get away, which leads him to the joyful discovery of his own identity. Hagar, on the other hand, always knew she was loved, but it was an enmeshed “anaconda love” that denied her “what most colored girls needed: a chorus of mamas, grandmamas, aunts, cousins, sisters, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, best girl friends, and what all to give her the strength life demanded of her—and the humor with which to live it” (Morrison 307). Without that support, Hagar is unable to move forward from Milkman’s rejection, and the devastation kills her. The harm Hagar suffered was cloaked by good intentions, so she never knew to escape, which led to her ultimate destruction.
Hathaway, Heather. “Rewriting Race, Gender and Religion in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Paradise.” Religions, vol. 10, no. 6, 2019, p. 345, https://doi.org/10.3390/ rel10060345. Accessed 15 April 2022.
Heinze, Denise. “Unlikely Antiphony: Whitman's Call and Morrison's Response in "Song of Myself" and Song of Solomon.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 33, no. 2, Dept. of English, The University of Iowa, 2015, pp. 85–113, https://doi.org/ 10.13008/0737-0679.2192. Accessed 15 April 2022.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York, Penguin Random House, 1977.
Storhoff, Gary. “"Anaconda Love": Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon".” Style, vol. 31, no. 2, Northern Illinois University, 1997, pp. 290–309. Accessed 16 April 2022