“Pretty woman, [Guitar] thought. Pretty little black-skinned woman. Who wanted to kill for love, die for love. The pride. The conceit of those doormat women amazed him” (Morrison 306).
Morrison mentions in the forward of the book that “the challenge of Song of Solomon was to manage that was for me a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one. To de-domesticate the landscape that had so far been the site of my work” (Morrison xii), but do the women in the novel suffer from this change of focus? Morrison has created a diverse and complicated set of female characters for this novel that does not rely on stereotypical characterizations of women.
Within the Dead Family I see 4 main types of women in the novel. We have the women who are domesticated and held down by men in their family (Ruth, Corinthians, and Magdalena), the woman who is strong and empowered (Pilate), the woman who has nothing going for her but luck (Reba), and the woman who lives on the love of others (Hagar).
The sisters Corinthian and Lena, perhaps since they are wealthy African Americans, are educated and intelligent. Though these women are oppressed, Morrison gives them the ability to recognize it. Lena confronts Milkman in the hallway one night after he “defended” their mother by hitting Macon. She says that in that action he was not protecting her, he was “taking over, letting [them] know [he] had the right to tell her... what to do” (Morrison 216). Even Ruth let’s Milkman know that she is being oppressed and censored by her husband. She tells her son “I am not a strange woman. I am a small woman” (Morrison 124) as she tries to explain her side of the story and her attachment to her father. In a truly male dominated novel, the women would not be given a chance to defend and explain themselves to this extent. However, these three women are weak women; they can not stand up to Macon and will never leave his house.
The reason I started with a quote from Guitar about Hagar is because I think her matriarchal family is very interesting. Both Pilate and her daughter Reba each refused to marry the men who fathered their children. Pilate has come to terms with the fact that she can’t stay with a man because she has no naval, but why doesn’t Reba marry? In the novel, the survival of this family of women depends on two things: the sale of wine and luck. During their first visit, the women tell Guitar and Milkman that “Reba wins things. She ain’t never lost nothing” (Morrison 45), and the exploitation of this luck has been keeping the family fed. But Reba’s “luck” also pays for Hagar’s manic makeover when Reba sells the diamond ring she won so that Hagar can go shopping.
What is Morrison is trying to say about feminism through Hagar’s actions? Guitar calls her a “doormat woman” (Morrison 306), but I don’t think she started out that way. She admits to Milkman that she is waiting for “Prince Charming” (Morrison 97) but then makes love to her 17 year old cousin. Years down the road by the time Milkman is 31, Hagar isn’t as in control of their relationship as she was in the beginning (Morrison 98). Earlier, Hagar said “every woman’s not as strong as she is” (Morrison 96) and that she has no weaknesses. But now her weakness is that she is afraid of being alone and this weakness eventually kills her. Guitar suggests though that the fault is not on Milkman’s shoulders because women like Hagar “were always women who had been spoiled children” (Morrison 306). Guitar tries to persuade her not to believe that “belong” is a dangerous word (Morrison 306). But Hagar ignores him and instead tries to give herself a physical makeover that she thinks will make Milkman love her. This makeover would require her to give up some of the things that make her a strong African American women, and fittingly she dies before she can complete the transformation.
For a novel that supposedly is focused on a man’s journey to self discovery, Morrison still does not reject or forget the women. Though this novel is supposed to illustrate “a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one” (Morrison xii), the author does not make her women suffer the punishment of being superficial or flat characters. Morrison also notes in her foreword that “Milkman summons a conundrum: that without ever leaving the ground [women] could fly” (Morrison xiv). I thought at first that Morrison was suggesting that since the women in the novel are strong and complex, they do not need to travel anywhere (in literal sense) to find self enlightenment. But Milkman’s mother and sisters are never empowered and Hagar is dead by the end of the novel because, instead of bettering herself, she tries to become the woman that Milkman would want. So the conundrum I face is what is Morrison trying to say about women in this novel?