Greed Vs. Generosity
The Theme of Taking Versus Giving
One Symbol Explored
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, from beginning to end, contains references to gold or golden eyes; Macon II (nearly the literal representation of greed), Guitar (in his greed for his version of justice), the Weimaraners (representations of the Butlers- a greedy family), the bags of gold that Milkman fruitlessly searches for (a purposely pointless endeavor), and the bobcat (a symbol of Guitar), are all part of this glittering, golden image of greed.
The nature of greed is simple- wanting as much of something (or someone) as can possibly be obtained in order to feel some kind of solace, and going great lengths to obtain it. Greed- within this bildungsroman of Milkman Dead- plays such a major role that it is manifested through physical means (the golden eyes, the dogs, the bags of gold, and the bobcat). Macon II- Milkman’s father, almost epitomizes this human flaw- a greed so consuming that he attempts to absorb Milkman into following his footsteps through a misconstrued vision of his own father’s (Jake’s) hardworking and strong dream that created an almost empire-like farm and gained a lasting admiration.
Guitar, on the other hand, has a greed that stems from pride (though he claims otherwise). His greed for justice blossoms from the clear racism toward blacks in his community (and other communities, through the news), and from the deep urge to set things right (a noble urge, though horribly executed). His only solution to this urge for equalization is to commit a type of “leveling the playing field” through The Seven Days (whose philosophy is essentially “an eye for an eye”). This great greed for gaining an even hand is physically manifested in Guitar’s eyes; “His cat eyes were gashes of gold” (22).
These eyes, later on, are reflected in the weimaraners- a special dog-breed commonly found among the high class. In Chapter Ten of the novel, Milkman ventures into the Butler Mansion and encounters Circe- a ghost surrounded by the weimaraners- goofy and gangly dogs with golden eyes. Known as “the dog with the human brain,” weimaraners are very intelligent, and, in this novel, greatly connected to Circe. The Butlers greatly mistreated Circe as a young woman, and became people she didn’t like- she even looks down on them at times. Circe, a notable figure in Homer’s Odyssey, turns her enemies into animals. The Butlers, being a very greedy family (even to the point of suicide because of a lack of riches), is immediately reflected in the weimaraners, and could even be the dogs who float about Circe in a constant buzz of humming.
The greed comes into focus again in the cave that Milkman travels to in order to find the gold that Pilate and Macon II supposedly left behind. Milkman’s entire goal was to find the gold in this cave, and when he goes- no gold is there. The absence of the actual gold is very symbolic of the fact that riches are nothing and that greed is an empty endeavor. The major characters’ (Macon II, Guitar, and Milkman) hopes for this seeming abundance of gold are shattered when Milkman finally discovers that no gold is actually in the cave.
The final place that we see the vital golden cat eyes is in the bobcat that Milkman’s hunting group kills (after Guitar attempts to strangle Milkman). As they gut the animal- Guitar’s words are placed parallel to the dismembering of the carcass- creating a clear relationship between the two. The fact that this animal is now dead and is having his heart torn out (by Milkman) is another way of describing the short shelf-life of physical greed. The lasting image, however- is the “eyes [that] held the menace of the night” (283).
“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” ― John Holmes
Generosity is a problem solver. She is a quiet woman, but she speaks when she feels that there is something that needs to be shared. She was a teacher up at Greenborrough High School, but then she let her sister, Compassion, take the position in order to move on to solving bigger problems. She does not boast about anything, including her job- working for St. Francis’ Soup Kitchen, but she is especially rich; when Generosity’s grandmother, Hope, moved into the heart of the country, she gave all of her riches to Generosity, to support all of her endeavors, because she knows that Generosity will not squander the inheritance.
She has always been smart with money, and her words. She uses her multi-trillion dollar bank account to buy little gifts for people- to make them feel special- because they are. She has a large kitchen and gives bread to everyone. She does tiny things with the biggest heart you've ever seen. She is merely a little girl- but she has grown up fast. She carries one-thousand dollar bills in her pocket, and as she walks down the street she gives them to people who spent the night shivering on the pavement. She spends time with people who spent the night crying themselves to sleep. She knows who needs what- exactly when, and how. She only donates large sums of money to charities after she knows that they are definitely making a difference for the common good.
Hundreds of sheets of paper slide under her wrist every afternoon. She writes letters to people she knows and people she doesn't. Love letters. Letters that remind those people why they’re here and why Generosity loves to give things to them. Some of the things she gives are useful- some of them aren't, but that doesn't necessarily matter. What matters is that Generosity understands that people love being loved, and she loves them through giving.
Her parent and child, Love, is extremely happy to have Generosity as kin- Love is very proud of Generosity. Generosity’s estranged cousin, Greed, on the other hand, loathes her. Greed is blind- so he doesn't even know that it’s Generosity that he hates. She has tried to give to him, but he only accepts it because it is something more for him to have- not because she was doing something kind for him. Generosity has been at odds with him- trying to figure out how to make him see that she loves him. She gets tired sometimes and stops being herself- but she always returns, in one form or another.
Chapter 8- The Peacock Symbolizes a Sense of Pride (or the Ego).
Chapter 9- Greedy Minds: Oppression Causes Violence
Literary Analysis Response
Taking and Giving
8 April 2014
Taking and Giving
“Happiness doesn't result from what we get, but from what we give.” ― Ben Carson
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the famed bildungsroman of Milkman Dead, carries the major theme of greed at ends with generosity throughout the entire novel. Michael Awkward, author of “Unruly and Let Loose,” an article describing the use of myth, ideology, and gender roles in the novel, extrapolates on how Morrison uses greed and generosity through the dominance of one over another, the duality of the human mind, and the initial roles of women (to give knowledge and completion) in literature- especially myths.
Towards the beginning of the novel, Milkman sees Hagar for the first time ever- and he is changed. The novel makes it seem to be love at first sight- but the relationship, after years of milking it for instant gratification, falls to shambles after Milkman leaves in order to appease his father’s deranged, gold-focused desires. Milkman’s abuse of Hagar’s love (which quickly turns into obsession), is a simple example of the greed that, in stereotypical gender roles, is generally executed by the male. Awkward states that “[Milkman] sees that his egotistical masculinist treatment of Hagar”(Awkward 81) leads to Milkman’s eventual realization as to what he was doing when he greedily used her obsession as a means of social fame and gratification.
The duality of the human mind is also mentioned in the novel, manifested through Guitar’s almost contradictory statements about his beliefs. Guitar- initially presented as a self-proclaimed violent murderer- suddenly shows his generous side, when he speaks to Hagar after Milkman’s final insult. He even begins to explain to her “You can’t own a human being. You can’t lose what you don’t own” (Morrison 306). He tries to show her that she’s misguided in a gentle way- and even takes her back home- out of the kindness of his own heart. Then- immediately after he tries to show her the truth- he talks about Hagar’s greed! That the “[doormat women] loved their love so much they would kill anybody who got in it’s way” (306). There is major truth within these statements, and they help explain the true sense of greed- that it is highly undetectable under the guise of love- and that sometimes actual love means letting the one you love go.
The last major thing that Awkward talks about in his article is the role of women in myths and/or legends. He states “The mythic (and historical) role of the female as supplement, then, reflects androcentric ideology…” (Awkward 75)- or the placing of the male figure at the center of the novel. Women are only meant as a generous givers of knowledge and understanding in order to bring a full understanding of self to the male figure; they are merely a supplement of the male psyche within myths. This generous figure is seen quite a few times within Song of Solomon- Hagar (in her initial generous love of Milkman), Reba (in her giving of gifts to the men she meets), Pilate (in her bestowing of wisdom upon Milkman), Lena (in her donation of tough wisdom to Milkman about domination), Corinthians (in her giving of whole self to Porter), Ruth (in her weird kind of giving of life to Milkman), Sweet (in her generous giving of self and pampering to Milkman), and Circe (in her generous donation of knowledge of the past upon the protagonist). Clearly, generosity comes in all forms- the hunting party also showed social inclusion, a type of generosity seldom found in reality. Guitar is generous in his opinion and pep-talks, and Milkman eventually becomes generous towards Pilate- helping her bury her father.
Overall, Song of Solomon is a wonderful novel that contains many little facets of greed and generosity that reverberate throughout the novel- from the greediness of Solomon’s freedom as he flies away, to the generosity of Ryna’s motherhood as her cries echo from the gulch.
Awkward, Michael. Unruly and Let Loose: Myth, Ideology, and Gender in Song of Solomon. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.