There are some characters in literature that begin like a seed, small and simple in certain context, but they grow with insight and understanding into a completely new being. Often times, this development of the protagonist is seen as the most crucial element in the progression of the text. This growth is the central purpose of the character and the novel. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, protagonist Milkman Dead embarks on a journey to discover truths of his family’s origin.
Most importantly, the journey becomes two-fold, making a profound impact to prompt the growth and development of Milkman’s character as a whole. Various events associated with the Shalimar journey serve as turning points for Milkman, breaking his dependence on his father, establishing new relationships through newfound selflessness, and drawing out his passion and drive for life. The journey to Shalimar not only physically detaches Milkman from his father, Macon Dead, but inside Milkman, it also serves as the movement that propels his strive for independence.
Milkman becomes aware that Macon provides everything for him. He says to his father, “I’m still living at home, working for you – not because I sweated for the job, but because I’m your son. I’m over thirty years old” (163). Milkman has been completely dependent on his father in every aspect. This suggests that he is still a child, not mature enough to steer his own life. Even in a previous attempt to leave and pave his own road, Milkman needs to ask his father to pay his way for a year because he has achieved nothing and cannot help himself.
This reliance on his family, primarily his father, comes to a halt as Milkman leaves for Shalimar, alone. The pivotal moment is emphasized at the point where he is driving: “…sitting behind a steering wheel… He was his own director – relieving himself when he wanted to, stopping for a cold beer when he was thirsty…” (260). The start of the journey symbolizes the beginning of Milkman’s growth. Finally, he takes control of his own life; he is both literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat. In this stepping-stone stage, Milkman parts with his inner child and must think on his own, like an adult.
Milkman achieves the independence he wanted and at this point, becomes his own man and his character is free to develop further. During Milkman’s time in Shalimar, he gradually transforms from an egotistic youth to a man of compassion. In Shalimar, Milkman is introduced to genuine friendships he had never known. He establishes real relationships with people by learning how to reciprocate acts of kindness. Subtle changes in Milkman take place, first, when he begins to spend time with the town’s hospitable residents. After a hunting trip with a group of men he had just met, Milkman opens up.
He becomes comfortable with them as they bond over laughs and stories. Milkman experienced a real joy of sharing; he felt “exhilarated by simply walking the earth… And he did not limp” (281). This symbolizes Milkman’s developed moral outlook. He acquires a new personality and improvement in his behavior. At a woman’s house, in which he stayed, he voluntarily makes up the bed, washes her dishes, and cleans the tub (285). These are simple acts that mark his change and new behavior. In Shalimar, Milkman learns to give back and he develops compassion for people.
This moral evolution is drastic in Milkman; even his childhood friend, Guitar, “had never seen Milkman give anybody a hand, especially a stranger” (296). Milkman was spoiled by his family and only minded himself; thus, this transformation is a milestone in his character development. The change of heart transforms Milkman into a new person. By the end of his time in Shalimar, Milkman has shed his former naive and passive self, and learns to actively face life despite its difficulties. Guitar had once said to Milkman, “if things ever got tough, you’d melt.
You’re not a serious person” (104). Guitar implies that Milkman avoids difficult issues and is unable to defend himself. Milkman is dead to many things; in fact, his last name, Dead, functions as a pun to emphasize his indifferent character. In Shalimar, however, Milkman breaches a turning point to embrace a new perspective on life. Milkman is overcome with emotion when Guitar attempts to kill him. Milkman becomes “filled with such sadness to be dying…and [he] grabbed the Winchester at his side, cocked it, and pulled the trigger…” (279). At this moment, Milkman shows aggression.
He realizes he feels sad at the face of death and puts up a fight to defend himself. Milkman finally develops passion for something, and his character is transformed through his newfound value in life. Guitar attempts to kill him a second time and “without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees- [Milkman] leaped” (337). With a new perspective on life, Milkman learns to face the troubles of living; his character becomes driven by new passions and emotions. By the end of the novel, Milkman is a new person, unafraid of neither life nor death.
Milkman’s character experiences an entire transformation, and by the end of his Shalimar journey, he becomes a new person. Milkman matures by breaking away and asserting his independence. He also shows moral growth by reciprocating kindness and friendships with compassion; he discovers a new energy for living that drives him to new emotions, to defend his own being, and to embrace life with passion. Throughout the journey, Milkman is a work in progress; however, at the end of the novel, his character had grown and developed, changing Milkman, as a whole, for the better.