Opinion: Ferdman (11) reflects on Song of Solomon

Jordan Ferdman

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I have little interest in romanticizing my experience of reading Song of Solomon. I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with the story, or even Toni Morrison’s writing, for that matter. Reading a chapter or so per night was yet another academic chore: skimmed through quickly on the subway or, yes, a summary read on Sparknotes. I wrote mediocre essays in caffeinated hazes and had rushed meetings with my teacher about extensions.

I didn’t have a transformative experience of any kind reading the book, nor was it my favorite book of the year. I’d found class discussions interesting – or, as interesting as they could be during B period – but I didn’t find myself pondering a character’s intentions or beliefs when I wasn’t in class.

Upon hearing of Morrison’s death, I found myself rereading an essay I wrote about Song of Solomon. It was, by no means, well written, or even well-argued, but my thesis stuck out: “Morrison paints Milkman’s limited view of women as just that; by switching narratives throughout the novel, she illustrates a fuller picture of women in the story while demonstrating Milkman’s internalized misogyny.” I don’t think my essay fully proved this point or successfully argued much of anything substantial, but I am struck by the nuance of the thesis. Even in my half-hearted essay, I wasn’t able to identify what Morrison was doing in a few words; instead, it took a sentence with different intricacies and contradictions.

I’ve begun rereading Song of Solomon again and am enjoying it more this time. Reading for pleasure is increasingly difficult as a student, but if anyone’s writing is worth making time for, it’s Toni Morrison’s. In an increasingly polarized political climate, the discussion of legacy and how public figures should be remembered is common. A person’s death doesn’t negate their actions in life, positive or negative, and Toni Morrison’s writing epitomizes that.

It is difficult to understand why her work impacts me now, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that there isn’t a small part of me that, unlike when I read it for school, wants to feel connected to her and her work. Using iconic literature as a vehicle for education comes with benefits and detriments, but the analysis and discussions I’ve retained from English class deepen my understanding of the text and its cultural influence. That said, any piece of literature has the ability to impact the reader differently in respective contexts. In Morrison’s case, the nuance and modulation in her writing lends itself especially well to second, or even third, reads.

For me, the defining factor of her writing is its ambiguity – both the moral obscurity of the characters and the cryptic nature of her verb choice or punctuation placement. My English class could spend an entire period debating an outwardly straightforward action.

There are, of course, some aspects of her writing that I feel confident in concluding. I don’t think that Milkman, the main character of Song of Solomon, is supposed to be a particularly sympathetic character. He lacks empathy and affection and is, in large part, only concerned with himself and his own short-term satisfaction. But Morrison’s masterful storytelling allows the reader to, if not root for him, then feel for him. Empathy and literature have always been intertwined, and its effect has always been important. Morrison was a prime example of that, and the immortality of her words serve as a strong reminder.