In some respects, Milkman’s story is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about the moral and psychological development of the main character. However, Milkman is thirty-two when he finally comes of age, unlike traditional heroes and heroines of the Bildungsroman. In part, Milkman postpones his adulthood because he is comfortable as the pampered only son of an upper-middle-class family. But Milkman also resists the sense of connection and commitment to others that are required of adults. As he seeks the lost gold, he discovers instead his family’s history: the ambivalent legacy of his great-grandfather, who abandons his family to fly back to Africa; the injustice of his grandfather’s murder; the Indian roots of his grandmother; and the child his father had been. He begins to define himself as the descendant of a man who could fly, but also to recognize the costs of his great-grandfather’s transcendence. In so doing, he learns his duty to his family and community. One major turning point occurs when he is lost in the woods, and he realizes that “[a]pparently he thought he deserved only to be loved-from a distance, though-and given what he wanted. And in return he would be … what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.” Milkman’s growth into maturity depends on his realization that in order to share the happiness of others, he must also share their unhappiness and that in some cases he is in fact responsible for the pain of others. It is this lesson that he learns throughout the course of the novel, ultimately becoming a mature, responsible adult.
B Atonement and Forgiveness
Closely related to Milkman’s coming-of-age is his quest for atonement and forgiveness. He begins to see how selfish he has been, taking from his mother and his sisters, coldly casting his lover off, feeling like he doesn’t deserve the few things people ask of him. In order to get the gold, he had been prepared to assault Pilate, a woman who has only been generous to him, an intention of which he is deeply ashamed. But Pilate also teaches him how to seek atonement, for it is Pilate who has returned to the cave for the bones of the man her brother killed, knowing that once you take another human life, you own it. Milkman tries to live up to this, taking a box of Hagar’s hair home with him as a way of seeking to atone for his actions. He also hopes to reconcile his fractured family, inspiring forgiveness among them, but he cannot. Morrison shows the limits of atonement and forgiveness when she writes that Milkman’s newfound knowledge does not change those around him.
C Class Conflict
The class conflict in the novel manifests itself in the relationships of those in the novel. Macon Dead feels ashamed of his lower-class status in relation to his wife and father-in-law. Milkman feels estranged from other blacks by virtue of his privileged position. Macon feels that his sister threatens his newfound propriety. Guitar’s killing rage is in part directed toward Milkman’s inherited advantages, and toward Milkman’s blase attitude to life. Corinthians feels ashamed of her poor lover, Porter. Class jealousy, superiority, and shame prevent the Characters from having close relationships with each other; although in relation to whites, they are only recognized as having one status: being colored, which is something brought home to Milkman when he is picked up by police for no particular reason other than his race.
D Language and Meaning
A continuing preoccupation in the novel is language and meaning, particularly with regard to names and naming. The Deads get their name because of the mistake of a drunk Yankee soldier, yet they claim it anyway. Milkman eventually discovers his family history through his interpretation of the words of a childhood game. Pilate’s name comes from the Bible, and she keeps it in a box that dangles from her ear. The blacks of Southside try to claim the power of naming by calling Mains Avenue Doctor Street. When they are told that it is not Doctor Street, they call it Not Doctor Street, continuing to honor Doctor Foster while acknowledging their powerlessness to name the streets of the city. Language, then, is a double-edged sword: it is imposed on African Americans, but they must claim it, make it their own, and find meaning in it.