Song of Solomon is among the twentieth-century masterpieces that draws from the stock of devices associated with Dickens and finds entirely new life in them. That’s not to say that Toni Morrison had Dickens in mind, but that her imagination, in this novel at least, and his, in most of his novels, are similarly moved.
Most obviously, there is, in Song of Solomon the bourgeois family as a place of confinement and concealment; parenting as love but also a curious dependence, which holds a child in place; the doubling rogue-hero-villain who interrupts the domestically bound world with a radical, charismatic alternative; the doubling of the confining bourgeois domestic with a wild domestic space, each dependent on the other, each rooted in the same buried past. None of these are exact correspondences to Dickens, but they are variations of patterns upon which he improvises.
To them might be added a protagonist who resembles, at least initially, a cipher, and whose self is deepened by forces from without, by being propelled into the discovery of a mystery about a past that is, increasingly in his own mind, his own, and who ultimately bursts forth with heroic vigor.
Most of all, both Morrison and Dickens share a perfect sense of the capacity of melodrama to do important and serious work. T.S. Eliot remarked, in an essay on Dickens and Wilkie Collins, that there can be no drama without melodrama, but the concentration of melodrama in Dickens is remarkable. Definitions are hazardous, but it seems worth hazarding at least a thumbnail sketch of what melodrama might mean:a self-exertion and self-expression incommensurate to the dimensions of a scene and occasion—capable, though, of setting off unseen depths, in the character and their circumstances. It’s the sense of an excess of response, sometimes a function of a character’s self-conscious posturing, sometimes a function author’s narration, in relation to the scale of a situation that distinguishes melodrama.
For Morrison in Song of Solomon (as for Dickens also, albeit with many differences in regards to particulars), melodrama manifests as an intensity of energy—sometimes affective, sometimes oratorical—sustained always by the violent, cascading momentum of the sentences—which breaks out in frustration at the limitations imposed on it by the dimensions of scene and occasion, by what is permitted to the character and by what is afforded by their circumstances—so that the incommensurability is itself a diagnosis of the situation. In other words, the excess of response in relation to the circumstance is felt as excessive in part because the circumstance is so constrained, tightened, deprived of what it could be; whatever else it might be about explicitly, the melodrama is implicitly an indictment of the world, as it is allotted to a character, not being enough. (Old Dorrit is the exemplary Dickensian figure).
At the same time, the excess of energy, whether in the characters’ speeches or in Morrison’s narration, is felt to draw from and contribute to the abundance of the world. The gap between that abundance and what the characters are allotted and lack, and gap also between what a character hungers after without satisfaction and what exists that ought to be able to satisfy, drive a tragic fuse through the work: the waste of people and the world’s abundance alike.
At the same time, the novel finds in the stasis of energy repeatedly denied and repeated renewed the potential for comedy: the picture of endurance offered by the novel is not stoic, but is animated by, animates, small feelings. The characters endure as broken individuals but their being broken does not stifle their will and energy (most importantly manifested as love, though it is variously conceived of): it expends it in disorderly excess that is the melodramatic intensity of the novel—itself a part of the entropic waste, itself capable of being cast by Morrison in both risible and pathetic light. The doubleness is extraordinary, and the resemblance with Dickens is again striking.
Milkman alone is exempt from such energy: his privilege or his sequestration is inseparable from his not having the will or occasion to yield an outburst too great for the moment (and that includes the moment when he strikes his father; Milkman wants for that to define him, but it cannot). In all of Morrison’s narration in the first part of the novel, when she attempts to grapple with what drives Milkman, we are supposed to see that the attempt falls short because he possesses so little drive; none of the explanations are as persuasive or assured as those concerning the characters whose inward intensity her prose inhabits.
The second part of the novel would seem to release the pressure of melodrama for the most part. Milkman journeys on his hero’s quest to discover the family whose past has been secret from him and from them; it feels very near to a red herring, an occasion to remove the reader to a pastoral world, all while, back home, Hagar is reduced to madness and then death. It even seems that the journey is a farce–a tragicomically misdirected expense of money and time and energy, by Milkman, who has never done anything up until this point. In what seems a slapstick vaudeville bit, Pilate smashes a bottle in his face when he returns; but she is utterly serious and deeply grieved. The tragic and the comic are shown to feed off the same platter, even if their table manners differ. The quest is not, of course, farcical; Milkman does return with hard-won knowledge: his world, and Pilate’s and Macon’s worlds, have been deepened and broadened.
But none of that is given the last word or stroke in the novel’s composition. Guitar’s final appearance confirms him as the distinctly Dickensian double of Milkman: the final death, a misfire of the gun, is the first occasion also for Milkman to rise into action of genuinely melodramatic intensity, throwing himself at Guitar. In that instant, he has become something more and less than what he promised, a page before to be: the absurdity of the world, terrible and ridiculous, has asserted itself again, and he throws himself at it, prepared to die, casting a die, the question of whether he lives perhaps less germane to the story that has been told than the fact that he enlists such energy and that it might matter not at all.