What is the Significance of Breast Milk?

*slight spoilers for Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon*

When first reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I tried my best to be a good Nabokovian reader and approach the novel as something brand new, but as the story progressed, I couldn’t help myself from drawing similarities between Beloved and Song of Solomon, another acclaimed novel of Morrison’s.

Not only do the novels have similar storytelling techniques and sentence structures, but they even share several central themes and motifs. Both novels have roots in slavery, even though they are both set in post-slavery America and have central characters who were born into freedom. Milkman, the great-grandson of a slave, tries to uncover his family history, whereas Sethe, a former slave, tries to hide her past as a slave from her children. 

There was one particular motif that I was quite surprised to find in both novels: breast milk. In Song of Solomon, Macon Dead III is given the nickname “Milkman” because when he was four years old, he was caught by a neighbor breastfeeding from his mother. His mother breastfeeds him for such a long time because it is the only physical intimacy she has with another human being. Their community views the exchange of breast milk between Milkman and his mother as inappropriate and incestual. In contrast, in Beloved, breastfeeding is seen as the ultimate expression of maternal love in an intimate and affectionate but not sexual way. 

“All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me. Nobody was going to get it to her fast enough, or take it away when she had enough and didn’t know it. Nobody knew that she couldn’t pass her air if you held her up on your shoulder, only if she was lying on my knees. Nobody knew that but me and nobody had her milk but me” (19).

In Beloved, milk symbolizes a mother’s love, yet in Song of Solomon, it represents a mother’s impure desires. In both cases, the mother’s milk provides nourishment to the children, but the intentions are completely different. I find that Morrison’s ability to use different connotations of motifs interchangeably across books is the most sophisticated form of symbolism there is. Is Nabokovian reading really the best way of reading if it prevents people from making connections like this, or did making this connection somehow negatively impact my reading of Beloved?

One thought on “What is the Significance of Breast Milk?

  1. I believe I read an analysis of Beloved where it said that breastmilk was a symbol for life itself, but this is also a very interesting take on it, especially in connection with Song of Solomon

    Like

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