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?

What’s the Point of the Vignettes?

Throughout Saeed and Nadia’s story, seemingly unrelated vignettes interrupt the storyline, just for the plot to be picked up again within a few pages. It was not until a few chapters in that I realized that each vignette portrayed a different experience with the magical doors that Saeed and Nadia would eventually travel through. Still, I could not quite comprehend why Hamid felt the need to diverge from the storyline so frequently. Perhaps it is because each vignette not only provides a different perspective of the migrant experience but also helps further the plot by serving as a parallel to Saeed and Nadia’s story.

The vignettes paint migration as not just a means of escaping war and peril but as an opportunity to find the ideal life for oneself. A man in England contemplates suicide before discovering a door to Namibia and creating a new life for himself there. Regardless of how geographically desirable a location may seem, suffering can always find a way to manifest itself. Hamid depicts migration as a tool to break free from both physical and mental suffering and suggests that we are not as bound to our locations of origin as we may believe we are. In another vignette, an old man from Brazil finds love in Amsterdam and brings his Dutch love interest back to Rio de Janeiro for a visit. The nomadic lifestyle that these doors provide is what allowed the two men to discover their love for each other.

Nadia and Saeed could have had a stable life in England, but they both felt incomplete and were inclined to relocate once again to Marin, California. Through the vignettes and Saeed and Nadia’s journey, Hamid communicates that the reason for migrating can be as grave as fleeing for one’s life and can be as simple as craving new experiences.

Parallels Between “The Stranger” and “No Exit”

For the past week or so, I have had discussions about existentialism for two periods each day. In my AP French class, we just finished reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. No Exit is play about three deceased characters who are punished for their actions on Earth by being locked in a room together for eternity. The three characters become entangled in a love triangle and each create a personal Hell for the two others. While reading the play, I struggled to connect it to Camus’ The Stranger and the existentialist discussions we had in class. I was not sure how the play’s underlying theme- “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people”- is applicable to the argument that the meaning of life is life itself. I could not comprehend how these two seemingly unrelated ideas were derived from the same philosophy.

After speaking with my French teacher about some of these thoughts, I now understand that Hell is other people because what we fear most and loathe most is the judgement of others. The idea is not that other people are hell because they can be annoying or rude; the idea is that other people are hell because of how they make us feel about ourselves. Existentialism is being free from social constructs and the judgement of others that reinforces those constructs. In No Exit, the characters’ damnation is an eternity of seeking approval from others and never receiving it. Other people cannot provide your life with meaning. I think that meaning is something you have to define for yourself.

Although I agree with existentialism to some extent, I have had quite a hard time practicing the philosophy. I have found that the most significant deterrent that is preventing me from embracing existentialism is in fact my fear of being judged by others. I think that I have internalized too many social constructs to be a true existentialist, but I am open to becoming more self aware like Camus’ Meursault or Sartre’s Ines.

Variations in Human Nature on Different Planets

I found that Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” was by far the most outlandish and unconventional short story that our class read. I still cannot seem to wrap my head around the implantation of Tlic eggs into the Terran hosts. What I found the most jarring though was actually how accepting the humans were of their submissive role to the Tlics. 

Throughout human history, humans have always managed to find and seize new things that were not there for the taking. For centuries, imperialism was second nature to many powerful nations. The arrival of European powers was always followed by the appropriation of land and resources and the forced assimilation of natives. I found it quite surprising that the humans had not attempted to subject the Tlics to their own influence upon immediate arrival on the Tlics’ land. Butler reveals that there had been Terran resistance to Tlic power in the past; however, the resistance seems more likely to be over the reproduction arrangement than an unsuccessful attempt at imperialization. Perhaps the first Terrans to arrive really had tried to colonize the Tlics’ land but failed and were written out of history as a result.

Regardless of whatever the backstory might have been, the Terrans’ obedience is still surprising because of how unbalanced their relationship is in favor of the Tlics. Human beings have always viewed themselves as the single most important and developed species, so it is quite out of character that they would submit to another species.