Summary of Chapter 5
Hagar's frustration and growing depression take the form of monthly attempts to kill Milkman. Although he takes the attempts seriously, he decides he is tired of running from her. He waits for her one night at Guitar's. Guitar argues with him about what is most valuable in life, then he leaves. Milkman thinks of his mother while waiting for Hagar. Once he saw his mother leave the house at a late hour alone and decided to follow her to see what she did on these mysterious outings that he had heard about from his father. Milkman followed her to a nearby town, to the cemetery where her father was buried. She spent the night on her father's grave. He later confronts her about this, and Ruth tells her son her side of the story.
She was isolated as a child, and her father was the only person who ever cared about her. When Macon married her, he came between her and her father's love. She accuses Macon of killing her father by withholding his medicine when he was dying. She was not naked next to her father's dead body but in her slip, kissing his fingers, the only part of him not eaten up by disease. After that, Macon refused to sleep with her or show her any affection. He also tried to kill Milkman as a fetus in his mother's womb. Her long nursing of him was to protect him, she claims.
Just then Hagar comes in and raises a knife over Milkman as he lies motionless on Guitar's bed, pretending to be asleep. He does not try to stop her, feeling he must confront his fate. She brings the knife to his neck but cannot move her arm. She does not really want to kill him. Milkman feels victorious and has no pity for Hagar. He tells her to plunge the knife into her own genitals, a cruel sort of curse that will manifest in time. For now she gives up her monthly attempts.
When Ruth learns that Hagar is trying to kill Milkman, she remembers the past she did not tell her son, and how his father tried to kill him when she was pregnant. They had two daughters and would not have had any more children except for Pilate's intervention. Pilate had visions and knew Milkman should be born. She gave Ruth an aphrodisiac potion for Macon. When Ruth became pregnant, Macon was furious and tried to cause Ruth to have an abortion or miscarriage. Pilate protected her and the unborn child. Now Ruth turns once again to Pilate for help to save him from Hagar's wrath. At Pilate's she meets Hagar and both women claim they are important to Milkman. Pilate interrupts to say that neither of them is important to Milkman now.
Pilate shares more family history with Ruth. After the murder of their father, Pilate and Macon separated. She went to Virginia, remembering that her mother had come from there. Pilate wandered around homeless, taking up with various people, first a preacher's family, then migrant workers learning medicine from a root woman. She took a lover who discovered she had no navel, and she became an outcast, keeping her stomach hidden from then on. On an island off Virginia, she was happy with a lover and gave birth to Reba. The ghost of her father appeared and told her “Sing.” He also told her there is responsibility when a person leaves a situation.
These two prophetic statements from her father's ghost guide Pilate in her life, but she does not really understand them until later. She takes up singing, and it makes her happy. She thinks her father wants her to go back to the cave where she and Macon hid after his death. They had found a white man sleeping there, and Macon killed him in defense, since they were refugees and knew the identity of their father's murderers. They had left the body and run off. Pilate went back after Reba's birth, found some bones in the cave, and carried them with her in a green bag for the rest of her life, as a penance. After wandering with Reba for twenty years, she returned to live near Macon because by now she had a granddaughter, Hagar, and wanted to be near family. She helped Ruth to conceive and bear Milkman.
Commentary on Chapter Five
Up to now, the narrative has been from Milkman's point of view. After Hagar's attempts to kill him, the narrative switches to the female point of view of Ruth and Pilate. Ruth's isolation was like Milkman's own, because she was the refined daughter of the doctor and could not mingle with either whites or lower-class blacks. Her father was the only one who loved her. Although her hanging on to her father and son seem to be abnormal and somewhat incestuous by implication, her loneliness and abuse by her husband give a new angle on her behavior. Macon accuses Ruth of being passively aggressive and his sister of being treacherous. He does not trust women. In this chapter both of these women are seen in a more reasonable light, trying to survive as best they can in a hostile world. Though Ruth was a protected daughter of privilege, and Pilate was a homeless waif, Pilate is the stronger of the two.
Of all the characters in the book, Pilate is the one who most knows herself and lives her life unafraid and with dignity. She creates whom she wants to be, and she tries to help others, yet Pilate is marginalized in every possible way. She is black, poor, a refugee, without male protection, an outcast because of her physical abnormality, and a visionary. Because of her background she is free of intimidation in a way the others are not. Pilate also has a deep moral sense. As much a victim of racism as her brother, she is still not full of hate and revenge. She has not become hard, even carrying around what she believes to be the bones of the white man her brother killed.
Milkman also becomes more interesting now as a figure because all three women, Ruth, Pilate, and finally, Hagar, have given totally to bring him into existence and keep him alive. He does not understand or appreciate any of this. All three women have Biblical names of outcasts. Ruth is the loyal outsider who helps to found the line of David, and therefore, the lineage of Christ. Pilate is the Roman outsider who becomes responsible for Christ's death, and Hagar was the outcast mistress of Abraham, who was thrown out into the desert after she had served her purpose.
The single event of Macon Dead Sr.'s death has many strange and tragic outcomes over the next two generations, especially since the stories were not told. It becomes more and more important as these lives move forward that they also go back to what has happened but never confronted or healed. Again, this parallels the history of African-Americans who are only able to go forward by looking truthfully at the past.