The Deads exemplify the patriarchal, nuclear family that has traditionally been a stable and critical feature not only of American society but of Western civilization in general. The primary institution for the reproduction and maintenance of children, ideally it provides individuals with the means for understanding their place in the world. The degeneration of the Dead family and the destructiveness of Macon's rugged individualism symbolize the invalidity of American, indeed Western, values. Morrison's depiction of this family demonstrates the incompatibility of received assumptions with the texture and demands of life in black American communities.
Pilate Dead, Macon's younger sister, provides a marked contrast to her brother and his family. While Macon's love of property and money determines the nature and quality of his relationships, Pilate's sheer disregard for status, occupation, hygiene, and manners is accompanied by an ability to affirm spiritual values such as compassion, respect, loyalty, and generosity. Pilate introduces a quality of "enchantment" into the novel.
The circumstances of her birth make her a character of supernatural proportions. She delivered herself at birth and was born without a navel. Her smooth stomach isolates her from society. Moreover, her physical condition symbolizes her lack of dependence on others. Her self-sufficiency and isolation prevent her from being trapped or destroyed by the extremely decaying values that threaten her brother's life.
Before Milkman leaves his home in Michigan, he perceives the world in materialistic, unyielding terms that recall his father's behavior. Indeed, the search for gold that sends him to Virginia reveals his perception that escaping from his past and his responsibilities and finding material treasure will guarantee him a sense of his own identity. Milkman's assumption that his trip south holds the key to his liberation is correct, although it is not gold that saves him. In his ancestors' world, communal and mythical values prevail over individualism and materialism; when he adopts their assumptions in place of his own, he arrives at a more complete understanding of what his experience means.
Milkman's development rests partly on his comprehending the ways in which his life is bound up with the experiences of others and partly on his establishing an intimate connection with the land for which his grandfather died. These accomplishments attend his greater achievement: learning to complete, understand, and sing the song that contains the history of his family. Milkman comes to know fully who he is when he can supply the lyrics to the song Pilate has only partially known.
The song, which draws on African and African American stories of blacks who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, explains Milkman's lifelong fascination with flight. When Milkman learns the whole song and can sing it to Pilate as she has sung it to others, he assumes his destiny. He understands his yearning toward flight as a way in which his ancestral past makes itself known and felt to him.
Milkman's sense of identity emerges when he allows himself to accept his personal and familial past. His quest critiques the faith in self-sufficiency for which his father stands. Through his story, Morrison questions Western conceptions of individualism and offers more fluid, destabilized constructions of identity.