Paradise

by Toni Morrison. The novel is about the clash between two groups of people with different histories and different ways of life. It’s a great novel and I very much enjoyed it. My review contains spoilers, so as usual, it is underneath the cut.

There are two communities in the novel, the townspeople of Ruby and the women living in what’s called the Convent, although it is no longer a Convent. Ruby is a community of African Americans in rural Oklahoma, the convent was the house of a fraudster and later became a convent and school for Native Americans (who presumably where sent there to break their ties to their own culture). At the time the novel begins, the convent is transforming from a convent (there’s only one nun left who soon dies) to a kind of haven for a handful of outcast women, who, over time find healing. This community of women is viewed with growing hatred by the leaders of the black community of Ruby, who lead a very conservative patriarchal life and who resist all outside change. Ruby was founded after the second world war by returning black veterans who found that their original black community, Haven, was on the decline. They are motivated by the founding of Haven, against all odds, by their “Old Fathers” and drag the oven with them to build the same kind of community somewhere new. The oven is supposed to be the centre of the community, but at the time of the novel, in the 1970s, it becomes a symbol of the conflict between the old and young of Ruby. Because their fathers were denied entry into other already established black towns, the founders of Ruby are against any outsiders, whites as well as blacks (especially black people who are not as pure dark-skinned as they are). They are also against the rising Civil Rights movement and identification with Africa. Ruby’s society is strictly hierarchical, with the founders of the bank, Steward and Deacon Morgan being the most influential. They are also the ones that instigate the murderous raid against the Convent with which the novel starts.

At the beginning of the novel, the Convent holds just one last nun, the Mother Superior, Mary Magna, and her companion Connie (Consolata). Mary Magna soon dies and over a couple of years four other women join the Convent and create a community. First there is Mavis, who flees from her family after accidentally causing the death of her newborn twins, Pearl and Merle. She sees her dead children as spirits at the convent and it gives her peace. Next comes Grace, promiscuous, bold and looking for hidden treasure. She starts an affair with one of the young men at Ruby, the nephew and heir of the Morgan family. Next comes Seneca, a young girl who was abandoned by the sister (later revealed to be her mother) and brought up in foster families. She’s fleeing from sexual abuse. Lastly, there’s Divine (or Pallas) who’s older boyfriend left her for her mother. She is pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy at the Convent.

After the death of Mary Magna, Connie falls into a depression but when she emerges, she takes on the spiritual leadership of the women:

I call myself Consolata Sosa. If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for.

Paradise (1998), by Toni Morrison, p. 262

Despite all their differences, they manage a kind of spiritual healing just before they are raided by the leading men of Ruby. Ire against the Convent had been rising among the men for years. Deacon had had an affair with Connie but felt threatened by her sexuality. There had been rumours that the Convent did abortions for women in need from Ruby (this is a lie – they did provide a safe haven and friendship for various women, but that was all). There’s also a rumour that the birth of four handicapped children in one family was also somehow due to the women at the Convent. All these rumours and other conflicts lead to the deadly raid. Before the raid, the midwife of Ruby, Lone DuPres, tries to warn the Convent, but they don’t listen. Lone also raises the alarm among the families of Ruby who are not part of the raid and they try to interfere but arrive too late.

During the raid, Connie is shot and killed and so is one of the other women (the white girl – though the reader doesn’t know which of the women is white). The others are presumably also shot while running away through the fields. The baby boy isn’t shot, as the men don’t overlook him. However, the women did fight back, and hurt some of their attackers. When the other townspeople arrive and find the dead bodies of Connie and the white woman, they take the men back to Ruby. When they return to collect the bodies, they are all gone, including the baby. At the end of the novel, all the women appear to some of their family member, but it’s unclear if it is really them. Are they dead? Are they apparitions? Or did three of them survive and only one is an apparition (the dead white woman)? What happened to the baby? Connie appears to be in a strange kind of Paradise, with Piedade, who is perhaps her lost mother.

After the raid, things in Ruby will never be the same:

How hard they had worked for this place; how far away they once were from the terribleness they have just witnessed. How could so clean and blessed a mission devour itself and become the world they had escaped?

Paradise (1998), by Toni Morrison, p. 292

One of the Morgan twins, Deacon, is sorry for what happened and is thus at odds for the first time with his twin. Change is inevitable and it comes to Ruby with the death of one of the handicapped children, Save-Marie Fleetwood, the first community member to be buried in the new graveyard.

This is just a summary of the main events. As ever, Morrison’s work is a complex tapestry with many intricate details and shades of meaning. It is very good, and I like it as much as I do Beloved. Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise from a trilogy, although I’m not sure what makes it a trilogy. Maybe the progress through history? Beloved, as the earliest, just after slavery; Jazz set in the 1920s and Paradise in the 1970s? If you haven’t read these novels, there’s a treat ahead of you.

Now that I’ve read Paradise, I’m entering unknown territory. Paradise and all the previous novels were rereads for me (although I’d forgotten much of their stories) but the next ones will all be new reads. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year of reading Morrison.

Here’s my list, ranked (although all of them are good and well worth a read):

  1. Beloved and Paradise
  2. Jazz
  3. Song of Solomon
  4. Sula
  5. The Bluest Eye
  6. Tar Baby

One thought on “Paradise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.