Paradise LostParadise Lost, Paradise Gained
Nine patriarchs found a town. Four women flee a life. Only one paradise is attained. Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise revolves around the concept of paradise, and those who believe they have it and those who actually do. Morrison uses a town and a former convent, each with its own religious center, to tell her tale about finding solace in an oppressive world. Whether fleeing inter- and intra-racial conflict or emotional hurt, the characters travel a path of self-isolation and eventual redemption. In her novel Paradise, Toni Morrison uses the town of Ruby and four broken women to demonstrate how paradise can not be achieved through isolation, but rather only through understanding and acceptance.
Morrison opens her novel with a narrative about the origins of the town of Ruby and how this seemingly black paradise is born out of isolation. Nearly a century before the founding of Ruby, nine Old Fathers lead a group of ex-slaves on a quest for a paradise on earth. On this quest they face the phrase ‘Come Prepared or Not at All’ (Morrison 13); however, they feel they [are] more than prepared–they [are] destined (14). Having been shunned by whites and light-skinned blacks alike and [b]ecoming stiffer, prouder with each misfortune (14), they are led by a mysterious man to their promised land just as the fiery whirlwind led the Israelites to the promised land of Canaan. It is in this promised land that the former slaves, led by the nine patriarchs, begin to build the town of Haven. At the center of this town, they build the Oven, which becomes a symbol of their solidarity and isolation from the rest of the world that has rejected them. Soon a thriving town emerges with strong moral ideals and views in order to keep the rest of the world at bay.
Despite this isolation, the second generation of the founding fathers, upon returning from World War II, come to realize that their utopia is in danger. The citizens begin to associate with the outside world that had once despised them, and they became eager to get away and try someplace else (6). The town of Haven had gone from feet to belly in fifty years (5) and because of this the New Fathers decide to dismantle the Oven and relocate. The New Fathers sought to keep the dream of a paradise alive because they knew what they might become if they did not begin anew (6). Fifteen families pack their bags and leave to found the town of Ruby, a town isolated by ninety miles from anything.
Just like its predecessor, Ruby is founded on the concept that isolation equals protection. The citizens view Ruby as a fortress [they] bought and built up and [which they had] to keep everybody locked in or out (213). It is a town where outsider and enemy are ‘. . . two words [that] mean the same thing’ (212). They believe in their isolation so much that the outsider, Reverend Misner, feels like he [is] herding a flock which [believes] not only that it [has] created the pasture it [grazes] but that grass from any other meadow [is] toxic (212). In an effort to retain this isolation which they believe to be paradise, the citizens did not build anything to serve a traveler: no diner, no police, no gas station, no public phone, no movie house, no hospital (12).
In spite of these efforts of self-isolation, the older residents of Ruby begin to realize that their so called paradise is in jeopardy. The younger residents have become complacent and seek to learn about the outside world and their African roots. The sanctity of the Oven is now becoming sullied by radio music and vandalism. The elders begin to look for a reason of what might be causing the destruction of their meticulously created paradise. They seek answers to questions of why [a] mother was knocked down the stairs by her cold-eyed daughter. Four damaged infants were born in one family. Daughters refused to get out of bed. Brides disappeared on their honeymoons. Two brothers shot each other on New Year’s Day. Trips to Demby for VD shots common (11). It is to answer these questions and to protect their paradise that the elder men look seventeen miles away to a former convent where there [are] women like none [they] knew or ever heard tell of (8).
Unlike the citizens of Ruby who believe that paradise is found through an isolated location, the residents of the Convent discover the true meaning of paradise. The Convent is the home of four broken women fleeing from emotional hurt spanning the spectrum of the guilt of killing one’s own children to sexual abuse. These four women, Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas isolate themselves within the confines of the Convent walls rather than deal with their pain. It is within these walls that they realize that they [can] not leave the one place they [are] free to leave (262). At the center of the Convent is Connie, a woman of warm living flesh very unlike the cold dead metal of the Oven in the center of Ruby.
It is through Connie that the women are able to understand and accept their problems and thereby come to the realization that paradise is a concept rather than an isolated locale. Connie tells the women, ‘. . . I will teach you what you are hungry for’ (262). The women hunger for paradise and this is related in the story of Piedade that Connie tells the women. The women begin to heal and attain paradise through the teachings of Connie. She forces the women to let go of their pain by stepping-out of their bodies and transferring it onto drawings of themselves on the cellar floor. By putting the pain outside of themselves, the four formerly broken women are able to achieve paradise and the longed for [cleansing] rain had finally come (266) to wash away their sins.
Even as the women revel in their new found paradise, the men of Ruby discover the falsity in their own definition of paradise. The men break into the convent and kill the women and thereby prove to themselves that they have become like the same people they despised that sent them on their quest for a paradise in the first place. They also realize that their town is not a paradise and that isolation will never make it a paradise. The citizens must take this prison calling itself a town (308) and rebuild it in order to form a paradise within themselves rather than without, just as the four women rebuilt themselves through the teachings of Connie.
Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise addresses the idea of paradise and how it is achieved. Morrison uses the town of Ruby to demonstrate how isolation can not and will not create a paradise, while also using the women of the Convent to reveal that paradise is an inner concept that can only be achieved through understanding and acceptance. The author takes four broken women, kills them, and has them reborn into a paradise of their own making.