Paradise (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Paradise, Toni Morrison’s first novel since she was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been eagerly awaited. It spans more than eighty years, beginning with the founding of Haven, Oklahoma, by a group of former slaves (the Old Fathers) led by Zechariah Morgan, after they are turned away by lighter citizens of an all-black town (ironically named Fairly) because their skins are too dark. This bitter event, known as the Disallowing, is reenacted each Christmas season in Haven, which thrives until the hard years of the Depression and Dust Bowl.
Veterans returning from World War II decide to relocate their dying town, renaming it Ruby in honor of Zechariah’s granddaughter, the first to be buried there. Her twin brothers Steward and Deacon Morgan are bankers and respected civic leaders in the new community. Ruby remains largely isolated from the rest of the world, and its inhabitants prefer it that way. Tradition- bound town fathers are willing to sacrifice in order to continue their pure line.
Ruby’s patriarchal traditions are challenged by the inhabitants of an old mansion known as the Convent, some seventeen miles from town. Originally built as a pleasure palace, complete with pornographic plumbing, by an embezzler who was arrested at his first wild party, it was then purchased by Catholic nuns as a boarding school for Arapaho girls. Years later, after both students and nuns have gone, the Convent becomes an informal...
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Paradise is set in a small town in Oklahoma and shows how a community’s past can influence, and perhaps determine, its present and future. As with Morrison’s two previous novels, Beloved and Jazz, Paradise is based on thorough research into a period of African-American history.
There is a rich history of African Americans in the American West, and although this subject was left out of many of the history books used in most classrooms, this is now starting to change. Some people fled the policies of slavery, whereas others simply sought opportunity in less-populated parts of the country. There were many good reasons for blacks to flee the South, before, during, and after the Civil War. Advertising, recruitment campaigns, and land incentives ensured that many thousands of black settlers went West, ready for new lives that would involve greater freedom and control of their own destinies.
All-black towns sprang up by the dozens throughout Oklahoma, Kansas, and elsewhere. Some of the towns were quite large. Two in particular seem to be the inspiration for material in Paradise. The town of Boley, Oklahoma boasted 4,000 citizens. When Booker T. Washington visited Boley in 1905, he was impressed with what he found; there had not been an arrest in Boley for two years (compare this fact to an observation in Paradise’s first chapter: “It neither had nor...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
As this discussion and the reviews show, Paradise is first and foremost a novel about race, gender, and attitudes that are a product of race and gender. Killing the "white woman" is the first and, arguably, the most dangerous of the crimes the men undertake. Who is the "white girl"? Morrison has said in lectures that the answer to this is "obvious," but knowledgeable reviewers have suggested Seneca, Pallas, and Mavis as candidates. What are we to make of the paradox, that the construction of Ruby is about race and the whiteness of the woman is mentioned again and again, but precise identification is never verified? Each reader builds her or his set of clues. Is the point that so much violence and exclusion are based on race, but we cannot determine without a direct statement which character is white? Is it possible that race does not matter if women (or men?) can find a solidarity among themselves? Here are a few other starting points for group discussions. An excellent set of twenty discussion questions can be found on the Random House website, located at http:// www.randomhouse.com/features/ morrison/paradise/rgg.html
1. How do you feel about the uncertain ending of this novel? Would you prefer that Morrison bring traditional closure to her narrative?
2. Is there hope for Ruby at the end of the novel? Will Deacon's change and Misner's resolve lead toward meaningful change? Thus, has the violence been in some way therapeutic for the...
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Chapter 1 - Ruby Questions and Answers
1. How far is the Convent from Ruby, and how far is Ruby from the nearest town?
2. How many women are in the Convent?
3. What are the names taped above two of the bedroom doors?
4. What is one thing that the women who currently live in the Convent have in common with the nuns who once lived there?
5. What was the message on the iron door of the Oven?
6. How many horses entered the race that Ossie organized and did they all run?
7. What medal decorated the ribbon for the winner of the race?
8. Who awarded the medal to the winner of the race?
9. What did the veterans want to name the new town?
10. How long did the settlers call their new town New Haven?
1. The Convent is seventeen miles from Ruby, and Ruby is 90 miles from any other town.
2. It seems that there are no more than four women in the Convent. We know this because there are nine men, and we are told that the nine men are more than twice the number of the women.
3. The names taped above two of the bedroom doors are “Seneca” and “Divine.”
4. The women who live in the Convent now, like the nuns before them, sell the produce and barbecue sauce they grow and make.
5. The message on the iron door of the Oven is not revealed in the first chapter.
6. Ten horses...
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Chapter 2 - Mavis Questions and Answers
1. How did the neighbors react to the deaths of Mavis’ twin babies?
2. What event surprised Mavis as much as it surprised everyone else?
3. How many times had Mavis been a patient at the County Hospital, and how many of those times were for childbirth?
4. What information from Mavis deeply disturbs her mother, Birdie Goodroe?
5. On what does Mavis get drunk when her car runs out of gas?
6. What are some of the unusual details about Connie?
7. What food does Connie offer Mavis? Does Mavis eat the food?
8. Why does Connie think that shelling pecans is a good job for Mavis?
9. What is the population of Ruby, according to the sign Mavis sees?
10. What did Mavis dream about the night after she first met Mother?
1. The neighbors seemed pleased when the babies died.
2. The event that surprised Mavis as much as it surprised everyone else was Mavis’ stealing the Cadillac.
3. Mavis had been a patient at the County Hospital 15 times; 4 of them were for childbirth.
4. The information from Mavis that deeply disturbs Birdie Goodroe is Mavis’ assertion that her family is trying to kill her.
5. When her car runs out of gas, Mavis get drunk on the Old Times whiskey her husband left in the car.
6. Some of the unusual details about...
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Chapter 3 - Grace Questions and Answers
1. Whom does K. D. remember in connection to the lace he sees in the house?
2. To what does Deek liken the credit union Misner has founded?
3. What specific memory comes back to K. D. when he thinks about this new woman, whom he so desires?
4. What does Reverend Misner say that the Fleetwood women promised to bring out?
5. When Reverend Misner sees K. D. speeding down a street, what is the young man driving?
6. According to Dice, what, other than the fig trees, makes the town of Ruby worth visiting?
7. How had the citizens of Wish, Arizona, reacted to their local landmark?
8. How does Dice respond when Gigi tells him she hates rhubarb?
9. How much did Roger Best charge for the removal of Mother’s body?
10. How much time had passed between Mother’s death and Mavis’s return to the Convent?
1. K. D. remembers his Aunt Soane in connection to the lace he sees in the house. He remembers that she worked lace like a prisoner, making more lace than could ever be used.
2. Deek likens the credit union Misner has founded to a piggy bank.
3. When K. D. thinks about this new woman, the memory that comes back to him is of a time when he was a boy. While traveling with his uncle Steward, K. D. once saw a big swimming pool, full of white children and outside his...
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Chapter 4 - Seneca Questions and Answers
1. During the debate about the Oven, to what had Deacon Morgan taken exception?
2. How did Dovey Morgan feel about the issues in the debate?
3. What kind of food had Dovey offered the Friend when he visited?
4. What had Soane shouted when she saw her sons at Thanksgiving in 1968?
5. How many quail had Deek killed while hunting?
6. How many towns did the Morgan men and boys plan to visit? Did they get to all of them?
7. Why did Deek decide not to go after Sweetie?
8. How did the hitchhiker manage to avoid injury when she leapt out of the truck?
9. How did the Convent women seem to Sweetie when she arrived?
10. What was Seneca considering doing when she was approached by Norma Fox’s chauffeur?
1. Deacon Morgan took definite exception to someone referring to his grandfather Zechariah as “a former slave.”
2. Dovey Morgan felt ambivalent and undecided about the issues in the debate.
3. Dovey had once offered the Friend a slice of bread and apple butter when he visited.
4. When she saw her sons at Thanksgiving in 1968, Soane shouted, “Prayer works!”
5. Deek killed 12 quail while hunting, 6 of which he had given to Sargeant Person.
6. The Morgan men and boys planned to visit seven towns, but they visited only four of...
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Chapter 5 - Divine Questions and Answers
1. What name did Anna Flood use when she thought about Reverend Pulliam?
2. Which biblical verses had Misner planned to allude to at the wedding?
3. What animal-related incident were various people interpreting as an omen about the wedding?
4. How did the groom respond to this supposed “omen”?
5. What had K. D. done with the letters he received from Arnette?
6. What biblical verse had Reverend Pulliam featured in a sermon about Arnette’s “outrage at the Convent”?
7. What were some of the manifestations of the trouble between the Morgans and the Fleetwoods?
8. Who begins to play the piano at the wedding reception?
9. What did Billie [Delia] Cato specifically warn Pallas not to be worried about at the Convent?
10. What kind of job does Gigi assume Pallas’ mother held?
1. When she thought about Reverend Pulliam, Anna Flood used the name “Senior ‘Take No Prisoners’ Pulliam.”
2. Misner had planned to allude to Revelation 19:7 and 9, and Matthew 19:6 at the wedding.
3. Various people at the wedding were concerned about the buzzards (vultures) seen flying north over the town. They interpreted this as a bad omen about the wedding.
4. The groom’s response to this supposed omen was one of scorn. He felt that those who paid attention...
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Chapter 6 - Patricia Questions and Answers
1. What mistake had Pat made the previous school year regarding her students’ Christmas decorations?
2. Were the Morgan brothers inclined to approve Roger Best’s bank loan?
3. What did Pat look at in the yard through the open window?
4. What had Fairy DuPres fed the baby that she and her people rescued on the way to found Haven?
5. According to Pat’s history project, how long had this particular group of “8-Rocks” been in this country?
6. What was left when Billy Cato died?
7. What exactly had Fairy DuPres said to Steward Morgan in response to his words about Roger’s decision to bring and marry Delia?
8. How long did Billie Delia stay at the Convent?
9. How and when did Nathan DuPres and his wife, Mirth, lose their babies?
10. According to Pat’s realization, is God’s “Furrowed Brow” the one referred to in the Oven’s inscription?
1. The mistake Pat made the previous school year regarding her students’ Christmas decorations was to let her very young pupils apply the glue and glitter themselves. She had to clean their faces and hands.
2. Yes, the Morgan brothers were inclined to approve Roger Best’s bank loan.
3. Pat looked at her mother’s grave in the yard through the open window.
4. Fairy DuPres had fed the baby a...
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Chapter 7 - Consolata Questions and Answers
1. What made Consolata’s violent illness as a child almost pleasant?
2. How much time passed between the first time Connie saw “the living man” and the next time?
3. What errand brought the man out to the Convent?
4. What particular detail about Deek did Connie notice and love?
5. What had Sister Roberta most particularly warned the Native American girls against?
6. According to Consolata’s memory, over how many years had these women come to the convent?
7. How many children had Mary Magna “rescued” from the streets in South America?
8. Where had Mary Magna’s non-rescued children ended up?
9. According to the narrative voice, how rare are Catholic churches and schools in Oklahoma?
10. With what arrangements had Connie tried to tempt her lover to visit her?
1. The experience of seeing a woman’s face bent over hers, expressing love and worry through lake-blue eyes made Consolata’s violent illness as a child almost pleasant.
2. Two months passed between the first time Connie saw “the living man” and the next time.
3. The man came out to the Convent because he wanted to buy some of its well-known peppers.
4. Connie noticed and loved Deek’s smell.
5. Sister Roberta particularly warned the Native American girls...
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Chapter 8 - Lone Questions and Answers
1. What was written on the sign that Lone almost knocked down?
2. What kind of herb was Lone searching for near the Oven?
3. How old is Lone in the present?
4. Do the men go anywhere after leaving the Oven and before going to the Convent?
5. Whom does Lone seek out once she gets her car out of the ditch?
6. What time did the Convent women wake to prepare for the day?
7. Who shoots the white woman?
8. About whom did Dovey Morgan once have a strange, portentous dream?
9. Who took the knife out of Menus Jury’s shoulder?
10. When Roger Best goes out to the Convent, what is he unable to find?
1. “Early Melones” was written on the sign that Lone almost knocked down.
2. Lone was searching for a mandrake root in the stream bed near the Oven.
3. Lone is 86.
4. Yes. To avoid the rain, the men go to the shed behind Sargeant Person’s barn.
5. Once she gets her car out of the ditch, Lone seeks out Pious DuPres.
6. The Convent women woke at 4:00 a.m. to prepare for the day.
7. Steward Morgan shoots the white woman.
8. Dovey Morgan once had a strange, portentous dream about the man she called “Friend.” In the dream she washed his hair and then woke up to find her hands wet with suds.
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Chapter 9 - Save-Marie Questions and Answers
1. What had Sweetie refused to discuss?
2. How was Esther, Jeff and Sweetie’s second child, given her name?
3. What didn’t Pat Best tell Richard?
4. Who wept before the entire congregation of the Holy Redeemer?
5. Where do the Carys live, and how do we know this?
6. What was the first question that Manley Gibson asked his daughter, Gigi?
7. What part of Pallas did Dee Dee Truelove feel she had been unable to capture in the many portraits she had painted?
8. What does Mavis do when Sally hugs her tightly?
9. How does Seneca’s friend clean the wounds on Seneca’s hands?
10. What is the last word of this novel?
1. Sweetie Fleetwood refused to discuss the burial of her daughter Save-Marie. Sweetie was unwilling to have her baby girl buried on Morgan-owned land.
2. Esther was named after her grandmother, who had taken such good care of Noah, her older brother.
3. Pat Best did not tell Richard her version of the Convent raid: that nine 8-Rock men brutally murdered the Convent women because those women were deemed “impure temptresses,” and because the men thought that they would get away with the murders.
4. Wisdom Poole wept before the entire congregation of the Holy Redeemer.
5. The Carys (including Reverend Cary) live on Cross...
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Although not quite as technically dazzling as Morrison's previous novel, Jazz, Paradise offers a rich and multitextured narrative. As the previous discussions have indicated, the novel begins defiantly in medias res, with its climactic event, the attack on the Convent, and works its way through many layers of narrative to establish the social structure and history of Ruby as well as the personal histories of the women who become the objects of the town's scapegoating. But in no case is the narrative simply chronological. Like her predecessors Woolf and Faulkner, Morrison addresses the issue of the tyranny of history by fragmenting its appearance of an orderly chronology. Thus the narrative moves by abrupt shifts within the chapters among stories of individual characters and stories of the building of a community. Although the narrator's stance seems omniscient, it is often really limited in its focus to the scope of a single character, and therefore Morrison sets into motion a series of narratives competing for the reader's trust.
The chapters themselves present a pattern seemingly set up to be broken, to reinforce both the theme relating to the planned community and that dealing with the tyranny of history. After a brilliant musical overture, "Ruby," which tells cryptically the story of the assault and fills in a first installment of the history of Ruby, the novel names the next four chapters after the women who arrive at the Convent. The...
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Paradise continues, and in some ways completes, Toni Morrison's reflection on the journeys to escape from slavery's heritage that began with Beloved (1987, see separate entry). This novel's cultural myth is the narrative of a group who tried to escape from post-Reconstruction culture, not by heading for the city, but—in the words of Mark Twain's, and the nineteenth century's, great American protagonist Huck Finn—by "lighting out for the territory." Ironically, these black pioneers, the revered ancestors of the characters in Morrison's novel, emulated the migration that settled the American West, following the advice of the white editor of a New York newspaper, to "Go West, young man." In their search for a Utopian alternative to institutional racism, the trailblazers had to contend not only with the enemies they shared with the other settlers (Native Americans trying to preserve their territories and cultures, wild animals, a severe climate, an unforgiving landscape); they had to contend as well with those white settlers who assumed that their privileges in the seaboard or gulf states still pertained on the frontier. Ultimately, however, the most formidable foes these pioneers encountered were established African- American enclaves to which they sought to migrate, time with its insistence on change, and human nature itself.
Thus Paradise is a variation on the Utopian theme central to literature since Plato's Republic—the...
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Morrison's seventh novel continues her chronological trilogy of physical migrations among African-American populations after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery as a sanctioned practice in America. Although all her narratives, most explicitly Song of Solomon (see especially the story of Macon Dead I and "Lincoln's Heaven") treat the consequences of slavery and its abiding effects on African-American populations, the three most recent novels expound on the metaphor of a journey that responds directly to the heritage of slavery. In Beloved, a principal theme revolves around the development of a community among ex-slaves in Cincinnati, one haunted by the memory of that community's failure to prevent an attempt to recapture escaped slaves under the Fugitive Slave Law. Even more directly, Jazz treats the quintessential African-American literary theme of the twentieth century, the Great Migration during which descendants of slaves fled the Jim Crow South to seek freedom, dignity, and economic opportunity in the Northern cities. After Joe and Violet Trace, that novel's joint protagonists, come to New York animated by hope and joy over escaping from the oppressive South, they find their aspirations dashed in Harlem, which suffers from a racism less official but hardly less insidious than that from which they fled. Their experiences mirror those of the heroes of influential novels like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952).
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bemrose, John. “Trouble in Utopia.” Maclean’s 111, no. 13 (March 20, 1998): 65. Praises Morrison for creating complex characters that reflect the foibles of real human beings.
Gates, David. “Trouble in Paradise.” Newsweek 131, no. 2 (January 12, 1998): 62. Criticizes the novel for having too many characters about whom readers might care.
Gray, Paul. “Paradise Found.” Time 151, no. 2 (January 19, 1998): 62-69. A fine article that situates Paradise within the context of Morrison’s life and writings.
Grewal, Gurleen. Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. A brief but perceptive discussion of Morrison’s most important works, with emphasis on its relation to the American South. Bibliography and index.
Jones, Emily. Review of Paradise, by Toni Morrison. Library Journal 123, no. 3 (February 15, 1998): 172. Praises the novel for examining the mysteries of race in explosive ways.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Paradise: Worthy Women, Unredeemable Men.” The New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1998, p. E8. Finds Morrison’s novel unimaginative and lacking the brilliance of her earlier efforts.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Century, Douglas. Toni Morrison: Black Americans of Achievement. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
Durham, Philip, and Everett L. Jones. The Negro Cowboys. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1965.
Katz, William Loren. The Black West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Love, Nat. The Life and Adventures of Nat Love. Baltimore: Black Classics Press, 1988.
White, Richard. A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
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