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 refuge for five lost women who live there more or less permanently, scandalizing Ruby, until local vigilantes set out after them. The novel begins with this attack.
The senior woman of the Convent is Consolata Sosa, rescued at nine from the streets of Brazil by a nun and brought to the school as her ward. Connie becomes a willing cook and servant to the nuns. She discovers and tends the famous purplish-black hot peppers that grow only on Convent grounds, and soon she begins to sell produce and baked goods from the Convent kitchen. Shortly after the founding of Ruby, she encounters Deacon Morgan, and they quickly become lovers even though he is married. Their affair is passionate and brief, for his brother Steward is suspicious, and Deacon dare not sacrifice his standing in this strict community. Later, when his son is killed in an automobile accident, the aging midwife Lone DuPres shows Connie how to “step in” and revive him. Yet Connie, “gifted” though she may be, lives in fear of God’s punishment for this power.
In 1968, Mavis Albright joins her when her car breaks down near the Convent. She is fleeing a brutal husband and the death of her infant twins, accidentally smothered in a hot, closed car. Mavis is a classic victim of abuse, isolated, wearing sunglasses to hide her bruises, believing herself inferior and forever wrong. Her own mother has betrayed her, but somehow Connie is able to put her at ease.
Soon the rebel Gigi follows, fresh from a riot in Oakland where her boyfriend has been jailed. Her father is in prison, her mother unreachable. Gigi seeks social justice and has a penchant for going naked, but she comes to Ruby in search of food and love, specifically, rhubarb pie and two fabled trees that intertwine like lovers. (She finds the pie.)
Sweet Seneca, the peacemaker, also finds a home at the Convent. Abandoned at the age of five by her older “sister” (actually her mother), Seneca has grown into a gentle woman, desperate to please others, who does not know how to respect herself. Secretly, she slashes herself with a razor.
The last to arrive is sixteen-year-old Pallas Truelove, who eloped with the janitor at her high school only to have her artist- mother fall in love with him. She has also been traumatized by a group of men who hunted her. Pallas rests briefly at the Convent, then goes back to California to finish high school, but she returns at Christmas, four months pregnant.
None of these events are presented in chronological order, as those familiar with the author’s work will already know. For the unsuspecting reader, however, coherence may be a problem, since much of the background information is delayed until the second half of the book. The novel is elliptically told in Morrison’s rich, storyteller voice, creating an effect of increasing illumination, introducing characters and events as gradually as dawning light clarifies the interior of a room.
The text spills over with magical language. After their long journey, Zechariah and the wandering freedmen are “raggedy as sauerkraut.” At a contemporary wedding “the men’s squeaky new shoes glistened like melon seeds.” Connie, who is “a woman in love with the cemetery,” buries herself in a cellar room and yearns to die to escape her guilt. Only the solace of wine permits her to endure “her slug life,” her unbearable thoughts.
This is a novel about passion. At first, the children of Haven have a passion for freedom, religion, and respect; their lives are devoted to these principles. Yet their passion gradually becomes distorted, especially by the men of Ruby, into a fanaticism that will brook no...
(The entire section is 2106 words.)
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Ideas for Group Discussions
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?...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 353 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
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?...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
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?...
(The entire section is 284 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 267 words.)
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 entire section is 308 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 369 words.)