Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899
The opening sentences of Paradise are startling and hint at the ominous events that unfold in the novel. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here.” “They” refers to a group of nine men, composed of many of the founders of the city of Ruby, Oklahoma, who have taken it upon themselves to kill the six women who live in a mansion that townsfolk have named the Convent, seventeen miles outside of Ruby. Although the mansion was originally owned by an embezzler—and contains sexually explicit paintings and statues depicting sensual poses—a former nun, Mary Magna, turned the house into a school for orphaned Native American girls. When the novel opens, however, Mary is dying, and her daughter, Consolata/Connie—a Brazilian orphan whom Mary has raised as her own—has been elevated to the role of mother superior for the numerous women who will take refuge in the house.
The plot of the novel develops in a nonlinear fashion, twisting and turning in a labyrinthine way that involves multiple perspectives, mysterious clues to the identities of characters, and fragmentary allusions to historical events. These elements must be stitched together in order to reveal the action of the novel. For example, the white girl mentioned in the first sentence is never identified, nor is it ever clear why a white girl is among the women at the Convent. Numerous subplots digress from the opening action, revealing bits of information about Ruby’s history and the reasons for the men’s attack upon the Convent. Several of the novel’s chapters take their title from the name of one of the women residing at the Convent, and a portion of the chapter tells that woman’s story before digressing in other directions concerning the complex relationship between Ruby and the Convent.
Although the action of Paradise occurs in the 1970’s, culminating with the Convent attack in 1976, the historical events that underlie the plot involve the migration of black people from the South to the West in the late eighteenth century. The novel tells of several families that got together—among them, families whose descendants would participate in the attack—and moved westward with hopes of settling into one of the numerous all-black towns that were then being established. In an event called “The Disallowing,” the families were refused acceptance into several towns. The town of Fairly, Oklahoma, did provide food for the migrants, but it refused to allow them to reside in town because of the dark color of their skin.
The families had nowhere to go, but a mysterious stranger appeared out of nowhere to lead them in the desert, and they followed him for twenty-nine days. When their guide suddenly vanished, they built a town called Haven on the spot where he left them. At the center of town, the families built a communal oven, called the Oven, where community rituals occured. By the end of World War II, Haven was no longer the haven and center of purity that it had initially grown to be, so descendants of the original founders moved even farther west and built a town named Ruby. The town was named after Ruby Morgan, the mother of town cofounder K. D. Smith.
By the 1970’s, Ruby’s attempts to keep itself pure have faltered: The original vision of the town as a bastion of racial purity (a town for dark-skinned African Americans only) has been disrupted not only by the sexual inbreeding of the original families but also by what the elders perceive to be a breakdown in the moral and social order. Such a breakdown is most forcefully demonstrated when the Oven—which the elders have carried from Haven and reassembled in Ruby—is desecrated with the symbolic raised fist of the Black Power movement.
The Convent also becomes a symbol for the sexual breakdown of society. The men of Ruby see the Convent as the refuge of impurity: The sexually explicit statues and paintings were never removed when Mary Magna turned the mansion into the Convent; the mansion houses only women, and there are rumors of inappropriate sexual behavior among the women. Thus, one night in 1976, Steward Morgan and his identical twin, Deacon, lead seven other armed men out to the Convent—which they often refer to as the coven—to purify the town by killing the women living there.
The town of Ruby is divided over the massacre. Many of the women who live in Ruby, although they are not given substantial parts in the novel, oppose the plot to attack the Convent. Lone DuPres, for example, tries to warn the women in the Convent about the attack, but they ignore her. When the killings are over, the bodies disappear, and the town must come to terms with this action that has destroyed not only the women’s lives but also the town itself.
In a rather strange plot twist, but one characteristic of many of Toni Morrison’s novels, the dead women are resurrected and speak to their family members as a way of bringing healing for past actions. Paradise ends with a spiritual vision in which Peidade, the supernatural spirit in Connie’s visions earlier in the novel, foresees the spiritual bonds of female community being formed through the earthly works of groups of women.