Chapter 1 - Ruby Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1705

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New Characters:
Nine Unnamed Men from the town of Ruby: they are the figures around whom this chapter centers. The reader learns the following information about them:

• The men are not hurrying or acting in a nervous fashion.
• Several of the men are related: there is a father-and-son team and a pair of twin brothers.
• The twin brothers are 52 years old. They are not very much alike; in fact, now that they are grown men, they no longer even look alike. One is a natural leader who heads this expedition. The brothers are grandchildren of Morgan, one of the founders of Haven, who put the message on the Oven door. They are the brothers of Ruby; it was her death that settled the debate about the town’s name.
• The youngest of the men is a nephew of the twin brothers. He is troubled by mental pictures of the murdered victims. He thinks that one of them is staring and waving her fingers at him. He won a local horse race in Haven when he was just a boy. Ruby was his mother, and he grew up spoiled by sympathetic elders.

Morgan: the ironmonger (blacksmith) who contributes his nails to the Oven, at the founding of Haven. We find that this must be his last name, but we do not learn what his first name is.

Ossie: a citizen of Haven who had once organized a horse race as part of a town celebration and picnic. We find out later that his last name is Beauchamp.

Ruby: the woman after whom the town of Ruby was named. She was the mother of the youngest of the nine men, the aunt of the twins.

The chapter describes a search conducted by nine armed men, in Oklahoma on a cold, early morning in July. They have already shot one woman and are seeking the others. They move through the single building known as “the Convent” slowly and carefully, as if they are on a military mission, or as if they are hunting. They have a definite strategy, separating into pairs so as to search the building systematically. The women who currently live in the Convent are not nuns.

The Convent’s history is explained. Once the showy home of an embezzler, the building’s many original gaudy ornaments and fixtures were either removed or broken off by the nuns who had taken it over. Larger items, such as bathtubs, remain.

As the pairs of men search the rooms, they keep expecting to find evidence of crimes and unnatural behavior. They suspect that horrible, unacceptable things have been going on in this house; their suspicions are alluded to throughout the chapter. What they find is enough to disturb and disgust them: candles on the floor and strange figurines, slimy plates and lack of order, some blood and filth.

The writing jumps back and forth between the activities of the men in the present and stories of their past, which come out of the histories of two towns: Haven and Ruby. The men are from Ruby, but in this chapter we learn far more about Haven, which grew, thrived, and was dying when people there decided to start again and drove to found and build their new town, Ruby.

Haven was founded by 15 families in 1890. The founders, the Old Fathers, suffered many misfortunes and humiliations when they came to Oklahoma from Mississippi and Louisiana to make a home. This made them tough, proud, and distrustful of all outsiders. These are sentiments that the New Fathers kept with them when they founded Ruby. The first thing built in Haven was a huge Oven, which became the center and the physical embodiment of the town. Every brick of the Oven seemed perfect, and the door was a thick, heavy piece of iron, containing a special message made of welded nails. Meat, especially game meat, was cooked to perfection in the Oven over low flames.

Haven had a thousand citizens in 1905, but only 500 in 1934. Eventually the population dropped to 80. Eighteen stubborn people remained at the very end. In 1950, nine families gave up on Haven and moved 240 miles west to Ruby. Haven’s Oven was carefully broken up and reassembled in the new town. The families settled on land they’d bought together from their military discharge pay. Life was better again, but now, more than 25 years after the move, they perceive a new threat.

The chapter ends by completing a circle. The men who approached the Convent in the waist-high mist at five in the morning are now prepared to do what they feel they must do. Having searched the building, the men meet and see three women running toward the rising sun. The men take aim and fire; although the reader is not told what follows, it seems unlikely that the women escape.

At only 16 pages, Ruby is one of the shorter “chapters” of this novel. Yet notice that even in such a small space, Morrison is telling several stories at once. These tales are related by the foundation of history: cause and effect.

This short chapter may seem long because Morrison does not provide the reader with an exposition, or introduction, to the story or the characters. There is an enormous amount of mystery here. The techniques used in this novel tend to increase the amount of mystery, because Morrison tells only part of a story at any one time.

Readers who are unhappy about the way that Morrison withholds or hides information might do well to picture themselves sitting next to someone who is part historian, part great storyteller. When in that situation, one must strain to catch every detail, because one never knows when the seemingly smallest thing will be important later on. A reader can go back a few pages or chapters and check the story; this is a luxury listeners don’t have.

For example, the reader would do well to remember, among many other things, the list of incidents that have so disturbed the men: “A mother was knocked down the stairs by her cold-eyed daughter. Four damaged infants were born into one family. Daughters refused to get out of bed. Brides disappeared on their honeymoons.” These stories will be finished later.

Although the reader will probably wonder who these men are, the reader’s biggest question might well be, “Why are they doing this?” In most books we read or movies we see, we sympathize with characters by understanding why they behave the way they do and learning what their motives are. In Paradise, the reader is not given the motive in a clear fashion, and this may be frustrating, especially because we are reading about armed men hunting and shooting down unarmed women.

Could there be justifiable cause for such a massacre? The main job of this novel will be to answer this question, but not all at once. Morrison will serve us very small pieces of the answer, one by one, never giving us much at one time. The reader is obliged to play detective. Time after time, connections between characters and events are hinted at, but not confirmed or explained until many, many pages later. For the moment, the omniscient narrator indicates that the Convent represents a threat to the community of Ruby. Strange rumors are circulating about what goes on there, and events occur that are thought to be linked to the Convent: disappearances, unexplainable deaths, and other bizarre happenings and problems.

Perhaps the men have a good reason, or several good reasons, for doing what they are doing. The stories about Haven and the individual men, from how they served their country in World War II to how they now have families, show that the men have a sense of honor and responsibility. Morrison’s decision to leave the men unnamed gives an impersonal impression, as if the men’s identities are unimportant, as if they are merely an anonymous mob. But some of the men will become important characters later in the novel.

Although the reason for the raid is not spelled out in this chapter, it seems that the people of Ruby have a combination of fears, including prostitution and the fall of morals, child abuse, murder, and the possibility of Satanism. Consider this chapter as a response to a problem—not, to be sure, a very pleasant response, and one that might well have consequences for the killers. But it’s still a response. The job of the rest of the novel will be to show us the problem and thereby put this response in context.

As we read the novel, we can understand the motives behind the act. We might even sympathize with the men, but not for simple reasons. The fact is that vast mysteries surround us here in the first chapter, and much remains to be explained. Though we learn about some of the armed men throughout the chapter, especially the twin brothers (they were born in Haven in 1924, enlisted in the army in 1942, and married in 1949), there is so much that has been left out.

From the very first sentence, the reader is plunged into the detailed perceptions and actions of the unnamed men. Their observations of the lights, colors, objects, and rooms of the building they are searching make the reader sense that they are doing something dangerous.

The language is sophisticated and beautiful. We are shown vivid details of the Convent’s rooms and get real insight into the men, despite the fact that we do not know their names. The strength of the story and the writing itself make us willing to wait for a more detailed explanation. The descriptive language has another interesting aspect; it might well serve to make the men’s endeavor less evil. It gives the reader the impression that they are not common murderers or even criminals of any kind. They act as if they are on an important mission, whose end justifies the violent means they employ. This is indicated in the second paragraph, where we read “…the women they are obliged to stampede or kill.…” The men of Ruby feel that they have a sacred duty to protect their town.


Chapter 2 - Mavis Summary and Analysis