Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Why do the men kill the women in the first place? The Convent women are survivors. With their spiritual and sexual freedom and their maleless environment, they manage to survive in better stead than the people of Ruby, who appear to be turning on one another. The line of the Morgans has come to a dead end. Though the men of Ruby interpret the peaceful and unfettered life maintained by Consolata at the Convent as sinful and dangerous, they must acknowledge their own attraction to and curiosity about the women. The truth to be extinguished is that the women, who can live simply and communally, succeed and survive, whereas the leaders of Ruby, who must exert control and rule over others by way of spiritual guilt and mercilessness, cannot do so without constant struggle to uphold the collapsing walls of isolation. Even then, there is sin among them—greed, jealousy, unforgiveness, lying, adultery, murder.

Morrison’s overt symbols—the Oven, the Cadillac, the Convent—all point toward an objective world in which these symbols are endowed with powerful, historic ideas and values, sustained by the cultures that made them. The Oven at the center of town carries the town motto, “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” For the “8-rock” families, it serves as the axis of the community; it is the place to gather for food and for civil and social matters. Although the Oven has been preserved for years (it was transported brick by brick from Haven to Ruby), the young people wish to change it. By his own admission, the Reverend Misner admits that he was partly at fault for encouraging the young people to speak up and make changes.

Few women in Ruby ride in cars, but the women at the Convent have use of a Cadillac that gives them unlimited mobility and freedom. Their happiness and freedom must be resolved to evil if the myth of hard work, sacrifice, and denial is to work for Ruby. Morrison’s tale is of the archetypal clash of good and evil, of moral righteousness fueling hatred and violence, and of good ultimately transcending evil.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Paradise functions thematically on many levels. The book’s title, of course, recalls the biblical paradise of Eden, described in Genesis, and the sin that disrupted this paradise. It also recalls the third book of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Whether or not Morrison is intentionally drawing on these earlier texts, her novel raises issues of the human capacity for evil, the longing for a paradisiacal community, and the role of the supernatural in human communities. (Unlike Dante and Milton, Morrison draws on African and Brazilian spirituality rather than Christian spirituality.)

Both the men in Ruby and the women in the Convent strive to create a utopian community that will preserve its members from the evils of the outside world. In the end, they all discover that the human capacity for evil lurks in the souls of even the most utopian bodies and that such a community is impossible as long as human beings lack the perfection they once possessed in paradise.

Paradise also deals with the themes of racial purity, unity, and harmony. The clan at the center of Ruby—the “8-rock,” a name that refers to the darkness of their skin—has built a community that allows only like-colored members into its center. In fact, one of the reasons Ruby is falling apart is that it disallows other African Americans (especially light-skinned ones) from joining its community. Thus, Ruby’s future is less than hopeful. Not only does the Convent represent the moral disorder of the outside world—symbolized by sexual anarchy—but it also represents a loss of purity. The founding fathers cannot coexist with this impure world situated so close to their own, so they seek to eradicate it.

The complex relationships between men and women are also themes of Paradise. What does love mean? Is love pure only when it occurs between men and women? What about the love of one woman for another? Are the sexual and social bonds that women form in community threatening to men, and why? Paradise depicts two worlds: Ruby, which is ruled by men, and the Convent, where women have escaped the rule of men and have gained the freedom not only to be themselves but also to challenge patriarchal rules.