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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Paradise, which focuses on the love of God, is Morrison’s third novel in a trilogy of books dealing with various kinds of love. As the book opens, a violent, bloody massacre takes place at the Convent, a run-down refuge for broken women located near the small town of Ruby, Oklahoma.

The inhabitants of Ruby are descendants of a group of dark-skinned African Americans who migrated west in the 1870’s from Mississippi and Louisiana. Hoping to be accepted in Fairly, a town of lighter-skinned blacks, they were turned away. This event becomes memorialized in the town’s history as “The Disallowing.” The nomadic group finally established a town that they named Haven. During the World War II years, however, the morals of Haven declined so much that the town elders became convinced that they should establish a new town, Ruby, named after the deceased sister of the town’s two patriarchs, Deek and Steward Morgan.

The centerpiece of Ruby is the transported Oven, a brick kiln and shrine to the town’s unity as well as the gathering place for town business and remembering. Ruby is a proud town, cloistered and protective of its immunity from the evils of the outside world. In this town, there is no tolerance for the less than righteous. Sin is either suppressed or secret.

Despite the town’s stringent vigilance against the intrusion of sin and sinners, the weight of transgression and progress from the world outside—mostly sins of the flesh and a weakening of religious constraint—bears heavily upon the town. At the novel’s beginning, the height of the mid-1970’s social revolution sends the town’s self-righteous and deluded leaders into a desperate and chaotic plot to destroy the blatant evil lurking west of Ruby: the Convent and its defiling inhabitants, the women Consolata, Mavis, Grace, Seneca, and Pallas. Ironically, the elimination of these women will also destroy the evidence of those who violated the town’s blood rule, a code of sexual fidelity and purity.

The Convent serves as a central locale in the novel. The Convent is everything Ruby is not. It is a haven of acceptance and nurturing. It does not require judgment, nor does it require history or moral purity. Built originally by an embezzler with a taste for bizarre architecture and decadent décor, the Convent was later occupied by an order of nuns who ran a school for Arapaho girls. Consolata, herself rescued from a profligate life by Sister Mary Magna, the mother superior of the order, was brought to the Convent to live. As the school funding and church support eventually ran out, the girls all disappeared, and the residents of the Convent dwindled to Sister Mary Magna and Consolata.

Later, as Sister Mary Magna dies, Consolata is joined by four women who arrive at the Convent at the heights of their life crises. The lives of these women become inextricably entangled with those of the Ruby men, often as a result of adultery or promiscuity. Their lack of regard for the sexual psychoneuroses of Ruby men—so much in contrast to the quiet submission of the women of Ruby—mocks the moral piety of these men and inevitably leads the men to blame the women of the Convent for their own hypocrisy and sexual infidelity.

It is Patricia, Ruby’s fair-skinned descendant, who figures out the malignant intentions of the men. She collects the enormous data on bloodlines of the original nine “8-rock” families, so named for their coal-black skin. She has gleaned information from her students, from conversations with her neighbors, and from her own copious notations of the interrelations and dead ends of the original bloodlines. The myth that no one dies in Ruby save those who leave, she discovers, depends on all generations being not only racially untampered but also free of adultery—the “deal” that Zachariah, the original patriarch, and Steward made with God. As the promiscuous sisterhood of the Convent invokes the destructive power of lust in the men, the women become...

(The entire section is 2,610 words.)