Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6410
The term “Magical Realism,” often used to describe the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez, has also been applied to the fiction of Morrison. Though the thematic concerns of her work are in most other ways very different from those of Nobel laureate García Márquez, one does find in Morrison’s fiction the same sense of the reality of magic, which (especially in her case) springs from a fundamental belief in the truth at the center of folklore.
The development of the use of folklore can be traced in Morrison’s novels. It begins in The Bluest Eye, in which the sample from a child’s reader that begins the novel is treated as a bit of contemporary folklore. It is an artificially constructed, white, middle-class folklore, however, which may not reveal a fundamental truth about anyone’s life and which certainly does not apply to the lives of the black residents of Lorain, Ohio. Nevertheless, the main character, Pecola, is shown as having accepted the view of the world that this children’s story encourages, even though it is a view which leaves no room for the realities of her life.
Sula, Morrison’s second novel, incorporates characters that seem almost mythic, much as figures in folklore. There is the light-skinned man called Tar Baby and the three boys that Eva Peace takes into her household. Each one is named Dewey, and their identities begin to meld together. Perhaps most notably, there is the character Shadrack, who returned feebleminded from World War I and who becomes a mysterious hermit living on the edge of the black community of Medallion (called “the Bottom”). He celebrates National Suicide Day each year. He eventually leads many within the community to their deaths in deserted tunnels near the town. Although the action in Sula is often strange and mysterious, it reflects the uncanny realism of myth.
It is in Song of Solomon that folklore, as such, comes explicitly to the foreground. Not only is there a minor character who appears as a ghost, but also the premise of the novel is adapted from African American folklore. The main character, Milkman Dead, uses a child’s rhyme he overhears to uncover the secret of his own past, namely that his great-grandfather was one of the legendary men who supposedly escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. To become a complete person, Milkman not only has to make a connection to this folkloric ancestry but also must find how this ancestry can and cannot be applied to his own life.
Tar Baby explicitly continues the attempt to update and apply traditional black folklore to modern society and literature. The Rastafarian Son begins to perceive upper-class Jadine as a Tar Baby figure, someone who will trap him, and the last lines of the novel, describing Son running away “Lickety-split. Lickety-split,” reinforce his connection to Brer Rabbit. It is probably in Beloved that Morrison uses magical and folkloric elements in the most fiercely original way.
Beloved concerns itself with the plight of Sethe, an escaped slave who, facing recapture, kills her youngest daughter rather than let that daughter grow up in slavery. The novel begins several years later, when Sethe and a surviving daughter, Denver, are living in the post-Civil War era in a house they believe to be haunted by this infant’s ghost. Shortly after the haunting ceases, a young woman appears who introduces herself as “Beloved”—the only word on Sethe’s daughter’s gravestone.
Beloved is actually the first part of a trilogy of novels that Morrison would complete in the 1990’s with Jazz and Paradise . In this trilogy Morrison moves her...
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focus from folklore to history. InBeloved, she explores the history of slavery. In Jazz, she explores the history of the Jazz Age or the Harlem Renaissance. Finally, in Paradise, she explores a little-known fact of African American history: the founding of all-black towns in the West in the years following the end of the Civil War. All three of these novels are fictional, but each of them focuses upon important issues in the history of African Americans in this country: the human cost of surviving slavery, the improvisational nature of jazz and black life in the urban centers of the Northeast, and the desire to escape white discrimination by creating a kind of “paradise” where whites cannot enter. Each one of the novels is rich in the African American folklore and myths that she uses in her earlier novels, but they are also firmly rooted in history.
Whether dealing with folklore, music, or history, Morrison dramatizes both the difficulty and the joy of being black. The great miracle in her work is the miracle that exists throughout African American culture: that discrimination does not turn human beings into animals. Instead it empowers them to create magical and profound ways of surviving.
The Bluest Eye
First published: 1970
Type of work: Novel
A young black girl who wishes to have blue eyes is raped by her father and goes insane.
Morrison’s first published novel, The Bluest Eye, is marked by much narrative experimentation and a dedication to exploring the struggles with dignity and violence that especially confront blacks. The wide-ranging narrative experimentation is something that, for the most part, her later novels would not continue; the themes with which it deals, however, were to remain important in all of her later works.
The novel begins with a brief sample story such as might be found in a typical child’s reader about “Dick and Jane.” This story is repeated twice, first without any punctuation, and a second time without even any spaces between the words, as if to suggest the unreasoning power that such stories have over the mind of the main character, Pecola Breedlove.
After this, the voice of the character who is the main narrator, Claudia McTeer, appears, and she very quickly summarizes the plot of the novel that follows: Pecola was raped by her father and became pregnant with a child who never grew. Claudia relates this from a child’s point of view, calling the reader’s attention not to the rape itself but to the marigold seeds that she and her sister, Frieda McTeer, planted at the same time but which never grew. In this way, the shock value of this rape is removed from the narrative and the focus of the novel is shifted away from what happened to why and how it happened.
The main body of the novel is broken into four sections, titled “Autumn,” “Winter,” “Summer,” and “Fall.” The first part of each section is narrated by Claudia and is followed by other parts, which are headed by quotations from the child’s reader and are narrated from a variety of perspectives, usually in the third person. The first section begins in the autumn of 1940, in Lorain, Ohio. Shortly after Claudia and her sister Frieda recover from the flu, Pecola comes to stay with the McTeer family temporarily because her father, Cholly Breedlove, started a fire in their rented home, landing himself in jail and putting the rest of his family out of a home.
When Frieda offers Pecola a Shirley Temple mug from which to drink milk, the two girls discuss how “cu-ute” Shirley Temple is. Pecola drinks three quarts of milk in one day for the pleasure of looking at this mug. Pecola clearly idolizes Shirley Temple as the ideal girl, even though such a fair-skinned ideal leaves the dark-skinned, brown-eyed Pecola to be condemned as ugly. The reader later learns that Pecola’s nightly prayer is for God to make her eyes beautiful and blue so that her family will be so impressed by them that they will never fight in front of them again.
In fact, this ideal is almost a mental inheritance from Pecola’s mother, Pauline Breedlove, who adopted her own standards of beauty from the silver screen—to the point of taking Pecola’s name from “Peola,” a light-skinned girl of mixed race in the film Imitation of Life (1934).
While she is still staying with the McTeer family, Pecola begins menstruating. Learning that this means she can have a baby now, she asks Claudia, “How do you get somebody to love you?” Much of the rest of the novel is a presentation of different people’s ways of asking and answering that question. Pecola herself takes her question to three prostitutes; they do not answer her question, but they do make her feel welcome. Pecola also buys some Mary Jane candies so she can experience, as she eats them, what it might be like to be lovely and loved, as the girl on the candy wrapper is. These two passages between them epitomize the idea that love is something which is packaged and sold—but only in imitations.
Some of the most engrossing passages of the novel are the ones that trace the personal histories of Cholly and Pauline Breedlove. One passage that is narrated alternately by a third-person narrator and by Pauline recalls the beginning of her relationship with Cholly and the deterioration of their marriage after they moved north to Ohio. It is clear that Cholly has become increasingly harsh over the years, but she nevertheless recalls their lovemaking fondly, and this fondness is part of why she stays with him.
Cholly’s story leads directly to his rape of Pecola. At the funeral of his Aunt Jimmy, who raised him, he coaxes a cousin, Darlene, into having sex with him, but they are caught by a group of white men who point guns at them and tell them to keep going. This event lodges itself in Cholly’s mind as an initial moment of depravity which always urges him on to other depravities. By the time he meets Pauline, the reader learns of a variety of crimes, including murder, of which he is guilty. His courting of her comes to look like only one more thing he did simply to prove that he could; his turning against her seems inevitable. His rape of Pecola is not excused, but it is seen as an extension of the early experience that forever linked violence and tenderness together for him. When, one evening while she is doing dishes, he glimpses Pecola’s enormous longing for his affection, he feels that he “wanted to break her neck—but tenderly.” He rapes her on the kitchen floor, then covers her with a blanket and leaves.
Pecola, pregnant, eventually takes her wish for blue eyes to Soaphead Church, a light-skinned West Indian man who supports himself as a “Reader, Advisor, and Interpreter of Dreams.” He gives Pecola poison to feed to a lazy dog with the instructions that when the dog dies, she will have blue eyes. The next one sees of Pecola, she is clearly mad and is having a conversation with an imaginary friend who assures her how blue her eyes are.
The Bluest Eye ends with Claudia telling the reader that Pecola lives on as a beggar, picking through people’s garbage. Claudia sees Pecola as a victim who was sacrificed by the entire community. The responsibility does not belong only to Cholly, who, she allows, tried in his destructive way to love her. Instead, the major responsibility for Pecola’s victimization lies in the society into which she was born. Speaking for the novelist, Claudia wants to indict the way society encourages people such as Pecola and Cholly to measure themselves by arbitrary standards (such as race) that deny them individual value.
First published: 1973
Type of work: Novel
An unconventional black woman becomes an outcast in a black community.
Sula is a novel about the growth, development, and destruction of a person, a friendship, and a community. At the beginning of the novel, the hill on which the black community of Medallion, Ohio, lived (called “the Bottom,” because the white farmer who gave it to a freed slave in return for services told him it was the bottom of heaven) has been deserted. The narrative as a whole sets out to tell why; along the way, one meets a striking variety of characters set against a harsh world.
Sula Peace’s grandmother, Eva Peace, is one of the most remarkable characters in the novel. Left by her husband with three children to care for, she drops the children off with a neighbor and leaves town, to return a year and a half later missing one foot lost in a railroad accident, but with ten thousand dollars. When Sula is still young, Eva locks Plum, her son who had returned from World War I two years earlier, in his room and sets him on fire because he has become a drug addict. This is only the first of several shocking deaths.
As a child, Sula’s closest friend is Nel Wright. In a scene that demonstrates the extent to which Sula has adapted to the violence of her surroundings, she slices off the tip of her own finger with a knife in front of some white boys who have been bothering Nel, as an unspoken threat of castration. At another time, when Sula and Nel are by the side of the river, they start teasing a young boy called Chicken Little. Sula swings Chicken around until he slips from her hands and sails, giggling, into the river—from which he never emerges. This incident forms a grim link between the two friends which separates them as much as it joins them. When the reader finds out that the sole witness to this event is Shadrack, a shell-shocked war veteran who (on the third day of every year) leads a National Suicide Day, a link seems to be made between Sula and Shadrack as outsiders.
The chaotic logic of calling a hill “the Bottom” dominates the novel. The random, violent deaths that appear throughout seem an extension of this logic, the point being that the initial act of greed and viciousness with which almost valueless land was given to a black man as valuable continues to shape and control the lives of the people who live there, preventing the establishment of any healthy social order. The result is that for Sula and Nel, the Bottom is less of a community than a furnace in which their souls are shaped.
The image of the Bottom as a furnace is supported not only by the fiery death of Plum but also by the similar death of Hannah, Sula’s mother. When Eva looks out a window and sees that her oldest daughter, Hannah, has set herself on fire while setting a yard fire, she leaps from her room in an attempt to smother the flames covering Hannah. Hannah bolts and runs until someone douses her flames, much too late to save her life. Later, as Eva is in the hospital with her own injuries, she realizes that Sula had watched the whole thing passively. The implication is that Sula, as an inactive witness to her mother’s death, shares some blame for it; as in The Bluest Eye, knowledge of a situation demands action.
At the end of part 1, Nel marries Jude Greene. Part 2 begins with Sula returning to the Bottom after having attended college. She arranges to have Eva removed to a nursing home and takes up residence in her house. After reestablishing her friendship with Nel, she then destroys it by seducing Jude. Sula does not understand the extent to which things have changed since they were young and shared boyfriends; Nel does not understand the extent to which things have not changed.
After her friendship with Nel ends, Sula lives in the Bottom as a pariah. She uses and discards a string of white and black men for sexual relations and so raises the wrath of the townspeople against her, until they come to think of her as evil. Ironically, Sula’s “evil” presence in the town makes the parents more careful with their children, and married women more devoted to their men. Sula herself does become obsessed with one man, Albert Jacks (“Ajax”), for a while, and even fantasizes that his body is made of gold, but he goes to an air show in Dayton and leaves her.
On Sula’s deathbed, Nel tries to make up with her, but they get into a fight about the past. Nel accuses Sula of not respecting anyone else’s values; Sula accuses Nel of not developing any values of her own. Though Nel has come by to help, she leaves Sula to die alone. Even so, Sula dies thinking, “It didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.” Shortly after Sula’s death, Shadrack leads a National Suicide Day crowd down to some abandoned tunnels; the tunnels suddenly flood, killing much of the town, in the event that effectively ends the life of the Bottom.
The final section of the novel is set twenty-five years after Sula’s death, in 1965. Nel goes to visit Eva Peace, who confuses her with Sula. After leaving Eva, Nel visits Sula’s grave. As she leaves the cemetery, she calls out to Sula, overcome with grief for how much she has missed her childhood friend.
While Sula is living as an outcast in the Bottom, the narrator says that she is an artist who lacks the discipline of any art to sustain her. In Sula, Morrison has created a novel about a character who has the ability and the need to question a malformed society but who lacks the means to channel her rebellion into a constructive form. One of the formations Sula challenges is the one that sees marriage as the basic unit of society. For her, friendship with Nel is more fundamental than any relationship with a man. Twenty-five years after Sula’s death, Nel realizes that friendship with Sula was always fundamental for her, too.
Song of Solomon
First published: 1977
Type of work: Novel
A middle-class black man growing up during a period of racial unrest uncovers his family’s history.
Song of Solomon, for which Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is an enormously complex novel which, at the same time, is her most absolutely clear work; it may be her most popular book.
From the first lines of the book, the novel concerns itself with the idea of black men flying, an image it gets from black folktales which said that in the days of slavery, every now and then a slave would remember how to fly and would fly back to Africa. The main character of the novel, Macon Dead III (who picks up the name Milkman because his mother, Ruth Foster Dead, nurses him until he is past the age at which a child is usually weaned), is born the day after a black life insurance agent, Robert Smith, leaps to his death in an attempt to fly to Canada. When, as a very young man, Milkman learns that he himself cannot fly, he loses all interest in the world.
From a young age, Milkman’s closest friend is a boy who goes by the name of Guitar, who is a bit older and quicker than Milkman. It is Guitar who introduces Milkman to Milkman’s own aunt, Pilate, whose name was chosen by her father at random out of the Bible (it suggests not only Pontius Pilate, but also the pilot of an airplane); she is the person who holds many of the keys to the knowledge Milkman will need to learn to fly.
Milkman’s father, Macon, is the son of a freed slave who was killed for his land; he grew up as a harsh, greedy man, dedicated to making money. Milkman’s mother is the adored daughter of the first black doctor in the town, a man who is memorialized in the name the black population still uses for one street: Not Doctor Street. Their marriage is animated by Macon’s tirades against his wife and by little else.
Milkman grows up spoiled. He works for his father collecting rents and has a long and ongoing affair with his cousin Hagar, Pilate’s granddaughter, which he never takes seriously—not even when Hagar tries to kill him for breaking up with her. Unlike his father, who consciously shapes his own attitudes toward people after the attitudes of the white people who persecuted his family in his youth, Milkman unthinkingly adopts an attitude that allows him to use people.
When Milkman grows up, his father tells him about the feud that came between Pilate and himself as children. After their father was killed, they took refuge in a cave, where Macon assaulted and apparently killed a man carrying sacks of gold. Years later, Macon is still convinced that a sack Pilate has hanging in her living room contains that gold. Milkman and Guitar steal the sack; Milkman wants the money for himself, and Guitar wants the money for a black guerrilla organization he belongs to called the Seven Days, which is dedicated to killing one white person for every black person killed by a white. When the sack proves to contain nothing but rocks and bones, Milkman, Guitar, and Macon all remain convinced that Pilate did something with the money.
In part 2 of the novel, Milkman retraces Pilate’s wandering as a child a half century after Macon and Pilate parted in the cave over the gold. He finds both an old woman who once sheltered the youngsters and the cave they hid in, but no gold, so he continues south to a town in Virginia called Shalimar, his grandfather’s original hometown. In this way, the novel does a marvelous job of adapting a quest motif. In the process of looking for gold, Milkman, in fact, finds his own family’s history, eventually learning (by deciphering a children’s rhyme he overhears) that the town of Shalimar is named for his own great-grandfather, who supposedly flew back to Africa.
In the course of the quest, Milkman has become a less selfish person, and when Guitar, who has been tailing him, sees Milkman help another man load a heavy carton for shipping, he assumes that Milkman has found the gold and violated their arrangement. Thus, he begins to hunt Milkman with the intent of killing him. Milkman, however, has found his “gold” in the story of his great-grandfather’s flight.
Having realized that Pilate’s sack of bones contains her own father’s remains (and not, as she thought, the remains of the white man she believed her brother had killed), Milkman flies back home to tell her, only to discover that Hagar has starved and fretted herself into a fatal fever over him. Milkman determines to care for Hagar’s soul in death the way he never did in life, and he returns to Virginia with Pilate to bury her father’s bones on the spot from which Shalimar (also called Solomon) is supposed to have leaped. Guitar is waiting for them across a narrow ravine, however, and shoots Pilate, intending to hit Milkman.
In the last paragraph, Milkman himself leaps across the narrow ravine, to the landing below, where Guitar is. It is a moment of pure inspiration that encompasses his entire history and heredity. To underscore the point, Morrison ends the novel with him in mid-air, flying toward Guitar.
Milkman’s character development is triumphant but not without troubles. As his great-grandfather’s flight, which the reader is free to think of as a real, magical flight, an escape from slavery, or a suicide, caused him to abandon an entire family, so Milkman’s leap at the end might be read as an impetuous act that undercuts his intentions to be more responsible to people. The reader at the end has to make a leap of faith with Milkman, not only to assume Milkman will survive this leap but also to believe that he will be able to continue his personal growth when he gets back home. Nevertheless, the novel’s triumph is unequivocal in its vivid demonstration of how links with the past can renew and guide the present.
First published: 1987
Type of work: Novel
A former slave meets a young woman who may be her daughter’s ghost incarnated.
Morrison’s novel Beloved is her single greatest novelistic achievement and is a tour through some of the nightmares created by slavery. When the novel begins in the post-Civil War era in 1873, Sethe, a former slave who escaped to the North while pregnant during the time of slavery, is living with her oldest daughter, Denver, in a house they both believe to be haunted by the ghost of the infant daughter Sethe killed when she was about to be recaptured (rather than let the daughter grow up in slavery). The novel is loosely based on the account of a former slave named Margaret Gamer who, as an escaped slave, tried to kill all of her children when they were captured in 1850 and succeeded in killing one; the novel is also a triumph of imagination.
When Paul D, who along with Sethe was a former slave at a plantation known as Sweet Home, comes to Sethe’s house on 124 Bluestone Road and quickly becomes her lover, the ghost disappears. Very shortly thereafter, however, a well-dressed young woman about the age that Sethe’s daughter would have been had she lived appears on the doorstep and introduces herself as “Beloved”—which is the only word on the gravestone that Sethe placed over her dead infant.
Paul D’s reappearance and Beloved’s sudden appearance force Sethe to confront the past locked away in what she calls her “rememory.” She tells Paul D the story of spotting Schoolteacher, the cruel master of Sweet Home, and determining to put her babies “where they’d be safe”—that is, to death. What frightens Paul D more than anything else is her continued defense of her actions years later. Paul D is also forced by his meeting with Sethe to confront his own past. When he tells her, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” to upbraid her for her infanticide, he is accusing her of acting like an animal. The comment seems to relate also to Paul D’s past and his own struggle to retain his human dignity despite having been a slave and treated as a beast of burden for much of his life.
Beloved herself is presented as childlike and self-centered, very much like the petulant ghost that had haunted the house for years. Even when the narrative goes inside her head, it is not clear to what extent she is supposed to be literally the ghost of Sethe’s daughter. Stamp Paid, a local black man, suggests that she might be the young woman who was kept locked up as a sex slave in a nearby town. Her own interior dialogue seems to suggest two separate minds at work, and perhaps the explanation most consistent with everything the novel contains is that Beloved is the escaped sex slave possessed by the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter. To see this explanation as a resolution to the puzzle presented by Beloved, however, would be to miss the force of Morrison’s careful ambiguity. Beloved is a ghost, and, as Denver tells Paul D toward the end, something more; she is a person and something more. That something more is the key to unlocking the past to release the future.
As events draw to a climax—as Paul D becomes Beloved’s lover and then moves out, as the household on 124 Bluestone becomes more removed from the outside community, and as Beloved demands almost obsessive attention—it is Denver, the daughter Sethe gave birth to while racing to freedom, whose future seems the most to be a prisoner to the past. It is unexpectedly Denver who finds the way to unlock the future for all of them, by getting a job that takes her outside her home. By working in the community, Denver reawakens in the community a sense of responsibility for Sethe, and they come together to try to exorcise Beloved—who is fat and maybe pregnant by now—from the house.
When members of the black community are gathered around the house at 124 Bluestone, Sethe sees Mr. Bodwin, her white landlord and Denver’s employer, appear on horseback, looking a bit like Schoolteacher had two decades earlier when he had come for her. She tries to attack him with an ice pick but is intercepted. In the confusion, Beloved runs into the forest; later, there are reports of a madwoman having been spotted running naked. When it ends, Sethe seems finally to have given in to the despair that she had repressed for twenty years. Paul D tries to comfort her, however, and there is a strong suggestion that she is better off for being able to feel her despair.
In many ways, Beloved is a meditation on the ownership of human beings. Ironically, when Sethe kills her infant daughter to save her from slavery, she is committing the ultimate act of ownership—deciding that it is better for another person to die than live. She cannot help but repeat some of the sins of slavery, even in her reaction against it. The point is that slavery is so destructive that ending it is merely one step in healing the wounds it creates. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, who lived with Sethe for a while, seems to summarize the novel’s theme early in the book when she says, “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to the rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” Beloved is a novel about healing such grief.
First published: 1992
Type of work: Novel
Much as in a blues or jazz song, Joe Trace’s affair with Dorcas, a much younger woman, becomes an emblem of the unrequited desire so central in jazz and in life itself.
Much as in Beloved and in Paradise, Morrison focuses in Jazz on a particular period of African American history: the 1920’s, sometimes called the Jazz Age. African Americans migrated in large numbers to urban areas of the Northeast in the early part of the twentieth century. They came to escape the racial discrimination so prevalent in the South and to find economic opportunity that urban centers in the Northeast promised. Their migration, sometimes called the Great Migration, created all-black areas in cities such as Chicago and New York City. Harlem is the most famous of these and is the setting for Jazz. The existence of large numbers of people of African descent in places such as Harlem created an explosion of African American art that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. A large part of this art was jazz, which gives Morrison the title of her novel and also the thematic center of her story. The economic opportunity that drew so many African Americans to the North never materialized, but the lives lived in the context of the city and the music are the subject of Morrison’s novel.
Morrison’s narrator gives to the reader the central plot on the opening page of the novel: “he fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” The “he” in this passage is Joe Trace. The eighteen-year-old girl is Dorcas. Joe Trace’s wife, Violet, is the third party in the triangle. The narrator tells the reader, also on the first page of the novel, that Violet “cut her [Dorcas’s] dead face” at the funeral. This sordid story is the center piece of the novel, and it bears an uncanny resemblance to the lurid “stories” of unrequited longing that are often at the center of blues and jazz songs.
All of the subplots in the novel follow the same pattern. Joe Trace seeks in Dorcas the mother he has sought all of his life but been unable to find. Similarly, Violet lost her mother to suicide and has always longed after her. She also longs for the children she has never been able to bear because of miscarriages and the busyness of city life. In some respects, she longs after Dorcas just as Joe has, for she is the child she never had. Dorcas herself is filled with longing for her parents who died in the East St. Louis race riots. Having been raised by the repressive Alice Manfred, Dorcas desires Joe and later Acton, a lover her own age. When Joe shoots her in jealousy, she ultimately bleeds to death, but she directs her last words to Joe: “There’s only one apple,” she says, implying that just as Adam and Eve, she and Joe have succumbed to the temptation to fulfill their longings; like Adam and Eve, they have failed.
Every other character in the novel conforms to this pattern of unrequited desire, even the narrator who desires the reader (your fingers on and on, lifting, turning) who desires to create characters that are in some way complete. However, the narrator confesses “ I missed it altogether.” What Morrison does not miss in this novel, however, is the feeling engendered by jazz. It is embodied in the orphanhood of all of the characters and embodied in this hauntingly lyrical description of urban life: “A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone and below him, in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly to a man in a straw hat.”
First published: 1998
Type of work: Novel
An all-black town in Oklahoma must come to terms with its own persecution of outsiders.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise explores a little-known fact of African American history: the migration of African Americans to the West after the Civil War. Like many whites who went west in the latter half of the nineteenth century, African Americans who migrated west sought a better life. In the case of African Americans, however, a central facet of that better life was isolation from white discrimination. For that reason, black townships were formed in Oklahoma and Texas. Morrison’s novel focuses upon a fictional township called Ruby in the state of Oklahoma during the 1970’s. Ruby is actually the second township formed by the fictional community at the center of her novel. The first was named Haven and fell apart in the 1930’s as cotton prices dropped and the town’s population shrank because of limited opportunity and isolation. The founders of Ruby, who had descended from the founders of Haven, moved their town, bringing with them the oven which was at the center of Haven. They made the oven the centerpiece of Ruby. Inscribed upon its lip were the words the original founders had seen as the central tenet of their founding faith: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” However, as a result of time and use, the words were now worn away so that some in town could only make out “The Furrow of His Brow” and others thought they might even read “Be the Furrow of His Brow.”
On the outskirts of the town, there is a competing “paradise”: a Convent that has fallen into disuse and become home to an array of wandering and desperate women, at least one of whom is white. The Convent has many characteristics that a reader would associate with various “havens” or paradises. Originally built as an “embezzler’s folly,” the convent was lavish and ornate with marble and teak flooring and fixtures and statuary that celebrated the sensual. It later became an Indian School, where Native American children were taught “to remember to forget.” Finally, it had become a true Convent, home to nuns. Now only two of the nuns remain: Mother Magna, who is slowly dying, and Consolata, who is called Connie. Consolata (whose name suggests the word “consolation”) sells the special peppers that grow only in the soil around the convent to the citizens of Ruby, presides over the death of Mother Magna, and takes in an array of desperate women who have nowhere else to go. She has ceased to practice her religion in any serious way because of an affair she had with Deacon Morgan, one of the twins (the other named Steward Morgan) who are central figures in Ruby and whose “powerful memories” hold intact the history and purpose of Ruby and Haven.
The novel begins as a group of men from Ruby (including both Deacon and Steward) attack the women at the Convent. The opening line reads, “They shoot the white girl first.” The men from Ruby believe that the Convent is a moral threat to the continued existence of Ruby. As the attack begins, Morrison shifts focus to the women who have come to the Convent. She traces the history of each woman, including Consolata. She also sets forth the history of the town, including the central conflict in town represented by the two ministers in town: the Reverend Misner, who believes in a loving, forgiving God, and the Reverend Pulliam, who believes in a God of wrath and vengeance. Morrison returns her focus to the attack on the Convent at the end of the novel. The men shoot and disperse the women, but when Roger Best, the undertaker, arrives for their bodies, they have vanished.
In the remainder of the novel, Morrison focuses not upon what happened to the bodies, but upon what happens to the town as its citizens attempt to deal with death and crime in their “paradise.” Many of the women who supposedly died appear to those who rejected them earlier in life, but they appear for only a moment and then vanish, much as Christ appeared to believers after his crucifixion. As the novel ends, the Reverend Misner presides over the funeral of Save-Marie, a child who has died in Ruby. Though Morrison refuses to supply easy answers to what happened to the women at the Convent, she forces her readers to explore the limits that are placed on earthly paradises, limits that are embodied in the novel in death, hatred, crime, and murder occurring in a town founded to be perfect. Furthermore, the people who sought escape from discrimination have now become the discriminators.