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This guide is intended to enhance your group reading of Toni Morrison's Paradise, the powerful and extraordinary new novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Song of Solomon and Beloved.
It is the 1970's, and the tiny, self-sufficient all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma, has reached a crisis of conviction. Tracing its origins to the efforts of a strong and spiritual community of ex-slaves, Ruby prides itself on its uncompromising independence from the larger world. But the vicissitudes of the Sixties, from the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War, the counterculture to the generational conflict, inexorably touch Ruby and disturb their self-imposed isolation.
In the scrubland outside of Ruby is an old Convent in which five women live, each seeking refuge and deliverance from a grim past. As the townspeople begin to lose their own convictions and succumb to the uncertainties of the times, they come to identify these few known women with evil, and to use the convent as a scapegoat for the anger and conflict that have now taken their town. Tensions between the two communities rise, culminating inevitably in an act of violence, and yet Paradise, finally, is a story of redemption, forgiveness and of renewal. In the intensity of its portrayal of human complexity and motivations, in the sweep of its historical scope, in the beauty of its language and in the generosity of its vision, Paradise, is a boundless treasure of a book, a masterpiece.
- Why has Toni Morrison chosen to use the poem "for many are the pleasant forms..." as an epigraph for the novel?
- Why is the Oven such an important symbol for the people of Ruby? What is implied in the various phrases which different groups in Ruby want to inscribe upon it? Soane believes that the Oven has become too important a symbol: "A utility became a shrine (cautioned against not only in scary Deuteronomy but in lovely Corinthians II as well) and, like anything that offended Him, destroyed its own self" (103). Is she right? Does this indeed come to pass?
- How has the history of Ruby (and Haven before it) shaped the nature of the town in the 1970s? What did "freedom" mean to the original settlers? What varying views of freedom do the modern inhabitants of Ruby hold?
- Each of the young women living at the Convent is in some way lost. Why does each feel so entirely friendless? What caused Gigi's feeling of hopelessness? What about Pallas? Do you believe that Mavis's children were really trying to harm her, or did she imagine this?
- "Almost always, these nights, when Dovey Morgan thought about her husband it was in terms of what he had lost" (82). She adds up some of Steward's losses: his taste buds, the election for church Secretary, the trees on his land, and his discovery that he and Dovey could not have children. What has Steward lost in a larger, more symbolic sense: which of the convictions of the earlier generation he so admires has he himself lost sight of? What do his feelings about his brother Elder's defense of a Liverpool whore (94-95) tell us about his character? Can you see, early in the novel, intimations of what we discover at the end: that Steward and Deacon are essentially different?
- Who is Dovey's "Friend" and why is he so important to her?