As the book begins deep in Oklahoma early one morning in 1976, nine men from Ruby (pop. 360), in defense of "the one all black town worth the pain," assault the nearby Convent and the women in it.
"Rumors had been whispered for more than a year. Outrages that had been accumulating all along took shape as evidence. A mother was knocked down the stairs by her cold-eyed daughter. Four damaged infants were born in one family. Daughters refused to get out of bed. Brides disappeared on their honeymoons. Two brothers shot each other on New Year's Day. Trips to Demby for VD shots common. And what went on at the Oven these days was not to be believed ... The proof they had been collecting since the terrible discovery in the spring could not be denied: the one thing that connected all these catastrophes was in the Convent. And in the Convent were those women."
In Paradise — her first novel since she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature — Toni Morrison gives us a bravura performance. From the town's ancestral origins in 1890 to the fateful day of the assault, Paradise tells the story of a people ever mindful of the relationship between their spectacular history and a void "where random and organized evil erupted when and where it chose." Richly imagined and elegantly composed, Paradise weaves a powerful mystery.
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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?
- The conservative elements in Ruby ultimately find it impossible to keep the impact of the Sixties from affecting their town. What "Sixties" ideas turn out to be the most powerful, the most resonant, for the people of Ruby? Do these ideas destroy the town's social cohesion or give it new strength?
- What new ways of thinking does Richard Misner represent, and how is he received by the people of Ruby? When Patricia tells him that "Slavery is our past" (212), he insists that "We live in the world...The whole world." Which of them is right? What does Misner mean when he says he thinks the people of Ruby love their children "to death" (212)?
- "Who could have imagined," think the men who attack the Convent, "that twenty-five years later in a brand-new town a Convent would beat out the snakes, the Depression, the tax man and the railroad for sheer destructive power?" (17). It is clear that the convent, and the harmless women who have taken refuge there, are not destructive. What is the destructive element in Ruby, and what is it destroying?
- "Minus the baptisms the Oven had no real value," Soane reflects. (103) What did these baptisms at the Oven symbolize, and how does their removal to the church change Ruby? At the convent, the women dance in rain and reconcile themselves, finally, to the tragedies of their lives (283). Why does Morrison use, here, the imagery of baptism? Does she imply that this dance is a true baptism; that the Convent has achieved a more genuine spirit of community than the town?
- What are the circumstances of the death of Ruby, K.D's mother, and what effect does the manner of this death have upon the character of the town that is named after her? What is the "bargain" or "prayer in the form of a deal" (114) that is struck after her death, and who strikes it?
- Why does Sweetie make for the Convent when she finds herself at the breaking point? Why does she then try to get away from the Convent, and then tell the people of Ruby that the women there are evil?
- In what ways does the wedding or Arnett and K.D. symbolize the current state of affairs in Ruby?
- What does the school nativity play tell us about the way Ruby sees itself and mythologizes itself?
- Is it fair to say that the people of Ruby have perpetuated racism in the town that was supposed to be a haven from it? If so, in what does the town's racism consist?
- Why does Patricia burn all her research on the history of the Ruby and Haven families?
- What does Consolata mean when she says "Dear Lord, I didn't want to eat him. I just wanted to go home." (240)? What sort of home does she long for and why does she associate it with Deacon? Who is the Piedade to whose company Consolata returns after her death (321)? What is the meaning of Consolata's vision on p. 254?
- How does the death of Sweetie and Jeff's daughter Save-Marie subtly change Ruby? What sort of a future do you envision for the town? Is it possible to see the murders at the Convent as ultimately helping Ruby to evolve and to survive?
- What do you think lies behind the door or window that Anna and Misner notice as they leave the Convent? Why do they choose not to open it?
- What is the meaning of the novel's title? What does Paradise mean within the context of the book? "How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it," thinks Misner. Does Morrison imply that it is impossible to create a Paradise on earth?
"No one writes as lushly as Toni Morrison...And no one evokes more magically black communities — the people, the bonds, the talk, the buried resentments and the secret histories."
— Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
"...a breathtaking, risk-taking major work that will have readers feverishly, and fearfully turning the pages."
— Kirkus Reviews
"Another triumph for Morrison..."
— Publishers Weekly
"Gripping...Morrison is at her complex and commanding best."
"Like all the best stories, [Morrison's] are driven by an abiding moral vision. Implicit in all her characters' grapplings with who they are is a large sense of human nature and love — and a reach for understanding of something larger than the moment."
— Jean Strouse, Newsweek
"[Morrison] works her magic charm above all with a love of language. Her...style carries you like a river, sweeping doubt and disbelief away, and it is only gradually that one realizes her deadly serious intent."
— Susan Lydon, Village Voice
The volume of critical and popular acclaim that has arisen around the work of Toni Morrison is virtually unparalleled in modern letters. Her six major novels — The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula, Tar Baby, Beloved, and Jazz — have collected nearly every major literary prize. Ms. Morrison received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon. In 1987, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her body of work was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Other major awards include: the 1996 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the Pearl Buck Award (1994), the title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (Paris, 1994), and 1978 Distinguished Writer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ms. Morrison was appointed Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University in the spring of 1989. Before coming to Princeton, she held teaching posts at Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers University. In 1990 she delivered the Clark lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Massey Lectures at Harvard University. Ms. Morrison was also a senior editor at Random House for twenty years. She has degrees from Howard and Cornell Universities.
A host of colleges and universities have given honorary degrees to Ms. Morrison. Among them are Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Sarah Lawrence College, Dartmouth, Yale, Georgetown, Columbia University and Brown University. Ms. Morrison was commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 1992 to write lyrics "Honey and Me", an original piece of music by Andre Previn. The lyrics were sung in performance by Kathleen Battle. In 1997, she wrote the lyrics for "Sweet Talk," which was written by Richard Danielpour and performed in concert by Jessye Norman.
Toni Morrison has earned a reputation as a gifted storyteller whose troubled characters seek to find themselves and their cultural riches in a society that warps or impedes such essential growth. Ms. Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy, was published by Knopf on November 11, 2008 and was named to the New York Times Book Review lisf of the "10 Best Books of 2008". In it, Ms. Morrison tells the story of the fate of a slave child who is abandoned by her mother in 17th-century America. This time period proved to be a time of great change in the emerging nation whose identity was equally rooted in Old World superstitions and New World appetites and fears.