In 1880, the United States Senate published a three-volume report of the findings of its select committee on black migration from the South, the Report and Testimony of the Select Committee of the United States Senate to Investigate the Causes of the Removal of the Negroes from the Southern States to the Northern States. The report, which drew on eyewitness accounts by African-Americans during the post-Reconstruction period, a time in which a US Marshal described Southern blacks as “politically in a state of siege,” records the systematic destruction of the full citizenship they had achieved as a result of the Civil War, the erosion of the expectations promised by emancipation.
During this period, known in the white South as “Redemption,” Southern blacks were effectively reenslaved through the sharecropping system and the adamant white determination to block them from land ownership by legal or illegal means, while white Southern Democrats regained control of state and local legislatures. An election of 1878 in Nachitoches, Louisiana, was conducted as described at the Louisiana Colored Citizens’ Convention: an organization of white men
herded the colored people together and made them vote contrary to their wishes, under the threat and peril of being exiled from their homes, if not murdered on the spot…. Badges were pinned on the lappel [sic] of their coats…as a source of protection from the ruthless mobocrats patrolling the streets…. One of these badges marked voted the Democratic ticket is far more potent than the arm of the law.
The Senate document records 683 incidents of white terrorism against blacks in Louisiana alone between 1866 and 1876. Nathan Williams was whipped and his cotton confiscated because he voted the Radical ticket, Jack Horse was shot on his way to vote, Abe Young was shot on the Angels plantation, “spouting about voting Republican ticket,” Ben Gardner was beaten by a group of white men “on Mr. Gable’s plantation, because he refused to stay on the place another year.” Hiram Smith was beaten “so badly I fear I cannot live” because he asked for wages due him from a white man who then forced him to crawl on his knees and call him “my master, the God of all power.”
At a public meeting held in 1877, and documented in the Senate report, the participants “said that the whole South—every State in the South—had got into the hands of the very men that held us slaves…and we thought that the men that held us slaves was holding the reins of the government over our heads in every respect almost, even the constable up to the governor. We felt we had almost as well be slaves under these men…. Then we said there was no hope for us and we had better go.” Such was the education of Henry Adams, an advocate of black emigration, whose painstaking records of these incidents in the lives of Southern freedmen, quoted in the Senate report, offer tragic witness to this period of American history, during which the bloody reunion of the nation proved illusory.*
His contemporary, another Henry Adams, does not mention in his account of his own education the desperate plight of large numbers of his fellow countrymen. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a single mention of an African-American in the Boston Adams’s autobiography, although relationship to African-Americans, both political and personal, was an implicit, pervasive force in both his public and personal life. His family friend, Charles Sumner, had helped prepare the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, designed to sustain the increasingly threatened rights of freedmen, a bill whose provisions were invalidated by the United States Supreme Court in 1883. Adams’s intimate friend Clarence King had made no secret of his erotic attraction to dark-skinned women, and Adams would later learn of the publicly confirmed bachelor King’s secret marriage to an African-American woman; another close friend, John Hay, established a trust fund to support her and their children after King’s death. And Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who sculpted the grave monument for Adams’s wife, Clover, would be commissioned in 1884 by the State of Massachusetts to design his triumphal, elegiac memorial to the regiment of African-American Civil War soldiers led by Robert Gould Shaw, only a few years after the peak emigrations of Southern freedmen to the Western states.
These anecdotes about Henry Adams and Henry Adams are relevant to Toni Morrison’s new novel about descendants of freedmen emigrants to Oklahoma not simply because they clarify the novel’s historical background or establish in fact the mortal risks, betrayals, and stark choices that a par-tial emancipation brought to African-Americans and their resolute determination to claim that emancipation fully. Readers who were disoriented by reading of Henry Adams’s intense engagement in documenting African-American lives, and who may have reflexively thought to themselves, “But that’s not the real Henry Adams,” have already begun an encounter with the world of this novel.
Paradise is concerned with the ways in which preconception can determine experience itself, exploring the consequences of the claims of a set of “founding fathers” to be the truest citizens of a community. Readers struck by the hidden-in-plain-sight presence of African-Americans in The Education of Henry Adams are already gazing into the mirror Paradise holds up to American literature. In her lectures on American literature, Playing in the Dark, Morrison wrote of the “tacit agreement among literary scholars” that American culture and classic American literature can be considered “without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States.” “This agreement,” she writes, “is made about a population that preceded every American writer of renown and was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country’s literature. The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.” Her readings demonstrate the consequences of this omission within the literature itself and suggest how different American literature looks read with a consciousness of it. How might we read a story like Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” for example, with its portrait of a homespun colonial community that has collectively and matter-of-factly sold its soul to the Devil?
Her lectures also reflect on the roles of blacks in canonical American fiction as well as literary criticism. “There is no romance free,” she writes, “of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness,’ especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated…. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is…an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity.”
Paradise pulls off a rare and stunning feat: it is a novel with a double life, a serious work of fiction which also functions as a parable, a novel that is, effectively and ironically, also a work of literary criticism. Paradise, perhaps more directly than any of Toni Morrison’s other novels, draws that black presence forward from the margins of imagination to the center of American literature and history. With the ambiguity of illusion that Magritte used in his painting The Human Condition, in which the image of the sky on an easel may be a painting or the world outside the room, Morrison tells a story of an African-American community in the Vietnam era which is also a story about colonial America. Paradise is a novel about pioneers laying claim to a country, and, less explicitly, about the ways in which possession of this country has been extended and justified through stories, stories kneaded strongly into the image of the country itself, so that the story of its claiming almost irresistibly evokes images of white founding fathers. Morrison does not waste her novelist’s energies criticizing or protesting that story or attempting to replace it with a new myth. She does the work of art, not argument, and, like Magritte, she uses the juxtaposition of founding stories to disorient the reader: Are we in the nation itself or our illusion of it? In Paradise, the story of America’s white founding fathers is moved from foreground to background—in the community of Ruby, Oklahoma, founded by African-Americans, the official national founding myth is a shadow of their own, in a community where shadows are not dark, but white.
Paradise shows how crucial the black presence in America has been and is to the nation’s fundamental image of itself, and examines those national dreams and ideals through Morrison’s portrait of a utopian African-American community, as Hawthorne did in his novel of a New England transcendentalist utopia, The Blithedale Romance. And in laying frank and adventurous claim to a classic subject of American literature, Paradise subverts a kind of unspoken literary class distinction, the assumption that a story told with African-Americans or women in the foreground will necessarily be a story of impenetrably special experience and concerns, its subject somehow provincial, confined exclusively to itself, or to its response as a community to the power of the dominant community, a shadowy adjunct to the “real” normative story of national life. It is as if a harem were to describe a sultan. There often seems to be an almost unconscious assumption that power determines reality—the sultan is taken to be the author of the harem, a reflection does not create the image it reflects—since the experiences of the dominated are taken to be largely devised for them by those who dominate.
As The Blithedale Romance explores American idealism through its microcosm of New England transcendentalists, Paradise meditates on varieties of the national experience as refracted through a community of African-Americans, without sacrificing the dazzling particularity of their blackness, and through “the Convent,” a neighboring community of women. The histories of both populations have been shaped and continue to be shaped directly by the kinds of stories told and believed about them. Paradise is, among other things, about the complex uses of storytelling, religious, political, ethnic, legal, personal, in the life of a community—the events the novel describes bear witness to the sometimes terrifying, sometimes inspiring phenomenon of the governing power of stories, as they reshape the world, influencing laws, wars, citizenships, massacres, and marriages, stories that persuade and justify, save and doom, take possession of those who created them.
Morrison’s Oklahoma town of Ruby is the post-World War II creation of a community of descendants of a band of African-American emigrants who pulled up stakes in 1890 and left the South after “Redemption.” They are not only the founding fathers of Ruby, a determinedly segregated black town on the prairie, but also founding fathers, however unacknowledged, of the nation itself, their residence older than the US Constitution.
Descendants of those who had been in Louisiana Territory when it was French, when it was Spanish, when it was French again, when it was sold to Jefferson and when it became a state in 1812…. Descendants of those who, after the Civil War, had defied or hidden from whites doing all they could to force them to stay and work as sharecroppers in Louisiana. Descendants of those… elected [during Reconstruction] to rule in state legislatures and county offices: who, when thrown out of office…following the purges of 1875…were reduced to penury and/or field labor. Fifteen years of begging for sweatwork in cotton, lumber or rice after five glorious years remaking a country…. In 1890 they had been in the country for one hundred and twenty years.
Like the Massachusetts Pilgrims, the Ruby men and their wives are fleeing persecution, seeking an environment which they can shape with their own vision of both the good moral life and the good material life, and like the Pilgrims, they endure an epic trek to their New World, where “freedom was a test administered by the natural world that a man had to take for himself every day.”
The founding families of Ruby are distinguished by the impeccable darkness of their skin, described by one citizen as “8-rock,” a term for “a deep deep level in the coal mines,” and a proud proof for them that they have not been corrupted by “racial tampering,” with all its implications of disgrace, submission to enslavement by whites, or a sacrificial ambition to escape white power by acquiescing to it. But as they walk from Mississippi to Oklahoma, they are shocked to be rejected by settlements founded by other African-Americans.
For ten generations they had believed the division they fought to close was free against slave and rich against poor. Usually, but not always, white against black. Now they saw a new separation: light-skinned against black. Oh, they knew there was a difference in the minds of whites, but it had not struck them before that it was of consequence, serious consequence, to Negroes themselves. Serious enough that their daughters would be shunned as brides; their sons chosen last…. The sign of racial purity they had taken for granted had become a stain.
The founding families’ rejection by a community of light-skinned African-Americans, who call their town “Fairly,” takes on the proportions of a sacred experience, a permanent, perpetually recurring event, like the Flood or the Fall. The rejection, a kind of negative landing on Plymouth Rock (which the term “8-rock” also inverts), is known to the townspeople as “the Disallowing,” an event which is revisited in community ritual and memory like a temple. “They became a tight band of wayfarers bound by the enormity of what had happened to them.”
The band of founding families is able to purchase from Indian owners adequate land for their future town, a town they call “Haven,” a town obedient to an unspoken “blood rule” that no marriages with light-skinned people will be tolerated. But after the Second World War, the community leaders’ renewed disillusionment with the nation’s acceptance of them as sol-diers but refusal of them as citizens, a second “Disallowing,” motivates them to retreat deeper into the prairie, founding a new town called Ruby, named after Ruby Morgan Smith, who died after being refused treatment by the white doctors in the local hospital. This incident deepens Morrison’s Magritte-like treatment of the surreal interplay between the communities—Ruby Morgan Smith, a daughter of one of her community’s first families, cannot find in the white world outside it even a veterinarian willing to treat her.
Ruby itself is in fact a racist town, as well as an enclave of moral and physical freedom for its freedmen founders—like the New World itself, as Morrison describes it in Playing in the Dark: “What was distinctive in the New World was, first of all, its claim to freedom, and second, the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment.” Ruby’s racism gives Morrison an opportunity to look at the multiple social consequences of exclusivism, with its seemingly inevitable connection with the political and social control of women, who must be supervised, since it is through their alliances above all that racial contamination might corrupt the population. She also explores its necessary alliance with religious creed, since a society designed to perpetuate itself unchangingly needs to propose its self-perpetuation as divine obligation, so that its refusal to examine its hostility to outsiders, its unamendable laws and customs, its permanent social hierarchy can be seen as obedient instead of wanton, arbitrary, or aggressive, a reflection of a divine and necessary order.
Through her portrait of the men of stature in Ruby, who are its masters and ministers, Morrison shifts the focus from “the perspectives of [racism’s] impact on the object of racist policy,” its “consequences on the victim,” to “see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination and behavior of masters.” Among the leading men of Ruby are the twin brothers of Ruby Morgan Smith, Deacon and Steward, who administer a small empire including ranches and the town bank. They are descended from Zechariah, one of the original pilgrims who was led to the original town site by a guiding spirit only he at first could see. There is Senior “Take No Prisoners” Pulliam, the hard-line pastor of the town Methodists, who preaches that love is “divine only and difficult always,” undeserved by and almost beyond the capacity of humans, who are the creatures of a God “who is interested only in Himself.” There is the Morgans’ nephew, K.D., their “hope and despair,” last male in the Morgan line, who is being groomed to inherit the twins’ money and position. There are the Fleetwood men, financial and social rivals to the Morgans, Arnold and his son, Jeff, a Vietnam veteran who has fathered four incurably ill children, possibly due to his exposure to chemicals used in the war. Their line is also threatened with extinction.
These and other founding families, Pooles, Blackhorses, the DuPres and the Floods, are further entangled with each other by being married to the daughters and sisters of founding fathers. And there is a new Baptist minister, Richard Misner, disapproved of by the Morgans, for his impulse toward “confrontations rather than end runs around white law,” his political activism a threat of new instability within the strictly ordered community. “A man like that could encourage strange behavior; side with a teenage girl; shift ground to Fleetwood…, give customers ideas. Make them think there was a choice about interest rates.” Morrison keeps in play the intricate knot of motives that influence the founding fathers’ conservatism—ranging from fear to ambition, to passionate moral vision.
Morrison’s townsmen could judge themselves as do Hawthorne’s Blithedale tenants, “as regarded society at large, we stood in a position of new hostility, rather than new brotherhood,” though the social world surrounding the Oklahoma settlement returns the compliment. In a brilliant piece of observation, Morrison shows the complex evolution of the “Disallowing” from history to myth, describing the incorporation of the event into the Ruby schoolchildren’s annual Christmas pageant, in which it is conflated with the Christmas Eve story of the Holy Family seeking shelter at the inn. The children enact “a parade of holy families,” representing the founding families of Ruby refused shelter at an inn by the townspeople of Fairly, who wear yellow and white masks to represent their light-skinned racial impurity, while the schoolchildren and townspeople in the play’s audience chant threats of divine vengeance, “God will crumble you.” The incident of persecution becomes a mark of superiority, evidence of the founders’ immense significance.
The Disallowing relates the founding families directly to divine justice, giving them a part in deity, and simultaneously enshrining a perpetual appetite for revenge, while becoming a source of further “disallowings.” Founding families who offend the iron racial law of the community are themselves silently eradicated as characters in the Christmas play, as the disallowed become the elite disallowers. They enclose themselves in the memory of that persecution as in an ark, which has also become a source of salvation made effectual through the damnation of others, the notions of persecution, damnation, and salvation enlaced like the complex filaments of a genetic code. But because the memory of the past persecution is cherished does not mean the community’s endangerment is purely imaginary. Another threat persists which demands the community’s constant apprehension, the hostility of the white populace to the civil rights of blacks and to a truly shared national life.
Ten generations had known what lay Out There…where random and organized evil erupted when and where it chose…. Out There where your children were sport, your women quarry, and where your very person could be annulled; where congregations carried arms to church…. Out There where every cluster of whitemen looked like a posse, being alone was being dead.
The story of the community’s past is enclosed within a present-day plot set in the Vietnam era, when the town’s cohesion is threatened by the changing politics of the younger generation, and by the presence of a commune of women in “the Convent,” a ramshackle neighboring mansion. One Ruby woman’s reflection on her belief that her sons would be safer in Vietnam than in the United States gives a sense of the felt continuity of external threat: “Like a fool she believed her sons would be safe. Safer than anywhere in Oklahoma outside Ruby. Safer in the army than in Chicago…. Safer than Birmingham, than Montgomery, Selma, than Watts. Safer than Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963. Safer than Newark, Detroit, Washington, D.C. She had thought war was safer than any city in the United States.”
The novel does not lose sight of the way Ruby men’s thinking, motives, and actions are shaped and transformed and distorted by the reality of the world outside Ruby which works to thwart their personal freedom and professional ambitions, and holds their lives in mortal danger. It is the context of their relations to the world outside Ruby that plays a large part in determining their relations to the world inside Ruby, where it is the townswomen themselves who represent a kind of utopia for the men, as many of the names given girls reflect, like the Ruby schoolgirls “Hope, Chaste, Lovely and Pure,” their names verbal equivalents of the carved reliefs of women on cathedral and courthouse walls, illustrations of allegorized virtues treasured and codified by men.
The town Ruby, named after a woman, is a kind of woman itself, a kind of ideal woman constructed by men for themselves and their companion women, who are above all responsible for enacting and representing the ideals of the men. The women are, in a sense, where the Ruby men live. The town life is centered around a communal oven rebuilt in Ruby, first wrought by “the Old Fathers.” “Round as a head, deep as desire,…the huge flawlessly designed Oven…both nourished them and monumentalized what they had done.” The oven seems a symbol of an ideally functioning woman crafted by the townsmen. The lives of their wives, too, both nourish them and monumentalize the refuge they have created within the nation. The name of the town itself suggests the biblical feminine ideal of Proverbs 35, the good woman “whose price is above rubies,” who works tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of her household.
Ruby, as devised by the founding fathers and their sons, is a place of “quiet white and yellow houses full of industry; and in them were elegant black women at useful tasks; orderly cupboards minus surfeit or miserliness; linen laundered and ironed to perfection; good meat seasoned and ready for roasting,” a world that mirrors the masculine domestic heaven of the world of the Proverbs. It is, in many ways, an honorable vision of a world of peace and safety, of considerable beauty, and Morrison does not covertly guide us to hold it in contempt. Deacon Morgan’s wife, Soane, remembers the baptisms of her girlhood, “in sweet water…. When the pastor held the girls in his arms, lowering them one by one into newly hallowed water, never letting go…. Slowly, then, hand in hand, heads on supporting shoulders, the blessed and saved waded to the banks.” That the vision of the founding fathers becomes oppressive and fanatical does not obliterate the dreams of grace, freedom, and safety that informed it.
The men who created the town and their fathers before them are “proud that none of their women had ever worked in a whiteman’s kitchen or nursed a white child.” They have created a fortress of integrity in Ruby in which no element of economic or sexual exploitation by whites can intrude. Neither, of course, can any freely chosen relationship with whites or blacks of mixed blood or suspect manners—the protective fortress is also a prison, administered by a new hierarchy of the successors of the founding fathers. Within Ruby, one townsman thinks, no woman is “prey,” a woman can stroll in the dark of night, “as slowly as she liked, think of food preparation, war, of family things, or lift her eyes to the stars and think of nothing at all.”
The women of Ruby, though, live in the mansion of a freedom, a freedom granted to them, which they do not possess—they are free to live the lives whose purpose and limits are imagined for them by Ruby men, free to be the freedom envisioned by the men, while the men’s own freedom is curtailed by the constant need to guard Ruby’s geographical and moral borders. In subtle daily ways, the disproportion between the freedoms of the two genders emerges. Arnette, a girl who is the subject of a dispute between the Morgans and the Fleetwoods, ostensibly because of an insult, but actually because she is pregnant by a Morgan, is not present herself at the peace conference between the two families, although her future is being decided.
Nor is any other woman of either family—the men conduct the discussion, mediated by the minister Misner. Following an unacknowledged rule, Ruby women’s free movements are free only within the town—they walk, where the Ruby men drive cars. A townswoman who is engaged in drawing up a genealogical history of Ruby reflects that “unadulterated and unadulteried 8-rock blood held its magic as long as it resided in Ruby…. That was their deal. For Immortality…. In that case, she thought, everything that worries them must come from women.”
The townsmen remember the Old Fathers reciting the sacred stories of their divinely guided journey to freedom; the women do not seem to tell stories, but sing in lyrical counterpart, in “pure sopranos…’He will take care of you.”‘ The repetition, the liturgy of will evoked by the founders’ stories, makes the stories come to seem not historical but eternal, which, combined with the men’s years of unchallenged authority in communities they have created, Haven and then Ruby, seems to erode their awareness of themselves as mortal, as beings with a personal, finite, alterable relation to the world around them.
Their desire to maintain their founders’ relation to the town, to claim the perpetual overarching authority of the creator at the moment of creation, profoundly affects both the social and political life of the town—they treat Ruby like authors who want to stop the life of their work at the moment of writing, and cannot endure publication, exposing the work to the myriad readings and misreadings it will encounter beyond the author’s conception of it. The present-day Ruby of the novel is a town enmeshed in generational and political conflict, a conflict which finds expression through a bitter contest about the meaning of the smudged phrase the founders inscribed on the town’s communal oven, which reads “…the furrow of His brow.”
The debate over how to reconstruct the phrase, presided over by two ministers, Senior Pulliam, the stately voice of the older generation, and Richard Misner, the activist spokesman for the younger, encapsulates a debate over the identity of Ruby itself, a debate over the relations between the younger and older generations, and a debate over the role the isolated black community should play in the nation at large. Powerful members of the older generation, for example, disapprove of the civil rights movement, calling Thurgood Marshall “a ‘stir-up Negro’ for handling the NAACP’s segregation suit in Norman,” and heaping contempt on lunch-counter sit-ins.
Ruby’s young men, who are insisting on participating in shaping the town’s purpose and character, as well as a place in the world outside it, are answered by the elders in the spirit of Yahweh’s dispatching of Job’s questioning—“Where were you when I made this?” And in the theologies proposed by both sides—the elders conceive God as a ruler who can only be obeyed, the younger see themselves not just as God’s creatures but as part of divine action in the world—are the seeds of the community’s future, since whoever controls the accepted notion of God presides over what is socially permissible and will be accepted as the bearer of legitimate authority. Paradise resolutely confronts the intricate relations between politics and religious practice.
The implosive violence of the conflict is expressed with furious despotism by one of the town’s impeccable 8-rock descendants, Steward Morgan, who threatens the assembly, addressing in particular the children of his peers: “If you, any one of you, ignore, change, take away, or add to the words in the mouth of that Oven, I will blow your head off just like you was a hood-eyed snake.”
The ambition for eternal authority extends not only to social and political life, but to the founders’ personal memories, which take on themselves the character of unchallengeable sacred texts. An idyllic memory shared by the powerful Morgan twins, of a youthful visit to another prosperous Western freedman town, becomes a profound principle, shaping two of its most prominent citizens’ vision of Ruby:
Steward watched nineteen Negro ladies arrange themselves on the steps of the town hall. They wore summer dresses of material the lightness, the delicacy of which neither of them had ever seen. Most of the dresses were white, but two were lemon yellow and one a salmon color. They wore small, pale hats of beige, dusty rose, powdery blue. The ladies broke apart in small groups, bending their tiny waists with rippling laughter…. Musical voices, low, full of delight and secret information.
For the brothers, this dreamy period image of a summer afternoon becomes a revelation, a moment of “perfect understanding,” a vision of perfect women, privileged and ladylike, perfectly beautiful, cherished, secure in a perfect town, black marble Galateas who, as the image of all these two men find most desirable, incarnate the perfect black life the men want to create, to give and have. The private idyllic moment takes on a stature beyond personal memory, acquiring a terrifying, omnipotent lyricism; the tender memory becomes a symbol that they would kill for, like Crusaders for the Cross.
The inviolable perfection of this pastel fresco lies at the heart and motive of the murder itself, when the brothers goad a group of Ruby men into setting out to kill the group of neighbor women they despise who live at the former convent nearby, “with their streetwalkers’ clothes and whores’ appetites; mocking and desecrating the vision that carried him and his brother through a war, that imbued their marriages and strengthened their efforts to build a town where the vision could flourish.” It is precisely the incorruptibility of the vision that renders it corrupt as it prostitutes those outside the frame of its pastel purity, and renders the men who cherish it no longer able to judge themselves in relation to their own actions.
In fact, in one of the small powerful diurnal moments that form the body of the book, Morrison records an incident which shows with an almost phlegmatic irony that the black puritans of Ruby are almost incapable of recognizing innocence when they see it, that, as with the Blithedale colonists, it may be their inflexible relation to their own honorable values and dreams that blinds them, so that virtue itself becomes murderous. One innocence they cannot recognize is not lyrical, but coarse and real. A girl toddler named Billie Delia has been given pleasure rides by an avuncular townsman on his farm horse. “Too little, still, for everyday underwear, and nobody noticed or cared how perfect her skin felt against that wide expanse of rhythmically moving animal flesh.”
Billie Delia is stigmatized in Ruby by the kind of incident that clings to someone in village life, when at three, offered a ride on the horse, she pulls down her underpants in anticipation of mounting it. She is branded as dangerously lustful, a conviction influenced by her descent from a racially suspect family, although it is not her appetite for pleasure that is shocking but her frightening innocence. Billie Delia comes to represent potential lawless female lust to the town, although she remains a virgin long after the teenage out-of-wedlock pregnancy of her closest friend.
The town recreates her as a symbol, and her power for them as a metaphor is more charged than anything she actually does. She eventually is one of the few townspeople who live and work outside Ruby, although she is unable to go very far from her hometown, held close to it by a hopeless love for a pair of brothers. She is also one of the few townspeople to maintain a balanced view of the eccentric commune of women the Ruby men gradually demonize; she describes them as “a little nuts but harmless,” aware that they have taken on her own social function, as the purely imaginary threat they pose to the community ferments among the leaders of the town.
Both Hawthorne’s Blithedale colonists and Morrison’s Ruby citizens confront one of the great risks in attempting to create a utopia, coming face to face with a rival utopia, whose conception of perfected community undermines and flaws their own. Nearby, close enough for the Ruby women to walk to, the Convent is a community that has in fact already failed twice to become paradise on earth, before most of its current aspirants arrived there. Neighboring the town, with its orderly flower gardens and streets named after the Gospels, is a lavish, vulgar house, “an embezzler’s folly,” originally built as a gangster’s playboy mansion, a place of refuge against rivals and a private sexual utopia, furnished with pornographic statues and books. After it is purchased by an order of nuns whose mission is service to “Indians and Colored People,” the sisters reshape the house according to their own paradisal vision. They burn the books, destroy the naked marble women who decorate the house, establish a school, and set out “to bring God and language to natives who were assumed to have neither; to alter their diets, their clothes, their minds; to help them despise everything that had once made their lives worthwhile and to offer them instead the privilege of knowing the one and only God and a chance, thereby, for redemption.”
The Ruby citizens of the 1970s know the Convent as semiderelict, its school closed for lack of pupils, now housing only a bedridden elderly nun and her one remaining charge, a street child she swept up from the slums of Brazil, now a middle-aged woman, more a devoted foster daughter than a pupil. When the nun dies, Consolata lives alone in the Convent, eking out a living by selling the Convent’s famous peppers and prepared food to citizens of Ruby and passersby.
By accident or destiny, the Convent becomes a place of refuge for a shifting population of homeless women, who wash up on its doorstep and find a kind of refuge there. These women are homeless but not helpless, nor do they possess the donkey-mounted, Bethlehem-seeking innocence that gives refugees the kind of impeccable credentials that inspire uncomplicated sympathy. They are innocent but not virtuous, in the way Ruby people understand innocence. There is Mavis, a fugitive from a sleazy household and marriage, who pulls up in a used mint-green Cadillac, having let her twin babies smother in the sweltering car while on a supermarket errand for her boorish husband. She lives in a kind of trance of incompetence, a cocooning inability to meet all the demands placed on her which is perhaps a passive resentment of them.
There is Grace, the toughened streetwise daughter of a convict, who draws a young Ruby man into a tormented affair with her, perpetually seeking and failing to find a kind of sexual salvation. There is the suicidal Seneca, abandoned in a housing project as a child, and later picked up in a bus station by a rich woman and put through five days of sexual torture, afterward drifting to the Convent. There is Pallas, unloved daughter of a wealthy entertainment lawyer, who runs away with a handsome maintenance man she imagines is her true love, who is later seduced before her eyes by her own mother.
Through these women, the Ruby townspeople develop an uneasy relationship with the new convent community, a place that begins to be seen as a “coven,” where women reject men, live in a mixed-race community (one of the women is white), and practice mysterious unholy rites. But these reasons for wishing to drive the women away are only the ones most apparent to the Ruby people. The Convent has become for them a place where they go to escape Ruby, to do the things that Ruby does not permit them, it is the unacknowledged underside of life in Ruby. Ruby, after all, again like Blithedale, is a community without a cemetery, whose citizens die, almost by tacit contract, outside its city limits.
Two Ruby men have affairs with Convent women; another, an alcoholic, experiences a wild detoxification there, unable to admit his addiction within the Ruby city limits. Arnette Fleetwood, who is pregnant by the scion of a prominent Ruby family, a condition all Ruby suspects, but will not acknowledge, goes to the Convent with the equally unacknowledged purpose of aborting the child, which she tries to do herself, succeeding in inducing a delivery so premature that the baby dies.
The Convent inadvertently becomes the vault for all of Ruby’s secrets, even the ways in which its spirituality overflows the borders of its conservative Protestantism. Lone DuPres, a midwife, instructs the Catholic Consolata in her own belief that the natural and the divine cannot be separated, and excavates in her pupil an ability to heal, to bring someone back from the brink of death by entering a state of combined physical and spiritual intimacy with them that somehow prolongs their life force. The presence of her kind of religious belief in Ruby is something else respectable citizens choose to ignore.
The Convent functions something like the “darktowns” just beyond the limits of white settlements that appear so often in Southern white writers’ tales, seen as cauldrons of illicit sex, abortion, magic, voodoo, unbridled impulse seen as innate, but not as entering from outside, willed on them by the virtuous community; the Convent’s dangerous witchiness is as much Ruby’s as its own. The Convent serves Ruby’s fantasy as the memory of seeing a streetwalker beaten up excites Steward Morgan’s—the figure of the whore concentrates in herself his own violence and lust. She forms for him a figure of absolute evil, so that his passionate loathing of her is sanctified, and absolves him. In fact, Steward’s moral world actually requires prostitution, without which virtue cannot be identified nor recognized. He does not loathe himself or other men for their relations with prostitutes, but finds a kind of paradise of hatred in which he is free from sin, in which his own wish to beat her is holy, one of the many paradises contained within the novel.
The Convent becomes the same sort of negative divinity for Ruby, absorbing all its sins. “A mother was knocked downstairs by her cold-eyed daughter. Four damaged infants were born in one family. And what went on at the Oven these days was not to be believed…the proof [the Ruby people] had been collecting…could not be denied; the one thing that connected all these catastrophes was the Convent.” Finally, a group of the leading men of the town join together in a kind of festival of murder. After eating an almost eucharistic supper of steaks and whisky, they descend on the Convent with shotguns, and set upon the Convent women in a kind of ecstasy of murder. They are, at that moment, what they accuse the women of being—a coven.
One of Paradise’s most powerful achievements is its tracing of the workings in the imagination through which people abandon themselves to action beyond judgment, through which desires become commandments. The attack on the Convent is driven by a complex chemistry of personal motives for revenge—sexual rejection, disappointed love, fear, anger, guilt, a perverse atonement for two men’s infidelities, greed, since one of the avengers wants the Convent’s land, and half-truths about the women’s perverse doings that have been transformed into nearly doctrinal beliefs about them. The evil potions brewed by Convent women are actually herbal drinks, their seeming idol worship stems partly from Protestant Ruby’s misunderstanding of the traditional decoration of the Convent’s Roman Catholic chapel, their supposed kidnapping and murder of a child is an accusation based largely on Arnette Fleetwood’s attempt to abort her own child there in a flight from Ruby. What she hates about what she herself has done, and her jealousy of her husband’s sexual obsession with one of the Convent women, underlies her implacable hatred of the group. In this way, a number of Ruby women are also implicated in the violent hatred of and attack on the Convent, since the men’s actions are also shaped by their relationships with Ruby women. And Morrison, in another of the shocking and brilliant inversions that are the engine of this novel, is showing us a lynching party entirely made up of black men.
By altering familiar patterns, Morrison is able to focus on the mental and emotional processes through which decent people, attempting to create a world good to live in, become capable of savagery. She also jars the reader into recognizing the way in which what is a story comes to seem a destiny, a pattern, an inevitability. Changing the reader’s assumptions about founding fathers and American pilgrims, and the reader’s certainties about good and evil, lynchers and victims, about what we are sure must happen, sets a grace and freedom alongside the cruelty of Paradise; its violence is the outcome of human fantasy and will, but not intrinsic to blacks, whites, men, or women, not made inevitable by race or gender, but chosen, so that repentance and change are possible. By showing us how a story is crafted into a fate, she is also showing us that a story doesn’t have to follow a compulsive trajectory, a story need not end the way it began, that stories can serve to create the possible as well as the inevitable.
One of the strengths of the book is its subtle, ambivalent portrait of both the stable beauty and the oppression of village life, the way the compression of the small town magnifies daily incidents and relationships, the mixed motives through which nicknames and reputations are assigned, churches attended, stores patronized; chapter to chapter, this gives a journal-like effect. The strength of the town as protagonist, however, is also a difficulty for Morrison, presenting her with a narrative problem she can’t always solve, forcing her to truncate at times the stories of individual townspeople, diminishing them except in their primary and sometimes monotonous relation to the town of Ruby itself—one of the challenges of writing the scripture of Utopia.
Seemingly trivial incidents form the scaffolding for life-and-death choices; a white couple stop for an aspirin for their sick baby but refuse the impersonal hospitality of a Ruby store proprietress and her warnings about the impending prairie blizzard, perhaps because they dislike blacks, or are threatened by finding themselves in an all-black town, perhaps because they can’t conceive of blacks as possessing authoritative knowledge. Ignoring the counsel of the Ruby people who have lived the risk of their country, they drive on and are caught in the snowstorm, dying, as Morrison reveals with impassive, sleight-of-hand irony, of whiteness.
It is incidents like these that make Morrison, who is often described as a magical realist, seem to me to be up to something much more complex, as well as being much more difficult to narrate—it seems to me she could be more precisely described as a magical ironist. Morrison does not simply incorporate miraculous or incomprehensible incidents into conventional narrative, although in Paradise we witness what may or may not be actual resurrections of the dead; after the attack on the Convent women by the Ruby men, the Convent women reappear to people who loved them. It is conceivable as the battle scene is written that some of the women may have escaped, but one reappearance is made by a woman we have seen killed outright with a shot to the forehead. Whether or not the Convent women truly survive their deaths, their appearances are indisputably resurrections within the imaginations of the living, in the way the poet Wislawa Szymborska describes: “There’s no life/that couldn’t be immortal! if only for a moment. Death/always arrives by that very moment too late/In vain it tugs at the knob/of the invisible door/As far as you’ve come/can’t be undone.”
Ordinary life is just as outlandish in Morrison’s books as extraordinary life, the way life is actually lived is as bizarre as any notion of afterlife. That stopping for an aspirin may be the gateway through which a family passes to its death, that a friendly widower might turn out to be Bluebeard, that a gently reared young woman tries to abort her own child with a broomstick, or that social and moral structures can be based on skin pigmentation or genitalia are notions as inexplicable as eternal life. Nor does Morrison simply announce the presence of the miraculous; without abandoning her obligation to tell her story, she addresses a reader who is invited to make choices.
The ambiguity of the resurrections in Paradise is one of many circumstances in which the reader must meet the story with a story of her own. The novel guides the reader to an awareness that she meets the author’s book with her own desire for certain kinds of stories, outcomes, destinies for certain characters, and subtly proposes that she examine her motives for her preferences and beliefs, for the kinds of stories she wants the author to tell her. Morrison is deeply concerned with the way stories shape ethics, and invites a reader into a new, at times unnervingly overt kind of dialogue with the author and with reading.
For Morrison, the reader is not dealt with, in the unwitting manner of so many novelists, as the author’s creation, a blank recipient, but as a parallel subject of the story, a living being who is dreaming, lying, empathizing, choosing, and struggling for some approach to truth as she reads. The new relationship Morrison is attempting to create with the reader is an invitation, too, to search for a new kind of critical language, one capable of describing the way a reader reads a book while simultaneously reading herself, of expressing a more experimental, dynamic relation between perception, knowledge, and uncertainty than traditional critical decorum allows.
Paradise is a novel whose flaws lie close to its glories. The world of Ruby is created with such detail and attention that the world of the Convent suffers by comparison. The women in the Convent, despite their carefully differentiated biographies, blur together, perhaps because, although their suffering is not uniform, the author seems to write of each of them with the same tone. As their leader Consolata reflects, “What she knew of them she had mostly forgotten…because the timbre of each of their voices told the same tale: disorder, deception and, what Sister Roberta warned the Indian girls of, drift.” Because the women’s sufferings overshadow their other experiences to such a degree, the Convent rituals that heal them and free them seem to resolve their overweening pain too late and too quickly. There is a potential beauty that never quite develops in their “loud dreaming,” an attempt to reshape their biographies and remake themselves through drawing self-portraits to come to terms with “the mold they had chosen” and through confession.
After the intense and leisurely detail of the dueling sermons of Reverends Misner and Pulliam in Ruby, the Convent rituals seem rushed through. And it is jarring in a book that so skillfully unbalances the reader’s expectations to have the women’s climactic scene of spiritual healing occur through the medium of a clichéd spontaneous communal dance in the rain. “…The thrill is almost erotic. But those sensations bow to the rapture of holy women dancing in hot sweet rain…. Consolata…was the more furious dancer, Mavis the most elegant. Seneca and Grace danced together, then parted to skip through fresh mud. Pallas, smoothing raindrops from her baby’s head, swayed like a frond.” After the gravity of their suffering, torture, rape, abandonment, betrayal, death, dancin’ and singin’ in the rain doesn’t seem an effectual resolution.
The most disappointingly conventional figure in the book is the Ruby midwife, Lone DuPres, who remains an emblem of folk wisdom instead of a visionary who can bridge the beliefs of both communities. It is hard not to find her flat in comparison with the splendor of Baby Suggs, whose ecstatic, nonmessianic sermon in Beloved is at once a profound reconception of traditional monotheistic belief and one of the great pieces of religious oratory in American literature. The complexity of the rest of Paradise ironically throws its failures into sharper relief than they would be in a less innovative novel, though they can’t destroy the real grandeur of what this otherwise fearless novel achieves. Toni Morrison is relighting the angles from which we view American history, changing the very color of its shadows, showing whites what they look like in black mirrors. To read her work is to witness something unprecedented, an invitation to a literature to become what it has claimed to be, a truly American literature.
June 11, 1998
The anecdotes about Henry Adams are drawn from Nell Irvin Painter’s history of the African-American migrations, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (Knopf, 1977). ↩