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“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Paradise, which opens with a horrifying scene of mass violence and chronicles its genesis in an all-black small town in rural Oklahoma. Founded by the descendants of freed slaves and survivors in exodus from a hostile world, the patriarchal community of Ruby is built on righteousness, rigidly enforced moral law, and fear. But seventeen miles away, another group of exiles has gathered in a promised land of their ...
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Paradise, which opens with a horrifying scene of mass violence and chronicles its genesis in an all-black small town in rural Oklahoma. Founded by the descendants of freed slaves and survivors in exodus from a hostile world, the patriarchal community of Ruby is built on righteousness, rigidly enforced moral law, and fear. But seventeen miles away, another group of exiles has gathered in a promised land of their own. And it is upon these women in flight from death and despair that nine male citizens of Ruby will lay their pain, their terror, and their murderous rage.
In prose that soars with the rhythms, grandeur, and tragic arc of an epic poem, Toni Morrison challenges our most fiercely held beliefs as she weaves folklore and history, memory and myth into an unforgettable meditation on race, religion, gender, and a far-off past that is ever present.
“Stunning. . . . Morrison at her novelistic best.” —The New Yorker
“Morrison dazzles.” —The Nation
“A fascinating story, wonderfully detailed. . . . The town is the stage for a profound and provocative debate.” —Los Angeles Times
“Morrison [is] a master storyteller. . . . She is at the height of her imaginative powers.” —New York Daily News
“Everything is resonant here: the most casual gestures are informed by the facts and myths of genders and race, by our notions of civilization and lawlessness, body and spirit, Christianity and witchcraft. Morrison’s lyrical prose displays great confidence in her readers’ intelligence, demands their unflagging attention, and rewards them generously—with a memorable work of epic range and monumental ambition.” —People
“Toni Morrison is an extraordinarily good writer. Two pages into anything she writes one feels the power of her language and the emotional authority behind that language.” —The Village Voice
“Morrison is at the top of her form. . . . Impressive, eloquent, and powerfully imagined.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Morrison is a terrific storyteller. . . . Her writing evokes the joyful richness of life.” —Newsday
“A breathtaking, risk-taking major work that will have readers feverishly, and fearfully turning the pages.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[A] triumph. . . . The individual stories of both the women and the townspeople reveal Morrison at her best.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
Paradise begins in 1976 in Ruby, an affluent all-black Oklahoma town with a population of 360, and flashes back to the men and women who founded the town's precursor, Haven, after the Civil War. Haven was decimated not by whites (there are hardly any whites in Paradise) but by the Depression, leading the children of its founders to pick up and move 240 miles to the west and try again.
Nearly every townsperson gets a cameo in the course of this narrative of flawed nation-building. What I wouldn't give for a relationship chart. There are the town's macho leaders, the twins Deacon and Steward Morgan. There are their wives, Soane and Dovey. Both know tragedy. One has had two sons die. The other has had multiple miscarriages, each punished according to the sins of the husband. There is an insurgent outside preacher named Reverend Misner, who is keeping court with an independent woman and store owner named Anna Flood. They are the closest thing to common sense in the town. And there is a no-good lothario named K.D., son of Deacon and Steward's deceased sister Ruby, eponym of the town. Imagine a family reunion when you're not quite catching the names.
The action, though, is simple. As the novel opens, a woman lies dead in the front hall of the Convent, a former Catholic retreat just outside Ruby. The town's alpha menfolk have driven over and shot her, and now they are hunting down the house's remaining inhabitants. Connie, Seneca, Grace, Pallas and Mavis are the prey, female refugees who gathered in this safe place. They have done nothing wrong. Their crime is otherness. Their practices are vaguely occult, vaguely Sapphic and vaguely threatening to law and order. The men mistrust them. In short, they are killed because they can be slain without consequence.
And afterward Ruby is a little bit sorry. Morrison writes: "Bewildered, angry, sad, frightened people pile into cars, making their way back ... How hard they had worked for this place; how far away they once were from the terribleness they have just witnessed. How could so clean and blessed a mission devour itself and become the world they had escaped?" It would not, I think, be a leap to say there is a metaphor here.
There's also a helluva trick, a real coup de theatre, in these last pages. Beloved is no longer Morrison's only ghost story. But you'll have to read from the opening scene, when the guns go off, to the final one, when the chickens come home to roost, to figure this out. This is an extraordinary novel from a Nobel Prize winner confident enough to try anything.
The story goes like this. My grandfather attended school for one day in order to tell the teacher he wouldn’t be back because he had to work. His older sister, he said, would teach him to read. It was one of those details that surface in family lore but it wasn’t long before I wondered where was this “school”? He was born in 1864, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation. Where would a school be in the mid-nineteenth century in rural Alabama? In a church basement? Beneath trees out in the woods? Who was this daring, revolutionary teacher? The location would have to be hidden because black people’s access to education in general and reading specifically was violently discouraged and, in most of the South, teaching African Americans to read had been illegal. Virginia law, in 1831, is instructive and representative. “Any white person assembling to instruct free Negroes to read or write shall be fined not over $50.00 also be imprisoned not exceeding two months.” “It is further enacted that if any white person for pay shall assemble with slaves for the purpose of teaching them to read or write he shall for each offense be fined at the discretion of the justice . . .” ten to one hundred dollars. In short, there would be no teaching, paid or unpaid, of free Negroes or slaves without penalty. Any teacher would have to be aware of the risk he or she was taking.
Nevertheless, my grandfather’s sister was successful because against all odds, he did become literate. The next question was how would he use that skill? What was there for him to read? Books on that poor little farm in Greenville, Alabama? Unlikely. Library? Certainly not. But there was one book available: the Bible. Which is why, I suppose, that among his legendary accomplishments was his boast that he had read the King James Version of the Bible cover to cover five times.
Reading and script writing were prized in my family not only for information and pleasure but also as a defiant political act since historically so much effort had been used to keep us from learning. My mother joined the Literary Guild in the 1940s.We subscribed to newspapers devoted exclusively to African American news and opinions. Issues of The Pittsburgh Courier and the Cleveland Call and Post were worn to shreds with multiple readings and readers. Like other ethnic newspapers ours elicited passionate commentary, questions, argument. We poured over J. A. Rogers’ work, Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk and whatever we could find that encouraged and informed us about being black in America.
It was inevitable, therefore, that when I edited The Black Book, a complex record of African American life that I solicited from collectors, the earliest newspapers would fascinate me, especially the “colored” ones. There, in photographs and print so much African American history— sad, ironic, resistant, tragic, proud, and triumphant— was on display. Of particular interest were those printed in the nineteenth century when my grandfather spent his few minutes at school. I learned there were some fifty black newspapers produced in the Southwest following Emancipation and the violent displacement of Native Americans from Oklahoma Territory. The opportunity to establish black towns was as feverish as the rush for whites to occupy the land. The “colored” newspapers encouraged the rush and promised a kind of paradise to the newcomers: land, their own government, safety— there were even sustained movements to establish their own state.
One theme in particular in those papers intrigued me. Prominent in their headlines and articles was a clear admonition: Come Prepared or Not at All.
Implicit in those warnings were two commands: 1) If you have nothing, stay away. 2) This new land is Utopia for a few. Translation: no poor former slaves are welcome in the paradise being built here. What could that mean for ex- slaves— threatened, exhausted refugees with no resources? How would they feel having trekked all that way from chains into freedom only to be told, “This here is Paradise but you can’t come in.” I also noticed that the town leaders in the photographs were invariably light- skinned men. Was skin privilege also a feature of the separation? One that replicated the white racism they abhorred?
I wanted to dig into these matters by exploring the reverse; exclusivity by the very black- skinned; construction of their very own “gated community,” one that refused entrance to the mixed race. Considering the need for progeny in order to last, how would patriarchy play and how might matriarchy threaten? In order to describe and explore these questions I needed 1) to examine the definition of paradise, 2) to delve into the power of colorism, 3) to dramatize the conflict between patriarchy and matriarchy, and 4) disrupt racial discourse altogether by signaling then erasing it.
The idea of paradise is no longer imaginable or, rather, it is over-imagined, which amounts to the same thing— and has therefore become familiar, commercialized, even trivial. Historically, the images of paradise in poetry and prose were intended to be grand but accessible, beyond the routine but imaginatively graspable, seductive as though remembered. Milton speaks of “goodliest trees, loaden with fairest fruit, Blossoms and fruits at once of golden hue . . . with gay enameled colours mixed . . . ; of Native perfumes.” Of “that sapphire fount the crisped brooks, Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold . . .” of “nectar visiting each plant, and fed flowers worthy of Paradise . . .Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm; Others whose fruit, burnished with golden rind, Hung amiable, . . . of delicious taste. Betwixt them lawns, or level downs, and flocks Grazing the tender herb.” “Flowers of all hue and without thorn the rose.” “Caves of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine Lays forth her purple grape and gently creeps Luxuriant . . .”
That beatific, luxurious expanse we recognize in the twenty- first century as bounded real estate owned by the wealthy and envied by the have- nots, or as gorgeous parks visited by tourists. Milton’s Paradise is quite available these days, if not in fact certainly as ordinary, unexceptionable desire. Modern paradise has four of Milton’s characteristics: beauty, plenty, rest, exclusivity. Eternity seems to be forsworn.
Beauty is benevolent, controllable nature combined with precious metal, mansions, finery, and jewelry.
Plenty in a world of excess and attending greed, which tilts resources to the rich and forces others to envy, is an almost obscene feature of a contemporary paradise. In this world of outrageous, shameless wealth squatting, hulking, preening before the dispossessed, the very idea of “plenty” as Utopian ought to make us tremble. Plenty should not be understood as a paradise- only state, but as normal, everyday, humane life.
Rest that is the respite from labor or fighting for rewards or luxury has dwindling currency these days. It is a desire- less- ness that suggests a special kind of death without dying. Rest can suggest isolation, a vacation without pleasant or soothing activity. In other words, punishment and/or willful laziness.
Exclusivity, however is still an attractive, even compelling feature of paradise because so many people— the unworthy— are not there. Boundaries are secure, watchdogs, security systems, and gates are there to verify the legitimacy of the inhabitants. Such enclaves separate from crowded urban areas proliferate. Thus it does not seem possible or desirable for a city to be envisioned let alone built in which poor people can be accommodated. Exclusivity is not just a realized dream for the wealthy; it is a popular yearning of the middle class. “Streets” are understood to be populated by the unworthy, the dangerous. Young people strolling are understood to be prowling the streets and up to no good. Public space is fought over as if it were private. Who gets to enjoy a park, a beach, a street corner? The term “public” is itself a site of contention.
Eternity, which avoids the pain of dying again, is rendered null by secular, scientific arguments; yet it has nevertheless the greatest appeal. Medical and scientific resources are directed toward more life and fitter life and remind us that the desire is for earthbound eternity, rather than eternal afterlife. The implication being that this is all there is.
Thus, paradise, as an earthly project as opposed to a heavenly one has serious intellectual and visual limitations. Aside from “Only me or us forever” heavenly paradise hardly bears mention.
But that might be unfair. It is hard not to notice how much more attention is given to hell rather than heaven. Dante’s Inferno beats out Paradisio every time. Milton’s brilliantly rendered pre- paradise world, known as Chaos, is far more fully realized than his Paradise. The visionary language of the doomed reaches heights of linguistic ardor with which language of the blessed and saved cannot compete. There were reasons for the images of the horrors of hell to be virulently repulsive in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The argument for avoiding hell needed to be visceral, needed to reveal how much worse such an eternity was than the hell of everyday life. That was when paradise was simply the absence of evil— an edgeless already recognizable landscape: great trees for shade and fruit, lawns, palaces, precious metals, animal husbandry, and jewelry. Other than outwitting evil, waging war against the unworthy, there seems to be nothing for the inhabitants of paradise to do. An open, borderless, come-one-come-all paradise, without dread, minus a nemesis is no paradise at all.
Notable in Milton’s Paradise is the absence of women. Eve alone is given the most prominent space in that place. Progeny apparently is not required since there will always be more blessed to enter. Also, besides care-taking, what is there for women to do?
Because the paradise the black newspapers envisioned not so subtlety encouraged light- skinned applicants, a major excitement for me in writing Paradise was an effort to disrupt the assumptions of racial discourse. I was eager to manipulate, mutate and control imagistic, metaphoric language in order to produce something that could be called race- specific/race- free prose, language that deactivated the power of racially inflected strategies— transform them from the straitjacket a race- conscious society can, and frequently does, buckle us into— a refusal to “know” characters or people by the color of their skin. One of the most malevolent characteristics of racist thought is that it never produces new knowledge. It seems able to merely reformulate and refigure itself in multiple but static assertions. It has no referent in the material world, like the concept of black blood or white blood or blue blood, it is designed to construct artificial borders and maintain them against all reason and all evidence to the contrary. And while racist thought and language have an almost unmitigated force in political and social life, the realm of racial difference has been allowed an intellectual weight to which it has no claim. It is truly a realm that is no realm at all— an all- consuming vacancy that is both common and strange.
Material relating to the black towns founded by African Americans in the nineteenth century provided a rich field for an exploration of race- specific/race- free language. I am aware of how whiteness matures and ascends the throne of universalism by maintaining its powers to describe and enforce its descriptions. To challenge that view of universalism, to exorcise, alter, and de- fang the white/black confrontation and concentrate on the residue of that hostility seemed to me a daunting project and an artistically liberating one.
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”
With these opening sentences I wanted to signal 1) the presence of race as hierarchy and 2) its collapse as reliable information. The novel places an all- black community, one chosen by its inhabitants, next to a raceless one, also chosen by its inhabitants. The grounds for traditional black vs. white hostilities shift to the nature of exclusion, the origins of chauvinism, the sources of oppression, assault, and slaughter. The black town of Ruby is all about its own race— preserving it, developing myths of origin, and maintaining its purity. In the Convent race is indeterminate— all racial codes are eliminated, deliberately withheld. For some readers this was disturbing and some admitted to being preoccupied with finding out which character was the “white girl”; others wondered initially and then abandoned the question; some ignored the confusion by reading them all as black. The perceptive ones read them as fully realized individuals— whatever their race. Unconstrained by the weary and wearying vocabulary of racial domination, the narrative seeks to un-encumber itself from the limit that racial language imposes on the imagination. The conflicts are gender- related and generational. They are struggles over history— who will tell and thereby control the story of the past? Who will shape the future? There are conflicts of value, of ethics. Of personal identity. What is manhood? Womanhood? And finally what is personhood?
Raising these questions seemed most compelling when augmented by yearnings for freedom and safety; for plenitude, for rest, for beauty; by the search for one’s own space, for respect, love, bliss— in short, how to re-imagine paradise. Not the “Come Prepared or Not at All” command to make sure you get a ticket before you enter a theme park; but an interrogation into the narrow imagination that conceived and betrayed paradise.
We called him Big Papa. He stood in the vegetable garden peeling a yam with his pocketknife. Then he ate the raw slices slowly, carefully. If he wanted the chair you were in, he stood there, silent, looking at the sitter until you got the message and got up. He was too religious for any church. He drew pictures of my sister and me and gave us the gift of chewing gum. Wherever he was— on the porch, at the kitchen table, in the garden, in the living room reading— that’s where the power and deference were. He didn’t exert power; he assumed it. And it was in part from knowing him that I felt I could understand and create the men in Ruby— their easy assumption of uncontested authority.
Big Papa. A survivor. Eccentric, formidable, playful, stubborn, learned.
He left me his violin.
1. Why has Toni Morrison chosen to use the poem "for many are the pleasant forms..." as an epigraph for this novel?
2. 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?
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. "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 thenovel, intimations of what we discover at the end: that Steward and Deacon are essentially different?
6. Who is Dovey's "Friend" and why is he so important to her?
7. 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?
8. 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)?
9. "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?
10. "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 in 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?
11. What are the circumstances of the death of Ruby, K. D.'s mother, and what effect does the manner of this death have upon on 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?
12. 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?
13. In what ways does the wedding of Arnette and K. D. symbolize the current state of affairs in Ruby?
14. What does the school nativity play tell us about the way Ruby sees itself and mythologizes itself?
15. 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?
16. Why does Patricia burn all her research on the history of the Ruby and Haven families?
17. 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?
18. 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?
19. 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?
20. 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?
Posted March 15, 2010
Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison's Paradise is not only a story of the tragedies of an overlooked history, but the spiritual and physical powers within a community. However, Paradise is not a mere social justice statement; it serves, instead, a higher purpose. With the publication of this novel and several others, Morrison was able to actively engage the power of the individual voice and link together the cultural spheres that define it. Although religiously and spiritually powerful, one of the novel's primary focuses were themes of isolation, separation, and their operation within a social structure.
By dictionary definition, a paradise is "a place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness." Perhaps such paradise does not exist in separation of one's own mind. A "paradise," after all, is made up of those who do not exist within it. Power successfully encapsulates the idea of achieving primal bliss in congruence with the idea of separation and isolation. However, most importantly, it raises the question: can good (idea of perfect paradise) exist without the influence of evil (human sin)? In tackling a social, moral movement, Morrison has gravely insinuated that perhaps, one reaches paradise only after one has accepted the fatality of collective sin separate from the individual's potential.
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Posted September 21, 2003
I bought this book years ago in my twenties and put it down because it appeared to be too complicated . But I found it now in my thirties and I find it brillant , I can't put it down
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Shadowdream, a bob-tailed black and white she-cat, leads in Skyfall, a gray tuxedo she-cat with blue eyes, and Nightfang, a black tom. "Sunnystar, may we join?"Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 24, 2014
She pads in. "Hello, I am leader of SkyClan. I am making a packed." ((If you want to join, then read results 1 & 6 at United Clans. If you don't then ignore this post.))
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Posted October 8, 2013
Spike sat gazing up at the figure. Suddenly Twilight ran upstairs. Spike pointed at the shadowy pony. Twilight couldnt see ut." What is it, Spike? You look like youve seen a ghost. Finally Spike managed to choke out some words." Its right there, dont you see it?" Twilight gave him a concerned look."Uh, Spike? Are you okay?" Spike shrugged." I- i dont know." He stuttered. The figure was watching him from the corner of the room. He could see its red eyes glaring at him. Twilight went back downstairs." Girls, somethings wrong with Spike. He seems to be seeing things." Everypony paniced. <p> meanwhile... <p> Spike started sweating as the mysterious pony crept twords him. Finally he could see what it looked like. It was a black stallion with red eyes. His mane was the color of blood. Fangs shone as a evil grin crept across the stallions face. He could hear the ponys panicing downstairs. He would have ran down to see what was wrong, but their voices were muffled, seeming distant. He stood, frozen in fear. His green eyes widened as the stallion opened his mouth and leaned forward to bite him...Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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My name is shimmerstream i have kits due anytime i am a shimmering white and black zebrasripe shecat with bright lime green eyes that seems to be sparkleing i am pregant with seven to ten kits they should come tonight or tommarrow or saturday night maybe sunday at the latestWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 18, 2012