In Search of Utopia

In the vast sphere of American literature, Toni Morrison is a literary titan. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Morrison was raised in a humble background in suburban Cleveland. She grew up in a household where a deep love and appreciation for Black culture run. Growing up surrounded by stories, songs, and folktales proved crucial as she pursue a career in literature. Even fully pursuing writing as a career, Morrison was already a trailblazer. She became the first black female senior editor in the fiction department of Random House in New York City, which allowed her to highlight Black literature. She also helped in the publication and editing of the works of fellow African American writers such as Henry Dumas. Morrison was also the one who discovered Gayl Jones.

In 1970, she finally made her own breakthrough as her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, was published . The book, however, generated very little fanfare although it did receive a generally positive review from The New York Times. Years after its publication, the book became a staple in the American Library Association’s most banned and challenged books. This, however, did not stop Morrison from pursuing writing as a career. Her second novel, Sula, published in 1973, was nominated for the National Book Award. Greater success followed with her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977). It won Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award and was also seminal in Morrison’s selection by the Swedish Academy as the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. Morrison was the first Black woman to win the prestigious literary award.

Following her record-breaking feat, Morrison did not rest on her laurels. In 1997, she published her seventh novel, Paradise. The novel opened in 1976, in an all-Black community in Oklahoma named Ruby which was also the heart of the narrative. The town was founded by a group of Black Americans, descendants of former slaves who were liberated following the declaration of the Emancipation Act. These former slaves, however, were not able to integrate into the community for they were ostracized not only by the whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. They constantly received rejections and disapproving stares in public, prompting them to establish their own community, far from the crutches of the communities that kept on excluding them. They severed all forms of connections they have with the world beyond Ruby.

 “Love is not a gift. It is a diploma. A diploma conferring certain privileges: the privilege of expressing love and the privilege of receiving it. How do you know you have graduated? You don’t. What you do know is that you are human and therefore educable, and therefore capable of learning how to learn, and therefore interesting to God, who is interested only in Himself which is to say He is interested only in love. Do you understand me? God is not interested in you. He is interested in love and the bliss it brings to those who understand and share the interest.”

~ Toni Morrison, Paradise

As the story moved forward, we learn that before Ruby, there was the town of Haven. Led by Zechariah Morgan, nine complete Black families – the Blackhorses, Beauchamps, Catos, two DuPres families, Fleetwoods, Floods, Morgans, and Pooles – and a fragment of others, founded the town in 1890. It was meant to be the archetype of an ideal all-Black town. As the name suggested, Haven was designed to be a safe haven for Black Americans, a town they can feel safe, sans the brutalities of racism and all forms of discrimination. In order to do so, the founding fathers of Haven severed its ties with the rest of the world but despite its seclusion, the town managed to flourish for several decades. Things started to shift following the end of the Second World War. Twin brothers Deacon “Deek” and Steward Morgan, grandsons of one of the founders of Haven, recently returned from service and shared their observations. The world beyond Haven has not changed one bit from its old habits.

With the outside world closing in and driven by the goal set about by the founding fathers of Haven, the Morgan brothers, along with a group of families, left Haven to establish a new town. In 1949, Ruby was founded upon the same fundamental foundations upon which Haven was established. During its infancy, the new town was called New Haven but was eventually renamed Ruby in memory of the Morgan brothers’ sister who passed away after being repeatedly refused medical attention because of her race. At the heart of the town was a large Oven made of brick and iron. The Oven was the center of community life and was also the town’s chief source of sustenance. One of the first structures to be constructed when the town was founded, it also holds a symbolic part in what the town and its denizens have accomplished thus far.

Meanwhile, all forms of connections with outsiders were prohibited. More stringent measures were put in place to screen any influences that can threaten the town’s harmonious existence. But is Ruby the utopia that its founding fathers envisioned it to be? Unfortunately, all systems are bound to show signs of weaknesses. No system, even the most carefully designed, is fail-proof. It was just a matter of time before all these flaws would manifest. In Ruby, there was a subtly veiled preoccupation with racial purity. As such, a rigid hierarchy existed. Among the fifteen founding families of Ruby, only nine were considered racially pure; this number would dwindle down as the story progressed and as the gap between the modern world and the isolated world of Ruby continue to narrow down. This only made the denizens and the leaders of the town warier of the influences of the outside world, detached from its politics.

But still, within the ambit of the town already existed conditions that would undermine its very foundations. Amorality was slowly becoming pervasive. Infidelities have become ubiquitous. Abuses were present in the household. The corruption of values started from the top. The Morgan twins exercised absolute authority as they were the richest members of the town; their father founded the bank. They used the bank as a device to encroach on the rights and properties of the other denizens. Despite their excesses, the Morgan twins went unchallenged. The town’s denizens’ response was passive as they showed very little resistance to a society that was slowly descending into an autocracy.

“But can’t you even imagine what it must feel like to have a true home? I don’t mean heaven. I mean a real earthly home. Not some fortress you bought and built up and have to keep everybody locked in or out. A real home. Not some place you went to and invaded and slaughtered people to get. Not some place you claimed, snatched because you got the guns. Not some place you stole from the people living there, but your own home, where if you go back past your great-great-grandparents, past theirs, and theirs, past the whole of Western history, past the beginning of organized knowledge, past pyramids and poison bows, on back to when rain was new, before plants forgot they could sing and birds thought they were fish, back when God said Good!

~ Toni Morrison, Paradise

The greatest transformation brought about by their isolation, however, lay in how they perceived the outside world. Their rejection of the outside world turned into a preoccupation that dictated several of their actions. When a convent lying just seventeen miles south of the town started to grow, the men of Ruby took notice and deemed it necessary to eliminate it. They considered the women inhabiting the convent as harbingers of doom. They believed that the women’s presence was starting to corrupt the values of the denizens of Ruby and that they were the primary cause of the misfortunes the town has been having. They were accused of witchcraft and evil supernatural powers. The women were seen as witches, vile threats to the utopia that is Ruby. The men of Ruby, as a whole, viewed women as obstacles to their vision of progress. At the start of the novel, we meet the men of Ruby as they commenced their manhunt.

In a way, the convent – it was not originally a convent but a rather mansion located in the middle of nowhere previously owned by an embezzler – reflected Ruby. Despite the Convent’s murky history and its unusual design – it was shaped like the cartridge of a gun – the Convent was meant to be a refuge. The occupants of the convent were misfits, women who, like the denizens of Ruby, were rejected by society and, in the Convent, they seek to heal themselves from physical and psychological wounds. The convent’s matriarchal figure, Consolata (Connie), has opened the convert’s doors to women, such as Mavis Albright, Grace (Gigi), and Arnette. The novel provided a subtle take on women’s empowerment. The nine chapters that comprised the book were named after female characters in the novel, with some digging deep into the histories of these women, including that of Ruby.  

The aversion of Ruby’s leaders towards the influences of the outside world resulted in drastic measures. This aversion has turned into resentment towards white people, although this was underlined in an offhanded manner. What was more compelling was their discrimination toward lighter-skinned blacks. All over Ruby, the adverse impact of this internal form of racism, exacerbated by the town’s rigid patriarchal structure, was palpable among its residents, a contrasting image from the haven it was intended to be. For instance, one light-skinned black woman died during childbirth after the men of Ruby refused to seek medical help outside of the town. In their desire to protect the utopia they created, the men of Ruby exercised too much precaution, extremely so. The realities they were running away from were the very ones that were threatening it. Ironically, they were stemming from sources within, not from the ones they were avoiding. The conflicts of the story revolve around opposing sides: genders, skin colors, and history.

At its heart, Paradise grappled with the dark legacies of slavery. Despite its abolition and the declaration of emancipation, racism and discrimination remain prevalent in different kinds and forms. It has left widespread trauma, some of which continue to manifest in different ways and hound the present. With the stamps of racism and discrimination still indelible and continuing to reverberate in the contemporary, these remain relevant conversation starters and the subject of several new books. In conjunction with its examination of racism, the novel also tackled humanity and what human beings are truly capable of. Pushed to the corners, human beings are capable of inflicting emotional and physical injuries on their fellows, those they love, and even to themselves.

“Even now the verbena scent was clear; even now the summer dresses, the creamy, sunlit skin excited him. If he and Steward had thrown themselves off the railing they would have burst into tears. So, among the vivid details of the journey – the sorrow, the stubbornness, the cunning, the wealth – Deek’s image of the nineteen summertime ladies was unlike the photographer’s. His remembrance was pastel colored and eternal.”

~ Toni Morrison, Paradise

The last book of a trilogy that included Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz, Paradise was no walk in the park. The story was built around the experiences of the various characters before their fates intertwined with that of Ruby. It falls on the readers’ hands to weave these fragments together and make sense of the image that Morrison tried to capture; the book then requires concentration from the reader. While Morrison populated her seventh novel with an eclectic cast of characters, this diversity was undermined by the parallels between the characters. They were all built on trauma and rejection. They were all misfits who opted to live far from the crutches of the world outside. They were not distinguishable and not a single character left a deep impression. The women were more developed but overall, the characters lacked psychological complexity. These two-dimensional characters, however, were redeemed by the characterization of Ruby, their town, which evolved into a character of its own.

“They kill the white girl first,” thus the novel commenced. It was a strong and memorable opening statement meant to reel the readers’ interest and focus. While it meandered and was not without its flaws, Paradise was an evocative literary piece that grappled with dark but timeless subjects. Racial tensions, the patriarchal social structures, and women’s issues are staples of the Nobel laureate in Literature’s oeuvre and, in Paradise, they again took the centerfold. It examined the legacy of slavery – racism primarily – a subject that remains prevalent in the contemporary. Meanwhile, Morrison was unsparing in her exploration of the darker sides of our humanity, of the lengths we are willing to go to protect our own paradise, even if it borders on the violent. Paradise was a complex, thought-provoking, and multilayered literary piece crafted together by one of literature’s most powerful and memorable storytellers.

Rating

71%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

Wow. I can’t believe it has been almost six years since I read my last book by Toni Morrison. Interestingly, it was through must-read lists that I first encountered the first Black female Nobel laureate in Literature. The Bluest Eye, her debut novel and fittingly my first novel by Morrison, left a deep impression on me when I read it back in 2016. This led to me accumulating some of her works. One of them was Paradise, a book I acquired back in 2018. As it is gathering dust on my bookshelf, I added the book to my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge and made it part of my March 2022 International Women’s Month Reading journey. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, I did have a bit of a challenge with Paradise, unlike with The Bluest Eye. It took me some time before I warmed up to the story. It sure was no easy read, especially with those two-dimensional characters. However, once I got over these jitters, the story started making sense. We search for a utopia but, in the end, we get disappointed for we become aware that our utopia is not safe from the contamination of the things that we aaattempt to avoid. The historical contexts did make me appreciate the message that Morrison was trying to deliver. While it was mostly a challenging experience, I am nonetheless looking forward to reading Morrison’s other works.

Book Specs

Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Publishing Date: 1997
Number of Pages: 318
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

“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. 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. 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 “Out There… where random and organized evil erupted when and where it chose.” Richly imagined and elegantly composed, Paradise weaves a powerful mystery.

About the Author

To learn more about the awardee of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison, click here.