41 pages 1 hour read

Toni Morrison

Paradise

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1997

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise was published in 1997, just a few years after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. According to Morrison, it is the last book of a trilogy that includes Beloved and Jazz. Morrison is an esteemed American novelist, having also received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1998) and the Coretta Scott King Award for Authors (2005), among other awards. She was educated at Howard University and Cornell University, and she wrote a great deal of critical scholarship on race as well as on the practice of writing. This guide cites the First Vintage International Edition, published in 2014. This guide also briefly mentions sexual assault, self-harm, abortion, and gun violence, as they appear in the narrative.

Plot Summary

Spanning five generations and 15 families, Paradise tells the story of the development, maintenance, and unraveling of an isolated all-Black Oklahoma town named Ruby. Seventeen miles south is a closed-down Convent that houses five women who live outside the values that Ruby holds dear. The novel explores love, hatred, and the lengths to which people will go to protect their “paradise.” A book that offers a nuanced take on women’s empowerment, Paradise’s chapters are each named after a woman in the novel. In this sprawling text, Morrison creates a complete picture of Ruby, the Convent, and the men and women who inhabit them.

Chapter 1 begins with a group of armed men from the town of Ruby walking through the Convent in deadly search of the five women who live there. They believe the women to be immoral and an evil influence on their town. Ruby is a small, all-Black town that deliberately excludes outsiders. This fear comes from Ruby’s troubled past, its relationship to a failed town called Haven, and a continued caution against racism. Conflicts and intergenerational division are brewing in Ruby, and the elders look to the Convent as a scapegoat for the unrest. The men aim their rifles at three of the fleeing Convent women.

The next chapter, “Mavis,” introduces a 27-year-old woman being interviewed by a local journalist about the accidental deaths of her twin infants, Merle and Pearl. Mavis left the children in a car on a hot day while she went shopping. Mavis is also in a destructive relationship with a man named Frank. She suffers from what seem to be paranoid delusions that Frank and her other children are plotting to kill her. When Mavis flees this situation, she stumbles upon the Convent.

The next chapter, “Grace,” takes its name from the character of Gigi, though it opens on K.D. arguing with Arnette in Ruby. Annette is pregnant with K. D.’s baby, causing much family discord as they worry about the family’s prominence in Ruby. Gigi arrives in Ruby looking every bit the outsider, and once the book shifts back to her, we learn that she’s recently separated from her boyfriend Mikey, who has been sentenced to three months in jail. Eventually, Gigi makes it to the Convent.

In “Seneca,” we meet Dovey Morgan and her husband, Steward. Chapter 4 introduces twin brothers Steward and Deacon “Deek” Morgan. The growing generational divide in Ruby is upsetting to the brothers, who recall the story of how the Old Fathers founded Haven, the town that preceded Ruby. Meanwhile, we meet Seneca, who is wandering after leaving her incarcerated abusive boyfriend. While hitchhiking, she sees Sweetie Fleetwood and randomly decides to follow her to the Convent.

“Divine” opens with a sermon about love at K. D. and Arnette’s wedding that only highlights the townspeople’s lack of empathy for the Convent and one another. The Convent women—with the new addition, Pallas—are kicked out of the wedding reception for behaving wildly. Pallas ran away from home after learning that her mother, Divine “Dee Dee” Truelove, was having an affair with her boyfriend. This chapter also illuminates the alternative histories lived by the men and the women of Ruby, who, though together, have very different experiences.

“Consolata” features Connie, who lives at the Convent and suffers from depression and alcoholism. The chapter focuses on the idea that we seek out and create new families when our biological ones fail us. The next chapter, “Lone,” focuses on a former midwife in Ruby and reveals that one of the city’s main projects is to control the town’s women.

The final chapter, “Save-Marie,” is named after a now-deceased girl. Her death inspires Ruby’s minister to chastise the town’s people and question the attack at the Convent. That attack seemingly broke a deal with God. The novel ends as the spirits of the Convent’s women appear to people from their pasts. Paradise explores the themes of gender and the tensions that come with it, organized religion and loose spirituality, and the pursuit of a personal paradise.

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