Now that I’ve begun re-circling through Morrison’s Paradise to search for connections to Dante, I’ve encountered certain through-lines that I hadn’t noticed in my first reading. One of the most significant is the reoccurrence of the Kitchen as a thematic element; important to both the Convent and to the town of Ruby.
In Musa’s introduction to The Divine Comedy Volume 3: Paradise, he states that Canto 1 serves as a representation of all of the encompassing “themes, movements, structures, images, and symbols” that Dante will address, as they “appear in some way or another in the opening canto”(x). I believe that Morrison’s first chapter, Ruby, serves a similar function to Dante’s first Canto. Morrison drops the reader into a scene where significant aspects are quickly given and then pulled out of focus– only to resurface later on in the novel.
With this connection in mind, the value of every choice of detail in the first chapter should not be overlooked. I observed that one specific occurrence in Ruby lays the groundwork for the the common thread of “the kitchen”. This unravelling begins when the men raiding the convent take note of the details of the convent’s kitchen. Once they enter, it is noted; “at the other end, vegetable chopping had been interrupted”, “stock simmered on the stove”, and that the men “scan dusty mason jars and what is left of last year’s canning: tomatoes, green beans, peaches,” and “slack, they think”. “August is just around the corner and these women have not even sorted, let alone washed, the jars.” One man even “turns the fire off under the stockpot”, and reflects on how “his mother bathed him in a pot no bigger than that. (5)”
By obscenely juxtaposing the men’s attention to cooking with the brutality of the massacre that they are carrying out, this scene lays the groundwork for the complex care/control men assume over the women of Ruby. Only from completing the novel, do we know that the men are carrying out this massacre as a reaction to the women of the Convent challenging their patriarchal views of what femininity should be. This, although the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is exemplified in the way that the narrator judges the women for not having their mason jars cleaned, given the time in the year. He places his masculine judgements on what he views as “mis-action” of the women. Ironically, this judgement occurs simultaneously to when he is contributing in their brutal murder, an ultimate act of control. The “care” aspect of the relationship is highlighted when a man, almost unnaturally given the gruesomeness of the situation, turns the fire out from under the stockpot. This action symbolizes the way the men seek to care for the women of Ruby, while ironically, their irrational need for control contributes to their demise.
Other connections to the kitchen can be seen in later chapters, one main thread being “the Oven”, and the controversy surrounding it. Specifically in terms of the relationship between the males and females of the town, it is learned that the women secretly detest the fact that the oven was brought from Haven to Ruby. Again exhibiting the need for men to have complete control, it is learned that this is because the Oven was brought in place of important supplies, thus endangering the lives of everyone traveling in the migration. This choice of the Oven over supplies that would keep their families alive, symbolizes the men’s value of maintaining tradition and value above all-else.
Generally, the Oven also comes to serve as a symbol for the outdated perspective of the men of Ruby. This is because it once served a functional purpose, but now sits idle in Ruby. The fact that it is a physical “oven”, also represents the female reproductive systems and it’s ability to reproduce children. The Oven’s lack of flame mirrors the lack of reproduction and trouble with births that has plagued Ruby. Finally, the lack of flame also mimics the suppression of open-sexulaity of the women by conservative viewpoint of the men of the town.
It is clear that the kitchen, which, (speaking in stereotypical gendered terms) is usually feminine, comes to represent another aspect which the men of the novel seek to control. In the opening chapter, the men of Ruby judge the women of the Convent’s lack of keeping with what they deem the “proper” order of a kitchen. This judgement and impression of a patriarchal viewpoint becomes a larger theme upon which Ruby itself is founded on, but also ironically contributes to it’s ultimate downfall.