Dante and Morrison’s Versions of Paradise and Justice

The Eye of Providence is literally an eye shape that is surrounded by rays of light and enclosed by a triangle. This iconographic Christian symbol represents the eye of God watching over humanity, which in other words, depicts the concept of divine providence. The eagle of divine justice is represented with the eye being David, and the eyebrow being Trajan, Hezekiah, Constantine, and William II of Sicily. As mentioned in class, the eye throughout history symbolizes divine protection or God’s eyes are always watching you. The stars are represented as leaders in history who have served their people justly. This notion ultimately reveals that the Eye of Providence mirrors the eagle of divine justice. God is made to look down on Earth and intervene with humanity when he sees fit. This concept appears in Dante’s Paradiso. Dante sees God as the eagle of divine justice as “[he] saw that the array of fire had/shaped the image of an eagle’s head and neck” lines 107-108, Paradiso 18. This creature symbolizes God to Dante through his journey to Paradise. God tells Dante  “O gentle star, what—and how many—gems made plain to me that justice here on earth depends upon the heaven you engem!” lines 115-117, Paradiso 18. God makes it clear that in order for Dante to get to Paradise, he would have had to live a just life on Earth. God explains his outward appearance to Dante stating  “Of those five flames that, arching, form my brow, he who is nearest to my beak is one who comforted the widow for her son; now he has learned the price one pays for not following Christ, through his experience of this sweet life and of its opposite” lines 43-48, Paradiso 20. God emphasizes the just and charitable actions of others in order to reach Paradise. The eagle of divine justice is represented through the figure of God silently watching and judging all of humanity.

The Oven is a symbol that is carried throughout Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise. This symbol was constructed in a town called Haven, which was located in Oklahoma. The town was originally founded by Zechariah Morgan, who desperately wanted to form a community where equal opportunities were found for African American citizens in the late eighteen hundreds. According to National Geographic’s video “Rare 1920s Footage: All-Black Towns Living the American Dream”, the narrator goes into depth about how Oklahoma “is a unique space in terms of the number of African American towns that were established.” The narrator of the video goes into depth about these individuals, who just came out of slavery, were able to make a decent living for themselves by becoming doctors, farmers, and teachers in a town that accepted their business. This was the epitome of the ideal “American Dream” that every United States citizen craved. 

The Oven was constructed in the town of Haven, however it was built in an entirely different location. The founder, Zechariah, recalls the process of reconstructing the Oven in the United States. He recalls that “[the members of Haven] took [the Oven] apart, carrying the bricks, the hearthstone and its iron plate two hundred and forty miles west–far far from the old Creek Nation which once upon a time a witty government called ‘unassigned land” (Morrison 6). From a quick search on the Internet, the Creek Nation that Zechariah references to is, otherwise known as, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. It is now considered a federally recognized Native American tribe based in the U.S. state of Oklahoma. He makes the point of mentioning the Creek Nation and government only because Zechariah does not want the government to be calling his “American Dream” a government’s  “unassigned land”. Zechariah brought the Oven to the town of Haven in order to remind his people to never let go of their hopes and dreams. 

The Oven is used physically to nourish citizens who live in the town of Haven. However, the Oven is also used metaphorically as a social gathering spot for the citizens of Haven. This was in order for the people of the town to reconvene and create connections. Citizens of Haven remained at the Oven in order to “gossip, complain, roar with laughter, and drink walking coffee in the middle of the eaves” (Morrison 15). This was a communal location for these citizens to share their hopes and dreams in a safe, common space. As a symbol, the Oven has been used as a place of conflict. Many of the citizens cannot understand and or create meaning of what has been engraved into the Oven. Morgan, another founder of Haven, states that this saying on the Oven is  “something he heard, invented, or something whispered to him while he slept curled over his tools in a wagon bed” (Morrison 7). This statement was created by Zechariah Morgan that was integral for their people to stay in order. When the Oven is moved to Ruby, it does not serve a physical function because this appliance already exists in their town. However, it is a place of dispute over what the meaning of the saying actually is. 

The appearance of the Oven in conversation with Dante’s eagle is the importance of the words. On the Oven, the saying that the citizens are grappling over is “the Furrow of His brow”. In Dante’s Paradiso, the eagle of divine justice looks upon others and judges their time on Earth of whether they were a just person or not. The Oven functions as a place for citizens to meet. The Oven, in other words, is a structure that judges others on rather they were just or unjust in their judgments on Earth. The Oven has been known for gathering all three representatives from the church “because they could not agree on which, if any, church should host a meeting to decide on what to do now that the women had ignored all warnings” (Morrison 11). The Oven, just like the eagle of divine justice, judges others on their choices made on Earth to get to their version of Earthly Paradise. 

On the Oven’s lips reads the lines “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”. Many of the townspeople from Ruby, and even Haven, have disputed over the meaning of this saying. First and foremost, it is important to note that this saying has been weathered away for some time. One of the founders of Haven states that “he had helped clean off sixty-two years of carbon and animal fat so the words shone as brightly as they did in 1890 when they were new” (Morrison 6). This is a generational divide between the old and new founding fathers of Haven. The older generation believes that the words on the Oven’s lips read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”, meanwhile the younger generation believes that the Oven’s lips read “Be the Furrow of His Brow”. Many of the younger generations find the elders to be stuck in their ways stating “And they have forgotten the message or the specifics of any story, especially the controlling one told to them by their grandfather–the man who put the words in the Oven’s black mouth” (Morrison 13). The younger generations ultimately believe that the older generations will always be stuck in their ways, meanwhile the younger generations are always striving towards the new or, in other words, the future. This is evident when the Oven comes to Ruby. Ruby’s version of the Oven is still a place for social gathering, although it is now used as a place for teenagers to hang out. This has changed the overall context and meaning of the Oven’s function. As time has changed the overall meaning of the Oven has ultimately changed as well. Zechirah’s words are thought of and pondered by the people that live in Ruby. In Patricia’s chapter she clearly states: 

So the rule was set and lived a quietly throbbing life because it was never spoken of, except for the hint in words Zechariah forged for the Oven. More than a rule. A conundrum: ‘Beware the Furrow of His Brow’, in which the ‘You’ (understood), vocative case, was not a command to the believers but a threat to those who disallowed them. It must have taken him months to think up those words–just so–to have multiple meanings: to appear stern, urging obedience to God, but syly not identifying the understood proper noun or specifying what the Furrow might cause to happen or to whom. So the teenagers Misner organized who wanted to change it to ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’ were more insightful than they knew (Morrison 195). 

These interpretations of the text are similar, yet so different to the public. This block quote is important in understanding the overall meaning of the Oven. When Zechariah created the text on the Oven’s lip, he created this as a rule for others to abide by. It was almost as if he was forcing his ideals on others in the community. However, when the younger generations wanted to change the text, it ultimately showed that they were not going to be governed by this elderly force who created this town. Ultimately this text is to bring awareness for the different, yet similar towns of Haven and Ruby together. 

The prominent men that inhabit the town of Ruby are in uproar over the Convent towards the close of Toni Morrison’s novel. These influential figures are ready to destroy these women and the “witchcraft” that goes on behind these walls. When the town is in upheaval, the Oven begins to fall off its foundation when the rain pours down on the town of Ruby. This ultimately showcases that the town of Ruby, along with their people, did not use good judgment in raiding the Convent. 

Save-Marie, the youngest family member of Sweetie and Jeff’s children, passes away. She has been the youngest death in this town since Ruby. This ultimately shakes the town and the members that reside in it. Lone believes that God has put the townspeople of Ruby through another test, to prove whether they were just or not just on Earth. The prominent figures had downplayed what took place at the Convent. Meanwhile the people such as the DuPreses, Beauchamps, Sandses, and Pooles supported Lone’s claims that these men murdered these women. This changed the meaning of the text that was imprinted on the Oven’s lips. Lone states that: 

One thing, for sure: they could see the Oven; they couldn’t misread or mispeak that, so they had better hurry up and fix its slide before it was too late–which it might already be, for the young people had changed its words again. No longer were they calling themselves Be the Furrow of His Brow. The graffiti on the hood of the Oven now was “We Are the Furrow of His Brow” (Morrison 298).  

This quote ultimately showcases that this text is changing according to what occurs in the town. In Haven, the text read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” meaning to follow Zechariah’s rules he implemented for the town’s sake. In Ruby, the text read “Be the Furrow of His Brow” disregarding the already set up rules created by the elders in order to create a new town with new ideals. However, “We Are the Furrow of His Brow” is a message that the younger generation instills in the town of Ruby. It is reminiscent of the fact that God is always watching and judging you for your actions on Earth. God is judging the prominent townspeople who murdered the Covent women to the people in the town who supported the Convent and wanted nothing to happen to these women. Ultimately, Toni Morrison is trying to showcase that the text on the Oven’s lips is  a collaborative message in order to always treat others with kindness in order to reach Earthly Paradise. 

Toni Morrison’s Paradise actually works with the interpretation of Dante’s Paradiso. The novel ultimately showcases the way people are judged on Earth. Each member in the town has been the victim of “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” In other words, the townspeople need to be accepting of others whether they are part of the old generation and or the young generation. Dante’s Paradiso similarly uses the Divine Eagle as a symbol of God’s eyes always watching over everyone and judging every person on Earth. The Eagle represents the Divine and the Good that is represented in Earthly Paradise. To loop back to Toni Morrison’s novel, Zechariah almost acts like a God-like figure. He was in charge of setting up the town of Haven. He put those words on the lip of the Oven for everyone to see. This ultimately showcases that officials in the town, especially him, will watch your every move whether it be good or bad. This is why the Oven, or the words of the Divine, slides off the platform when the men are going to raid the Convent. The Oven was sliding to one side as if it is the Scale of Justice weighing in on these people’s wrongdoings. Dante’s Paradiso therefore influences Morrison’s work because the ideal of justice will make a person reach Earthly Paradise. This act of collaborating these works together ultimately showcases that Dante wrote something that Morrison could apply and draw more meaning from regarding the definition of Paradise. The definition of Paradise has several meanings to several different people. However, it is the act of being just that brings together others into a complete sense of utter bliss. 

I will apply this idea of collaboration through being an educator in a middle school environment. My dream and passion is to become a librarian at a public school, focusing on students who are middle school aged. I will use this sense of collaboration to be an open ear to others whether that be my students, faculty members, and or parents. We need to work well with others to provoke the notion that we all have to work together for one common goal, to educate the younger generations. If we are able to collaborate, we are able to tackle a task quickly and have a way to express our feelings in a group setting when our voices are not always heard. With collaboration we can avoid uncertainty because everyone’s voices should be heard regardless of their age and rank in a school district specifically. This is how Toni Morrison’s Paradise and Dante’s Paradiso work in tandem in understanding the meaning of Paradise. 

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