The novel Paradise by Toni Morrison is the tale of the town of Ruby once thought of as a safe haven for its citizens but now facing a generational divide. This novel, like many of Morrison’s works, draws heavily from Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, in particular the cantos from “Paradiso”. One important part of “Paradiso” is the eagle of divine justice, which Dante meets in the nineteenth canto. The eagle is described as being made up of souls “like a ruby”, an obvious connection to the name of the town. Many other group members noticed this connection as well, though there are deeper connections to be made about the eagle. One of these connections has to do with what the eagle really stands for, that being divine justice. It makes the readers of Paradise wonder if the citizens of Ruby enacted their own version of divine justice when they decided the fates of the women living in the convent outside town.
Another important part of the symbolism of Paradise is the brick oven that stands in the middle of Ruby. It was originally built in the town of Haven, where it was often used for cooking. After Haven died out, the oven was moved brick by brick to Ruby. The oven is meant to be a symbol of how the men of Ruby are willing to let go of the past. An inscription on the oven was mostly lost in the move but a few words remain: “the Furrow of His Brow”. The elders of Ruby believe it read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that humans should be fearful of God. The youth of the town believe it to read “Be the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that they are acting as God’s instruments on Earth. One group member pointed out that this divide goes further than just generational because of how the men of the town are obsessed with the oven while the women “see it most literally as a large object that isn’t needed anymore”. Morrison could have crafted the phrase “the Furrow of His Brow” from the eagle of divine justice because of how the brow of the eagle is made up of stars representing great past rulers. The night that the men of Ruby kill the women of the convent the oven begins to slide off its foundation, showing how Ruby is falling apart because of their actions and how divine justice is crumbling.
This interpretation of the text on the oven’s lip seems to drive the town farther apart. The elders claim that the youth do not understand their interpretation because they weren’t there when Ruby was first built, just as the eagle of divine justice claims that humanity will never understand what divine justice truly is. Another important part of this interpretation is that one person in Ruby thinks about the oven reading “the Furrow of Her Brow”, especially when the oven is defaced with an image of a black fist with red fingernails. Women in this story seem to get the short end of the stick, with men running Ruby and deciding to keep the oven and eventually the women of the convent being shot.
The oven’s readers have a difficult time using collaboration to reconcile their differences in their interpretations of the oven. When a meeting is called to settle this matter, the elders talk over the youth and preach about holding onto tradition and rejecting change to their way of life. An important part of collaboration is listening to other ideas as well as stating your own, but the people of Ruby aren’t considering the other side’s interpretation in favor of their own interpretation being right.
Paradise’s appropriation of Paradiso tells us a lot about the both/and of interpretation and collaboration. Both/and is used when comparing two different views of the same thing, like how the citizens of Ruby were quarreling over the meaning of the words on the oven. Both groups had good meanings for their interpretations, the elders believing it has to do with where Ruby came from, while the youth believe it means that they are the only ones that can control their lives. The elders claim that the youth will never understand their interpretation and how Ruby came to be, just like how the eagle of divine justice tells Dante that humanity would never understand God’s justice; though the eagle is made up of “soul[s] like a ruby”.
In a way this essay is like Morrison’s appropriation of Paradiso, taking parts of the story and putting it into our own work, albeit with permission. When I was presented with the fact that we would be writing collaborative essays in this class, I was a bit skeptical because I wasn’t sure how multiple people could write one essay. It turned out to be not as difficult as I thought. I enjoyed hearing what others thought of a point that I was struggling to understand. It helped knowing that I wasn’t doing this essay completely alone.
Even though the collaboration in Paradise ended in murder, ours didn’t.