We Must Listen, in Order to be Heard

The illustration of the eagle of divine Justice has me thinkING about the Oven and the conflicts that have risen in Paradise by Toni Morrison due to the generational divides over what the slogan should be. The Oven is symbolic throughout the novel and seems to be the center of the town, similar to how David is represented in the illustration of the eagle of divine Justice as the center, or the eye.

Looking back at Paradiso Canto 19, I am struck by the unity of the voices that make up the eagle. Dante refers to each one of these souls as a “ruby” and describes the eagle as a “handsome image” with “united souls” which can be contrasted with the division of generations seen in Morrison’s Paradise. The Oven is supposed to bring people together since it “didn’t belong to any one denomination; it belonged to all.”  The oven in Toni Morrison’s Paradise, although once located in Haven, now stands in the center of the town Ruby. David, in the eagle of divine Justice, is also in the center with the stars surrounding him representing Trajan, Hezekiah, Constantine, William II of Sicily, and Rhipeus. The people of Ruby, especially the older people, seem to worship this oven and which is evident in the capitalization of the “o” throughout the entirety of the book.

The oven was transported by the “new fathers” of Ruby and was a place where people would come together to hang out and spend some time with one another. Some feel that it is a symbol of the town’s resilience, as mentioned in the novel, “even in 1934 when everything else about the town was dying; when it was clear as daylight that talk of electricity would remain just talk and when gas lines and sewers were Tulsa marvels, the Oven stayed alive.” The conflict over what the slogan should read surfaces in the chapter Seneca. The elderly strongly feel that it should read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” whereas the youth believes it should read “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” Although these differences in language are subtle, the meaning behind what the phrase is saying changes immensely. Destry argues that rather than trying to be God, by the slogan stating “Be the Furrow of His Brow,” the people of Ruby will be his voice and retribution. The younger people feel that the “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” suggests that they are scared of him and should be “ducking and diving, trying to look out every minute in case He’s getting ready to throw something at us, keep us down.” This clash shows the generational divide between the elderly and the youth and the elderly’s resistance to change. The elders invalidate many of the younger people’s opinions and seem to bash them for their feelings. 

Steward in particular feels that the youth “had no notion of what it took to build this town” but Soane argues that the oven has lost its significance and that “minus the baptisms the Oven had no real value. What was needed back in Haven’s early days had never been needed in ruby.” She also explains that although the women agreed back then to having the Oven moved to Ruby, “privately they resented the truck space given over to it — rather than a few more sacks of seed, rather than shoats or even a child’s crib.” 

The oven’s readers try and use collaboration to reconcile the interpretive disagreement by picking a side, the young or the elderly. The younger people came together to voice their opinions, since they often feel like they are silenced and their opinions are not valued. The Reverend Pulliam seems to be the mediator in this conflict. He acknowledges that it is the way in which they talk to one another that is the real problem. He says, “We’re here not just to talk but to listen too” which is something both the young and the elderly seem to have forgotten. Morrison’s Paradise addresses the importance of interpretation and collaboration and by showing that we must listen to one another in order to be heard. There is no wrong interpretation to anything. In the Seneca chapter of Paradise, everyone seems to be just talking over each other instead of absorbing and thinking about what the other is talking about. 

When thinking of Toni Morrison’s Paradise in terms of interpretation and collaboration, I am immediately brought back to the conflict over the oven and what slogan is represented. It is clear that the problem lies in the generational divide between the younger and older generations of Ruby and I cannot help but see something similar nowadays. Greta Thunberg, a 17 year old climate crisis activist, being mocked by the president is just one of many examples. Rather than encouraging the voice of the youth, adults tend to find ways to silence them. I constantly think about my future as an English teacher and hope to encourage my students to keep speaking and voicing their opinions, regardless of who is trying to stop them. This idea of adultism is not something that should be tolerated and we should work with one another to progress as a society. It is clear in Paradise that without considering the art of interpretation and collaboration, progress is not possible. 

Moving from face-to-face learning to distance learning this semester was definitely difficult and I thought it would take away from one of the main goals of this class: collaboration. All of our lives were abruptly interrupted and we still found time for each other, to set up zoom calls, to work with one another, to listen to one another, and give support during such a tough time. Collaborative writing is challenging, especially during a pandemic, but it is always rewarding. Hearing others shed light on something you would have never thought of or did not notice in a text is fascinating. By listening to one another, we were able to put together amazing work.

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