Building a Community Through Communication: How Interpretation Creates Division in “Paradise”

In writing Paradise, Toni Morrison suggests to readers that through open communication, a community based on collaboration and understanding can be developed.  Playing off of Dante’s Paradiso, Morrison demonstrates how a lack of communication can lead to a collaboration aimed at violence, through the justification of interpretation.  Morrison’s Paradise challenges the notion of divinity and justice as not interpretable, suggesting that people should find meaning in their own lives, rather from a higher power.   

Through Dante’s many interactions with the souls of those in the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, it is when he comes upon the Eagle of Divine Justice that he and readers are able to gain an insightful understanding of justice through Dante’s conversation with the Eagle.  The Eagle itself is composed of the souls of rulers who displayed justice and mercy during their time on Earth and are introduced in with Dante’s arrival “within the torch of Jupiter” (Canto 18, 70).  The souls of Paradiso are content within their respected spheres, no matter how close or far away they are from “The Sun” (God).  This is verified through Dante’s description of the lights forming, stating “and they climbed, some high, some low, just as the Sun that kindles them assigned positions” (Canto 18, 104-105).  Dante is again confirming his repetitious belief that the souls in the Divine Comedy are exactly where they need to be from the souls suffering in Hell for their sins to those rewarded in Paradiso with Heaven’s light.        

In conversing with the light-formed Eagle, Dante pleads for the sinful transgressors of Earth to face justice from Heaven (Canto 18, 118-120), against those that belittle the values and practices exemplified by the souls that compose the Eagle.  The Eagle retorts with a lesson on divine justice from the perspective of mortals, “the vision that your world receives can penetrate into Eternal justice no more than an eye can penetrate the sea” (Canto 19, 58-60).  The Eagle in its address asserts the belief that people on Earth cannot perceive divine justice, even if they believe they are able to.  This is further expanded upon the Eagle’s relation of divine justice with the sea floor: “for though, near shore, sight reaches the sea floor, you cannot reach it in the open sea; yet it is there, but hidden by the deep” (Canto 19, 58-63).  The Eagle’s lesson on divine justice serves as an exclamation becoming a declamation for Dante, whose initial request for justice was a false pretense of knowledge on justice, gradually becoming an enlightening lesson for Dante and readers by the end.  From this, it can be claimed that judgment and justice are not the responsibility of people to establish or control, as they are not recognizable and clear to people on Earth.  This can be surmised from the Eagle’s statement “Now who are you to sit upon the bench, to judge events a thousand miles away, when your own vision spans so brief a space?” (Canto 19, 79-81).  Through the conversation with the Eagle of Divine Justice, Dante and the readers are better able to understand divine justice.

In reading Paradise, an observable, important foundation for the town of Ruby, is the Oven that lay at the heart of the town.  Originally built in 1890 in the town of Haven, the Oven was the first structure built by the former slave community after their rejection from society.  The Oven itself is composed of many pale bricks, with a chimney, plumb, iron plates, and a hearthstone.  Round and deep, the Oven in sense served as the source of nourishment for the community of Haven, who would collectively use the Oven for preparing meals.  The Oven had also come to serve as a monument to the struggles the men of Haven had to endure to finally form their own town, amidst their rejection.  Upon their return to Haven from their service in World War II, twins Deek and Steward Morgan dismantle the Oven to bring with them in their quest to establish a new community, after seeing and experiencing the unchanged bigotry of society.  Disassembled piece by piece, the Oven again became the first structure installed in 1952, in the newly founded town of Ruby.

With the Oven again becoming the center piece of a community, the representation and use of the Oven had evolved from its original purpose.  Where in Haven the Oven was used to “nourish them” and “monumentalize what they had done” (Morrison, 7), the Oven in Ruby had come to represent the troubling past of Haven and serve as a reminder to “what they might become if they did not begin anew” (Morrison, 6).  No longer serving the practical use of cooking food, the Oven has shifted in purpose to become a meeting place for the community.  However, the removal of the Oven from Haven to the town of Ruby causes conflict in its purpose and interpretation of the quote etched on it.  While the older community of Ruby fervently claim a quote on the Oven to read “Beware the furrow of His brow”, the younger generation of Ruby claim the quote to read “Be the furrow of His brow” (Morrison, 86-87).  The differing interpretations on the true meaning of the quote causes division in Ruby’s residents, with the older generation maintaining the Oven as “the meeting place to report on what done or needed or what needed” (Morrison, 111). 

While the Oven’s intended purpose is to establish a location within town that brings the community together, the town of Ruby becomes fractured through the differing interpretations of the quote etched on the Oven.  The separation between those that read the quote to be “Beware the furrow of His brow” versus those that read the quote as “Be the furrow of His brow” demonstrate Morrison’s ability to create tension and conflict through contrast on the perspective of authority.  This contrast in perspective does not completely divide the community, but more or less re-organizes the community into the older population against the younger population.      

The older population of Ruby adhere to the Oven exclaiming “Beware the furrow…”, as their memory of the hardships faced by their forefathers through slavery and during the Restoration has become associated with the will and power of God, something to be wary and respectful of.  The older population of Ruby’s belief in the quote to warn of the power and wrath of God is echoed through Reverend Pulliam’s claim “God’s justice is His alone” (87), as well as Harper Jury’s statement that “[The Oven] says ‘Beware’.  Not ‘Be’.  Beware means ‘Look out.  The power is mine.  Get used to it.’” (87).  The interpretation of the quote to mean the acceptance of God’s power and will transparently align with the older generation’s perspective of authority and governing ability, with this portion of Ruby’s residents accepting the rule of the Morgan twins within the town.  Several times, Morrison makes it clear that the Morgan twins have come to be viewed as the unofficial leaders of the town, through their own justifications, as well as the conscious acceptance of the residents.  The Morgan twins read the quote as “Beware the furrow…”, and through this unquestionable acceptance of their interpretation, the rest of the town unquestionably accepts their decision.  In this essence, the town does not question the authority of the Morgan twins, just as they do not question the power of God.  Even Richard Misner, who challenges the Morgan’s interpretation, recognizes an ownership of Ruby, stating “It’s sort of [Deek’s] town, wouldn’t you say?  His and Steward’s?” (115).

The younger population of Ruby interpret the quote as “Be the furrow…” reflecting the belief that the leadership within the town should change in their perceptions and judgment of others.  The “Furrow of His brow” can come to represent the brow of the Eagle of Divine Justice, that holds the souls of just and merciful kings throughout history.  Being the “Furrow of His brow” in this sense is releasing judgment to a higher power, and acting more merciful in just in our interactions with others.  In relation to the context of Paradise, the younger population can be seen as demanding change from the town of Ruby’s rigid hierarchy, disapproval of outsiders, and overall strict nature that has been largely present since the town’s foundation.

Through interpretation, the debate of “Beware” vs. “Be” transpires into the debate whether to engage in violence or not, based on collective collaboration of the different interpretations. The townspeople’s decisions and actions are a result of their interpretations of the Oven’s quote.  Residents who read the Oven as “Beware the furrow…” act in what they perceive as divine justice in the form of massacring the Convent.  Deek and Steward Morgan, the town’s two “leaders” and proud proponents of the Oven reading “Beware”, organize nine other men in town to assist in eliminating the women of the Convent.  Their self-righteousness in killing the Convent women is further progressed by their belief that this act is for God: “God at their side.  The men take aim” (18).  While the men of Ruby believe they are carrying out Divine Justice, Dante’s Eagle of Divine Justice had already addressed human perception of divine justice as being short-sighted, unable to see the larger picture of justice at work.  It is even hinted that some of the men know what they are doing is wrong: “He does not want to see himself stalking females or their liquid” (9).  While the names of the nine men involved slowly is revealed, Morrison’s exclusion of revealing their names too soon suggests that anyone can fall into this dangerous mindset of carrying out violence. 

Residents who read the Oven as “Be the furrow…” act reserved in passing judgment, favoring more inclusion within the rigid system of Ruby.  “Be the furrow” readers can be viewed as the younger population of Ruby, who through Richard Misner, attempt to instill change within the unaffected Ruby.  At the culmination of the violence being perpetrated by the nine men of Ruby against the Convent women, Lone gathers the townspeople to save the Convent women.  Lone’s act against the men of Ruby, specifically against the Morgan brothers, demonstrate residents of Ruby beginning to act as the “Furrow” through the challenge of the unjust and the capacity for mercy.  Other residents such as Pete Best, demonstrate acts of mercy/justice in attempting to bury the bodies of the women from the Convent.  It is important that these two residents act as they are both victims of the unjust hierarchy of Ruby.  The collaboration between readers of “Be the Furrow…” act together to develop some form of change within the rigid system of Ruby, evident by the changing nature of Ruby at the Paradise.

A third category present, but largely in the backdrop is the Convent women.  This third category is particularly different from the other two, in that the women may or may not recognize what the meaning to the quote on the Oven readers, but simply don’t care.  As a third party outside the tension of Ruby, the Convent women live without concern of meaning.  The residents of Ruby believe in some divine intervention on the town of Ruby that has provided its stability.  The women of the Convent live in the Convent because they simply desire so, and it represents an escape from the pressure of societal living.  Upon first meeting, Mavis meets Grace sitting in the front yard of the Convent naked, with little care or regard.  The grand question of meaning in their lives in utterly washed away with the simplicity of the lives they are living at the Convent, thus this fixation of the meaning of a quote has no effect on them.  Life for the women at the Convent is free in responsibilities and overall worries, implying that a debate on an interpretation of meaning, whether it be an Oven or anything else, is ridiculous.  Morrison may be suggesting that life should be lived on our own terms, and not through the notion of being or acting on account of some divine power.   

In thinking about both collaboration and interpretation as a part of Paradise‘s appropriation of Paradiso, both can be viewed as crucial in instituting change, but also dangerous when they are used to justify violence.  Ruby is different at the end of Paradise than it was in the beginning.  There appears to be a more open line of communication between residents, such as Richard Misner and Deek.  Death has finally caught up to the town with the death of Save-Marie, however this demonstrates the passage of time and a change beginning to develop.  Division remains, but the town has changed nonetheless.  However, this change was a result of violence through the collaboration of men arming themselves to carry out a perceived interpretation of “divine justice”.  The contrasting interpretations between “Be the furrow…” vs. “Beware the furrow” produced an antagonistic attitude from the “Beware…” interpreters that resulted in the deaths of the Convent women.  From this, collaboration and interpretation can be viewed as dangerous when some individuals have the power and ability to impose their belief. 

Reflecting on the contrasting collaborations and interpretations of the residents of Ruby, Morrison can be seen suggesting true collaboration through accepting life with the given circumstances.  This is evident through the women of the Convent.  The residents of the Convent are attempting to escape from their past: Mavis from the death of her twins and un-supporting family, Grace and Seneca from their previous, abusive relationships, Divine from her family and previous boyfriend.  Coming to the Convent, the women find meaning in the freedom they experience while residing there.  They’re free to come and go as they please, their responsibilities are to themselves and maintaining the Convent, and the pressures of the outside world are almost completely lost to them.  In essence, through shutting themselves off from the rest of the world and finding meaning through their collected living, the women of the Convent attain the town of Ruby’s initial goal of building a prosperous, isolated community.  In the end, the women of the Convent are able to experience closure with the people they left behind, reconciling peace through communication.

Morrison’s trilogy persistently revolves around the lack of communication that drives characters further into conflict.  The lack of communication between Sethe and Denver welcomes Beloved into their home, further escalating the tension between these two women.  The lack of communication between Sethe’s family and their community also serves as a source of conflict.  Violet and Joe’s relationship issues in Jazz can trace back to their lack of communication, and inability to talk through their problems.  Again, it can be observed that these two intimate characters are shunned from their community, lacking an outside voice to communicate with.  The culmination of lack of communication is evident from the town of Ruby, that functions through a rigid hierarchy of families based off of color, shunning those with lighter-skin or marrying a person of lighter-skin.  Communication is again a major issue in the town, with competing interpretations escalating the division of the town, and as a result a division in communication.  Morrison’s focus on communication suggests that an open conversation on individual issues may present a more collaborative community and stronger relationships as a result.  In the end of each novel of Morrison’s trilogy, readers are able to witness the community of the novel growing through abrupt arrival of communication: Sethe’s community exorcise Beloved from her home after Denver’s plea for assistance; Joe and Violet’s relationship becomes mended through the open communication from Dorcases friend Felice; the women of the Convent are able to reach “paradise” after communicating with people from their past.  Through the resolves of each novel, it can be reflected upon that open and honest communication is the meaning behind a collaborative community. 

In reflecting on the current situation of the world, I find it more apparent that communication is necessary in building a community.  Given the pandemic the world is facing, I find it less scary when there is an open line of communication to work through.  Through open communication, this semester and course was able to progress through the efforts of those willing to work and talk, even if being separated by a screen.  The distance between family, friends, and classmates has presented new ways we as people are able to engage with each other. Leaders are actively engaging with each other on how to combat the Coronavirus, forging new ties and making it apparent those willing to communicate in order to meet success.  It is important that we hold on to the value of communication, even after the pandemic is resolved, as it has demonstrated through literature and reality that through an open conversation, people are able to collaborate and become stronger as a community.             

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