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. 

The Uncertainty of Interpretation and Experience

The eagle of divine hope is a divine being that Dante encounters when he reaches Paradise in Paradiso. The eye and the furrowed brow that lies above it contain the living souls of several leaders and men who have been saved, despite ill-choices or ill-effects from their time on Earth. When the eagle describes Constantine, he says: “now he has learned that, even though the world / be ruined by the evil that derives / from his good act, that evil does not harm him” (58-60, Canto 20). The importance of this statement, as well as the other justifications of the souls that make up the brow, is that they are saved regardless of what they have done because of the goodness within them. It shows, also, that mortals are powerless to control the judgement that will be brought on themselves or on others.

The eagle of divine justice represents a duality: the souls are examples of goodness but their mistakes are never forgotten nor washed away. As Micah said, it is difficult to tell “whether the souls that make up the eagle’s eye should be the goal or the warning” for other humans (Move 1). The souls are important figures of the past who are by no means pure, but they have been chosen by God. This leaves mortals to sit with that discomfort that purity will not necessarily bring them a divine end since the souls that have been chosen are not pure or even all Christian. The eagle thus tells us that the past is both a goal and a warning, showing us that we must strive for goodness even though our fate is out of our control. By the end of Canto 20, we are left with the sensation that mortals should both beware and be the furrow of the eagle’s brow — by trusting in God’s will, they may make mistakes and there is no way of knowing for sure that what they are doing is correct, but if the goodness is within them to begin with, they will find themselves in the brow.

In Toni Morrison’s Paradise, the Oven served as the center of the community for those living in Haven. It was a place where the entire town would gather to cook and be with each other as well as a symbol of perseverance: “No family needed more than a simple cookstove as long as the Oven was alive, and it always was” (Morrison 15). It signaled consistency and abundance – always hot and ready to sustain the people of Haven. Overall, the Oven was a symbol of community collaboration.

This symbol only grew more potent when the men of Haven deconstructed it and took it with them to the new town that would become Ruby. Yet the dismantling and rebuilding of the Oven is itself symbolic. In order to recreate the security that they enjoyed in Haven, the men took apart that symbol of community and collaboration and brought it somewhere else. This breaks down the dichotomy of ‘here’ and ‘there,’ if we are looking at Haven and Ruby as two separate entities. It begins to feel like the location does not matter so long as the Oven is present. It is at this point, when the men decide that the symbol of the Oven is more important than the function, that its meaning begins to shift. On one hand, we see the men who took apart and rebuilt it feel that they are owed credit for the creation of the oven rather than just the recreation. On the other, we see the women who “nodded when the men took the Oven apart, packed, moved and reassembled it. But 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” (103). The Oven has become a living thing, something that the men take pride in, but something that is not necessary to the survival of their community: “A utility became a shrine” (103). When the adults argue with the youth of Ruby, they accuse the youth of attempting to change the meaning of the Oven and rewrite its history. However, we must look on this with a critical eye and consider whether the men did not already succeed in changing the meaning.

These men expect to receive recognition and prestige for their actions in reconstructing the oven, but their pursuit to keep this old legacy alive alienates them from their children. The adults read the oven to say “Beware the furrow of His brow,” invoking the idea of an ultimate power in God and in history that they believe the youth should obey. They believe that the youth are attempting to take power for themselves – and indeed they are. The youth of Ruby read it to say “Be the furrow of His brow,” believing themselves to be “His instrument, His justice” (87). However, the adults ignore the fact that they have already co-opted the power they presume to obey. They demand recognition and power for the role they played in the construction of the Oven and are afraid of the desire of the young people to do the same. Thus, the oven — which previously served as that important site of community and collaboration — is suddenly the site of disagreement and division.

The differing interpretations represented by the two groups in Ruby come down to a difference in perspectives regarding both time and humanity’s relationship to God. The adults believe that the youth are trying to rewrite the oven’s past by arguing that “That Oven already has a history. It doesn’t need you to fix it” (86). However, it seems that the youth, rather than trying to give it a different history, are hoping to give it a future. They are arguing that the Oven does not serve the function that the adults want it to and they want to make the Oven, along with the legacy that it carries, mean something to them for their own personal futures as well as for the future of Ruby and for all of their race. The difference in interpretation goes past a generational divide and instead reflects a temporal orientation that blocks each group from fully understanding each other. By looking back at Dante’s eagle of divine justice, it feels as though both parties are right, but only when they are taken together.

The eagle of divine justice is the culmination of a whole slew of dualities — it is a divine object made up of mortal souls, souls that are both a warning and an aspiration, souls that did both good and bad, and an object that instructs while it confuses us at the same time. In the same way, the Oven is representative of dualities — it is an object with both a past and a future, it shows the human limitations while empowering the human collaboration with the divine, and it is a symbol of both collaboration and division within this community. As humans, we are always searching for ways that the things we do and interact with can be meaningful to us. We thus interpret and make meaning of things in vastly different ways. The youth need the Oven to give them hope for the future, while the adults need the Oven to connect them to the bravery and message of their ancestors. The adults look back to their fathers and grandfathers and fancy themselves to be the legacy that they preach, but they stifle the youth from making their own moves in the same direction.

Paradise‘s appropriation of Paradiso invites us to consider interpretation and collaboration in terms of time. Part of the issue with the disagreement about the words on the Oven is that the readers seem to be approaching it from two different temporal perspectives. The adults are looking at it as a representation of the past — something that their grandfathers created that symbolizes the origins of their town. On the other hand, the youth of Ruby are reading it as a symbol for their future. They desire it to mean something for their empowerment and the furthering of not only them as individuals, but as furthering the African American race. Similarly, the eagle of divine justice asks us to look both back and forward when he tells Dante and the reader about the souls immortalized in his being. The souls making up the eye and brow of the eagle serve as both a warning and a goal — invoking both the past and a hope for the future. These two situations thus indicate to us that both the past and the future necessitate different interpretations of the same material and that the collaboration of those differing interpretations are both necessary to fully comprehend that which is incomprehensible. Humanity will never fully understand the eagle of divine justice because of the inherent duality of it and its relation to God’s unknowable will. The residents of Ruby will also never fully understand the Oven because they neglect to consider both temporal perspectives of the Oven.

This discussion of temporal perspectives and connections feels very close to me because I am drawn to Medieval Studies as a career path. While studying Medieval texts and cultures over the course of my time at Geneseo, I have struggled endlessly with the question “Does this really matter?” It is often difficult to focus attention on societies and ways of life that are gone while there are so many problems all around us today. Yes, you can argue that the past informs the present, but there is still the sense that a paper I might spend an entire semester on about the relationships in King Arthur’s court just do not have any impact the overwhelming number of things going on in our daily lives today. However, by wrestling with the both/and importance of interpretation and collaboration, I have been reading my situation differently. The skill of making meaning out of sometimes obsolete things is important. The ability to make connections between a past and a present and a future in meaningful ways is difficult, but it is important. Medieval texts are both separate and unique from our lives today and they are endlessly important and connected in ways that we may never fully comprehend.

Humans have a finite existence – we live at a specific point in time and usually in a few specific locations. There will always be an infinite number of experiences that we will never have, but we also know that no one will ever have the exact same experience as one of us. Not only are all people unique from each other, but each person is different depending on what portion of life they are in. There are some books or movies or other forms of media that mean vastly different things to me depending on when I am experiencing them. I was recently listening to Panic At the Disco!’s cover of “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2. A few months ago, I listened to it and enjoyed it as an upbeat song but did not feel particularly struck by it as I did with “Show Yourself” from the same movie. But this week when I listened to it as I drove along Nations road, remembering all of the plans I had made with my friends about taking graduation pictures on the bridge on Nations road at sunset, thinking about leaving this place that has become my home and returning to my original home, thinking about the uncertainty of the next year because of quarantine but also the uncertainty of a future pursuing a career in Medieval Studies (as if academia wasn’t difficult enough to find a job in), the song took on an entirely new meaning. I experienced it in a completely new way, and I am sure in 10 years I will experience it once again in a new way.

It is so important to remember each time our experiences change that every one of those experiences is valid and meaningful, even if they do not apply to our current experiences anymore. Humans and our experiences are dynamic as we move through time. We must lean into that, feel every emotion as strongly as we need to right at this moment and remember that it will change as we do, but it will never cease to have existed in the first place. Leaving undergrad right now is painful, my feelings of loss and mourning and a lack of closure are painful. One day, I imagine I will look back on this time without the pain and instead with pride at my perseverance or even with laughter thinking about how crazy this time was. All of those feelings are real and none of them are mutually exclusive. Our past and our future and our present will always be distinct, but they will also always all be wrapped up together – and that is the beauty of our rocky, dynamic, uncertain, imperfect, fully human experience.

Morphing Constellations and The Inevitability of Change

The most important piece of the process of interpretation and collaboration is that in doing so, there is often not a clear and solid answer or solution waiting at the end of the process. In fact, the process within collaboration is the valuable aspect of it, and is what creates an intersection between interpretation and collaboration. The process in which the readers of the Oven in Morrison’s Paradise interpret, agree/disagree and collaborate, though not flawless, is still a process moving forward. Being able to progress through this process of collaboration is a forward or upward movement, of course with obstacles, that is needed to reach the heights of paradise. 

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