Birds of a Feather

Shauna Blochwitz, Isabelle Covert, Hailey Cullen, Madolley Donzo, Genesis Flores, Meghan Havens, Laryssa Olsen, Emily Loper

Justice and virtue are human traits, just the same as injustice and immorality, and are rife with human complexities. Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso discusses justice and virtue as holy, based in immutable divinity that means human conceptions of justice come secondary to the divine conception of the term. “Individual souls composing the eagle have finished singing, the eagle tells the Pilgrim to watch its eye closely as it points out six famous souls who were champions of justice on earth” (Canto XX). As demonstrated in this quote, Dante the Poet depicts divine justice as portrayed by the Divine Eagle of Justice, composed of multiple paragons of virtue, who combine to create a being that is representative of God and Their justice. The Eagle’s curved eyebrow has five stars following the curve, each star representing a man, and the eye representing David (see the iconic illustration from Mark Musa’s edition of Paradiso). The men who make up the eye and brow of the Eagle were all men of power; kings and emperors whose accomplishments included being rulers, prophets, poets, representatives of justice who punished wrongdoers, and who lived holy lives dedicated to God and Their will. The Eagle speaks to Dante the Pilgrim, “‘You men who live on earth, be slow to judge, for even we who see God face to face still do not know the list of His elect, but we find this defect of ours a joy, since in this good perfected is our good; for whatsoever God wills we will too’” (Canto XX).

In contrast to the Eagle in Paradiso representing divine justice that rewards those who are righteous, Dante uses serpents in Inferno to execute justice by punishing sinners. In Canto XXV, there is a six-foot snake that ingests two sinners as a punishment, becoming one with their bodies. “It [serpent] gripped his belly with its middle feet, and with its forefeet grappled his two arms; and then it sank its teeth in both his cheeks … No ivy ever gripped a tree so fast as when that horrifying monster clasped and intertwined the other’s limbs with its” (Canto XXV). Dante’s exploration of justice with the serpent originates from the idea that those who sin deserve to physically become the monsters they were in life. While the snake and Eagle both portray a divine justice, one comes from a place of upholding peace and acting in God’s Will, while the other originates from a compulsive nature to bring harm to those who have dealt harm to others. Dante faces questions about what is just and good from a human perspective, but the representatives of God, like the Eagle, reinforce that God’s justice is final and constant, and does not consider the human conception of what is just or unjust, and that it is difficult, if not impossible, for humans to conceptualize the will of God.

In Toni Morrison’s Paradise, the Oven had been built in the town of Haven by the ancestors of Ruby’s inhabitants to demonstrate community and communal living. During this time, “Haven people brought the kill to the Oven and stayed…to gossip, complain, roar with laughter and drink walking coffee” (Morrison 15). The Oven was the center point for them in Haven. It brought the families together and gave them a sense of belonging. However, the Oven lost its usage when the community in Haven was no longer flourishing, and they were forced to find a new space. Members of Haven un-bricked the Oven, packed it into trucks, and carried it on their journey to find a new home. Settling in Ruby, they re-bricked the oven as the women watched, feeling resentment for the space taken up by these bricks; space that could’ve held supplies and other necessities. The women of Ruby didn’t need the Oven; they didn’t have any use for it. There was no need to lug food there to cook because they now had cookstoves in their kitchens.

At the beginning of resettlement, the Oven was a space for baptisms. Ruby people would head toward it to “embrace [and] congratulate one another” after baptisms, but this purpose became obsolete as the Churches invested in indoor pools and vessels to perform baptisms (Morrison 103). “A utility became a shrine” (Morrison 103). The older generation—especially Deek and Steward—revered the oven because it was something that their grandfathers had put together. The newer generation, however, used it as a place to hang out. Throughout the book, they could be seen lounging around the Oven, talking and laughing. Prior to the events in Paradise, it is presumed that one of the younger people drew a fist on the Oven, which is supposed to demonstrate a new way of thinking; one where they are beckoning modernization and autonomy. However, this defamation of the Oven leads to a large disagreement between the members of Ruby and ties into the uproar that ensues, ending with the men raiding the Convent, a mansion outside of Ruby full of strange women. The men that conduct a hostile takeover of the Convent meet at the Oven to discuss their plans, demonstrating that while the Oven doesn’t have many purposes left, it remains a meeting place. They spend most of the night gathering themselves, eating food, and talking strategy. Once they’ve convinced themselves that this is the right way to handle things, they leave the Oven to remain the symbol that it has become; representing something different to everyone that lives in Ruby.

In Paradise, the Oven is an important, central object for those living in Ruby. For them, it stands for everything their ancestors went through to survive and thrive in this place. That includes values, like respecting authority and being willing to do whatever it takes, and the strength of the community, which is shown in the entire community using the Oven for various things. The shape of the Oven, however, is eerily similar to the shape of the Eye and Brow of the Divine Eagle of Justice—which is interesting, because community-based justice was also a founding value of Ruby. The Oven is “round as a head, deep as desire,” and was built by the founding families using bricks (Morrison 6). It also has an “iron plate five feet by two” which they “set… at the base of the Oven’s mouth” (Morrison 7). These values are encapsulated in the inscription on that iron lip, parallel to the Brow of the Eagle, the truth of which the townspeople do not agree on: either “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” or “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” This argument, split mainly along generational lines, follows deeper conflict in how to run the town now that they’re not struggling to survive and for the most part well-off: do they keep the extreme values and expectations or loosen them?

Ruby’s residents find themselves divergent on their recollection and interpretation of the words inscribed on the oven’s lip. The older generations of Ruby claim it read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” while the younger generations want to give it new life with the phrase “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” The oven, initially a uniting symbol among the townspeople, is now representative of intergenerational conflict that will affect the future history of Ruby. Reverend Pulliam claims, “‘Beware the Furrow of his Brow.’ That’s what it says clear as daylight. That’s not a suggestion; that’s an order!,” asserting their power in the hierarchy of Ruby as the founders of this utopian society to which the younger generations must adhere to (Morrison 86). This interpretation has a heavy air of authority, attempting to instill a sense of control over the youngsters. Conversely, those opposed to the oven’s motto as “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” suggest that the phrasing should reflect ownership over their futures, not being God themselves but instead acting as an extension of his power, “Yes, sir, but we are obeying Him,’ said Destry. ‘If we follow His commandments, we’ll be His voice, His retribution”’ (Morrison 87). Rather than being the power, the younger generation would prefer to use the power of the divine, forging their own path free of the dictatorial control of Ruby.

Confronted with an unfinished inscription, “…the Furrow of His Brow,” the older and younger generations enter into an intergenerational conflict surrounding the excessive desire of the elders to maintain the traditions of the past, while the younger generations recognize that this no longer serves their community. One of the main arguments made by those collected in the younger generation is the necessary outlook for the group as a whole claiming: “‘It’s our history too, sir. Not just yours’” (Morrison 86). Whereas, the older generation is intending to maintain their power by threatening the newer generations, “Harper Jury silenced him. ‘It says ‘Beware.’ Not ‘Be.’ Beware means ‘Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it’” (Morrison 86). Just as the oven and its inscription becomes a symbol of controversy among the community, the older generations come to compare the betrayal of the younger generations to that of a snake with malevolent intentions to their cause. Giving the older generation the last word, Steward Morgan issues this chilling threat, “‘If you, any one of you, ignore, change, take away, or add to the words in the mouth of that Oven, I will blow your head off just like you was a hood-eye snake”’ (Morrison 87). This conflict parallels how Dante the Poet views sinners as serpents, being betrayed by their own as the residents of Ruby clash amongst themselves.

Rather than carrying physical power, the descendants of the founding families exude symbolic power, radiating superiority based on their names and their interpretations of the events that led to the town’s formation. Up until now, the Oven had been a staple in the community, serving a multitude of purposes. Now, the Oven is viewed as an artifact by those that have never seen it in use: “Minus the baptisms the oven had no real value. What was needed back in the Haven’s early days had never been needed in Ruby” (Morrison 103). This fact has controlled the narrative, leading to the older generations reflecting on the religious and historical value of the Oven in their formative years and the younger generations refusing to conform based on outdated principles. As seen in Dante’s Paradiso, the Divine Eagle of Justice is representative of uniformity and peace, aligning with the values of the older generations. Its antithesis is the snake, but as a symbol, an eagle carrying a snake represents great change. This hints at the possibility of collaboration between the older and younger generations to resolve this great conflict.

Dante and Morrison both write about coming to terms with power and the various forms it takes, both in actionable and symbolic power. This is demonstrated in the symbol of the Oven representing the real power of the people of Ruby. The ability to tell when someone or something is actually powerful versus just a mirage is a valuable and important skill, as the individual and collective need to recognize their own power and know they can stand up to false representations, like the younger generation of Ruby. By the end of the novel, after ambushing the Convent and killing and driving out its residents, the young people of Ruby seem to come to a consensus as to what the words on the Oven should be: replacing “Be the Furrow of His Brow” or “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” with “We Are the Furrow of His Brow” (Morrison 298). This change seems to suggest that rather than aspiring to be God’s “justice” and “voice” by obeying Him and His commandments, the younger members of the community now feel that they are all of these things, whether they want to be or not (Morrison 87). They seem to realize that being an “instrument” of God without any choice in the matter means doing things that may not always be pleasing to enact, and that they may not always agree with (Morrison 87). Being “His retribution” means serving justice in ways that may not be comfortable or seem fair, yet the town of Ruby as a collective needs to because of the role they have taken as their own Eagle of Divine Justice (Morrison 87). While not exactly creating a compromise to decide on the words on the Oven, the older members of the community seem to agree with the phrase written by the youth only after they attack the Convent and see what that act did to the community as a whole.

The men of Ruby are dealing with the fallout of their actions, of doing things that they felt they were entitled to do because of their perceived connection to God and his justice. In other words, the older generation supports the words on the Oven essentially by talking about how they have already proven they “are the Furrow of His Brow,” whereas the younger generation is in the process of proving this statement true by trying to maintain that culture of taking action. It is due to this slight difference of interpretation of the words on the Oven, and the actions taken based on this phrase, that the town of Ruby is experiencing a shift. One is able to understand how collaboration does not necessarily mean complete agreement; since there is a difference of interpretation, but agreement on what the words on the Oven should be, the collaboration gets muddled when courses of action are taken. Essentially, “progress” can not be experienced exclusively, it can only be achieved alongside minor “setbacks.” The perceived “progress” of their collaboration only happened in the aftermath of an attack on extricated members of the community, this “setback” creating a change in opinion and causing the townspeople to feel that they are in agreement with one another.

As prevalent as these issues of power and justice are in the town of Ruby, these kinds of issues are just as prevalent and numerous in the world today. As politics, law, and society seem to be losing all the values that have been so important for generations (like collaboration, community, and caring for others), it’s important for people to keep in mind where real power and real justice lie. The power of community and the collective cannot be overplayed; banding together to seek justice for each other is one of the most important roles we have as individuals in our society. If we can collaborate with one another on the issues we all see, there is a good chance we can start to remedy them. This is something that was discussed by Dante in the middle ages, and by Toni Morrison in the twentieth century; this has and will always be discussed because these issues seem to persist as long as we do. The stakes in the novel Paradise may seem high for this issue, but the stakes are truly much higher. With systemic issues such as violence and discrimination against women and people of color that are built into governmental institutions, the only way we can combat them is by banding together as a community and fighting for each other, and that is the only way justice can truly be achieved.

In English 431, we have had the opportunity to practice the skills of collaborating and caring for each other and our learning as a collective. As this group in particular, we have collaborated on three essays, each time learning more about how to work through our differences in interpretations of the literature we’ve read, give each other feedback with care, and produce insightful ideas that we would not be able to realize on our own. Through this process of collaboration and interpretation, we develop both individual and collective power. We develop our individual power within the group by strengthening our ability to voice our own interpretations and question each other’s interpretations (with care of course). More importantly, we develop our power as a collective by sharing our ideas and coming up with a final product that is more than anything we could create by ourselves. In this way, we are able to use the power we have achieved through our essay collaborations to take the first steps across the threshold into a more collaborative community that works to address systemic issues.

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