“To Be or Not to Be the Furrow:” Interpretation and Collaboration in Toni Morrison’s Paradise

Taylor Bramhall, Frances Sharples, Jenna Brace, Sheridan Morgan, Joe Morgan, Hannah Myers, Olive Niccoli, Kya Primm, Dylan Walawender

Dr. Beth McCoy

ENGL 431: Conversations: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

29 April 2023

“To Be or Not to Be the Furrow:” Interpretation and Collaboration in Toni Morrison’s Paradise

The Eagle of Divine Justice in Dante’s Paradiso appears in the Pilgrim’s progress toward Paradise, informing him of the futility of mankind to interpret God’s intentions for redemption and presenting the reader with the paradoxical presence of the One and the Many. The Eagle’s physical composition reflects this dilemma. The Eagle is composed of a number of souls, with its brow composed of key male figures from history: Trajan, the Roman emperor; the Biblical Hezekiah; the Roman emperor Constantine; William II of Sicily; and Ripheus the Trojan. In the pupil shines King David (“Baptism” Barolini). What baffles the Pilgrim in Canto XIX, however, is not so much the Eagle’s body, but rather the manner in which he speaks; he states, “for I could hear the beak and see it move; / I heard its voice use words like I and Mine / when in conception it was We and Ours” (Par. 19.10-12). Teolinda Barolini cites this perplexing duality as a recurring theme within Paradiso; divinity seems to exist outside and within the self, to be expressed as “the One and the Many– oneness and difference” paradoxically coexisting (“Con-sort” Barolini). The Eagle, then, personifies a collaborative essence that populates Paradise; even as it is a single body, it is likewise multiple, composed of individuals, inhabiting the text as both a living community and a structure made of the many. This collaborative ideology appears in Paradise; however, the Eagle presents a second conversation unpacked in Morrison’s novel: the question of interpretation. 

When Dante expresses confusion about the nature of justice after noticing that two of the inhabitants of the Eagle’s brow– Trajan and Ripheus– are saved pagans, the Eagle responds by saying “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?” (Par. 19.79-81)). This response demonstrates the futility of interpretation within the question of divine justice, that all humans are incapable of judging divine justice. Therefore, while the Eagle as a literary figure directs us toward the paradoxical nature of collaboration within the dialogue of the “One and the Many,” its advice toward Dante calls into question the nature of interpretation in suggesting that it is futile to wholly ascertain or understand the mechanisms of divine justice. This sentiment appears in Morrison’s Paradise, where the conflict around the Oven calls into question this relationship between interpretation and collaboration.

In Toni Morrison’s Paradise, a large brick oven that serves as a community kitchen and gathering place plays a central symbolic role in much the same way as Dante’s Eagle. Originally built by the founders of the town of Haven, the Oven meant so much to its inhabitants that when a majority of the residents decided to move hours away to establish a new town, Ruby, they broke the oven into pieces and carried them with them to be reassembled at the new location. One of the most meaningful features of the Oven was an inscription in its foundation. While most of the phrase remained intact after the move, the crucial first word of the epigraph was lost, and unfortunately forgotten. The question for all Ruby residents then became what that first word, vital to the original intended meaning was. That phrase concluded with “… the Furrow of His Brow,” but whether the first word was “Beware” of “Be” becomes a hotly contested issue that divides the residents along generational lines. The Oven is reminiscent of Dante’s Eagle of Divine Justice in that it is made up of individual bricks that come together to form a unified symbol. The Eagle in Dante’s Paradiso is formed from the souls of just rulers throughout history who assemble themselves into the image, which parallels the fact that the original creators of the Oven put their own souls into the work of making each brick, and lovingly assembled them into a structure that would serve as a cultural and symbolic center for the members of their community. 

Therefore, in Paradise, interpretation and collaboration interact in that the divisive interpretations of the lip of the Oven create pockets of collaboration– within the Convent and the town of Ruby, working toward addressing this division– that create the conflict central to the novel. As such, Morrison could suggest that to build a community, one must allow for the division of multiple interpretations, to acknowledge the pleasures and struggles of the self, and create communication and discussion rather than exclusion. 

In Morrison’s Paradise, the words written on the Oven hold a varying degree of significance for each of those who look upon it. It served as the town’s own divine eagle of justice which became a “shrine the Ruby men revered for its illegible yet prescriptive sign” (Morrison 103). As stated, the debate on what is written across this oven’s lip is divided by a generational line – with some believing the oven’s words to be “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” and others believing it to say “Be the Furrow of His Brow” (Morrison 84, 87). While one functions as a warning to behave and obey under the rule of God, the latter, instead, offers encouragement to be one with God and exist with the same power and freedom. It is a matter of obedience and moral autonomy. As it was originally constructed by Ruby men to restrict the behavior and social engagement of Black women, the Oven promoted an idea of the constraining of womanhood, sexuality, and liberation. Hence, the younger generation finds power in breaking free of the original meaning behind the Oven, such as when Harper Jury explains: “Beware means ‘Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it.’ ‘Be’ means you putting Him aside and you the power” (Morrison 87). These interpretations show the divide between devotion to harmful tradition and the desire to be the flames within the Oven to break free from that institution and reclaim it as their own. The diverging interpretations arise once the audience recognizes how rigid the original phrase was: “The twins believed it was when he discovered how narrow the path of righteousness could be that their grandfather chose the words for the Oven’s lip” (Morrison 14). The phrase was made with one person’s interpretation of righteousness, and thus it would be impossible to recreate. Even if the citizens of Ruby were able to write the same phrase, there is no way of knowing if their interpretation of righteousness was the same as the originators. Perhaps if an effort was put forth into mending the world broken by rejection, denial, and escapism from ecological damages, a real and true world of ‘wonder’ would not be as forlorn as previously thought – and rather, a glimpse of what could be. Audiences can work to identify with the plight of the Ruby citizens if they consider the recent pandemic. While we were all immersed in the pandemic at the same time, no two experiences were the same, and thus it would be impossible to define the general “pandemic experience.” 

The Oven might similarly be interpreted as a symbol of righteousness that, in many ways, holds the community together. Though character relationships and much of the novel’s plot spurs from the division in how the town interprets the Oven’s message, the physical presence of the Oven insists upon an aligned value of the townspeople; the prevailing nature of this symbol is clear, too, in moments of the text that suggest disagreement, but, in between the lines, offer clarity on the town of Ruby’s strongest principles. In interrupting a disagreement between Deacon Morgan and Sargeant Person, Richard Misner interjects, “‘Whoa, whoa!…Brothers. Sisters. We called this meeting in God’s own house to try and find—’ ‘One of His houses,’ snarled Sargeant. ‘All right, one of His houses. But whichever one, He demands respect from those who are in it. Am I right or am I right?’” (84). In this moment of tension between town members, there is still a wholly united goal of respect for a higher power.

The interpretation around the Oven’s message initiates collaborative efforts that become earthly in the divine “resurrection” of Connie, as well. The openness of “…the Furrow of His Brow” mobilizes the collaboration entangled with discussing texts even as it fuels the conflict in Ruby given its refusal to be categorized (Morrison 93). This amorphous perspective compels readers to reject the binary of God as separate from the self that lies at the heart of the conflict over the Oven’s lip; rather, it suggests both can exist in “oneness and difference” (“Con-sort” Barolini). Therefore, we can read the interpretation of “…the Furrow of His Brow” as a calling on Ruby to participate in collaboration as though the ellipsis begs for dialogue, for communal engagement. 

Connie, by the end of the novel, embodies this dynamic as she both becomes and engages with divinity. Connie undergoes a resurrection late in the novel after turning to drink and isolation to cope with the death of Mother and the hurt she feels after her past romance; Morrison writes, “She has the features of Connie…but they are sculpted somehow.” Moreover, she embodies an impenetrable sense of power, stating ““I call myself Concolata Sosa. If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for” (262). This transformation renders the interpretative message of “…the Furrow of His Brow” into physical form, as Connie calls upon the divinity within herself she communes with “the One and the Many,” and community and collaboration thus manifest from the relationship between the self and the Other, between “oneness and difference,” in communion rather than division.

These religious tones continuously propel the collaboration and community represented in Paradise in all settings of the novel. In Ruby, Misner’s perspective, and the spiritual influence that his character represents within the novel, continues to define the narrative of collaboration in the town. The division Misner discusses appears in the fraught conversation between himself and Pat, a character who records and deeply influences family and connection in Ruby. Pat and Misner’s tense correspondence during the practice for the Christmas play further entrenches this conflict in the spiritual, featuring interruptions in their conversation with explicit Christian references. As Pat reflects on their conversation later in her section, we receive more background into how this divided interpretation intersects with the town’s collaboration on building community and stability in Ruby’s future: “It wasn’t God’s brow to be feared. It was his own, their own. Is that why ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’ drove them crazy? … Did they really believe that no one died in Ruby?” (217) The question of how this division impacts the future of Ruby is another example of how collaboration acts as an attempt at reconciliation in the town’s moral and religious distress. 

With Connie as the initiator of the Convent’s healing, the community she creates becomes stronger, as if Morrison suggests that interpretation interacts with collaboration to create both division and community around caring for each other. Connie insists that the women lay naked on the floor, where she paints outlines around each woman’s body. As the women do this, there is a feeling that the “accusations to the dead and long gone are undone by murmurs of love” (Morrison 264). Moreover, the women paint the empty space of their bodies. This acts as a physical expression of both the women’s hurts, grief, and vulnerability as well as love, and acts as the way in which Connie facilitates self-love. Thus, with “Consolata in charge, like a new and revised Reverend Mother, feeding them bloodless food and water alone to quench their thirst, they altered. They had to be reminded of the moving bodies they wear” (265). As a result, both Connie and the Convent become a physical image of the “One and the Many,” for through the development of their ability to love themselves through expressions of grief and acceptance, they engage in an act of collaboration built on the refusal to divide. They mobilize healing, community-building, and collaboration; but this stems from the openness of the interpretation of the Oven’s message as “…the Furrow of His Brow.” 

Collaboration, however, does not always indicate a wholly cooperative or positively aligned philosophy or approach to action; there are many times throughout Paradise where the town is divided in perspective, seen most coherently in town meetings and moments of tension between different members of the community. Richard Misner, as a leader and character of spiritual influence, described an element of this divided consciousness in questioning the state and nature of Ruby halfway through the book:

“What was it about this town, these people, that enraged him? They were different from other communities in only a couple of ways: beauty and isolation…When he arrived he thought their flaws were normal; their disagreements ordinary…Or used to be. Now, it seemed, the glacial wariness they once confined to strangers more and more was directed toward each other” (160-161).

Misner’s acknowledgement of the division of Ruby is significant; just as the Oven defines the spirituality of the town, Misner tracks how disagreement about the Oven’s wisdom impacts how collaboration functions in the town. Where Ruby was once a tight-knit community that protected and nurtured its residents, there is here an allusion to what collaboration, or the growth and evolution of Ruby as a haven or paradise of sorts, means in the overall context of the novel.

In her novels, Morrison presents her protagonists in insulated environments, relearning how to interact with the wider world in a manner that encourages them to open up their minds and their hearts. As these characters embark on their journeys, we do so alongside them; we, as readers, writers, and interpreters of text, are told to challenge the ways that Morrison’s characters confront their own concepts of collaboration, imploring us to ask the question: how can we defy these notions and foster a positive environment of collaboration? Collaboration is a seemingly straightforward process, however it contains a host of nuances that when successfully implemented, can lead to a fruitful bounty of shared skills and knowledge. In order to gain this wealth of knowledge, one must first know the components that are vital to a positive collaboration. Considering that one of the most commonly used environments for collaboration is the workplace, it is fitting that the most prominent are the eight competencies highlighted in the NACE Competencies for a Career-Ready Workforce, all of which play a role in orchestrating a successful collaboration. While each competency is essential, two competencies that play larger roles are communication and critical thinking. Of the two, communication is the more obviously essential element, for after all, if there is no communication, how can one collaborate in the first place? NACE defines communication as “clearly and effectively [exchanging] information, ideas, facts, and information with persons inside and outside of an organization.” Communication should always be the first step in a collaboration, as it gives each group member the opportunity to throw out their initial ideas before coming to a collective agreement on how to proceed. That being said, just as collaboration is not a stagnant process, neither are the competencies; they should be revisited throughout the process to ensure that the group does not lose track of their common goal. In terms of critical thinking, this refers to the ability to “identify and respond to needs based upon an understanding of situational context and logical analysis of relevant information.” Due to the emphasis on understanding and logic, critical thinking plays a large role in the problem solving element of a collaboration. Even if the group that is working together does not have any issues with each other, there may come a point where a roadblock appears that impedes their progress. The ability to use one’s judgment fairly and gather information from diverse sources also play a role in the success of the critical thinking aspect of a positive collaboration. Once again, it is important to reiterate that despite the remaining competencies not being mentioned, they still hold an equal weight in the collaborative process, and it is necessary for each member of said process to uphold them. In fact, each and every one of these skills was used in the making of this essay! Even though the group may not progress through the process explicitly naming each competency as it is completed, perhaps it has reached the point where each burgeoning literary scholar’s individual consciousness has melded into a collective pelago, where all ideas can be unleashed and accepted, losing the chains that bind them to land and taking the form of lovely, interesting conversations that guide the way into the unknown. 

We need look no further than the three collaborative essays we have written for this course to see how valuable collaboration can be when attempting to interpret complex ideas, texts, or principles. We do not simply vote on who has the best interpretation and put our names to it, rather through conversation we create entirely new ways of interpreting a text as ideas bounce off of one mind to another, are captured, altered, and released again back into the group for further revision. The final product is an essay that could not exist without the input of each of the group members. As the product of a collective of people with diverse viewpoints who have worked together to create and support a common thesis, these papers possess an authority that simply could not result from the work of any of the co-authors working alone.

Collaborative interpretation is the process by which nearly all of our values, laws, belief systems, even our identities have come into being. Is it always wrong to kill another human being? How do we distribute governmental resources? What is gender? While these are broad and varied questions, the way that we have often answered them as a society is through collaborative interpretation. At scale, reaching a consensus on these types of issues is much more difficult than the preceding example of our work in the classroom this semester; however, Paradise contains the idea that our ability to continue to peacefully coexist as members of a community depends on our capacity not to be torn apart when generational, or any other differences, make consensus difficult. No one in Ruby knew for sure if the inscription on the oven was commanding them to “Be” or “Beware” “the Furrow of His Brow” and the reality was that it was impossible to know which was correct. What did have very real consequences was how the residents handled their disagreement. The oven was meant as a tangible symbol of unity, a place where the community could come together to share food and strengthen relationships. It was a cultural center where people had positive interactions with one another. For us, that center has been the classroom, but as we move beyond that, and into the broader world we would do well to recognize the value of conversation and collaboration and to remember that we are at our best when we truly listen to and genuinely seek to understand one another.

Works Cited

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Paradiso 19: Injustice On The Banks Of The Indus.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-19/

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Paradiso 20: Baptism In Troy.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-20/

Dante Alighieri. Paradiso. Translated by Mark Musa, Penguin Classics, 1985. 

Morrison, Toni. Paradise. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1998. 

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