The Eagle Has Landed: The Arrival of Justice in Ruby

Cheyanne Carney, Rachel Cohen, Mia Donaldson, Kyra Drannbauer, Mar Leeman, Kathleen McCarey, Marie Naudus, Aubrey Ouderkirk, Owen Vincent

Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, is the third and final novel of her trilogy. Similar to how she built Beloved and Jazz to parallel the works of Dante, Paradise can be set against Paradiso to create a conversation between the two works. In Dante’s Canto XIX the Eagle of Divine Justice appears to Dante the Pilgrim to discuss the true meaning of justice. They conclude that just because you cannot perceive it in your human body, it does not mean that justice is not there. The Eagle says that Divine Justice is not comprehensible to mortals (Canto XIX, 99). It says that rulers who claim to be Christian are not actually Christians because they do not follow the word of God. The portrait of the Eagle shows its eye represented by David while each star of its eyebrow is representative of a different man who relates to the Bible: two Christians, two Jewish people, and two Pagans. Each one has a different perspective on religion. It is interesting to look at something 2000 plus years old and the different views on it. This can be helpful to understand how people today have different interpretations on modern day issues. Morrison pulls from this idea to show how people have different interpretations of the Oven in her novel. David founded the Judaean dynasty which will eventually diverge into Christianity. Constantine worked at the council of Nicea to decide what books belong in the Bible and in what order based on what is important to the image Christianity is trying to put forward. People can take passages from the Bible to back up their arguments while twisting them for their own use. The second Christian, William II of Sicily, led a Crusade and died for his faith. Hezekiah was granted a longer life by God after he prayed to remind Him of his Jewish faith. Trajan, one of the Pagans, being a Roman Emperor, granted a widow compensation for the death of her son and wrote to Pliny the Younger wanting to know how to handle Christians in his empire. He had wondered if he should execute young Christians and sacrifice them to an idol was enough to control them. The final man represented in the eyebrow is Rhipeus, a pagan as well. Rhipeus was a Trojan war hero who Dante claims was given a vision of Jesus before Christ’s coming. He died defending his city from the Greeks. Rhipheus is also a character in Virgil’s famous work, The Aeneid;  “uniquely the most just of all the Trojans, the most faithful preserver of equity; but the gods decided otherwise” (Aeneid II, 426–8). These men followed Christian teachings and practices without always being Christian, leading them to become part of the Eagle of Divine Justice. 

The Oven in the center of Ruby holds a special significance for all members of the town. Originally built by the residents of Haven, another Black town founded before Ruby that forced the founding families of Ruby away due to their comparatively dark skin, the Oven was taken apart and moved to Ruby piece by piece when the fifteen families moved out of Haven to found their own town. After being moved to Ruby, the Oven was rebuilt incompletely; the plaque on its  lip is now incomplete, and the residents of Ruby cannot agree on what the original writing read. The plaque reads “Furrow of His Brow”; older residents claim that the original text read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” while younger residents prefer to interpret the leftover text as “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” When it was built in Haven, the Oven was a vital resource to the town; all the families used it for their daily cooking, and eventually it became an important gathering place for the entire community used for weddings, meetings, and baptisms (111). The Oven shifts its purpose after the rebuilding, a symbolic gesture of the origins of the Convent, yet the rebuilding of the Oven signifies something much larger than a simple plaque with the motto of the community: the Oven represents the separation of the men and women within Ruby, both physically and metaphorically. The only community members to move and reassemble the Oven were men, while the women resented the decisions to prioritize the Oven over the resources they needed for the community. The act of rebuilding it allows for an idolization of this symbol, a sign of devotion that only the men who participate could wear, and an opportunity for a power dynamic of the separated. Seneca describes the change represented by the Oven as the following: “A good thing, she thought, as far as it went, but it went too far. A utility became a shrine (cautioned against not only in scary Deuteronomy but in lovely Corinthians II as well) and, like anything that offended Him, destroyed his own self” (103-103). What once stood for a symbol of a unified community now separates it.

The Oven has become a focal point for the town of Ruby, a place for residents to meet and gather, and has offered them guidance through the inscription written on the lip. The inscription, which has faded over time, has become a source of debate between the young and old generations of the town. In the meeting of the town at the oven, Richard Misner speaks to the   crowd, telling them their main priority was “‘clarifying the motto’” (Morrison 86). As this is a source of great tension, Reverend Pulliam finds offense in the term “motto,” declaring the inscription is a “command,” stating matter of factly that the inscription is “‘not a suggestion; [it’s] an order’” (Morrison 86).  The specificity of the language used around the inscription of the Oven highlights the intensity surrounding the debate on what exactly is written on the Oven. While the older generation is adamant that the inscription is “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” the younger generation interprets it as “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” The older generation is outraged by the suggestion that instead of Beware, it reads Be The. Upon hearing the younger generation’s interpretation, Nathan Dupres declares: “‘You can’t be God’” (Morrison 87). The older generation is afraid of the power the younger generation is giving themselves in their idea of what is written on the Oven. The older generation believes that if the younger generation thinks the Oven is telling them to “Be the Furrow,” that they will play God and begin to question the power of the older leaders of Ruby as well. To refute this idea, Destry, a representative for the younger generation, calmly states: “‘but we are obeying Him. If we follow His commandments, we’ll be His voice, be His retribution” (Morrison 87). Over time, as the inscription faded, the hold the Oven has on the people of Ruby has lessened in the younger generations. The younger generation of Ruby has a looser interpretation of the inscription, symbolizing their break from the harsher standards that the older generation has put in place. Later in the novel, the story of Zechariah and the inception of the Oven is revealed, including its original inscription of “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” Zechariah created this command that was “more than a rule. A conundrum” that had “multiple meanings: to appear stern, urging obedience to God, but slyly not identifying the understood proper noun or specifying what the Furrow might cause to happen or to whom” (Morrison 195). The inscription was meant to instill fear and pressure an allegiance to God, forcing the younger generation to follow in the lead of the older generation disguised as a devotion to God. While both interpretations are practically the same, the perspectives that the two generations hold present the main conflict. The older generation maintains a strong devotion to God and fears that if the younger generation begins to question the wrath of God and their allegiance to him, they will also question the older generation. The older generation uses fear to remain in power and quotes the inscription as evidence for their laws and beliefs. The debate over what is written on the Oven is not so much about the actual words, but what the two interpretations would mean in terms of power dynamic in Ruby. 

The relatively minor differences in how the characters of Paradise understand the oven’s engraving speak to the constraints of language itself; these syntactical disagreements are relatively minor—amounting to no more than a few words different—but speak to much larger social differences between them. Language is tangled up in everything that we do: we use language within every sphere of human understanding, from maintaining interpersonal relations to seeking justice. Our dependence on this limited medium not only lends itself to pitfalls, but also to a necessity for collaboration in order to reach a synthesized understanding. In the case of Paradise, the Oven’s readers undergo an extended form of collaboration in order to reconcile an ongoing, intergenerational disagreement about what exactly is written on the oven. The process of rebuilding the Oven involves disagreement, disillusion and, ultimately, distrust, as a consequence of generations worth of language-based misunderstanding. In an argument with Delia, Patricia beckons: “Did [the older women] make you welcome right away, or did they all wait for the Oven to be reassembled or, the following year, when the stream came back, baptize you just to they could speak to you directly, look you in the eyes” (Morrison 200)? Conversations about the Oven are tied not only to the object itself, but also to intergenerational dramas; characters’ feelings about the object cannot be separated from the complicated feelings they harbor toward both those who built and rebuilt it. 

Is it possible for the citizens of Ruby to truly move beyond their own worldviews towards a community that advocates for all? It is clear that every perspective the reader perceives within the novel itself is limited by the character’s internal biases and opinions. For example, the older generation, particularly the men, are unable to accept that the younger generation have different perspectives on the future of their community. This is exhibited through the inability to come to a possible compromise on the inscription upon the Oven’s lip. It is not merely about placing oneself in a position of power, but rather what it represents to each generation. One of the older members of the town notes, “That was the deal Zechariah had made during his humming prayer. 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?” (Morrison 217). In this way, the founding generation and their subsequent children cannot truly be so different. They both seek to protect their sanctuary of Ruby from malevolent forces of whiteness and colorism. However, once the town is finally established and safe, “a town which has ninety miles between it and any other” (Morrison 3). Moving past their earlier ideas of being the fearful furrow of their own brow, the older generation is completely confused as to why the younger generations will attempt to bring this back. To the older generation, the Beware is a symbol of their defiance against a society that oppressed them. Dovey thinks to herself at one point, “[the] ‘Furrow of His Brow’ alone was enough for any age or generation. Specifying it, particularizing it, nailing the meaning down, was futile. The only nailing needing to be done had already taken place” (Morrison 93). The younger generation has a similar view, in a way. They believe in a more active form of protest and justice than the elders of the town, who believe that they will remain safe if separated mostly from the outside world. In addition, the town as a whole cannot comprehend the thoughts and actions of the women who seek out the Convent. The Convent is practicing worship in a way incomprehensible to the townsfolk, in collaboration and harmony with one another. Whether it reads ‘Be’ or ‘Beware’, the men of Ruby still live by the Oven’s words when they set out to systematically hunt and kill the women of the Convent. The citizens of Ruby crave the power and justice associated with the Eagle, but ignore his condemnations of those who claim to be Godly men and use this power for evil deeds. 

Upon reflection, however, it is difficult to imagine a truly just and satisfying end to any of the works within Morrison’s trilogy itself. Justice is a powerful ideal, exhibited by the Eagle, but is it possible in any of these circumstances? Toni Morrison artfully crafts her works in the trilogy consisting of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, in a way that highlights that justice is not always the outcome. The definition of justice is complex as it is, though Morrison adds layers to an already difficult interpretation. Throughlines of justice connect the three novels. In Beloved, the reader is left questioning how they can support a character like Sethe, a woman who killed her daughter out of mercy. Morrison creates Sethe in a way that leaves the reader in turmoil, knowing why Sethe did what she did but not sure if they can support the act itself. Jazz revolves heavily around justice with the novel focusing on the murder of an innocent girl by her older, married lover. In the novels, the actions of the characters are morally wrong and should be unforgivable, but the way in which Morrison writes her characters makes the reader question their own morals and definitions of justice. She is able to build empathy within Paradise through the ostracization of the women in the Convent, offering realistic characters with complex backgrounds such as Mavis, a mother who leaves her children in the car while she grocery shops and returns to find them dead. Although Mavis committed this horrible act, readers can empathize with her because Morrison shows her as more than just her crime; she is a real person with real emotions. Morrison handcrafts these characters that speak to the readers, creating authentic storylines that force the audience to self-reflect on the decisions they would make if they were in the character’s shoes. This examination of love and justice being statements that must coexist is impactful for readers who might see them as inherently contradictory.

It is surprising to us that our interpretation of the trilogy has changed in such a drastic way. As a group we came to the conclusion during our last group endeavor that love was the main theme and throughline throughout Morrison’s trilogy. Now, it is clear that Morrison’s works center on an idea of justice that might be impossible to attain, and certainly is for her characters.  Are we then as readers to simply accept the Dantean explanation, “And so the vision granted to your world/can no more fathom Justice Everlasting/than eyes can see down to the ocean floor” (XIX, 58-60)? The simplest explanation may be that we cannot fathom what the characters within the trilogy are experiencing. We may catch brief glimpses into their thoughts, see their hopes, fears, and shame. But we will never experience being in these impossible scenarios as Black men and women in situations where justice must be served but would abuse them even more. Morrison’s unique perspective and incisive exploration of the ideal of Justice in contrast to real-world implications is particularly impactful in forcing readers to reexamine our concept of justice.

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