Cut off from Grace: Failure of Spiritual Segregation In Paradise
In Toni Morrison's novel Paradise, she creates the all African-American town of Ruby dominated by three churches and a lack of trust in outsiders. When the utopian community shows signs of cracks, the male leaders blame the female inhabitants of the Convent, the nearest group of 'strangers,' and strike out to wipe them from the Earth. Lone DuPres, a former midwife of Ruby, advises the Convent's matriarch Consolata: ''Don't separate God from His elements. He created it all. You stuck on dividing Him from His works. Don't unbalance His world'' (Morrison 244). Though Lone offers this wisdom to Consolata and the women of the Convent, it is the men of Ruby who unbalance 'His world' and sever Ruby from God through their application of patriarchal biblical teaching, disconnection with nature, and misguided quest for racial purity. The women of the Convent embark upon a spiritual quest to heal their fractured selves by making, as feminist Luce Irigaray expresses, ''a God of their own creation; a God who is the other for women, who can support and encourage female becoming; a God who represents the self-love of women and their own 'incarnation apart from the male gaze'' (Bacon 228). Morrison contrasts the males' stunted spiritual growth to the females' quest for spiritual fulfillment of 'self-love' to illustrate that segregation from the world negates the Christian message of 'love thy neighbor' and results in apostasy.
Ruby's patriarchs unbalance 'His world' by depriving the women of any sense of autonomy in a misguided application of Biblical teaching. Ruby's women lack the ability to make basic decisions about their own person. They must dress simply and wear nothing to make them stand out, including hair and make-up. Those who deviate from the rules face ridicule and outright anger from the community. By not straightening her hair, Anna Flood becomes the object of discussion by many in Ruby: 'The subject summoned more passion, invited more opinions, solicited more anger than that prostitute Menus had brought home from Virginia' (Morrison 119). In Ruby, a woman who steps outside the bounds engenders more anger than a man's transgression. It illustrates the disparity in the male-female dichotomy in Ruby. By controlling all aspects of the females' person, the men stunt the women's sense of identity. Both the young and old, define themselves by the men in their lives, which leads to a fractured sense of self. For Arnette Fleetwood standing at her wedding she cannot fathom a life without K.D. Morgan: 'She believed she loved him absolutely because he was all she knew about her self'which was to say, everything she knew of her body was connected to him' (Morrison 148). Arnette's focus on K.D. as her measure of identity leads to her breakdown when she feels he does not return her love. Without him, she lacks a center of being. By denying women a sense of self, the men upset the purpose of God's creation and thereby unbalance His world.
In contrast, Consolata leads the women of the Convent to heal their fractured selves. She welcomes each of the women into the Convent and offers them a place to stay. The only rule: ''Lies not allowed in this place. In this place every true thing is okay'' (Morrison 11). Truth reigns supreme in the Convent. The women who meet with Consolata open up and tell her their stories even though she seems to know already. She begins the preparation for the healing with a ritual Last Supper for the women. In an introductory sermon, she tells them: ''I call myself Consolata 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'' (Morrison 262). The healing process starts through drawing templates on the floor of the basement. Consolata asks the women to lay on the floor in a natural manner. Then she draws around each one. The women's templates become symbols of their flesh.
As Consolata tells her stories, each woman begins to open up and reveal her own story. Instead of simply drawing eyes, nose, and other body features on the templates, the women begin to sketch in details of the pain and hurt from their lives. '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 wore, so seductive were the alive ones below' (Morrison 265). Consolata leads the women in a process of dying to self, of healing the hurt society has inflicted upon these women, and of becoming part of a community. As Melanie Anderson remarks, 'These female characters have entered'and returned with knowledge and meaning, having learned how to integrate within a community while simultaneously facing and accepting the past' (315). Mavis, Pallas, Gigi, and Seneca once defined themselves by the males in their lives and the crimes those men had perpetrated against them. Through the templates, they confront the past and integrate it into their future. In feminist theology, this is an important part of developing a spiritual sense of identity separate from patriarchal interpretation. As Hannah Bacon explains,
'Irigaray invites women to become divine women; to project an image of themselves which can serve as an horizon to work towards and to reflect back, and therefore confirm and protect their own identity as subjects, apart from the male gaze'(228)
Consolata represents this God who encourages the 'female becoming' to the women of the Convent. She teaches them self-love. Instead of cutting herself, Seneca begins to draw on the template. Like the women of Ruby, the Convent women lived fractured lives without a sense of self until Consolata showed them the way to heal and grow into whole women.
The men further cut themselves off from God's presence by eliminating nature from their lives. In their previous home of Haven, the Oven served as focal point for baptisms. Soane Morgan fondly remembers the thrill of being part of the ritual in a river: 'Their wet, white robes billow in sunlit water. Hair and face streaming they looked to heaven before bowing their heads for the command: 'Go now'' (Morrison 103). Instead of a natural experience in part of God's creation, the three Ruby churches practice indoor baptisms. The men do not even walk around Ruby. Instead, they choose to drive and close themselves off from the natural world. Deacon drives himself a mere three-fourths of a mile each day. 'The silliness of driving to where he could walk in less time than it took to smoke a cigar was eliminated, in his view, by the weight of the gesture' (Morrison 107). Deacon desires to invoke jealousy in the citizens of Ruby through his accumulation of wealth. By driving, he can display the status symbol of his sedan. His twin Steward Morgan also seeks material possessions over spiritual wealth. The more Steward gains of the material world, the less connection he has to the natural world. He loses his hair, his taste buds, and the trees on his land. The men lack connection to the very land their ancestors' longed to own freely. By not being attune to nature, the patriarchs have disconnected from God.
God shows his presence through nature to the women in the appearance of The Friend. Long ago, God guided the ancestors of Ruby through Zechariah to the place where they should create Haven; however, after the new patriarchs decide on their own to leave Haven, the Friend only appears to women. Its arrival is often marked by supernatural happenings. When Zechariah prays out in the open for God's help, he hears the steps of the Friend's appearance: 'It was then he heard the footsteps'loud like a giant's tread' (Morrison 97). Zechariah is the only one who can hear the footsteps and see him. Marni Gauthier explains that this appearance shares roots with the Old Testament: 'The progression of the story patterns God's first revealing Himself to Moses alone, and then leading Moses and the Israelites by a cloud that moved across the wilderness and settled on the promised land, while Zechariah's miraculous healing echoes Christ's healing the lame' (405). Morrison parallels these images to lead the reader to discover who The Friend is. It gives hints to his identity beyond the supernatural elements which repeat in his subsequent appearances. In his first visit to Dovey, hundreds of butterflies appear: 'A trembling highway of persimmon-colored wings cut across the green tree-tops forever'then vanished' (Morrison 91). Dovey creates a garden lovely enough to receive him. She realizes there is something special about her visitor and that she should not inquire about his name. The Friend's appearance changes to match the situation, but is marked by the long hair. Consolata reaches her breaking point in the garden. She laments the loss of her soul and grieves that she will be forever lost to God. She calls out to tell her God how much she'll miss him and then the Friend appears: 'Fresh, tea-colored hair came tumbling down, cascading over his shoulders and down his back' (Morrison 252). His hair looks like Consolata's and his eyes match the former color of her eyes before her loss of sight. He gives her the power to begin healing her young charges. Because the women are open to the natural world, God can connect with them through the Friend.
By segregating themselves from the world, the men commit the greatest sin against God's creation. The first rule of the town of Ruby regards keeping the town racially pure. When a group of light-skinned African Americans do not allow the ancestors of Ruby to stay in the town of Fairly, they begin to see themselves differently: 'Now they saw a new separation: light-skinned against black. Oh, they knew there was a difference in the minds of whites, but it had not struck them before that it was of consequence, serious consequence, to Negroes themselves' (Morrison 194). To confront racial intolerance at the hands of fellow blacks shocks the travelling men. This Disallowing becomes a part of the mythic history of the town. It shapes and hardens the hearts of the men. It establishes the rule of not mixing with anyone who is not 8-rock blood. Those who step outside the bounds get punished. 'Those who have tampered with it are rejected and lost their status as Eight-rock,' states Ana Maria Fraile-Marcos. 'Once race is turned into a sign of having been elected, it can be used as a weapon to enforce exclusion' (15). For several Ruby citizens, the lack of dark skin marks them as 'other.' Patricia Best is convinced her mother died in childbirth because 'those 8-rock men didn't want to go and bring a white into town; or else didn't want to drive out to a white's house begging for help; or else they just despised your pale skin so much they thought of reasons why they could not go' (Morrison 198). Pat's mother had 'sunlit skin' and came from outside the community. While Pat seethes over the wrong done to her mother, she internalizes the idea of darker being better. She chose her spouse for his dark skin so her children would not suffer the intolerance she felt. Pat begins a genealogy chart for the town of Ruby and the fifteen families. She realizes the blood rule is the basis for the Morgan's pride in the fact no one dies in Ruby: 'Unadulterated and unadulteried 8-rock blood held its magic as long as it resided in Ruby. That was their recipe. That was their deal. For Immortality' (Morrison 217). This pride of the Morgan's and other patriarchs is misplaced. Without death, there is no resurrection, no redemption. By not being able to die, the town has effectively cut themselves off from God. As long as they keep their immortality, the citizens will not be able to reach the God they claim to worship.
The only way for the citizens of Ruby to be redeemed is through a sacrifice. Reverend Richard Misner holds up the cross at Arnette's and K.D.'s wedding and ruminates on the meaning of Christ's sacrifice: 'See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one?...This execution made it possible to respect'freely, not in fear'one's self and one another' (Morrison 146). Misner views Christ's death as an official murder that allows people everywhere to love one another. The death of the women of the Convent is also an officially sanctioned murder by the leaders of Ruby that allows for the redemption of Ruby. The night before the death, the women prepare themselves by baptism in the rain:
Seneca embraced and finally let go of a dark morning in state housing. Grace witnessed the successful cleansing of a white shirt that never should have been stained. Mavis moved in the shudder of rose of Sharon petals tickling her skin. Pallas, delivered of a delicate son, held him close while the rain rinsed away a scary woman on an escalator and all fear of black water. Consolata, fully housed by the god who sought her out in the garden, was the more furious dancer'(Morrison 283)
The women are spiritually cleansed and prepared to meet God. The dark memories that held them back from becoming fully realized wash away in the cleansing rain. When the men come to kill them, Consolata looks up above Deacon's head and says, ''You're back'' (Morrison 289). The Friend has returned to take them through to the other side. After the disappearance of the women, death returns to Ruby and with it saving grace. Save-Marie can finally stop suffering and be with God. Rev. Misner reflects upon the image of the window he saw in the Convent garden and realizes he must speak of Save-Marie's life: ''It is our own misfortune if we do not know in our long life what she knew every day of her short one: that although life in life is terminal and life after life is everlasting, He is with us always in life, after it and especially in between, lying in wait for us to know the splendor'' (Morrison 307). Because of the sacrifice of the Convent women, the presence of God has been invited back into Ruby and the deal has been broken.
Some critics of Morrison's novel argue that the ending allows the men of Ruby to get away with murder. 'In Paradise, Morrison offers this unrepentant male murderer a forgiveness and protection that her black patriarchs did not extend to the females of the Convent' (Keller 47). Delores Keller's argument that the men of Ruby have escaped justice ignores the redemptive properties of the sacrifice and the change within key male characters. Steward Morgan may not be subject to a prison sentence for Consolata's murder but he has lost a piece of himself. The events of the Convent have caused a revelation within his twin's soul that has pushed him to end their connection. Deacon Morgan strips off his material possessions and begins to find himself apart from his twin. He walks barefoot across the town and seeks out Rev. Misner. 'What he felt now was exotic to a twin'an incompleteness, a muffled solitude, which took away appetite, sleep and sound' (Morrison 300). He desires to know whether to forgive his twin for shooting Consolata. Deacon has discovered a rift between himself and his brother that he is not sure time can repair. This is one of the signs the town will never be the same after the sacrifice. Rev. Misner does not know whether he should stay in this town or move on to another. 'How can they hold it together, he wondered, this hard-won heaven defined only by the absence of the unsaved, the unworthy and the strange? Who will protect them from their leaders?' (Morrison 306) Misner knows his ministry has a place in this town that has begun to reach out to the world. Soon there will be strangers, television, and perhaps even a diner. The sacrifice of the forgiven, cleansed women for the men's sin has balanced God's world and broken the deal brokered by the Morgans.
Morrison creates the haunting tale of a racially segregated town of Ruby, Oklahoma, to illustrate the fallacy of professing to live a morally Christian life in isolation from the world. The men of Ruby unbalance God's world by denying women agency, severing themselves from the natural world, and creating a racially pure society. By embarking upon a spiritual quest, the women achieve a cleansing of their souls that brings them closer to being 'divine women.' It is through the sacrifice of the women of the Convent that Ruby can finally enter God's presence again. Morrison uses the two opposing forces of spiritually to show the fallacy of withdrawing from the world and how it severs the believer from God.
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