by Toni Morrison
- 320 pp
About this guide
This guide is intended to enhance your group's reading of
Toni Morrison's Paradise, the powerful and
extraordinary new novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author of
Song of Solomon and Beloved.
It is the 1970s, and the tiny, self-sufficient all-black
town of Ruby, Oklahoma, has reached a crisis of conviction.
Tracing its origins to the efforts of a strong and spiritual
community of ex-slaves, Ruby prides itself on its
uncompromising independence from the larger world. But the
vicissitudes of the Sixties, from the Civil Rights movement
to the Vietnam War, the counterculture to the generational
conflict, inexorably touch Ruby and disturb its self-imposed
In the scrubland outside of Ruby is an old Convent in
which five women live, each seeking refuge and deliverance
from a grim past. As the townspeople begin to lose their own
convictions and succumb to the uncertainties of the times,
they come to identify these unknown women with evil, and to
use the Convent as a scapegoat for the anger and conflict
that have overtaken their town. Tensions between the two
communities rise, culminating inevitably in an act of
violence; yet Paradise, finally, is a story of
redemption, of forgiveness, and of renewal. In the intensity
of its portrayal of human complexity and motivations, in the
sweep of its historical scope, in the beauty of its language
and in the generosity of its vision, Paradise is a
boundless treasure of a book, a masterpiece.
Questions and subjects for discussion:
- Why has Toni Morrison chosen to use the poem "for
many are the pleasant forms..." as an epigraph for this
- Why is the Oven such an important symbol for the
people of Ruby? What is implied in the various phrases
which different groups in Ruby want to inscribe upon it?
Soane believes that the Oven has become too important a
symbol: "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 its
own self" (103). Is she right? Does this indeed come to
- How has the history of Ruby (and Haven before it)
shaped the nature of the town in the 1970s? What did
"freedom" mean to the original settlers? What varying
views of freedom do the modern inhabitants of Ruby hold?
- Each of the young women living at the Convent is in
some way lost. Why does each feel so entirely friendless?
What caused Gigi's feeling of hopelessness? What about
Pallas? Do you believe that Mavis's children were really
trying to harm her, or did she imagine this?
- "Almost always, these nights, when Dovey Morgan
thought about her husband it was in terms of what he had
lost" (82). She adds up some of Steward's losses: his
taste buds, the election for church Secretary, the trees
on his land, and his discovery that he and Dovey could
not have children. What has Steward lost in a larger,
more symbolic sense: which of the convictions of the
earlier generation he so admires has he himself lost
sight of? What do his feelings about his brother Elder's
defense of a Liverpool whore (94-95) tell us about his
character? Can you see, early in the novel, intimations
of what we discover at the end: that Steward and Deacon
are essentially different?
- Who is Dovey's "Friend" and why is he so important to
- The conservative elements in Ruby ultimately find it
impossible to keep the impact of the Sixties from
affecting their town. What "Sixties" ideas turn out to be
the most powerful, the most resonant, for the people of
Ruby? Do these ideas destroy the town's social cohesion
or give it new strength?
- What new ways of thinking does Richard Misner
represent, and how is he received by the people of Ruby?
When Patricia tells him that "Slavery is our past" (212),
he insists that "We live in the world....The whole
world." Which of them is right? What does Misner mean
when he says he thinks the people of Ruby love their
children "to death" (212)?
- "Who could have imagined," think the men who attack
the Convent, "that twenty-five years later in a brand-new
town a Convent would beat out the snakes, the Depression,
the tax man and the railroad for sheer destructive
power?" (17). It is clear that the Convent, and the
harmless women who have taken refuge there, are not
destructive. What is the destructive element in Ruby, and
what is it destroying?
- "Minus the baptisms the Oven had no real value,"
Soane reflects. (103). What did these baptisms at the
Oven symbolize, and how does their removal to the church
change Ruby? At the Convent, the women dance in rain and
reconcile themselves, finally, to the tragedies in their
lives (283). Why does Morrison use, here, the imagery of
baptism? Does she imply that this dance is a true
baptism; that the Convent has achieved a more genuine
spirit of community than the town?
- What are the circumstances of the death of Ruby,
K.D.'s mother, and what effect does the manner of this
death have upon on the character of the town that is
named after her? What is the "bargain" or "prayer in the
form of a deal" (114) that is struck after her death, and
who strikes it?
- Why does Sweetie make for the Convent when she finds
herself at the breaking point? Why does she then try to
get away from the Convent, and then tell the people of
Ruby that the women there are evil?
- In what ways does the wedding of Arnette and K.D.
symbolize the current state of affairs in Ruby?
- What does the school nativity play tell us about the
way Ruby sees itself and mythologizes itself?
- Is it fair to say that the people of Ruby have
perpetuated racism in the town that was supposed to be a
haven from it? If so, in what does the town's racism
- Why does Patricia burn all her research on the
history of the Ruby and Haven families?
- What does Consolata mean when she says "Dear Lord, I
didn't want to eat him. I just wanted to go home" (240)?
What sort of home does she long for, and why does she
associate it with Deacon? Who is the Piedade to whose
company Consolata returns after her death (321)? What is
the meaning of Consolata's vision on p. 254?
- How does the death of Sweetie and Jeff's daughter
Save-Marie subtly change Ruby? What sort of a future do
you envision for the town? Is it possible to see the
murders at the Convent as ultimately helping Ruby to
evolve and to survive?
- What do you think lies behind the door or window that
Anna and Misner notice as they leave the Convent? Why do
they choose not to open it?
- What is the meaning of the novel's title? What does
Paradise mean within the context of the book? "How
exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness,
and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve
it," thinks Misner. Does Morrison imply that it is
impossible to create a paradise on earth?
Suggestions for further reading, also by Toni Morrison:
The Bluest Eye (1970); Sula (1973); Song
of Solomon (1977); Tar Baby (1981);
Beloved (1987); Jazz (1992); Playing in the
Dark (1992); Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power
(1992, editor); The Nobel Lecture in Literature
(1994); Birth of a Nation'Hood (1996, editor); The
Dancing Mind (1996).