Throughout many of Toni Morrison’s novels, the plot is built around some conflict for her characters to overcome. Paradise, in particular, uses the relationships between women as a means of reaching this desired end. Paradise, a novel centered around the destruction of a convent and the women in it, supports this idea by showing how this building serves as a haven for dejected women (Smith). The bulk of the novel takes place during and after WWII and focuses on an all black town in Oklahoma.
It is through the course of the novel that we see Morrison weave the bonds of women into the text as a means of healing the scars inflicted upon her characters in their respective societies. Paradise deals with the lives of dejected women and the support group the women form for each other. Morrison draws attention to this key issue by removing the element of race from the novel, a heavy contrast to her earlier works, by not allowing the reader to know the races of the women.
Thus the relationships present throughout the work can be seen strictly through the contrast between the abusive and damaging relationships found outside of the convent to the supportive and loving ones in the convent. This removal of race also allows us to see the bigger picture, which is not dictated by race (Smith). By examining the relationships in the novel, we see two distinct arenas dealing with identity and the women, which is the world outside of the convent, and the convent. Before reaching the convent, identity for the women is a broken notion in which the men they associate with dictate.
The first woman we are introduced to is Mavis. Her relationship with her husband is an example of the type of subservience characteristic of relationships during this time. It is out of this type of relationship that Mavis not only places her husband above her, but also above her children. This is the ultimate loss of identity because indirectly by Mavis denying her children and breaking the bond between mother and child, she is in a sense denying herself and her natural inclination to care for her children.
When Mavis and her husband are in bed together, we see Morrison compares her to a “Raggedy Ann doll,”(26) illustrating the fact that Mavis’ identity meant nothing to her husband. Ironically, it takes this initial shed of self for Mavis to be able to escape the bondage her husband has over her. An article by the Radicalesbians supports this fact by stating that the male culture’s definition of “woman” binds a woman to sexual and family functions (Radicalesbians). Unfortunately, Mavis’ husband didn’t allocate “family functions” as including the needs of his children coming before his own needs.
Another indication of a lack of identity in this is Mavis’ mother’s ability to turn Mavis in when she runs away to her home. Her mother, a traditional woman, is unable to understand the idea of a woman running away from her family even if it is to save herself. Her informing Mavis’ husband of Mavis’ whereabouts is the result of her unwillingness to recognize the similarities between her own lack of identity and her daughter’s, another tendency of women stated in the article. It is through Mavis’ escape and pilgrimage that we identify her shedding society’s definition of what she should be.
Each hitchhiker she picks up marks this transition. Each relationship she builds with the women, if only for a brief period of time, allows her to become stronger. The pinnacle of this transition occurs with the last passenger, Bennie. It is from her that Mavis not only learns how to survive, but also gains the will to fight. It is also from all of the women that Mavis draws strength from when her car is in a ditch. It is at this point that Mavis is reminded that the young ladies she picked up along the road and refers to fondly as “road girls”(37) would not become over taken by defeat.
Instead, they would fight their way out of the situation. Thus, it is at this point that Mavis is a complete woman free from the labels and names placed upon her by her husband and society. Just as Mavis’ lack of identity was due to a lack of respect and attention from her husband, many of the other women come to the convent for the same reason. Toward the end of the novel, Consolata extends a welcome to the convent conveying the message that it is “the only place one is free to leave (262).
It becomes apparent to the reader that although some may go away for a little while, no one leaves for good. One of the ongoing themes in the lives of the women in the convent is mistreatment by men. This mistreatment usually took the form of abandonment or abuse. Some of the women, such as Seneca, were placed after animals or material things. She was also sexually abused, which led to her self-mutilation. Consolata, another of the convent women, suffered from depression, was an alcoholic and depended upon a man to make her happy (252).
Morrison’s use of friendship as a means of therapy is present within our own society. In a lecture on Women’s Friendships, Bredin Nelson contends that women depend upon the strength of togetherness found in a friendship (Nelson). Throughout the novel, the women constantly care for and support one another, a practice not observed beyond the walls of the convent. It is this therapy that produces the women’s images of self on the basement floor. Through this therapy, they are able to stop the hauntings of their memories.
This is a therapy so pleasurable they must be reminded of their actual lives because it is so tempting for them to dwell within the images. Morrison supports this in the text by writing that “they had to be reminded of the moving bodies they wore, so seductive were the alive ones below (265). ” This interaction between the women supports the notion that because women are devalued in society; they must look to one another for support (Shorter-Gooden & Washington). As a result of the relationships within the convent, the women are able to begin to develop their identity.
Each of them before entering the convent went through the first step, passive-acceptance, of five stages leading to feminine identity. They were in denial or unaware of any gender role stereotypes they were feeding into. When Seneca was initially hired as a “horror” for a lady’s son, she was unaware of what was really going on. It wasn’t until she reached the revelation stage that she understood and saw what she was being used for. This stage occurred during the transition to the convent and is marked by the sudden understanding and want to escape ones’ current situation.
The last stage chronicled in the novel, which also serves as a pinnacle of the novel, is the embeddedness-emanation stage where the women start connecting to one another and form support systems (Cash, Anches, & Strachen). Through this stage, the women were able to “find, reinforce, and validate” themselves (Radicalesbians). The apex of the novel comes out of the town men’s inability to accept the women’s self-sufficiency (Smith). The town’s men knew the capabilities of women when their identity isn’t oppressed, which is their reasoning for squashing it in the first place.
Traditionally, friendships between women have been regarded as frivolous and superficial (Traustadottir). By referring to the convent as a coven, Morrison reveals to the reader that the men of Ruby not only view the women as being witches, but also see the gathering of women as being unnatural. The men of Ruby could see that the friendships went beyond a level they are able to be comfortable with, and they resolve to put an end to it. This inacceptance can be seen not only in the friendship between the women of the convent, but also in the hatred for the midwives.
The men of Ruby have a hard time being dependent upon women, thus leading to this hatred. An important thing to remember while reading Paradise is that the convent sees a constant flow of women coming and going, making it difficult to figure out who really lives there. The fact that there is a constant influence and interaction with the women within and without the convent suggests that while the convent is seen as a horrid place, it in a sense serves as a therapy for the town’s women willing to be helped.
One of the many ironies of the novel is the belief of the town’s people that Ruby is paradise. They carry great pride in recognizing their achievements, which in the process creates a society in which women are required to be weak and submissive. During an interview in the New York Times, Morrison states that traditionally, paradise is described as a “male enclave while the interloper is a woman (Smith). ” This viewpoint stems as far back as the book of Genesis with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and although true during that period in time, should not be applied to present day society.
Thus, Morrison turns this around by suggesting that the convent is paradise—- a place for women to thrive without the “interference” of men. The name of the town itself credits a woman, greatly contradicting the views prevailing in the town currently. It can be deduced that the oncoming downfall of the town is due to the town’s loss of identity by forgetting its foundation as a place for these blacks who were not accepted in another all black town because of their skin tone.
The convent and the women in it then in a sense serve as a means of transforming the town into how it should be. Unfortunately, the men of Ruby are unable to deal with these changes, which leads to the destruction of the convent. Morrison’s knowledge of psychology and its focus on identity is strong and shows through her portrayal of the women of the convent. She not only paints the lives of the characters through the discourse, but also bases her resolution upon real life psychology.