Building a Better Place: Utopianism and the Revision of Community in Toni Morrison’s Paradise

Verena Harz

“They shoot the white girl first”—with these well-aimed words marking an apex of racialized and gendered violence and a failure of utopia the reader is swept into the world of Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise (3). The title, which already indicates the utopian theme, does not only evoke the image of the biblical Garden of Eden with all its associations of a blissful state of innocence and godliness, but also, and more specifically, the myth of the New World as a paradisiacal place. Indeed, the foundation of America is inextricably linked to the Puritans’ quest for an earthly paradise, for the perfect place. It is this utopian dimension of American nationalism that Morrison revisits in Paradise, revising traditional views of what constitutes the best type of community. By juxtaposing Ruby, an all-black town in rural Oklahoma rigidly structured along the lines of color, gender, and age with a group of abused women who take refuge in the nearby Convent, Morrison criticizes a notion of utopian perfection that is predicated on purity and exclusion and envisions a better place, an alternative community characterized by negotiation rather than negation. Paradise thus serves as a vital contribution to social critique and “theorizing” (Christian 52) which transcends the novel’s Civil Rights and Black Power setting and is applicable to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.1

In order to advance an understanding of the novel’s engagement with ‘utopia’ and ‘utopianism,’ I will first propose a definition of these concepts, mapping central characteristics of traditional utopian thought.  Against the backdrop of this theoretical framework I will analyze and compare the types of community represented by Ruby and the Convent, focusing on their treatment of difference and ‘otherness.’  Finally, I will show how the Convent serves as a foil to both criticize Ruby’s endorsement of traditional utopianism and to theorize a radical alternative based on a revision of Ruby’s parameters of perfection.

Utopia(nism): A Definition

Utopianism, which can generally be defined as “dreaming of or imagining better societies” (Sargent 2405), has a long history in Western thought tracing back to classical and Christian origins. Krishan Kumar identifies two antithetical traditions in the imagination of alternative, better societies: the pastoral tradition (the Golden Age, Arcadia, Cockayne and, in its Judeo-Christian variants, the Garden of Eden, Paradise, the Promised Land of Canaan) and the ideal city tradition (Plato’s Republic, the New Jerusalem). Both have strongly influenced the utopian idea of America as ‘God’s own country’ and its self-identification as exceptionalist. The Puritans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean considered themselves God’s chosen people on their way to the Promised Land and saw their mission as an “errand into the wilderness” to build an earthly paradise, “a Citty upon a Hill” that would serve as an example of moral perfection to the rest of the world (Miller; Winthrop 42).

The beginnings of the search for utopia in America roughly coincide with the invention of the term itself. In what is widely considered the archetype of the utopian genre, Concerning the Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia (1516), Thomas More coins the term ‘utopia’ by merging the two Greek words εύτόπος (eu-topos  ‘good place’) and ούτόπος (ou-topos ‘no place’) to signify “nonexistent good place” (Sargent 2403-05). As the eponymous title of More’s book indicates, utopia can be defined as the perfect society or the ideal state that exists (as yet) nowhere. This etymologically derived definition already seems problematic and has predictably fueled fierce scholarly debates concerning the nature of utopia’s ‘goodness’ and the question of its realizability (Sargent 2405).

While the term ‘utopia’ has increasingly become conflated with the meaning of “an impossibly ideal scheme” (“Utopia,” def. 2b) and been used synonymously with the term ‘chimera’ since the late 19th century (Gnüg 9, 11), many contemporary scholars insist on the “historical hypothetical possibility” of the ideal as one of utopia’s defining characteristics (Suvin 56). Thus, J. C. Davis emphasizes the utopia’s “‘blueprint’ quality” (Utopia 36), Hiltrud Gnüg stresses its “immanente Realisierungstendenz” (“immanent realizability”; 9; my trans.),  Darko Suvin calls it a “this-worldly other world” (42), and Miriam Eliav-Feldon defines it as “a presentation of a positive and possible alternative to the social reality” (1).

To determine the constitutive criteria of utopia’s ‘goodness,’ ‘betterness,’ or ‘perfection,’ it is helpful to differentiate it from other forms of imagined good communities. In his typology of ideal societies, Davis distinguishes utopia, Cockayne, Arcadia, perfect moral commonwealth and millennium by their different approaches to what he calls “the collective problem,” namely, the clash between unlimited human desires and limited satisfactions in a social context (Utopia 12-40). In contrast to the other types, Davis maintains, the utopian society addresses the basic problem “to maintain social order and perfection in the face of the deficiencies, not to say hostility, of nature and the willfulness of man” (Utopia 37). Utopian perfection, Davis continues, equals order:

The utopian seeks to ‘solve’ the collective problem collectively, that is by the reorganisation of society and its institutions, by education, by laws, and by sanctions. His prime aim is not happiness, that private mystery, but order, that social necessity. […] These three – totality, order, perfection – are cardinal characteristics of the utopian form. They are so interrelated, in this context, as to appear aspects of the same phenomenon. […] Almost by definition, then, the perfection of utopias must be total and ordered; the totality, ordered and perfect. In order to achieve this, without denying the nature of man or society, there must be discipline of a totalitarian kind. (Utopia 38-39)

The “totalism of discipline and control,” eliminating the private, and the “constraining social and institutional order” are the hallmarks of utopia (Davis, “Utopianism” 333, 335). In the same vein, Suvin identifies “a formal hierarchic system” as “the supreme value in utopia” (50). Plato’s Republic serves as a prime example of this “Utopie der Ordnung” (“utopia of order”; Gnüg 22; my trans.), with its

“reign of reason” in the threefold hierarchy of philosopher-kings, executive agents, and ordinary producers and artisans; the elevation of public over private life, and the pervasive control and regulation of daily life; the communism of property, wives, and children, and the eugenic approach to reproduction. (Kumar 2)

Even More’s Utopia, which is based on the principle of equality, is conceived as a hierarchical, patriarchal society, structured along the lines of gender and age (Gnüg 39). The tightly regulated communal order of the modern utopia initiated by More is prototypically embodied in the city (Frye 27; Mumford 3) and institutionally modeled after the medieval monastery (Davis, “Utopianism” 333; Frye 35). The monastery conceived as an isolated community and “order of timeless perfection” (Kumar 18) reflects two other constitutive criteria of the utopian society, namely its spatial (Suvin 50) as well as its temporal isolation: “Considered as a final or definitive social ideal, the utopia is a static society; and most utopias have built-in safeguards against radical alteration of the structure,” Frye observes (31). Similarly, Eliav-Feldon remarks that “a utopia is a static society that has not evolved gradually but was created by fiat ex nihilo, has not changed since its creation, and is not destined to change in the future, since any change means deviation from perfection and therefore corruption. It is also a society artificially cut off from the course of human history” (6). This idea of arrested time with its implications of incorruptibility, purity and immortality evokes St John’s millenarian vision of the New Jerusalem in which “there shall be no more death” (Rev. 21.4) and also reveals a close proximity between the notions of utopian and paradisiacal perfection.2

“[T]his Prison Calling Itself a Town”: Ruby

In Paradise, the aim of creating the perfect place is the foundation of the town of Ruby. Built by a group of WW II veterans and their families in an attempt to replicate their ancestors’ declined “dreamtown” of Haven (5), Ruby soon metamorphoses into an authoritarian society. Ruby’s actuality has little to do with either Haven’s ethics of sharing and caring or its original vision of a perfectly free and safe place, where a “sleepless woman” can walk around town at night alone because “[n]othing for ninety miles around [thinks] she [is] prey” (8). Ruby is based on a strict hierarchy of color, gender, and age cemented by its controlling historiography, which is preserved in the “powerful memories” (13) of the Morgan twins, the descendants of the town’s founding fathers and its leading patriarchs and rulers. In its master narrative, which is cast in biblical terms and which replicates (white) America’s national myths of exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and the American dream (Dalsgård; Schröder 161-64), Ruby is narrated as an exceptional community predicated on a “deal” with God (Morrison, Paradise 113); as a racially pure community maintained by an unspoken “blood rule” (195), a racial code based on the exclusion of all those whose skin color is not “8-rock” black (193); and as a patriarchal community in which the elders ‘protect’ the women, exerting tight control over their sexuality and reproduction in order to preserve racial purity and to maintain the founding families’ blood lines. In this town, all acts and relationships are subject to the patriarchs’ control and discipline, which is exemplified by the patriarchs’ negotiation on behalf of Arnette (54-61). All those who “threate[n] the town’s view of itself [are] taken good care of” (8). In their dogmatic insistence on one God, one History, one Power, i.e. male power, and one Rightful People, i.e. 8-rock blacks, the Ruby elders project a Manichean worldview pitting ‘self’ against ‘other,’ ‘black’ against ‘white,’ and ‘good’ against ‘evil.’

It is the community’s experience of the “Disallowing” (189) that provides a rationale for the town’s tightly regulated communal order and its practices of discrimination and exclusion. Ruby’s totalizing foundational narrative about a group of emancipated slaves leaving the post-Reconstruction South in order to escape racism and to find freedom and equality of opportunity in the West is centered on the migrants’ rejection by Fairly, a town of prosperous, fair-skinned blacks, of “[b]lue-eyed, gray-eyed yellowmen in good suits” (195). This experience of racism (and classism) provides the impetus behind the founding of their own town, Haven, based on a strict racial code. In fact, it is its rejection at Fairly that Haven and its twentieth-century duplicate Ruby carry “like a bullet in the brain” (109) and that serves to rationalize “why neither the founders of Haven nor their descendants [can] tolerate anybody but themselves” (13). However, there are crucial differences in the ways Haven and Ruby deal with this experience of rejection. While “Haven residents refused each other nothing, were vigilant to any need or shortage” (109), Rubyites live behind “closed doors and shut windows” (68). The differences between Haven and Ruby are best exemplified by their different use of the Oven, the towns’ central monument. While it is a site of life in Haven, serving as a gathering place, it becomes a “shrine” in Ruby (103), a site of surveillance (110) and death, where some local men ultimately plot murder (11). Actually, the renaming of the town from Haven to Ruby symbolizes the transition from an egalitarian to an authoritarian society. The name of Ruby does not only pay tribute to one of the community’s women, but more importantly recalls the rejection and the racism that lead to her death (she is refused medical care in a white hospital and dies while waiting for the veterinarian called to attend to her). The name Ruby thus reflects the community’s obsessive preoccupation with their victimization, their inability to translate the experience of refusal into a different, more positive self-definition and their failure to move beyond racism. The renaming from Haven to Ruby registers a shift of focus in their view of themselves. Whereas Haven clearly emphasizes the aspects of salvation and protection, Ruby is a constant reminder of the community’s rejection, exclusion, and endangerment and reflects its paranoid self-perception. But by reproducing the patterns that lead to their own rejection and to Ruby’s death, that is, by excluding all those who differ from their self-defined norms, the Rubyites actually perpetuate “the world they had escaped” (292), reinscribing the very hierarchical and oppressive structures they originally sought to leave behind. These practices of exclusion even extend to some of Ruby’s own inhabitants, namely to those who violate the unspoken blood rule, leading to some kind of “internal disallowing” that takes on many different forms (Schröder 168, 174, 176-77).

Haunted by the effects of the Disallowing, Ruby remains temporally and spatially isolated. “[D]eafened by the roar of its own history” (306), it exists in “an ahistorical limbo” (Goodwin and Tayler 28), as a place in which “nobody […] has ever died” (Morrison, Paradise 199). Through the perpetual repetition and reenactment of their foundational narrative the townspeople “turn their own life into a static and unchanging myth” (Schröder 169). “[R]ather than children, they wanted duplicates,” Reverend Misner observes (Morrison, Paradise 161). In order to maintain perfection defined in terms of purity, homogeneity, and immutability, Ruby’s patriarchs suppress difference and fight change, which they consider sources of corruption and evil. A case in point is the elders’ violent reaction against the younger generation’s suggestion to change the inscription of the Oven (83-87). Ruby’s state of perfection precludes any possibility of change: “Ruby, ‘immortally’ frozen in its own stasis, has no politics because the very conception of change is a contradiction in terms: the town is ideal because it cannot change, and it cannot change because it is ideal” (Widdowson 329).

Ruby’s utopian perfection, its racial purity and moral superiority are also reflected in an almost complete seclusion from the outside world. The town’s exclusive ideology is mirrored in its geographic isolation and in its hostile attitude towards strangers, who are perceived as enemies (Morrison, Paradise 212). Its hostility to outsiders is neatly translated into its spatial design, which is barren of any facilities to accommodate visitors (12; Schröder 173-74). And although it is not surrounded by walls, Ruby is conspicuously delimited by a physically defined boundary: “What the locals called Central Avenue just stopped, and Gigi was at Ruby’s edge at the same time she had reached its center. […] One minute her heels clicked, the next they were mute in swirling dirt” (Morrison, Paradise 67). The abrupt ending of the paved road demarcates the town’s limits and underscores its separateness.3 The townspeople consider this spatial isolation a protection against the corruption and imperfection of the “Out There,” which figures as a threatening “void where random and organized evil erupted when and where it chose” (16).

And it is precisely “Out There” that the townsmen eventually locate the Convent and the women living in it, whom they hold responsible for their own “catastrophes” (11). By dehumanizing and demonizing the women as “throwaway people” and “witches” (4, 276) and through a rhetoric of dirt and defilement (3-4), they actively construct the Convent as a corrupt and evil space, as a source of depravity and moral danger posing a threat to the town’s integrity. Psychologically speaking, the Rubyites retreat into a stable and unified identity by locking out difference and projecting it onto the ‘other.’ Through these processes of ‘othering,’ in which they displace onto the Convent women their own evil impulses, their deficiencies and failures, the men externalize corruption and maintain internal purity (McKee 200-01). These paranoid “practices of avoidance,” which have the double effect of “displacing other people into a moral void” and of “void[ing] the insiders of their internal complexity” (McKee 201), culminate in the massacre of the women perpetrated by nine Ruby men.

“Rooms Full of Rooms”: The Convent

The Convent represents a radical alternative to Ruby’s utopianism and its example of the perfect place. Originally an embezzler’s mansion built to match his owner’s lavish tastes and lascivious fantasies, the Convent was transformed into a catholic reform school for the assimilation of Native American girls and, in the novel’s present, serves as a retreat for a small group of women. Having diverse personal, class, sexual, and racial backgrounds, the five women who form the fluctuating core of the Convent community—Connie/Consolata, Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—represent a radically heterogeneous group.4 But while their background is disparate, they share a history of oppression and victimization. They are all haunted by traumatic memories: Mavis is responsible for the death of her twin babies, Gigi witnessed the shooting of a black boy during a Civil Rights demonstration, Seneca was abandoned by her teenage mother at the age of five, and Pallas was gang-raped. Having been violated and outcast in one way or another, they all seek refuge and find shelter in the Convent. And it is at this site of former female (and racial) oppression that the women begin to work through their own oppressive histories.

With Consolata as their spiritual leader, the other women gradually recover and regain self-esteem. In contrast to the Ruby men, Consolata has understood that “[s]cary things not always outside. Most scary things is inside” (39), and she helps the women confront these scary things inside. In a healing ceremony that implicates dimensions of both physical and psychic nurturing, she shows them the interconnectedness of their physical and psychic pain. By emphasizing that “Eve is Mary’s mother. Mary is the daughter of Eve” (263), Consolata makes them consider their female selves not in terms of either/ or but in terms of the body and the mind, the sexual and the spiritual, good and evil and teaches them to conjoin aspects of identity torn apart in the dualistic worldview of the dominant society and of Ruby. During the “loud dreaming” (264) stage of the ceremony the women share their traumas, they listen to, enter, and relive the others’ experiences, thus creating a “multivocal, dialogic space” (Michael 173) in which different, equally valid (hi)stories (e)merge simultaneously. Each of the women learns to put herself in the place of the others, to think and feel differently and, in Julia Kristeva’s words, to “imagine and make [herself] other for [herself]” (13). Ultimately, it is the ‘allowing’ of ‘otherness’ in themselves that facilitates the women’s healing. As the distinction between inside/outside and self/other collapses, the women become whole. By acknowledging their own and the others’ painful experiences, the women are able to move beyond them. In the process of this communal and interactive “rememory” (Morrison, Beloved  36) the women re-member, confront, and transcend their traumas.

Despite the odd dispute among the women, the Convent, at least temporarily, represents a physically and psychically safe place, a “regenerative haven” (Michael 167) closer in spirit to Haven than Ruby. As the women learn how to negotiate their wishes and to accept the others’ needs, desires, and fears, they gradually undergo change. Since their community is built upon “an ethics of care, nurturance, and love,” interwoven “with notions of equality and fairness” (Michael 153), the Convent emerges as a space that is at once “protective and free” (Schröder 179), “both snug and wide open” (Morrison, “Home” 12). This radical openness manifests itself on many different levels. Literally and metaphorically, the Convent’s doors are never locked. The women unconditionally accept each person seeking shelter under their roof, including those Rubyites who, like Arnette, Sweetie, or Menus, are weighed down by terrible secrets. As each new inhabitant or visitor adds meaning to the place, the Convent is continuously under construction in the sense that it is open to re-signification and redefinition. It represents a radically heterogeneous space, in which diversity and difference are both valued and shared. Significantly, the Convent is a world which is characterized by a beneficial absence of racist and sexist limitations and hierarchies. However, the place is not oblivious to its oppressive history: The traces of the embezzler’s sexist fantasies and the nuns’ racist project remain and are creatively put to new use. The ‘other’ is not expelled, but remains internal, so that the Convent embodies a “multidimensional space[]” which is “radically occupied […], with multiple subjects, objects, presences, and pasts admitted within any location” (McKee 199). The building itself, bearing traces of the Convent’s eventful history and its multiple identities as well as its numerous inhabitants and visitors, serves as a metaphor for the women’s open, inclusive, hybrid, and dynamic community.5 Its palimpsestic interior, the flaking paint revealing previous layers of its history (Morrison, Paradise 285), as well as the children’s voices  that Mavis hears at the Convent (41) suggest the presence of the past in the present, rendering the Convent an unhomely, uncanny space, multiply crossed by different temporalities.6 It is precisely in “its ability to accommodate differences” and change (Schröder 190) that the true freedom of the Convent lies.

The Convent’s “practices of allowance” and of “multiple occupation” (McKee 207-08) are diametrically opposed to Ruby’s ideology of ‘disallowing’ and ‘othering.’ Its philosophy of ‘borderlessness’ and ‘transitionality’ is a thorn in the side of Ruby’s leaders. As a result of the perpetual “state of emergency” (Davidson 365) caused by the Disallowing, difference in general, and the Convent’s difference in particular, is registered as deviance and as threat. To the Ruby men, the Convent figures as a space of disorder and degeneration that is governed by a motley group of women who challenge each and every one of Ruby’s parameters of perfection and the very foundations of its identity: its patriarchal structure as well as its racial and sexual purity. Since “they don’t need men and they don’t need God” (Morrison, Paradise 276), the women embody a threat to male power and control and to Ruby’s exceptionalist self-image. Perceived as “bodacious black Eves unredeemed by Mary” (18), they represent a version of the female Ruby’s patriarchs cannot accept because it contradicts their vision of ‘true womanhood’ and eludes their control. And, most importantly, they are a racially integrated community, including black, mixed-race, and white members, violating Ruby’s rule of descent. Threatening “the town’s view of itself” (8),  the women are held responsible for the “intolerable ways” in which Ruby is changing (275), for the “crack[s]” and “chink[s]” in its supposedly intact structure (112), signified, for example, by the young generation’s “backtalk” (85). Since “change means deviation from perfection and therefore corruption” (Eliav-Feldon 6), the Ruby men ultimately attack and massacre the Convent women in order to restore perfection in terms of order, purity, and immutability. They use violence as the last resort to eliminate the women’s corrupting influence and to consolidate the status quo.7

The attack on the Convent figures as a culmination of racialized and gendered violence and as a failure of Ruby’s utopian ideal. Importantly, the attack does not consolidate Ruby in the end, but precipitates its disintegration and “breaks up the old, encrusted structures of the town” (Schröder 189). As Ruby becomes irrevocably divided over the issue of the massacre, which is perhaps best symbolized by the rift that opens up between the Morgan twins (Morrison, Paradise 291), a return to its former state of perfection seems impossible.

Of Houses and Homes

What starts out as a project to create the ideally free and safe place, a haven from racism and prejudice, turns into a repressive, “death-dealing ideology” (Morrison, “Home” 5). The boundaries Ruby erects to provide freedom and protection come to signify imprisonment. A community which vaunts that it “neither had nor needed a jail” (Morrison, Paradise 8) has turned into a prison itself (308). With its hierarchical, authoritarian structure, its “totalism of discipline and control” (Davis, “Utopianism” 333), its eugenic approach to reproduction and its temporal and spatial isolation, Ruby represents the perfect embodiment of the “utopia of order” discussed earlier. And as such it has become a “backward noplace ruled by men whose power to control was out of control and who had the nerve to say who could live and who not and where” (Morrison, Paradise 308). However, Ruby’s authoritarianism is not a problem of some men misusing power but is inherent to the utopian ideal itself, with the notion of the Promised Land for the Elect predicated on the exclusion of the non-elect. Thus, Ruby does not “end[ ] up as a conservative, patriarchal, thoroughly racialized, and violent community” rather than a perfect paradise, as Katrine Dalsgård maintains (233), but because of its adherence to a notion of paradisiacal perfection defined in terms of purity and immutability. Likewise, the attack on the Convent women does not represent “a tragic inversion of America’s ideals” but rather an inevitable consequence of its exceptionalism (241). The example of Ruby shows that any attempt to establish the perfect place inherently entails violence and oppression because the vision of the ideal community is predicated on the exclusion of “the unsaved, the unworthy and the strange” (Morrison, Paradise 306). In an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth Morrison contends: “The isolation, the separateness, is always a part of any utopia. And it was my meditation, if you will, and interrogation of the whole idea of paradise, the safe place, the place full of bounty, where no one can harm you. But, in addition to that, it’s based on the notion of exclusivity. All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in” (“Conversation”). Thus, Morrison, in contrast to the authors of the jeremiad who lament men’s fall from a state of moral perfection and call for a return to the ideal, does not simply denounce Ruby but rather finds fault with the ideal itself, exposing its violent foundations (Dalsgård 237) . Paradise thus criticizes any “grand theory of utopia” and envisions “a smaller, more local, and more ‘manageable’ version” of a better society exemplified by the Convent (Schur 279, 276).

“To underline the Convent’s non-utopian position,” Dalsgård argues, “one of the first things Morrison shows to happen at the place is the death of Consolata’s beloved adoptive mother” (247n8). Unlike Ruby, the Convent is a place in time that does not aspire to perfection in terms of homogeneity, stability, and harmony. It is a contested, dynamic space, a crossroads of multiple, conflicting times, places, and identities. It is neither harmonious nor in any sense ‘pure,’ but “occasionally governed by chaos, conflict, and ‘sisterly’ animosity” (Dalsgård 247n8). The interior of the Convent building, the many individually designed rooms, its inhabitants’ and visitors’ frequent comings and goings all attest to this conflictive, open and transitional character. It is this transitionality that makes the Convent a livable place rather than a ’noplace.’ Its open and dynamic character is corroborated by the fact that the place never served the function denoted by its name, the term thus remaining an empty signifier that does not point to any original or ideal meaning of the place. In an ironic twist, the Convent, invoking the monastic ideal associated with the traditional utopia, actually references a community that undermines this very ideal and exposes its exclusive and static nature.

The Convent is built on what one might call an ethics of boundary crossing and “replacement,” whereas Ruby endorses an ideology of boundary erection and “displacement,” that is, of exclusion and marginalization.8 While difference and change are prized in the Convent, Ruby fights them in order to maintain perfection. In contrast to Ruby, where the signs of difference are erased and the voices of change aggressively muted (Morrison, Paradise 87), the Convent is a space in which the traces of transformation and time are visible and even audible.  At the Convent, different temporal and spatial layers intersect and overlap. The various incongruous stages of the Convent’s history as a pleasure palace, “a place of colonization and indoctrination” (Schröder 154), and a refuge are simultaneously present as its palimpsestic interior as well as the children’s voices suggest. It is a place that disallows neither the ghosts of its past nor the differences of the present.

The Convent’s open, transitional, dynamic quality is what most distinguishes it from Ruby and makes it, in Morrison’s terms, a ‘home.’ “Home,” Morrison writes, is “a-world-in-which-race-does-not-matter” (Morrison, “Home” 3), in which difference is “prized but unprivileged.” It is a “third world” beyond binary thinking, a non-hierarchical, hybrid, and transitional space characterized by “the inwardness of the outside, the interiority of the ‘othered,’ [and] the personal that is always embedded in the public” (12). It is a place, in which the subject is simultaneously “free and situated” (5), a social space that is “both snug and wide open” (12). By the terms of this definition, Ruby, in contrast to the Convent, is not a “real home,” but rather a “fortress [the Rubyites] bought and built and have to keep everybody locked in or out” (Morrison, Paradise 213). Ruby thus embodies Morrison’s concept of ‘house,’ which is constructed as a closed space, a “thick-walled, impenetrable container,” a “windowless prison” (“Home” 4). Ruled by the “all-knowing law of the white father” (“Home” 4), the ‘house’ is hierarchically structured along the lines of race, gender, and age. It is a community whose sense of identity is predicated on the idea of sameness and therefore depends on the exclusion of the (racial) ‘other.’

From Paradise to paradise

Engaging these different concepts of community in Paradise, Morrison questions the idea that discrimination and hierarchization are vital to community formation, criticizes America’s early national ideals and envisions a “third world” characterized in terms of ongoing negotiation.9 Morrison underlines the necessity of building better places as an alternative to “death-dealing ideolog[ies]” (Morrison, “Home” 5). To her, “the job of unmattering race” (3) and creating ‘home’ is not a “Utopia” (11) or an “unrealizable dream” (8), but a “manageable, doable, modern human activity” (4). By insisting that her vision of an alternative society is immanent and realizable, that it is now here instead of nowhere, Morrison actually shares in the utopian idea of a “this-worldly other world” (Suvin 42) and a “positive and possible alternative to the social reality” (Eliav-Feldon 1). The crucial difference between traditional utopias and Morrison’s better place lies in her redefinition of what constitutes its ‘goodness,’ namely in the rejection of the idea of perfection in terms of order, purity, and immutability. If Thomas More, according to Joyce Hertzler, “depicted a perfect, and perhaps unrealizable, society, located in some nowhere, purged of the shortcomings, the wastes, and the confusion of our own time, and living in perfect adjustment, full of happiness and contentment” (1-2), Morrison reintegrates the dirt, the wastes and confusion into her vision of community, underscoring the significance of difference and imperfection. As stated earlier, Morrison rejects any “grand theory of utopia” (Schur 279), promoting a manageable project at human scale, signaled by the change from the upper- to the lower-case ‘p’ in the word ‘paradise’ at the end of the novel. Building this open, transitional, and hybrid space of paradise entails “endless work” (Morrison, Paradise 318), a lesson which the Rubyites still have to learn. Actually, the novel’s ending holds out the prospect of a (better) future for Ruby. The window Reverend Misner “senses” (305) after the attack stands as a clear sign of hope for the “windowless prison” of Ruby (“Home” 4), as a sign of encouragement for the town to open itself to the world outside, to others, and to the ‘other’ within itself—and become ‘home.’


1 I follow Barbara Christian’s argument against an absolute distinction between literature and theory, considering literature as a place where theory is produced (52).

2 Kumar points out a fundamental contradiction between the notions of Paradise/ religion and utopia: “Religion typically has an other-worldly concern; utopia’s interest is in this world” (10). For an elaboration on the argument that religion is counterutopian see Kumar 10-11, Suvin 42-43. For an elaboration on the analogy and proximity between earthly paradise and utopia as historical alternatives, see Suvin 57-58, Eliade 273-75. The preceding examples reveal the “tendency for utopia to blur into other ideal society forms” and the contested nature of the concept of utopia itself (Davis, “Utopianism” 341).

3 The dirt roads signify both Ruby’s isolation (“They liked being off the county road, accessible only to the lost and the knowledgeable”186) as well as the possibility of transcendence of this isolation. They remain roads, after all, and connect Ruby to the rest of the world, symbolizing a way out. This reading is underscored by the fact that there is constant traffic between Ruby and the Convent (270), where many Rubyites buy food and seek shelter (Arnette, Sweetie, Billie Delia, Menus), love/ sex (Deacon, K.D.), and friendship (Soane). Despite its isolation and its separatist ideology, Ruby continues to participate in the world outside its borders.

4 Whereas Connie grew up in the “shit-strewn paths” of a South-American city (Morrison, Paradise 223), Pallas is the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer. While all the women seem to have entered heterosexual relationships, Gigi, during her quest for sexual fulfillment, is intensely attracted to Seneca. The two share the same bedroom and are referred to as the other’s “companion” and “girlfriend,” respectively (171, 179, 311, 317). They all perform different female roles ranging from virgin to slut, from abandoned daughter to abused girlfriend or wife and mother. In racial terms, their heritage is black, white, Indian, and a combination thereof (right at the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that at least one of the women is white; Consolata’s green eyes, her tea-colored hair as well as her South American origin indicate a mixed-race identity; the name Seneca suggests a Native American background).

5 Nicole Schröder makes a similar point (178-79). McKee draws attention to the fact that, as “[t]he interior of the Convent holds on to the past,” each location within its space is multiply occupied, “so that ‘otherness’ remains internal”(209-10).

6 For descriptions of the Convent’s interior, see especially the “Ruby” chapter in Paradise (1-18).

7 At the same time, the attack is an attempt to remove the traces of the townspeople’s own involvement with the women. As J. Brooks Bouson points out, the Convent has become “the repository of the scandalous secrets of the respectable 8-rocks” (203)—of Arnette’s ‘abortion,’ Sweetie’s demoralization, Menus’ misery, and K.D.’s longing. It is the memory of their stories disallowed in Ruby and retained in the Convent that the men intend to destroy in order to clean the slate of the town’s history.

8 The distinction between “replacement” and “displacement” is taken from McKee 208.

9 With its reflections on what constitutes the best type of community, Morrison considers Paradise as an intervention in contemporary public political discourse. In a conversation with Carolyn C. Denard she maintains: “I want to suggest something about negotiation that is applicable for the ’90s. There are a lot of neo-cons, a lot of activists, a lot of pacifists, people for integration, people against integration, who are still out there. These are still current issues, and people change their minds on them a lot. And part of that is seeded in, or many of these ideas are seeded in, Paradise” (Morrison, “Blacks” 191).

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