The of Role of Myth in Morrison’s Paradise

May 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

The power of myth and tradition to shape and control the shared consciousness of communities is a recurring theme in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise. Morrison uses the residents of the town of Ruby and the nearby Convent to illustrate the irrationality of dogmatic adherence to mythical beliefs and traditions without reason while also proving that belief in mystic powers can heal as well as harm. By comparing the canonized legends of the towns’ foundation in religious zealotry with the innocent spiritual awakenings of the women at the convent, Morrison forces us to inspect the values and traditions to which we adhere to before being blindly guided or passing judgment on others. The central conflict in the novel is between the allure of new mythic figures and ideals from outside of Ruby and the gravity of the old ways that Ruby’s elite wish to maintain. All of the other conflicts in the novel can be interpreted as offshoots of this main clash. The young versus the old, the 8 rocks versus the light skins, and the conflict between Reverends Misner and Pulliam are all ways of shaping the same question: Should the residents of Ruby stand by the old myths propagated by the Morgan family or reject them and their tenets in order to become a part of the larger mythos of the African American culture struggling to enter the mainstream? While the oldest among the Ruby citizenry have already made the decision to reject outside society in favor of their own, the young have begun to realize that they cannot remain isolated forever.Though Ruby’s citizens’ adherence to core myths is expected to be unwavering, the myths themselves often change in order to better suit the needs of the town’s bourgeoisie. In this way the townspeople’s beliefs are perverted and used as a means of control and oppression. After the confrontation at the Convent “the story was being retold; how people were changing it to make themselves look good…every one of the assaulting men had a different tale and their families and friends (who had been nowhere near the Convent) supported them, enhancing, recasting, inventing misinformation.” (297) As time passes and those involved become older the lies and the truth become impossible to tell apart. Soon no one will remember what truly happened at the Convent any more than anyone remembers Coffee Morgan’s twin brother, Tea. As soon as people can reasonably convince themselves that the lie is the truth then the mythos surrounding Ruby and the Morgan family will be secure again. It is clear that not all of the people of Ruby believe in the myths propagated by the most powerful families. Some, like Pat Best, resent the reverential level of praise for the founders of Ruby. Pat’s situation as a semi-outsider allows her to have a more level-headed perspective on Ruby. She sees the myths that surround the 8 rocks as a means of insuring those in power remain in power. Yet when approached by Reverend Misner, even more of an outsider in Ruby than she is, Pat finds that she ”defended people and things and ideas with a passion she did not feel…All that nonsense she had grown up with seemed to her like an excuse to be hateful.” (214) The Morgan twins don’t remember everything that has happened since the time Haven was founded, but no one in Ruby could challenge their knowledge. Whatever Deacon and Steward say happened becomes history – that is, until Reverand Misner and the youth of Ruby decide they want to alter the engraving that adorns the oven. The oven that the founding fathers carried from Haven to Ruby functions as a shrine to the legend of the generations that came before and the values that they represented. When the oven was built it served a practical purpose and tied the community together. When the move to Ruby was made the oven was transformed from a legitimate pillar of the community to a mere prop. By then appliances had taken over the need for a community cooking area and meeting place and the oven became something else. When the oven was brought to Ruby it was meant as a display of the founders’ power. This mutation of the oven from its original purpose also changed its effect on the community from that of unification to division. This shift in the nature of the oven is physically manifested in the confusion over the original inscription of the oven and the intended meaning of the message it conveyed. Though the argument over the words on the oven may seem inconsequential, when viewed in the light of how important myth and tradition are in upholding the old ways it becomes easier to see why the vested interests of the town, namely the elders, believe that there is so much at stake. By challenging the legitimacy of the oven as a cultural cornerstone of the community the youth of Ruby are openly questioning the validity of the old way and the men who reinforce it. The eventual success of this effort only comes after the complete breakdown of the old system that results in the confrontation at the Convent. The oven’s symbolic significance makes it an ideal place for the younger generation to have their voices heard. The appearance of a black power symbol on the oven upsets Deek and Steward not only because of what the symbol represents but because it mars the oven itself. The oven stands as a symbol of Haven’s, and later Ruby’s, self-reliance and isolation from the rest of the world. The graffiti on the oven serves as a call to join arms and identify with a group larger than just the town of Ruby. It suggests that there exists in the world a culture more justified in its ways than those of the men who built the oven, and more recently, those who labored over its move from Haven to Ruby. The slant in the earth that threatens to overtake the oven by the end of the novel is indicative of the state of the community that built it. Another example of how the same mythos can be spun so as to construe a different meaning can be found in the feud between the Reverends Misner and Pulliam. Though the ministers preside over congregations of the same faith, in the same town, and of the same stock they somehow manage to find totally different messages in the Lord’s Book. As Billie Delia puts it, “Senior Pulliam had scripture and history on his side. Misner had scripture and the future on his.” (150) Each of the men are fighting for what they believe to be the best interpretation of the same mythic texts. Each of them find the message they want to find in the Book and then find ways to twist the words into a form that serves to prove what they want the people of Ruby to do. These messages are then passed on to the people of the town, who examine the content and ramifications of each interpretation of the same verses before deciding on the version that best serves their own interests and desires.The problem is that the true meaning of the scriptures they use to justify their own beliefs is lost as soon as it is put to words. The essence of the ideas behind the myths cannot be encapsulated into words without opening up their meaning to interpretation. Once individuals interpret the words the meaning is further diluted from its original message by the biases and motives of the individuals who read them. In this way the novel suggests that over-reliance on history, myths, traditions and rituals is misguided. What really matters is the pure and unmolested message crystallized in the ideas that sparked the creation of the artifacts that people turn to, such as scripture or the Christmas play. In order to root out the ideas behind these relics an atmosphere of peace, acceptance, individual thought, and spiritual openness must be embraced. This is where the residents of Ruby fail and how the women of the Convent save themselves from a similar fate.Though Ruby and the Convent are similar in that they are isolated and self-reliant communities of like-minded individuals, they are different in several important ways. The Convent is a place where strangers are accepted and allowed time and space to sort out their problems on their own or seek help if they so wish. No one forces the women who live at the Convent to stay, and no one who seeks help at the Convent is turned away. This is in sharp contrast to Ruby, where Steward turns away a family of whites he says are “Born lost. Take over the world and still lost.” (123) The women of the Convent have been mistreated by the world just as much as the blacks of Ruby, but instead of turning their backs to the world they open up themselves to it. Mysticism plays a large part in the lives of the women but not in the same way that it does for the people of Ruby. While the mysticism that surrounds Ruby is enforced and manufactured by the powerful of the town, the mysticism of the Convent is allowed to grow and spread through the women individually. The mystic realm created at the Convent is an open one. The symbol of the Convent’s mysticism is the hot peppers that grow in the Convent garden, which stand as a sharp contrast to Ruby’s oven. While the oven is artificial and propped up by Ruby’s social strata, the peppers are natural and grow on their own. The special peppers of the Convent were already growing when Connie arrived and continued to thrive in the same spot after the confrontation with the men of Ruby left the Convent empty. Though Mother, and Connie after her, was the clear leader of the Convent she imposed no social codes or restrictions on the other women who took shelter there. The women of the Convent did not seek to control others, as did the men of Ruby, but to master themselves. The ultimate enlightenment ceremony of the Convent, the ritual that took place in the basement outside of Connie’s room, was a journey of inward self-realization.The women of the Convent realized that there was something inside of them that was the source of their troubles in the outside world. As Seneca put it, “She knew that there was something inside her that made boys snatch her and men flash her.” (261) This “something inside her” was a frailty of spirit that lead the men around her to take advantage of what was clearly a shattered soul. Seneca’s habit of cutting herself is an early and unfortunately destructive attempt at bleeding away this thing inside of her. The women of the Convent realize that they cannot change the world but they can change themselves so as to better survive it. By exorcising their demons and embracing each other the Convent women were able to free themselves from the bonds that held them in the outside world.An important parallel that highlights how the men of Haven and Ruby failed when the women of the Convent survived can be seen in the story of Coffee and Tea. When the twin brothers were coerced into humiliating themselves by some white men Tea gave in and followed their orders. Coffee stood his ground and got a bullet in the foot for it, but he kept his pride. The lesson Coffee took from the incident and passed on to the other founding fathers was that the outside world is no place for a self respecting black man. The problem is that where Seneca looked inside herself and saw a victim Coffee looked outside himself and saw a world not worth living in. This led Coffee to leave the outside world behind and found Haven while Seneca dove into her own soul and removed what it was that enabled the outside world to hurt her. Both of them created a mystical place where they would be untouched, but Seneca made hers inside herself and not on a patch of land in the middle of nowhere. This is how Seneca and the other women from the Convent were able to make peace with the world instead of having to hide from it, as did the citizens of Ruby.By the end of the novel Deacon Steward is coming to the same crossroads that Coffee did decades before. Something about the way Steward acted during the confrontation at the Convent shook Deacon to his core. Deacon makes the connection between the two situations, saying “I’m thinking Coffee was right because he saw something in Tea that wasn’t just going along with some drunken white boys. He saw something that shamed him…Coffee couldn’t take it. Not because he was ashamed of his twin, but because the shame was in himself. It scared him.” (303) Now Deacon faces the same situation that Coffee did. Should he learn to embrace the thing inside him that shames him or should he retreat back into a fantasy world built on the myth that 8 rock men can be islands unto themselves? How Deacon decides to answer this question may shape the future for Ruby. The forces of change heralded by the younger generation have already won decisive victories in the battle to free themselves from the oppression of the elders propagated by the myths and values of the Morgan ancestors. The oven reads “We are the furrow of his brow.” (298) This shows a movement towards individual responsibility and decision and away from the threatening statement “Beware the furrow of his brow” that the elders chose to remind the citizens of Haven to stay in line. Ruby will change whether the Morgan family or anyone else wants it to, but it will be much easier if Deacon understands the error of his ways and helps guide the others.The sickly children of Sweetie and her husband, products of the old ways, have started to die off. Though the community mourns the loss of Save-Marie and their newfound sense of mortality the death of the child also brings with it a renewed sense of being part of the outside world. Ruby cannot remain a bastion of 8 rock people separated from the rest of the world. The people of Ruby will either manage to re-assimilate into the society that their ancestors forsake decades ago or they will fail and disappear like all of the other colored towns before them. Either way a new chapter will be written in the mythos of the residents of Ruby. If the town manages to survive long enough the new history will replace the old one and the recollection of the events that lead up to it will either change to fit the prevailing myths or disappear. No matter what happens the myth that was Ruby and the Convent will remain alive in the minds of those that were touched by its power and managed to break free.

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