Paradise is a novel in which the lives of two groups of women, those from town and those from the Convent, are explored. The narrative also focuses on the history of the town of Ruby and the experiences of both groups of women as they live in a male-dominated society. Through examining the lives of women like Mavis and Grace, author Toni Morrison provides a sharp commentary about on gender relations and generational conflict.
Beginning and ending with a massacre—with a famous first sentence ("They shoot the white girl first. . . ")--the novel tells the story of the tension between the men of Ruby, Oklahoma, (an all-black town founded in 1950) and a group of women who lived in a former convent seventeen miles away. After an opening chapter "Ruby", namedafter the town, the other chapters are named after some of the female characters, but they are not simply about the women. Each chapter includes flashbacks to crucial events from the town's history in addition to the backstory of the titular character.
The women in the Convent are Connie (Consolata), Mavis, Gigi (Grace), Seneca, and Pallas (Divine). These women all receive chapters. The townswomen who receive chapters are Pat (Patricia), Lone, and Save-Marie. The focus on the women characters highlights the ways the novel portrays the gender differences between the patriarchal rigidity of the townsmen and the clandestine connections between the townswomen and the women at the Convent. The narration serves as an alternative voice to the actions in which the townsmen provide. Though the novel has chapters named after specific women, it focuses on the people in the town and different hardships they have faced. The story also shows a divide between the younger generation and the older, about change and the refusal to understand for the sake of the past.
The novel is complex and layered, flashing back and forth between times and places. It paints a picture of the "Old Fathers," who had first established the town of Haven, and the "New Fathers," their children, who established Ruby in an effort to escape what they perceive as the ills of society. Seeking to isolate themselves in a kind of new garden of Eden, the novel uncovers the various ways that the new perfect society destroys itself. Seeing the Convent outside its borders as a threat to its existence, the townsmen of Ruby destroy it and what they do not understand.
Morrison has said in an interview on PBS that she started with race ("They shoot the white girl. . . ") and then erased it by never revealing who the white girl is.
The book begins with the well-known sentence "They shoot the white girl first." Never revealing who that character is, it leaves the reader to wonder. A group of 9 men enter the building known as the "Convent" which is now more of a shelter for battered women. As the men search the Convent they clearly indicate their feelings towards it. Because the men are in this house, the story is written to make it seem like the Convent was a sinister place, a shameful place in the men's eyes, one negative statement being "in a place that once housed Christians– well, Catholics anyway – not a cross of Jesus anywhere" (7). During this search we find out several things about the men searching. 2 of them men are wearing ties, while another set are father&son&finally a pair of brothers are among the posse. It is revealed that the character Detritus is the target of this search. Ruby is also the town named after Ruby Morgan who died after their journey to this new place of hope, after being denied aid at other black towns and hospitals. They left Haven escaping the economic downturn and the increasing pressure from neighboring towns. Several families founded Ruby but the majority of the credit belongs to the Morgans due to their monetary influence. On their journey they saw many other black towns that refused them acceptance, illustrating the exclusivity defining one's own paradise and the fear of letting the outside in. This may have led to the hatred of the women living in the Convent, without any real reason except the fact they are outside the calm setting of Ruby.
Mavis is a mother who accidentally kills her infant twins Merle and Pearl by suffocation when she leaves them in the car while she goes into a grocery store. It is unclear whether it was an accident or she has some sort of mental illness. Her husband Frank is an alcoholic and abusive, which contributes to blowing her fears and anxieties out of proportion. She fears that her husband and three kids, Sal, Frankie, and Billy James, are going to kill her. She waits for her husband to go to sleep then she sneaks out of her house and steals his car, a mint green Cadillac, escaping her family. At 5:30 am she arrives Peg's house (neighbor) but when no one answers she realizes it's a bad idea and decides to go somewhere farther away. She gets gas for the car and drives to her mom's house in Paterson, 5 hours away. Her mom says that Frank already called her at 5:30 and she told him she didn't know about Mavis' whereabouts. Mavis tells her mom that she feared her family was going to kill her. Her mother thinks Mavis is crazy for thinking this. She stays there for a few days. Later, she hears her mom on the phone saying, "you better get up here pronto". This freaks her out and takes the car keys her mom hid plus a few essential items and hits the road. She went to Newark and had the Cadillac painted magenta in order to avoid detection. Mavis decides she wants to go to California. She has little money so she picks up female hitchhikers to have them help pay the way and keep her company. The first woman was Sandra. She wore 6 dog tags and talked a lot. The next women stole her clip she got at her mothers, the next two women wanted to go to a cemetery to honor an army man. The last woman was Bennie. She liked to sing songs and listen to the radio. She stole Mavis's rain boots and coat. She disappeared while Mavis was in the bathroom at pit stop. When Mavis returned the bathroom key, she sees a man who she believes is Frank looking at her car. He has let his hair grow out and is wearing a leather jacket and chains with a shirt open to the navel. She looks again and he's gone. She is worried that he recognized the car still because the license plate is still the same. She goes out to her car and pays the attendant. The man appears in her right side mirror. Mavis freaks out and drives away without thinking of what road she needed to get on. She becomes lost and then runs out of gas. She drinks alcohol that Frank had left in the car and goes to sleep. The next morning she gets out of the car and decides to walk and find a place to help her. She walks a long way and finds a house on a farm looking lot. She meets a woman outside named Connie. Connie is nice to her and feeds her. Soane Morgan come to the house and gives Connie new sunglasses. Connie asks Soane to help her get gasoline for Mavis. Sloane takes Mavis to a gas station where a young black man takes Mavis back to her car with the gasoline. The man talks to Mavis and says how he thinks Connie is strange. She returns with her car to the house. She learns that it was a nun's house and a school for Indians. She also gets to meet Mother Mary Magna who had a light coming from her. She was the leader figure of the convent house. Mavis stayed at the convent instead of going to California, however she left the convent off and on but she was there in 1976. She knew for months that there was sourness between the town and the convent…
Gigi (Grace) gets off the bus in Ruby as K.D. and Arnette are arguing. Arnette was pregnant with K.D.'s child and Arnette wasn't giving him many options. K.D. slaps Arnette due to her comments about the boys seeing Gigi walk off the bus which turns into a town council meeting involving her father and K.D.'s uncles as well as other prominent men. We find out that Gigi gets to Ruby after being deceived by her old boyfriend Mikey. She intends to only be in Ruby a short while. She gets picked up by a man who is willing to take her to the train station. She finds that he is a hearse driver who is stopping by the Convent to pick up Mother who had recently died. We find out that the bus driver's name is Roger best. Gigi goes inside and finds a bunch of food in the kitchen, which she begins to eat. Connie comes in to the kitchen and explains how she has not slept for 17 days straight because of fear no one was there to watch her. she just wants to sleep on the kitchen floor and will do so, if Gigi watches her. Gigi feels bad about leaving her and in turn loses her ride and she stays with Connie and eats the funeral food until Connie wakes up. K.D. cannot stop thinking about Gigi so he goes to find her and ends up at the Convent. He takes her for a ride. Some time passes ( one month) and Mavis comes back to the convent, which she has missed so dearly. As she is walking up, she sees a girl sitting naked and begins screaming at her, who is in fact Gigi. Connie comes out and explains to Mavis that mother has died and Gigi came the day after mother had died. Mavis then explains how Gigi (Grace) will never be one of them.
Within "Paradise, color is used a a symbol. For example, the color green frequently shows up within the novel. On one occasion, as Mavis is heading down the highway to escape her life, "a green cross in the field of white slid from brilliant emergency light into shadow" (28). The cross symbolizes the covenant and the color green conjures up ideas of freedom, rebirth, growth, and harmony. The other references to the color green occur when the men are in the bathroom at Convent in the Ruby chapter "The tile underfoot is bottle green" (9), Mavis drove two hitchhikers to the cemetery "Mavis lingered, amazed by the unnatural brightness of the green" (34), when Mother speaks of Connie "When I brought her here they were green as grass" (47), and mentioned in the part before KD sees Gigi for the first time "Behind a chain-link fence bordered by wide seamless concrete he saw green water" (57).