Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

The Religious Overtones of Ethnic Identity-Building in Toni Morrison's Paradise (1)

Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

The Religious Overtones of Ethnic Identity-Building in Toni Morrison's Paradise (1)

Article excerpt

This article approaches the study of Toni Morrison's latest novel, Paradise (1998), as an illustration of the process of (African) American identity-formation. The two communities that Morrison contraposes in the novel may be seen as representative of two different trends in America's construction of national identity: assimilation and homogenization, on the one hand, or interactive difference, on the other. Whereas Ruby emerges as a proud and paradisiacal African American town which gradually falls prey to its Manichean view of the world, the Convent is eventually presented as an alternative open community. Thus, Ruby functions as a mirror to American history. By adopting the American creeds and religious typology present in the Puritan origins of the United States, the community of Ruby reproduces the exclusionist, discriminatory, isolationist, hegemonic and violent character of American society as well as the tensions within it. The Convent, on the other hand, evolves towards the creation of a spiritual paradise based on the fluid hybridization of opposites. The issues of race and gender appear to be central to the construction of both communities, although it is religion, and particularly the adoption of the American jeremiad and the myth of the City upon a Hill, what provides the structural and thematic pattern for the novel.

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The following article attempts a close reading of Toni Morrison's Paradise (1998) based on the assumption that the novel offers a critique of the traditional American paradigm of nationhood and identity formation with roots in Puritanism. The somewhat startling move the novel makes within the current debates about multiculturalism, diversity and difference, ethnic self-representation and national affirmation, lies in the fact that Morrison points at the eminently white Puritan roots of the African American self (to paraphrase the title of Bercovitch's cornerstone work), instead of focusing on the African heritage, reclaimed by African American authors and critics--including Morrison herself in her prior works--as the basis for a different and separate identity. Nevertheless, Morrison criticizes the wholesale adoption of Puritan rhetoric because it results in the inversion--not in the deconstruction--of the binary Manichean terms which account for racism and discrimination.

This article is divided into three sections. The introductory section assesses the role of religion, and more precisely of the Puritan paradigm and the American jeremiad, in establishing an American identity. It discusses as well the African American adoption of the Puritan foundational principles of the nation as a way of asserting black nationalism while critiquing White America's betrayal of its own ideals. The second and third sections focus on Ruby and the Convent respectively. In the second section I argue that the situation of Ruby in 1976, the present time of the narrative, is the result of an understanding of history and identity in the Manichean terms characteristic of American Puritanism. The history of Ruby is consequently revealed through three successive cycles of peril and redemption, typical of the jeremiad rhetoric. Morrison's critique of the resultant community is underscored by the interwoven story of the Convent community of women, analyzed in the third section. With Consolata as the unifying character, the story of the Convent functions as a successful struggle against Manicheism. The women's intertwined stories offer an alternative to the monolithic construction of ethnic identity characteristic of Ruby. Their evolution testifies to the possibility of achieving the dream of an earthly paradise only by the acknowledgment of difference and the integration of opposites. A brief conclusion follows.

1. ETHNOGENESIS: THE CITY UPON A HILL AND THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD

A country as diverse as the United States has managed to build a national identity by means of the adoption of a set of myths, symbols, and rituals that unify "its diverse polity into one moral-spiritual community" (Howard-Pitney 1990: 6). …

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