Academic journal article African American Review

Furrowing All the Brows: Interpretation and the Transcendent in Toni Morrison's Paradise

Academic journal article African American Review

Furrowing All the Brows: Interpretation and the Transcendent in Toni Morrison's Paradise

Article excerpt

Whether the motto on the Oven is "Beware the Furrow of His Brow," "Be the Furrow of His Brow," or even "We Are the Furrow of His Brow" or Her Brow, God's brow is not the only one that is furrowed in Toni Morrison's seventh novel, Paradise. The brows of many of the characters are furrowed in anger, frustration, or perplexity: in particular, the nine Ruby men who attack the Convent; Ruby's three ministers, who quarrel over the meaning of God's love; Patricia Best, who tries unsuccessfully to understand social discriminations in Ruby; Consolata, who for much of the novel is tired of living; and Mavis and Gigi, who squabble over everything. Readers' brows also are likely to be furrowed as they try to absorb the complexities and nuances of this novel. A persistent theme in early reviews of the novel is its difficulty: Louis Menand finds that "the writing is more demanding and takes more chances" than in Song of Solomon or Beloved (78); Carol Shields calls it "a long, complex, fluent novel" and "a great sprawl of a narrative" (16); and for Richard Eder "to read Toni Morrison is to advance upon an Olympic wrestling master. We draw confidently near, only to be hurled onto our backs and set in the opposite direction" (2). (1) Morrison's own brow was also apparently furrowed while she wrote the novel, for she describes having to work very hard to create three-dimensional characters without indicating their race (Rose).

In a sense, there is nothing new about this: All the participants in Morrison's novels-characters, readers, presumably Morrison, and Morrison's narrator in Jazz-engage in serious work that usually furrows their brows. Readers are familiar with Morrison's tendency to delve beyond the what into the more problematic how and why, with her nonlinear, polyvocal, multi-stranded narratives; and with such challenging techniques as jump-cutting radically from one scene and/or perspective to another and dropping unexplained tidbits that leave readers suspended, waiting for more information. But in Paradise Morrison ups the ante. From its opening sentence, "They shoot the white girl first," readers are confronted with questions whose answers are usually delayed and sometimes never revealed: Who are "they"? Do they kill or only wound the girl? Which girl is white? Who else do they shoot, wound, or kill? Why are they shooting these women? Although readers eventually learn the identities and motives of the shooters, they ar e never told which of the Convent women is white or whether any of them besides Consolata is killed, just as they are left to wonder about many other details, such as who is related to whom in Ruby, what the motto on the communal oven says, or who the mysterious men are who occasionally appear (the walking man, Dovey's Friend, and the cowboy figure who talks with Consolata).

Just as Morrison moves beyond what to why and how, so should readers. The question is not what ambiguities arise in the text, nor is it how such ambiguities can be resolved. The issue centers on the effects Morrison creates through such an ambiguous and knotty text. The general effect is to require readers to work hard, so that they, like the characters and the author, become truly part of the fictional enterprise. Whereas Morrison's previous novels have invited readers to participate, have, in Morrison's words, left "holes and spaces so the reader can come into [them]" (Tate 25), in Paradise the reader is forced to work hard simply to enter into the text. Morrison takes a great risk here, since readers may not be willing to make such a commitment, may walk away rather than study and re-study the novel. She acknowledges this risk when she admits that this novel may not be her "most affecting or enjoyable" (Rose), but her comments suggest that her emphasis is on readers' participation rather than their enjoyme nt. For example, she left unidentified the races of the Convent women because "knowing about a person's race is the least amount of information an individual has when confronting another," and therefore readers will have to move beyond that conventional, but to Morrison less significant, piece of information and will thereby have "to be as creative as possible in responding to racial codes" (OnlineHost). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.