Winner of the 2013 WTM Riches Essay Prize
“It seems to me that really truthful American novels would have the heroes and heroines alike looking for mothers instead [of fathers]. This needn’t be embarrassing. It’s simply true,” writes Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in Breakfast of Champions. “A mother is much more useful” (268). This is a sentiment that Toni Morrison shares in Paradise, the final instalment in her thematically linked trilogy, the first two books being Beloved and Jazz. Paradise, this essay will argue, is about the search for a new type of mother in a rootless, patriarchal-driven America. The characters are trying to combat what Morrison terms the “anxiety of belonging,” and one significant way of belonging is by establishing a link with a mother figure (Morrison qtd. Krumholz 24). In Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart, Andrea O’Reilly writes that “Morrison portrays motherhood, in all of its dimensions – motherwork, motherlove, and the motherline – as a political enterprise with social consequences” (x). Indeed this essay will echo this sentiment, arguing that the search for a new configuration of motherhood is a political act as much as a social one. By asserting themselves as matriarchal figures the women in Paradise serve to establish a new form of self-governance. This essay will also consider why othermothering is such a subversive act which destabilise the patriarchal status quo by challenging and replacing the accepted view of the mother figure as passive and unchanging.
In the recently established Black-only town of Ruby there is a search for a new mother. The inhabitants have been displaced by history. Only two generations previously their grandparents served as slaves on white plantations, and once they gained their freedom became homeless wanderers when rejected from the first Black towns by lighter-skinned Black populations. Ruby, furthermore, is this group’s second attempt to establish their own home. Their first town, Haven, proved to be a failure. In the nearby female-run Convent we observe a similar search for a mother. All those who are drawn there have suffered traumas in their past and are trying to escape difficult family situations. They arrive at the Convent in search of maternal guidance. They too have been buffeted around by the course of their own history, compounding their anxiety of belonging. The search for a place to call home – or, a motherland – in such circumstances is unsurprising. Whatever kind of mother figure they find, however, cannot simply be discovered. It must instead be created. In Paradise we observe not only the search for a mother figure, but the creation of motherhood in order to fulfil such desires. These acts of creation are performed very differently by separate groups in the community, each with their own aims and ideals.
I use the term mother here not in the biological or even necessarily the gendered sense of the word. What I mean by “mother” is what Patricia Hill Collins terms “othermother” in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. “[O]thermothers are key not only in supporting children but also in helping bloodmothers who, for whatever reason lack the preparation or desire for motherhood” (120). In Paradise Morrison encourages a movement towards a new configuration of motherhood, one which is not tied to blood or history but is more fluid and horizontal. Rather than the typical direction of care passed from a mother to a child this new movement is one of give and take. Parents and children (or sisters or friends) must learn to be mothers to each other. Furthermore, the role of the othermother is not a private but a political role. As Collins argues, the othermother is a public figure who works on behalf of the Black community. Community-based childcare has profoundly influenced African societies and their descendents throughout history (121). The power of the othermother is transformative: “its purpose is to bring people along, to – in the words of late-nineteenth-century Black feminists – ‘uplift the race’ so that vulnerable members of the community will be able to attain the self-reliance and independence essential for resistance” (132). In Paradise we observe the journey of mother figures such as Consolata and Lone as they learn to use their maternal powers to nurture and instil confidence in their adopted children in Ruby and the Convent. Ultimately they discover how to be othermothers to those around them and finally to themselves.
The search for a mother figure is very important, particularly for the female characters. O’Reilly claims that “Morrison defines motherhood, and in particular maternal identity, as a site of agency and authority for black women” (19), while Collins observes that “motherhood can serve as a site where Black women express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting ourselves” (118). All the women who are drawn to the Convent have been adversely affected by their relationship with motherhood, and their self-definition has suffered as a result. Mavis is a failed mother who accidentally kills her babies in an attempt to avoid being beaten by her male lover. Seneca is abandoned by her mother and abused in a string of foster homes. Pallas becomes pregnant having been raped. Grace, meanwhile, has an absence of female role models in her life, spending her time with boyfriends while her father is in jail (Fuqua 46-7: Krumholz 28). This is also true of the Ruby women who spend time in the Convent. Arnette and Soane travel there in distress when they fall pregnant. Billie Delia turns to the Convent women because of her antagonistic relationship with her own mother. Sweetie finds herself drawn to it when her four children fall ill (Michael 655). Whether it concerns a woman’s relationship to her mother or to her children, if maternal ties have come undone or were never properly established, a woman’s sense of self is undermined. Sally Browder argues that women’s lives are embedded in relationships: “Their identities are formed, nurtured, sustained, and understood in connections with other people. In the mother-daughter relationship and in other relationships among women lie the vital and varying sources of feminine selfhood” (111). The Convent is somewhere they all hope to find an alternative view of motherhood, and create an alternative view of self. Those that do so succeed, at least for a while, in creating a communal matriarchy in which the women learn to care for one another.
The men of Ruby are locked in a similar search for a mother figure, albeit unconsciously. They have spent so long worshipping their own grandfathers and fathers that their grandmothers and mothers have been all but forgotten. The history of Ruby has been a patriarchal history, stressing how instrumental its “Fathers” were in its establishment (Krumholz 23). Indeed, in a town of only 360 citizens there are three churches, three religious fathers, and no female figures in public roles. The mother figures are all but ignored by the patriarchy. This is demonstrated by the scene wherein the Morgan and Fleetwood men are discussing how to deal with Arnette’s pregnancy. While the patriarchs of the town deal with the issues they deem important, the mothers deal with the day-to-day living of the town. It is only during an “awkward silence” that they hear above their heads “the light click of heels: the women pacing, servicing, fetching, feeding – whatever it took to save the children who could not save themselves” (60). There is thus a significant absence of living mother figures in Ruby’s history. Ignoring the figures around them that could constitute a living matriarchy, the men of Ruby look to history for their mothers. Where the women find figures of motherhood in other people to secure them in the present, the men look to objects and ideas to root them to the past.
The most significant objects that the men of Ruby look to as mother figures are the Oven, and the town of Ruby itself. These are objects that have female connotations but have been created by men in order to serve men, allowing the men to reap the benefits of motherly care while shaping their “mother” to their own requirements. This is a paradox which Simone de Beauvoir writes about in The Second Sex: “man wishing to find nature in woman, but nature transfigured, dooms woman to artifice” (191). The men of Ruby find solace in these objects precisely because of their unchanging nature. Linda J. Krumholz writes:
The Oven has clear associations with women in its womblike attributes and as a communal cooking area presided over by women. But Morrison makes the Oven symbolize both male and female, womb and phallus, a ‘flawlessly designed Oven that both nourished them and monumentalized what they had done.’ The Oven is both object and subject, passive and active, womb and mouth, head and heart; it is ’round as a head, deep as desire’ (25).
The Oven has been created as a feminine object of nurture and care, but it is a man-made object, built by men who believe their image of motherhood is the true version. This unbending, immortal version of motherhood has allowed subsequent generations to be “nurtured” by this object of motherhood, but it has twisted the reality of what motherhood entails. A human mother is as changed by time as much as anyone else, and insisting on a rigid, never changing idol undermines the actions of a human mother.
Ruby itself also suggests a woman’s nature transfigured to artifice. Named after one of the few female relatives to accompany the men to the spot that would one day become the town, the Morgan twins’ (Deacon and Stewart) sister Ruby died soon after the journey. Still young and presumably of a child-bearing age, she becomes an ideal mother figure that shapes the founding fathers’ image of what motherhood entails. The danger, however, of basing the town on a mother figure that is forever immortalised, forever perfect, means that the town itself must remain in a state of arrested development. Sarah Appleton Aguair notes, “[L]ike the original death-less Eden, nobody dies in Ruby. Yet nobody ‘lives’ in Ruby either, as the town exists within the isolated parameters of its citizens’ powerfully executed will. By allowing no outside encroachment, Ruby remains dead to change, static” (513).
As one of Ruby’s citizens Patricia Best astutely realises, the ruling men of Ruby doom the women of the town to artifice in the same way. In order to assure the longevity of their bloodlines (and possibly their own lives, if the Morgan brothers’ superstition is to be believed), these men stop at no costs to ensure the purity of their families. This means, in effect, controlling the actions and reproductive choices of their wives and daughters through the generations: “Unadulterated and unadulteried 8-rock blood held its magic as long as it resided in Ruby. That was their recipe. That was their deal. For Immortality” (217). Each woman is expected deviate as little as possible from the previous generation, thus creating on immortal archetypal mother figure that is forbidden from marrying outsiders. Indeed, this same taboo dictates that foreign women cannot marry into the town either; the one man who does challenge the rigid boundaries of Ruby society is severely punished for it. Roger Best undermines the ethos of the town by marrying a light-skinned outsider and breaks the blood rule by marrying outside of the founding “8-rock” families. The men respond by refusing to help his wife, Delia, during childbirth, leading to her death. The town also strips Roger of his own history, reducing the number of founding families from nine to eight in the annual Christmas pageant.
This takes me to a reading of the much debated words on the “Oven’s iron lip” (6). If we consider the struggle between the feminine “natural” and ever-changing view of motherhood versus the masculine, idealised, static and concrete motherhood, then the dispute between whether the words read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” or “Be the Furrow of His Brow” takes on a new meaning (86-7) . If the “Furrow” is a trench made by a plough, and the “Brow” taken to be the brow or top of a hill, then we come to realise that the men are scared of the natural workings of womankind, particularly that of motherhood. Woman “is the earth, and man the seed” De Beauvoir writes. “[M]ore often man is in revolt against his carnal state;” “his curse is to be fallen from a bright and ordered heaven into the chaotic shadows of his mother’s womb” (176-7). This “Furrow” which the men fear is motherhood itself. If allowed to act autonomously, free of patriarchal-driven rule, motherhood would be permitted to remind these men of their own mortality, “imprisoned by women in the mud of the earth” as they all are (de Beauvoir 177). They must therefore have complete control over motherhood, forbidding any woman an equal level of authority to themselves. This fear in mother figures is highlighted in the advice Lone receives from the woman who taught her how to be a midwife: “’Don’t mistake the fathers’ thanks,’ Fairy had warned her. ‘Men scared of us, always will be. To them we’re death’s handmaiden standing as between them and the children their wives carry’” (272).
This is ultimately why nine men decide to kill the Convent women. When one of the men is searching through the Convent’s kitchen he comes across a stock pot. “His mother bathed him in a pot no bigger than that,” we are told (5). He is disturbed not only by the differences between his own mother and these new women; he is also disturbed by the similarities between them. They are women who could have chosen to take the traditional path of motherhood, but are now operating outside its norms. This is the argument they use to justify what they are about to do: “These here sluts out there by themselves never step foot in church and I bet you a dollar to a fat nickel they ain’t thinking about one either. They don’t need men and they don’t need God. Can’t say they haven’t been warned” (276). “Unless feminine virginity has been dedicated to a god,” de Beauvoir writes, “one easily believes that it implies some kind of marriage with the demon” (187). Although the Convent women are not virgins the same argument applies: they have “escaped” the rule of the Ruby men or “gods,” and because of this they are now accused of lying with the devil. Furthermore, because they have helped their own wives, sisters, and daughters, Ruby’s families are being “infected” by this outsider influence. They are female outsiders who threaten to spoil their pure 8-rock lineages and break the spell of artifice that keeps Ruby from evolving: “Drawing folks out there like flies to shit and everybody who goes near them is maimed somehow and the mess is seeping back into our homes, our families. We can’t have it, you all” (276).
The Convent women choose instead to “Be the Furrow of Her Brow,” (157) electing to break away from patriarchal rule. As observed above, the women who turn to the Convent do so due to failures in the traditional image of the mother. The Convent gives them space to create a new form of motherhood. Rather than simply pushing at the boundaries of motherhood, the Convent women search for a new form of motherhood that dictates an alternative way of living. The Convent women, Krumholz writes, “carry no ideals of family or society in their wanderings, but together they tackle the anxiety of belonging and create an open house by challenging the social and historical strictures that surround them” (24). By challenging their surroundings their motherwork becomes a political act, suggesting that motherhood is not a private family act but a movement between women and the society around them.
Before Mary Magna’s death, the Convent is already a place of safety and nurturing. Billie Delia comes to make friends when she is rejected from the town. Consolata brews tonics to help with depression and grows food that is bought and consumed eagerly by Ruby residents. She also has the gift of “stepping in,” taught to her by Lone, which allows her to temporarily possess another person’s body to prevent pain or resist death. Consolata uses this power on several occasions, allowing her to take on the role of an othermother. After saving Soane Morgan’s son, who was fatally injured in a car crash Soane thanks Consolata, recognising her role as a maternal one: “he was lucky to have us both,” she tells her (246). She also steps in to prolong Mary Magna’s life and eventually to ease her suffering in her final moments, allowing her to enter death “like a birthing, rocked and prayed for” (223). This immense power scares her and Consolata thinks of it “Like devilment. Like evil craft” (246). This is a power passed from woman to woman which encourages a maternal instinct. It is something foreign to male-dominated areas of society and religion, and thus implies “some kind of marriage with the demon” (de Beauvoir 187). Krumholz suggests that this process of “stepping in” allows one to “discover new thoughts, new possibilities of knowledge or action, and new ways of understanding what is within oneself” (29). Such possibilities pose a significant threat to the current system of male-dominated control which insists on the inferiority of women.
The end of the “traditional” form of motherhood is signalled by Mary Magna’s death when the Convent finds itself divorced from organised religion and hierarchy. This is not to say that her sisterhood was not in some way the prototype for what is to come. Mary Magna’s order was considered “a bevy of strange Catholic women with no male mission to control them” in a Protestant country. (233) Furthermore, the sisterhood is a clear case of community beyond genealogical ties. In the wake of Magna’s death, however, the Convent’s concerns shift from a patriarchal-driven religion towards a more feminine spirituality, open to all beliefs and sexualities. Her death is also a crisis moment in the life of the Convent. Philip Page notes that each of the recently arrived women is “a case study in familial and psychological disorientation, and together they are radically heterogeneous and cacophonic” (645). Consolata, like the others, has been left adrift without a mother figure to anchor her: “When Mary Magna died, Consolata, fifty-four years old, was orphaned in a way she was not as a street baby and was never as a servant” with “no identification, no insurance, no family, no work” (247).
It is at this time that Pallas, only sixteen and pregnant as a result of rape, arrives at the Convent. She reminds Consolata of another pregnant girl, presumably Arnette, who arrived a few years before, “revolted by the work of her womb. A revulsion so severe it cut mind from body and saw its flesh-producing flesh as foreign, rebellious, unnatural, diseased” (249). This girl has been so indoctrinated by patriarchal society as to distrust the maternal workings of her own body, and is, like the others, cut off from all sense of self. Rather than permit the others to help her deliver she resorts to injuring herself in an attempt to kill her unborn child. The baby is born prematurely and lives for only a few days. This baby symbolises the danger of allowing motherhood to be dictated by patriarchal-driven rule which is revolted by the workings of motherhood. Consolata is thus left with two choices: to either surrender and permit this to happen to Pallas, or to institute a new way of living which will allow those on the outskirts of society to flourish and grow. She chooses the second option. “If you want to be here you do what I say,” she tells her new charges. “Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for” (262). As their mother she will not only feed and care for them, she will teach them how to find themselves.
Consolata who, Page claims, “comes to think of herself in terms of her beloved Mary Magnus” (645-6) becomes the mother the directionless women need, teaching them how to care for each other and ultimately become mothers themselves. She instructs the four women to create “templates” or outlines of their own bodies painted onto the Convent’s basement floor. Morrison herself highlights the creative aspect of black female maternal influence in conversation with Bill Moyers: “we’re managing households and other people’s children and two jobs and listening to everybody, and at the same time, creating, singing, holding, bearing, transferring the culture, for generations. We’ve been walking on water for 400 years” (“Toni Morrison”). Clearly, this type of mothercare is as innovative as it is nurturing. The template scene suggests a chance at being reborn, as each of the women lie safe within the cocoon of their own outline, getting ready to face the outside world. The difference between this birth and their original birth is that they are given a chance to shape themselves: “How should we lie? However you feel” (263). Following this they paint women inside the silhouettes. This proves to be very therapeutic: rather than cutting herself, Seneca chooses to “mark the open body lying on the cellar floor” (265), allowing her to observe her own problems from a distance rather than be overwhelmed by them. It enables the women to understand and begin to care for themselves.
The multiplicity of shapes suggests the multiplicity of womanhood and challenges the belief that motherhood is a single, unbending role. In particular, this scene, composed of Black women and a white woman from diverse backgrounds with distinct personalities contrasts with Deacon’s heavily ingrained memory of the “nineteen Negro ladies” he observed as a child. Arranging themselves on a town hall’s steps, Deacon and Steward observe them as they pose for a photograph. The women in Deacon’s memory are almost identical, all wearing light summer dresses “the delicacy of which neither of them had ever seen,” with waists “not much bigger than their necks” and skin “creamy and luminous in the afternoon sun” (109). The impossible uniformity and the perpetual youth of this image has left Deacon and the other men searching for ways to duplicate such a scene, and the Convent women disturb the image of a perfect mother through the play of differences.
Consolata also introduces them to “loud dreaming:” a process in which each woman recalls her traumatic past by talking through it, allowing her to unburden herself and enabling the other women to find common ground. Page observes the similarities between loud dreaming and “stepping out:” “Just as Lone steps in to a dying person’s body and soul, so Connie teaches the four women to step into each other’s. Each loses herself in full identification with each other, in acts of total interpretation[.]” By doing so “they heal themselves,” gaining both “self and community” (642). Loud dreaming allows the women to care for each other through identification, acting collectively as mothers for each other.
The Convent women are no longer simply challenging patriarchal control. They have become what Collins terms community othermothers, creating their own way of living:
Community othermothers’ actions demonstrate a clear rejection of separateness and individual interest as the basis of either community organization or individual self-actualization. Instead, the connectedness with others and common interest expressed by community othermothers models a very different system, one whereby Afrocentric feminist ethics of caring and personal accountability move communities forward. (131-2)
They have transcended the first few interpretations of the Oven’s message and have taken up a new one: “We Are The Furrow of His Brow” (298). By taking positive action they have left behind the fear of motherhood (Beware the Furrow) and are no longer simply imagining a new form of motherhood (Be the Furrow). Assuming the mantle of community othermothers has instilled in them a new sense of purpose.
The men have failed in moulding these women to their desire, and so they kill the women as they desire to kill death itself. De Beauvoir writes that “Born of the flesh, the man in love finds fulfilment as flesh, and the flesh is destined to the tomb. Here the alliance between Woman and Death is confirmed” (197). These women have defied and continue to defy the demands of rigidity and artifice which their view of motherhood demands, and thus have made them aware of their own mortality. As Aguair notes,
Although the men fear racial impurity and social change, they fear death most of all . . . . [W]hat drives them to murder the Convent women is the desire to rid Ruby of the abomination of blatant death. In their plotting, the men of Ruby feel elation: confronting death, instigating it, enhances their static “perfect” lives. (516-7)
Murdering these women is the only way they believe they can restore their own power and the power of the mother figures they have created in order to serve their selfish aims.
Ultimately, however, their actions fail. Their attempt to maintain the status quo has resulted in a monstrous breach of that same status quo. For a town that has always prided itself on the safety of its women (9), the murder of five defenceless women, even if they are outsiders, is an act that cannot be justified. For the nine men who went out to the Convent that day, life is altered in various ways, from Arnold Fleetwood who is “suddenly a very old man with a persistent headache” to Wisdom Poole whose “Seventy family members held him accountable . . . for scandalizing their forefather’s reputations” (299). The most significant change is that of Deacon Morgan. In the aftermath of the massacre he walks down Ruby’s roads for the first time in more than a decade. The car that he has driven everywhere for so long has served not only as a status symbol but as a mother figure. Safe inside the metal man-made machine, it kept him sheltered from the outside world. Walking along barefoot he understands for the first time that he has become “what the Old Fathers cursed: the kind of man who set himself up to judge, rout, even destroy the needy, the defenceless [sic], the different” (302). The men’s attempt to deny death has resulted in more deaths than the town has witnessed since its inception (Krumholz 22).
Thus the women’s claim to motherhood is strengthened rather than diminished through death. For, as Reverend Misner tells Ruby, “what is sown is not alive until it dies” (307). Being the “Furrow of His Brow” endows one with the power to change and to die. Aguair claims that Misner’s recognition that life and death cannot exist without each validates the Convent women’s lives and their deaths. It also suggests a “healthy re-beginning for Ruby” (518). In the final moments of the novel there is a possibility that Ruby will follow the Convent’s example and become a society embracing of differences, focused more on caring than self-centredness. Krumholz supports this theory:
Throughout Paradise the men are associated with phallogocentrism, with fixed authority, unitary meaning, and individual acquisition and control, while the women are associated with movement, multiple meanings, and shared labor and goods. Nonetheless, the greater insight of Misner and Deacon Morgan by the end of the novel indicates these gender divisions are not biologically determined. (25)
The town now looks to Misner, who has been encouraging dialogue between Ruby’s feuding faiths and generations. Misner is an outsider: he was not born in the town, never mind being a member of the 8-rock families. His marriage proposal to Anna Flood symbolises progression towards an acceptance of “the different,” and their actions towards each other suggest they respect each other as equals. When Misner and Anna revisit the Convent weeks after the raid, they “sense” (305) a closed door and an open window. They do not privilege one over the other, acknowledging instead that they see the world differently. Page suggests “This intuitive experience parallels Lone’s, Connie’s, and the Convent women’s versions of empathetic interpretation.” (642). There is thus hope that Misner and Anna can continue on where the Convent women left off, establishing Ruby as a society of communal othermothers.
The women return to their families, most likely in some sort of ghost-like form, at the end of Paradise (Michael 658). This is their ultimate triumph over the men, as even in death their maternal influence lives on. Now they have learned to be mothers to themselves they are able to reconnect with their abandoned lives. In most cases they are met with recognition by their family members. There is the suggestion that now that the women know themselves they can be recognised by those who have been looking for them. In finding them they too have found a source of comfort, a maternal figure. The only exception is Seneca’s “sister” Jean, who refuses to acknowledge that she is Seneca’s mother. Claiming that Seneca is simply “Some girl I thought I knew from before,” (317) she forfeits the ability to reconnect with her own daughter. Consolata is found by the ocean next to Piedade, a woman who she earlier mentioned to the Convent women. In the final moments of Paradise we see the ultimate possibilities of community othermothers. Amy Fuqua observes that Consolata and Piedade’s relationship stresses human understanding and compassion on a global scale, across racial and geographic divides:
Although Piedade must be genetically African (She is “black as firewood”), she has a Brazillian [sic] name, and since Connie has “tea brown hair” and “emerald eyes,” she must be partly genetically European. At least three continents are, then, represented in this close, emotional kinship. Their intimacy is made possible by the recognition of common need and common suffering.
The political connotation of othermothering are observed through the uniting not only of individuals but of entire continents. This connection between the two women is a “sympathy that can expand beyond the circle of intimate friends to include strangers” the world over (51-2). The older woman looks out into the ocean to see “what has come” and sees a ship, “heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble[.]” These new visitors will, just as the Convent women did, “rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in Paradise” (Morrison 318). They will join Piedade and Consolata in their work as communal othermothers to change the world for the better.
Paradise is thus an American novel in which its characters search for a mother figure that will put an end to their anxiety of belonging. Morrison warns against deifying motherhood as the men of Ruby do; instead of enshrining mother figures and relegating them to the past they should be given space to learn and grow as mothers, as in the Convent. Morrison challenges the traditional view of motherhood and finds it lacking. There is hope for the future of Ruby only once the important connections between life, death, and motherhood are finally understood. Due to the influence of the Convent the role of community othermothers may finally be claimed by the women and men of Ruby, allowing the town to finally break free of its past. Indeed, the end of Paradise can be seen as maternal closure for the whole of Morrison’s trilogy. Unlike the eponymous character of Beloved whose return as a ghost proved to be dangerous for her family, the women who return in Paradise do so successfully, bringing relief and clarity to their loved ones. The Eden imagined in Jazz is more fully realised in the purpose-built paradise created through the efforts of Piedade and Consolata. Through Paradise Morrison encourages a new configuration of motherhood that is more encompassing and matriarchal, in which women and men can learn to be mothers to each other.
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