Ancestral roles

Literary analysis: identifying the ancestor role in Morrison’s 1994 work of fiction, “Paradise.”

The role of ancestor is a constant motive of much of Morrison’s magic-realist writing and it is something that she sees as being distinctively linked to Afro-American literature (Morrison 1988) and something that is important to the Afro-American community in the real world too. She makes it clear it is not so much the role of man but that of ancestor that can hold (and guide) the individual and the family unit, “if we don’t keep in touch with the ancestor that we are, in fact, lost.” (Morrison 2008 63). To understand the definition of the significance of the ancestor role in Morrison’s works of fiction, “one must become familiar with the function of ancestor in West African cosmology” (Beaulieu 2003 4). [1]  However, while in some of her novels, the ancestor character is pretty clear, it is not obvious in ‘Paradise’ (1994). In ‘Love’ we can attribute it to L, in ‘Song of Solomon’ we can attribute it to Pilate. Critics contend that the ancestor character is most explicitly spelt out and dealt with in the following works: ‘Tar Baby,’ ‘Beloved’ and ‘Jazz’ (ibid.). This short essay concerns itself with the possibility of Zechariah [2]  being the ancestor character in ‘Paradise,’ it also suggests that because gender not race is the key theme of this work, the ancestor element is possibly less important and thus, less prevalent.

Morrison asserts that the ancestor is one of the distinctive elements of Afro-American writing (2008 61) and terms them “timeless people” (62). The timeless status implies the ancestors’ abstractness and their ability to transcend both time and space, diachronically as well as synchronically. In Morrison’s understanding, the particular ancestors coalesce into an abstract mass whose influence on the present is marked, regardless of the times or eras the individual ancestors originate in. Such characters in Morrison’s magic-realist style function as advisor and guide. by always (or is it almost always?) including ancestor figures into her work she enables these “culture bearers” to serve as, “a bridging point between the past and present cultures, mixing the two and influencing the communities through their understanding” (Kota 2016 2).

‘Paradise’ is primarily concerned with two communities: the residents of the small town of Ruby and an old stately home called the Convent in the nearby countryside (Widdowson 2001 314). ‘Paradise’ begins with a group of men from Ruby prepare to kill five women who live in a nearby convent (Krumholz 2002). From the men’s perspectives, the women, like Eve, embody a loss of innocence and an ejection from the Garden of Eden, the earthly Paradise, a loss the men fear and wish to prevent. But as hunted does anointed with “holy oil,” the women are also Christ-like sacrificial victims and the men their executioners (Krumholz). After the massacre of the five women of the Convent by the men of Ruby, their bodies disappear, and the residents of Ruby are then obligated to make sense of the attack and the subsequent strange disappearances—“all the characters in the novel are haunted by past events” (Anderson 2008 146).

The Convent can be viewed as a kind informal women’s refuge. a kind of informal refuge for damaged women. This complicated work of magic-realist fiction is broken down into chapters named after the work’s key protagonists—e.g., “Mavis,” “Grace,” “Seneca.” All key characters are women and include, Gigi, a seductive young woman whose boyfriend is in jail; Seneca, a hitchhiker who has survived abandonment and sexual exploitation; Pallas, a wealthy lawyer’s daughter whose lover left her for her mother” (Kakutani 1998). For the characters of Morrison’s novel to “learn to live,” one literary critic argues they must, “negotiate borders not only between life and death and past and present but between all binaries” (Anderson 148). In ‘Paradise’ Morrison, “privileges liminality, as the Convent women, erased and negatively “ghosted” by the larger society, find empowerment through their communal spiritual experiences in the Convent” (ibid). [3]  . . .


See too:
01. — An in-depth profile of Toni Morrison
02. — Analysis: ‘paradise’s’ Mavis
03. — “Song of Solomon” by Morrison (1977)
04. — “Unspeakable, unspoken” by Morrison (1988)
05. — “Morrison, On Love,” just saying… by J.
06. — “Mask Wars,” just saying… by J.H.K.


. . .  Before considering the ancestor role in this work, we must focus more on gender. Why? Well because the focus on gender, reduced the need for and focus on the ancestor role. Whereas earlier Morrison novels like ‘Beloved’ and ‘Song of Solomon’ married the historical and the mythic, the mundane and the fantastic into a seamless piece of music, ‘Paradise’ is said to be, “devoid of both urgency and narrative sleight of hand. It is neither grounded in closely observed vignettes of real life, nor lofted by the dreamlike images the author has used so dexterously in previous works of fiction” (Kakutani 1998). However, it might be because this book is less about the Afro(-American) ancestor and more about gender inequality. Regarding the theme or the subtext, it has been argued that Morrison is saying that, “the price of Ruby’s insistence on maintaining a morally superior master narrative may well be the sacrifice of that very narrative. Rather than a perfect paradise, Ruby ends up as a conservative, patriarchal, thoroughly racialized, and violent community” (Dalsgård 2001). [4]

There is another view on the subtext, it is that Paradise is a. “provocative allegory of nationhood… it begins in July of 1976-the bicentennial of the United States… it is no coincidence that these men are black, and that the first woman they kill is white. When one reads the novel allegorically, as a reconfiguration of the founding of the United States, Morrison’s vision of totalising patriarchal historiography takes on double weight. Storace 1998; Davidson 2001 371). The novel ends (frustratingly and one must say intentionally) before we the readership can know the consequences of the massacre. But we do know what Misner thinks of it all, he inwardly chastises the town for thinking, “they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him… [this is a great thinking point placed here by Morrison:] How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it” (306). It is argued that Ruby, for Misner was an unnecessary failure (Davidson 370).

We first come across the character: Zechariah Morgan on page 96 of ‘Paradise’ (or as subsequently Morrison wished it had been titled “paradise” or alternatively “War”):

“My Father,” he said. “Zechariah here.” Then, after a few seconds of total silence, he began to hum the sweetest, saddest sounds Rector ever heard. Rector joined Big Papa on his knees and stayed that way all night.

What is in a hum? Nothing and everything. We can think of Pilate in ‘Song of Solomon’ to get some guidance here—it is this bellybuttonless ladies’ hum that opened and closed that book. Turning back to our Zechariah Morgan, he is the one who tells us about leading a group of people away from Louisiana toward Oklahoma. Being “too black” to be accepted into various communities along the way, this “disallowing gives them the impetus to migrate westward to establish their own town, Haven (Oki 2013 41)—recall that the character Mavis is headed West too to escape the chains of her husband to the promised lands of California. These basically forced migrations often noted in Morrison’s fiction have been linked by literary critics to the bible’s myth of “Exodus.”

It is Zechariah who talks about a mysterious “walking man” and says this is a moment of epiphany, a kind of revelation (Oki). Zechariah says of this incident, “you can’t start it and you can’t stop it” because, “this is god’s time… [god ain’t gunna] do your work for you, so step lively.” (Morrison 1994, 97–98). At the core of the history and its retelling are the figure of Zechariah Morgan as the link with the ancestor and the oven as a symbol of the ancestral ideas and stories (The Ancestor as Figure in the novels of Toni Morrison 128). It can be argued that the oven that Zechariah constructs in Haven and is then transported to Ruby is symbolic of the community and the fire that they gather around to pass on oral stories. As is mentioned, “Zechariah, the ancestral guardian of the 8-rock community, guides the original wayfarers in their search for the promised land” (ibid.).

To sum up, we can say that Morrison, in most, if not all of her books, seeks to champion the idea that being aware of one’s roots (one’s history in both cultural and ethnic senses) will have more importance to one’s success in life (be this inner contentment or being a good citizen) than would say ignoring the past and/or relying for the most part on self-help books et cetera. As has been said, the relationship between character and ancestor, in Morrison’s prose, “antagonistic or amicable, directly correlates with that character’s success in navigating life” (Beaulieu 5) Milkman’s shifting relationship with his (ancestor character) Aunt Pilate provides a great case study. Regarding ‘Paradise’ I think that Zechariah fits the bill, so to speak, of the ancestor character. It is not as clear cut as in other novels, but ‘Paradise’ maybe had a more contemporary subtext message which may have been less about rootedness and more about feminism.

— § —


NOTES

[1]   In West African mythology the ancestors live on in a spiritual continuum between worlds and generations. It is articulated as follows: “While anyone has the power to tap into the energies of the ancestors [it is typically the elders of the community that do this in order to] ensure that subsequent generations understand the importance of the ancestors … Morrison modifies this use of the ancestor and transforms it into a literary device that explores the manifold ways in which characters relate to their ancestors and, by extension, their communities” (Beaulieu 2003 4–7).

[2]   Zechariah is a historic character linked to the bible’s Old Testament and is thought to have helped pen the ‘Book of Zechariah’. What might be interesting and explain why Morrison chose this name for the (or one of the) ancestor figure(s) in ‘Paradise’ was because of Zechariah’s circumstances. He was said to have been in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) during the reign of Darius the Great in the era when the Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem (think: Africans forcibly transferred from Africa to the heart of America as a consequence of the slave ships) and were being encouraged to build (temporary) homes in lands they’d not originated from (think: Haven then Ruby).

[3]   As is argued, the convent is depicted as a liminal space in which, “the monolithic categories of religion, race, class, and gender converge and make cultural hybridity possible,” this is in stark contrast to Ruby and its men who, “perceive hybridity as a disruptive evil which threatens their sense of selfhood and nationhood” (Fraile-Marcos 2003 4). To be clear here, in an anthropological (and maybe to cognitive and psychological sense) liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that takes place in the middle stage of a rite of passage. French philosopher Jacques Derrida said that if learning to live is to be achieved, “it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone” (Anderson 146). In a liminal state of mind, the concerned individual—or protagonist in a work of fiction—will no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete; a stage between text and subtext, between conscious and unconscious:

Liminal Thinking (Gray 2016)
“Liminal Thinking,” an illustration by Gray (2016).

[4]   To expand on this point more fully: “By making Ruby’s success dependent on an ancestral heroic commemoration of the success of the community’s founding fathers in establishing a covenanted community in an inhospitable western landscape, by dramatising the angry accusations made by the community’s contemporary patriarchs against the younger generations when the discrepancy between its morally superior master narrative and its actual cultural practices becomes too vast to ignore, and by ultimately having Ruby scapegoat a group of unconventional women for its internal problems, Morrison invites us critically to acknowledge the presence of one of the most canonical European American narratives—that of American exceptionalism, in African American discourse”(Dalsgård 2001 244).

— § —

Works Cited

Anderson, Melanie R. “‘What Would Be on the Other Side?”: Spectrality and Spirit Work in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” African American Review, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 307–321. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40301213. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann (Ed.). The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, (2003).

Dalsgård, Katrine. “The One All-Black Town Worth the Pain: (African) American Exceptionalism, Historical Narration, and the Critique of Nationhood in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” African American Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 233–248. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2903255. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Davidson, Rob. “Racial Stock and 8-Rocks: Communal Historiography in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 47, no. 3, 2001, pp. 355–373. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3176022. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Fraile-Marcos, Ana Maria. “Hybridizing the “City upon a Hill” in Toni Morrison’s “Paradise”.” Melus, vol. 28, no. 4, 2003, pp. 3–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/3595298

Gray, David. “The roots of Liminal Thinking.” Medium. https://medium.com/@davegray/the-roots-of-liminal-thinking-3be4bea6fd63. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Worthy Women, Unredeemable Men.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/06/books/books-of-the-times-worthy-women-unredeemable-men.html. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Kota, Mounica. “The Hybridizing Nature of Ancestor Presence in Morrison’s Sula,” Oglethorpe Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 6 , no 2. https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/ojur/vol6/iss2/8. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Krumholz, Linda J. “Reading and Insight in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” African American Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 2002, pp. 21–34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2903362. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, University of Michigan. (1988)

—————— Paradise. New York: Knopf. (1994)

—————— “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in T. Morrison, What Moves at the Margin (pp. 56–65). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. (2008)

Oki, Shoko. ““War” in Toni Morrison’s Paradise: History and Its Discontinuity or Reconstruction.” Osaka Literary Review 51 (2013): pp. 37–49.

Storace, Patricia. “The Scripture of Utopia: Review of ‘Paradise,’ by Toni Morrison.” New York Review of Books. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1998/06/11/the-scripture-of-utopia/. Accessed 19 July 2020.

The Ancestor as Figure in the novels of Toni Morrison. sg.inflibnet.ac.in/08_chapter4.pdf. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Widdowson, Peter. “The American Dream Refashioned: History, Politics and Gender in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Journal of American Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 313–335. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/27556969. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Author: Anna Bidoonism

You'll find poems, prose & literary analysis on my blog -- this is who I am.

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