The book is structured into nine sections. The first is named “Ruby” after the town on which the book centers. The rest are named for women implicated variously in the life of the town and the Convent. The Convent women are Mavis, Grace (known as ‘Gigi’), Seneca, Divine (whose name is actually ‘Pallas’), and Consolata (also known as ‘Connie’). The Ruby women - or children, in the case of Save-Marie - are Patricia and Lone. Though the chapters are named for specific characters, in telling their stories, Morrison tells the parallel histories of the town of Ruby and the Convent seventeen miles south of it, and how the men of Ruby become intent on destroying the Convent women.
Paradise opens in 1976 with nine men going in for the kill. They are the prominent men of Ruby, a purposefully isolated, peaceful all-black town in Oklahoma with a population of 360. In this group are the twins Steward and Deacon “Deek” Morgan, the de facto leaders of the town. Throughout the book we gradually learn why Ruby was founded, the history of the failed town of Haven that preceded it, and the reasons for Ruby’s rigid hierarchies and stringent exclusion of outsiders, to the point where the town’s leaders decide they must eliminate the nearby Convent, not in fact a convent but rather a former embezzler’s mansion now inhabited by a group of women with troubled pasts.
Before Ruby, there was Haven. Founded in Oklahoma in 1890, Haven was founded by a group containing nine complete families (the Blackhorses, Beauchamps, Catos, two DuPres families, Fleetwoods, Floods, Morgans, and Pooles) and fragments of others. The founding fathers, led by Zechariah Morgan, are motivated to found a new community by the exclusion they face from public life and job opportunities, both as black men and particularly as dark-skinned black men. When they arrive in the place where they decide to situate their new town, they first built a large and sturdy Oven of brick and iron, even though they are living in wagons and sod shelters. The Oven both nourishes them and serves as a symbol of everything they have achieved.
Haven flourishes for several decades but falters in the post World War II period. Returning from service, the twins Deacon and Steward Morgan perceive that not much has changed in the outside world since Haven was founded: there is still rampant colorism and anti-black discrimination. Preferring to renew the mission begun by their forefathers of self-sufficient isolation from the outside world, in 1949 they lead a group of fifteen families out of Haven to found a new all-black town. The men take the Oven with them when they leave Haven at the expense of other supplies, and painstakingly rebuild it when they arrive, although in the new town it serves principally a symbolic rather than practical purpose. Though called ‘New Haven’ in the interim, it is eventually named ‘Ruby’, after the younger sister of the Morgan twins who dies when she is repeatedly refused medical attention because of her race. The name of the town, therefore, belies the way in which it is founded out of the indignation of exclusion, and the inability of black men to “protect” black women in the outside world. The inhabitants are proud of the fact that Ruby has no jail or cemetery, because it has never needed either; besides Ruby Smith herself and Delia Best, no one has ever died on its soil.
Though there are fifteen founding families of Ruby, we learn that there are hierarchies. Of the fifteen there were nine considered racially pure, a number that has dwindled to seven. The Morgan twins are able to assume unchallenged power in the town because their father founded the bank, and they therefore have amassed the most money and property. Ruby becomes the inverse of the outside world: though whites are hated in an abstract way, light-skinned blacks are specifically discriminated against–if not, ideally, kept out altogether. Though for some of its residents Ruby is a reprieve from the race-based discrimination of the world “Out There,” it still has a strongly patriarchal structure. The town’s strict racial codes have harmed some of its residents severely. Menus’ alcoholism, though publicly attributed to his experiences during the Vietnam War, seems to stem from the shame and despair he has felt ever since he abandoned the light-skinned woman he intended to marry. Likewise, the men of Ruby refuse to seek outside medical help in an emergency for Delia Best, Roger Best’s light-skinned wife, causing her to die in childbirth in a tragic mirror of Ruby Smith’s experience.
At the point at which the book opens, there is great anxiety about Ruby’s future. The town has seen increasingly open signs of division. Steward and Dovey Morgan have not been able to have children and Deek and Soane’s sons die at war, leaving no Morgan heir to Ruby’s leadership besides K.D. Smith, an often insolent young man who angers his uncles by spending time chasing after one of the Convent women, Gigi. The Reverend Richard Misner, a young upstart recently arrived in town, is deeply invested in the civil rights struggle, models himself after Martin Luther King, and believes Ruby needs to be more open to the changes afoot in the outside world; in turn, the older generations believe he is engendering radicalism and rebelliousness among the town’s youth. The Oven has been taken over as a hangout spot for local youth, and one day it is graffitied with a Black Power fist with red-painted nails. The elder generations believe that the young do not understand or respect Ruby’s history, encapsulated in their desire to modify the slogan that appears on the Oven: though it now says only ‘… the Furrow of his Brow’, the town elders claim it used to say ‘Beware’ at the beginning, whereas the younger generation wishes to make it ‘Be the Furrow of his Brow’. Finally, the town is scandalized when the Convent women make a rowdy appearance at K.D. and Arnette’s wedding, a wedding partly intended to ease the conflict between the Morgan and Fleetwood families and to conceal Arnette’s earlier aborted pregnancy by K.D.
Eventually, after a series of selectively interpreted “signs,” and based on the perception that the Convent is corrupting the town with its amorality and purported witchcraft, Sergeant Person, Wisdom Poole, Arnold and Jeff Fleetwood, Harper and Menus Jury, Steward and Deacon Morgan, and K.D. Smith decide during a meeting at the Oven to destroy the Convent.
The Convent is an elaborate mansion built by an embezzler in an isolated part of Oklahoma. Its architecture reflects both its creator’s hedonism and his paranoia: shaped like the cartridge of a gun, it is windowless in one end. The paranoia is justified, because the embezzler lives only briefly in the mansion before he is arrested by Northern lawmen. The mansion then falls into the hands of some Catholic nuns, the presence of whom is an anomaly in the principally Protestant Oklahoma. The property becomes widely known as ‘the Convent’ although it actually serves principally as a boarding school for Indian girls, where they are educated to forget their own culture. The Mother Superior Mary Magna administrates the school, herself faithfully served by Consolata, a woman she kidnapped as an orphan child living in destitution.
During this period, the families from Haven have settled into the area seventeen miles south of the Convent. There is not much interaction between the Convent and the town, though Mary Magna is glad to have a pharmacy close by. On one trip into Ruby, Consolata spots Deacon “Deek” Steward, with whom she has a two-month affair that ends when she repulses him with the carnal intensity of her desire.
When the foundation that funds the school begins to run out of money, the nuns are gradually reassigned or moved on to other posts, and the last two Indian girls run away. However, Mary Magna, Sister Roberta, and Consolata remain behind. In order to maintain the Convent and avoid incurring debt, the women begin a burgeoning business from things they produce on their property; in addition to their renowned extra-hot peppers, they also sell relishes, barbecue sauce, pies, and eggs. Eventually Sister Roberta moves into a nursing home and Consolata dedicates herself to the care of Mary Magna, who falls into a long illness.
It is around this time that women begin to arrive at the Convent. They arrive by accident, in flight from fraught lives (abusive husbands and dead babies; parental betrayal or neglect; abandonment by lovers and violent pasts), but one by one they seem drawn into staying permanently. The first is Mavis; Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas then follow. They do not all get along - Mavis and Gigi in particular often clash. However, they seem to find in the Convent an escape from troubled circumstances (often related to men) where they are listened to and cared for without judgment. Though they may leave from time to time, the women always return.
In the same way, during this stage of the Convent’s history, women of Ruby - as well as one man, Menus - come to the Convent in times of need. The problems and compulsions that the elder statesmen of Ruby would prefer to sweep under the rug seem inevitably to end up at the Convent. Soane, Deek’s wife, comes to confront Connie about her affair and ends up becoming her friend, from whom she later receives “tonics” that help ease her mind in the aftermath of her sons’ deaths at war. Arnette becomes pregnant by K.D. and stays at the Convent to carry the pregnancy to term, though she tries and succeeds in inducing an abortion by self-harm (Ruby residents speculate that the Convent women beat her and caused her to lose the baby, a lie that Arnette encourages). Billie Delia stays at the Convent after a violent fight with her mother, who believes, like the rest of the town, that she is wild and promiscuous. K.D. carries on a two-year affair with Gigi, who leaves him, solidifying his hatred of the Convent. The women of the Convent care for Menus as he recovers from alcoholism.
Throughout the novel, the women of the Convent provide a safe haven for all those who come to its doorstep. However, the Convent is widely perceived as a corrupting influence in Ruby, the source of their problems rather than where problems must go because of Ruby’s intolerant atmosphere. Instead of considering the roots of the conflicts in Ruby (such as the unspoken prejudice against light-skinned blacks, borne of the rejection the original families experienced on their journey to found Haven; or the yearning of the young people to be part of the larger world and participate in the civil rights movement), community leaders decide that the Convent must be destroyed. Under their rhetoric, the men of Ruby are both frightened and disgusted by the idea of women who do not need – and, in fact, actually shun – men. They also have various selfish motivations behind their moral crusade: Sargeant Person, for example, would no longer have to pay to lease farmland from the Convent.
The men solidify their plot against the women one evening at the Convent. Lone DuPres overhears the men and rushes to find someone to help her stop them, because she cares about the Convent women but also because their behavior may unwittingly destroy Ruby. A group of nine men - a number mirroring the original, racially pure families that founded Ruby - venture to the Convent under cover of darkness with guns, shooting the women on sight. Some of the women fight back, injuring Arnold, Jeff Fleetwood, Harper Jury, and Menus, but eventually the men shoot them down in the field as they escape. In the middle of this chaos, Lone and the willing townspeople she has assembled arrive at the Convent. Under censure none of the men want to claim responsibility or intent to kill; everyone fears the white law that they presume will be involved now that they have killed a white woman. However, Deek Steward speaks up to acknowledge culpability, signaling a break with his twin brother Steward, with whom he has agreed on everything for decades.
However, when Roger Best arrives to bury the bodies, he finds nothing. Mavis’ Cadillac is also gone. From this, many in Ruby conclude that the women somehow survived and drove away. Lone, however, believes that it is a sign from God, who has taken the bodies of his servants to Heaven whole, in the manner of Mary at the Assumption. The town carries on, relieved that the absence of bodies spares them the attention of white law enforcement. Each man involved tells a different story of what happened. If not for Luther Beauchamp, Pious DuPres, and Deed and Aaron Sands, who corroborate Lone’s version, the town might even have proceeded as though it never happened. However, Lone observes that though the bodies themselves might have disappeared, the ramifications of the attack are evident in town. Menus succumbs to his renewed alcoholism. Deek is unusually troubled, and goes to the Reverend Richard Misner for spiritual assistance. K.D. and Arnette continue to build their family and look forward to assuming a position in town where they can make life difficult for K.D.’s critics. Most of all, there is a sensation that the deal brokered by Ruby’s founders with God is broken, and that death has finally arrived in town: the last chapter takes place at the funeral of Save-Marie, one of Jeff and Sweetie Fleetwood’s disabled children. The town remains divided, but Richard Misner decides to stay, in part because he feels he can be useful in this flawed town where change and forces of the outside world must inevitably arrive.
Paradise closes with a passage about each of the Convent women. Gigi, Pallas, Mavis, and Seneca appear suddenly and surprisingly to figures from their past, each of whom expresses regret and sadness. Gigi’s father, whom we discover for the first time and learn has been in prison since Gigi was eleven, spots her by a lake and encourages her to stay in touch with him. Pallas’ mother, Dee Dee, believes she spots Pallas with a baby near her house, but is unable to speak coherently to flag her attention. Sally Albright, whom we know as Sal from the “Mavis” chapter, spots her mother in a diner, and the two women apologize to each other. Jean, the woman Seneca believed was her sister, is revealed to be her mother. Jean believes she spots Seneca in a stadium parking lot, but Seneca doesn’t remember her. Connie rests her head in the lap of an older woman from her past, Piedade, who sings to her as they face the ocean in a place called ‘Paradise’.