Paradise Summary and Analysis of "Seneca"


This section opens on Dovey Morgan, wife of Steward. She thinks about dinner for her husband. When they married, she had worried she would not be able to please him, the pickier of the Morgan twins. Nowadays, however, chewing tobacco for decades has caused Steward to lose most of his sense of taste. Dovey reflects on other things that her husband has lost: “contrary to his (and all of Ruby’s) assessment, the more Steward acquired, the more visible his losses” (82). For each time Steward has gained something in his life, Dovey feels that something has been lost, including the biggest loss of all: the discovery that neither of them could have children. Now, at the same time that Steward has made a favorable real estate deal, Dovey perceives that he is losing the battle with Reverend Misner over the slogan attached to the Oven. The conflict is fueled by “what nobody talked about: young people in trouble or acting up behind every door” (83). Arnette, back from college, refuses to get out of bed; Menus Jury has been an alcoholic since the war; Billie Delia has disappeared; Sweetie Fleetwood acts erratically and laughs at nothing; K.D. continues to carry on with Gigi at the Convent.

Though the disagreement over the slogan starts amongst the young in the Baptist congregation, it soon spreads to the town’s Methodists and Pentecostals. Eventually Reverend Misner convenes an all-town meeting at Calvary. At the meeting, the town’s elder generation is scandalized by the lack of deference shown by the young people. The elders townsfolk are further offended by the complicity of Reverend Misner, who suggests that they are there to listen to the young as well as to speak - and that the desire of the young to update the common understanding of the Oven’s slogan might itself be a kind of respect and reverence, rather than insolence. Only ‘the Furrow of His Brow’ is now legible on the Oven, but tradition holds that the slogan says, ‘Beware the Furrow of His Brow’. The young argue that it should be ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’, but the elders object that it is blasphemous to claim to “be” God. The youth in turn argue that this is not pretending to be God, but rather being his instrument.

Dovey, at the meeting, decides she will ask her “Friend” about it. Her Friend is a young man Dovey has never seen before and who does not resemble any of the families in Ruby. A sign preceded his first visit: the flight from her garden of a mass of orange butterflies. She kept forgetting to ask others if they knew him and now she regards him as her own little secret. He passes through the yard from time to time, but never when anyone else is there, and only at the house on St. Matthew Street, a house that used to belong to Menus Jury and which Dovey began to use as a second house (the Morgans live on a ranch further out of town) when it was foreclosed by the Morgan bank. Dovey seems to anticipate his visits because when he comes she begins to talk: “things she didn’t know were on her mind… yet he listened intently to whatever she said” (92). She views him as a kind of all-purpose spiritual guide, and stays at the house more frequently in the hopes that he will visit. In the meantime, Steward wishes she would spend more time at their ranch.

Walking home through the neighborhood, Dovey regards the perfectly tended gardens and recollects the “garden battles” competition between neighbors to create the most beautiful garden; the competition arose in the early 1960s when prosperity arrived and women had previously unimaginable time and resources. The mania became so great that edible plants began to be neglected in favor of decorative ones. Dovey wonders whether she should visit Soane, who has seemed troubled to her in ways unrelated to her sons’ death in war five years earlier.

The narrative’s perspective turns to Steward, who continues to fume about the insolence of the youths in Ruby. He is convinced they have “no notion of what it took to build this town” (93). He wonders whether this generation - “Misner’s and K.D.’s - would have to sacrificed to get to the next one” (94). They do not seem willing to be shaped by their elders in the way Steward’s had been - “expectations were high and met” (94). He remembers an episode experienced by his brother, Elder Morgan, in 1919 that had a profound effect on them both. Returning to the US from Europe, Elder had seen two men arguing with a young prostitute in New York City. At first he felt contempt for the woman due to her profession. As soon as one of the men punched the woman in the face, however, Elder suddenly registered the scene in color: the men were white and the woman was black. When one of the men continued to beat the woman, Elder rushed in to fight them both, still accustomed to the indiscriminate violence of war and forgetting the social codes that would make his defense of the woman inconceivable. When the crowd began to yell for the police, Elder, frightened, ran away. He regretted having done so. All his life, he refused to let his wife mend the ripped uniform, which he also successfully demanded that he be buried in. Steward has always had an affinity for this story, though it “unnerved him to know it was based on the defense of and prayers for a whore” (95). Of all the humiliations that motivated the founding of Ruby, the inability of the men to protect their mothers, wives, and daughters from racist discrimination is perhaps the most important.

Next, the perspective turns to Soane. She readies a soothing tonic prepared for her by Connie, a medicine she keeps secret from Deek. She remembers how proud she had been when her sons enlisted in the army; indeed, she thought it was safer for her boys to be at war in Europe than to be anywhere in Oklahoma besides Ruby. She thinks too of the daughter she might have had if she had not gone to the Convent nineteen years earlier and lost the pregnancy, in circumstances mysterious but for which she blames herself. She thinks of the unrest in the town over the Oven, which was recently defaced with an image of a black fist with red fingernails. No one claimed responsibility but the town’s leaders refused angrily to have anyone but the presumed guilty take it down. Eventually, the task fell to Kate Golightly and Anna Flood. We learn from Soane’s reflections that the Oven no longer serves any practical purpose, far from the days when it was the necessary centerpiece of town life. We also learn that the women did not approve of the effort the men expended in bringing the purely ornamental Oven from Haven to Ruby: “privately they resented the truck space given over to it - rather than a few more sacks of seed, rather than shoats or even a child’s crib… it went too far. A utility became a shrine (cautioned against not only in scary Deuteronomy but in lovely Corinthians II as well)” (103). Deek returns from a morning’s hunting. He suggests Soane is too sympathetic to the women at the Convent. Deek rues the state of businesses in Ruby, but Soane wonders to herself why, if Deek is so worried, he doesn’t help his friends - for example by letting Menus Jury keep the house in which Dovey now lives.

Deek Morgan drives down the street in the black sedan he takes outsized pride in. He remembers a tour of all-black towns his father, known as ‘Rector’ or ‘Big Daddy’, had taken him and Steward on when the twins were younger. The trip resulted in one of Deek’s earliest and still most powerful memories. Although by that time - the Depression era - many of the towns had failed, some - including Ruby - still prospered. In one of the wealthy towns the twins saw nineteen young women posing for summertime portrait on the steps of the town hall. Dressed with a “delicacy… neither of them had ever seen” and “bending their tiny waists with rippling laughter” (109), the women were a vision of beauty, black feminine gentility and carefree joy that changed the boys forever. Deek circles the Oven in his sedan and reflects on the ongoing success of Ruby, a success that proved moving the Oven had not been a mistake. He thinks about the possibility that some of the body parts that were buried as his sons’ included those of white men. He rues that K.D. is the only Morgan heir capable of continuing the line. He recalls the traumatic death of K.D.’s mother, whom Deek and Steward had tried to protect throughout her life but who died when she was consistently refused medical care by segregated hospitals. The twins learned afterward that at the time that their sister was dying on a waiting room bench, the nurse had been trying to find a veterinarian to treat her. On his way to open the bank, Deek sees Sweetie Fleetwood walking outside alone. Instead of stopping, he decides it is more important to open the bank on time, even though Sweetie has no coat on and has not left her house in six years.

Meanwhile, Anna Flood and Richard Misner - who are enjoying a quiet courtship - watch Deek circle the Oven from the vantage point of Ace’s, the general store she inherited from her father. She asks why he needs to “hover like that” (115). They discuss how although there were fifteen families who founded and financed Ruby, the Morgans are able to dominate it, because of their family’s historic control of financial institutions. Misner suggests that though everyone may seem to prosper in Ruby, it is a precarious situation; their lifestyles are bought on credit. Anna expresses concern about Billie Delia, who has disappeared. Anna, who almost left town but decided to stay when Misner arrived, is of the belief that there needs to be more in town to occupy the young people than “choice competitions and Bible class and ribbons for fat vegetables and baby showers” (118). Though she cares for Richard, Anna wonders whether she could be a minister’s wife. A white family in a station wagon stops in front of the general store. Lost, they are trying to get to Lubbock, Texas. Although their baby is sick and feverish, the wife rejects Anna’s offer of shelter and help. Richard helps the husband procure aspirin for the baby and the family drives off, despite the warnings of Anna and Steward that a dangerous blizzard is coming. Steward mentions Deek’s sighting of Sweetie that morning; Anna and Richard are surprised that Deek didn’t stop her.

That morning, Sweetie told Miss Mable she would be back in a minute and instead left the house. She had intended to leave only a few minutes, to return to the house quickly to continue the non-stop monitoring over the children that she and Miss Mable have been doing for the past six years. She had no plan, but felt only that if she did things that morning as they were always done - drank her coffee, had her bath, went to sleep in the morning sun - she might never wake up again. On the road, a Ford truck stops and asks Sweetie if she needs help. She rejects this help. The image of Sweetie - unkempt, perhaps crying - strongly affects a hitchhiker who couple in the truck does not realize is stowed in the back. As the truck drives away, the hitchhiker girl, Seneca, jumps out. Seneca seems to recognize in Sweetie some image of her own suffering: when Seneca was five, her sister, Jean, abandoned her. Believing she was abandoned because of her behavior, Seneca spent a week alone, hoping that if she did everything that she was supposed to do without being asked, Jean would return. She did not see Jean again, but she found a note written in red lipstick that she carried with her for the rest of her life.

Sweetie is unresponsive to Seneca’s conversation or attempts to help her. The women walk on, though Sweetie mishears her name, and believes Seneca to be the physical embodiment of “Sin” at her side. Seneca struggles through the growing blizzard, but Sweetie feels nothing. When they arrive at the Convent, they are quickly taken in and cared for. Sweetie sleeps fitfully through a fever, but is woken by the sound of crying children, a noise she has never heard from her own silent children. Sweetie continues to resist the women who try to take care of her; when Jeff arrives with Anna after the blizzard subsides, she cries, “They made me, snatched me… take me home. I’m sick, Anna, and I have to look after the babies” (130).

Seneca stays on, and quickly takes on the role of peacemaker between Mavis and Gigi. Her history of abandonment has given her an easygoing disposition. She stayed by an abusive old boyfriend, Eddie Turtle, even after he went to prison. Their relationship ended incidentally, when Eddie’s mother refused to hire a lawyer to get her son out of prison and told Seneca that she should leave him. Though initially Mrs. Turtle seemed to dismiss her son coldly, Seneca heard her wailing uncontrollably after Seneca left her house. Lost again and alone in Wichita, Seneca bought a bus ticket out of town. Before she could get on the bus, however, a wealthy woman in a limousine propositioned her with a mysterious offer of employment. She spent three weeks with the woman while her husband was out of town, living alternately in luxury and abjection, in what appears to have been a domineering sexual relationship. When Seneca was returned to the gas station with five hundred dollars and some clothes, she was unsure what she should do next. Without thinking about it, she hitchhiked for a while, usually in the backs of trucks, because she hated conversation and liked not having a destination. Jumping out of the truck to follow Sweetie was the most resolute action Seneca had ever taken. After Sweetie leaves her, Seneca settles into Convent life.


The slogan on the Oven, the symbolic center of the town and a symbol of all the labor and sacrifices of the original founding fathers of Haven, is now only a phrase: ‘… the Furrow of His Brow’. Though the debate over whether the slogan on the Oven reads ‘Beware the Furrow of His Brow’ or ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’ may seem extremely specific and therefore incidental, it in fact encapsulates the intergenerational conflict occurring in Ruby. The intergenerational conflict in turn explains much of why the town comes to blows with the Convent in the novel’s climax, because the town leaders believe that the Convent’s corrupting influence is responsible for the insubordination of the youth.

Reverend Pulliam, Deek and Steward Morgan, Harper Jury, Arnold Fleetwood, and others argue that the slogan does and should continue to read ‘Beware the Furrow’. To furrow one’s brow usually signifies an expression of disapproval or consternation; the phrase ‘the Furrow of His Brow’ is a kind of synecdoche, as it uses God’s brow to mean God himself. Consequently, the slogan on the Oven means that the citizens of Ruby should fear earning the disapproval of God. To them, ‘Beware the Furrow’ acts as a unidirectional command, not a reciprocal dialogue.

The young people of Ruby, such as Royal and Destry Beauchamp, believe that the slogan could and should read ‘Be the Furrow of His Brow’. In contrast to ‘Beware the Furrow’, which places God on one side and the citizens of Ruby on another as God’s subjects, ‘Be the Furrow’ suggests that the citizens of Ruby are a part and instrument of God, and through their behavior might act as conduits for God’s judgment. “If we follow His commandments, we’ll be His voice, His retribution” (87) says Destry. By living well in accordance with the tenets of God, the citizens of Ruby will make an example for everyone else.

To the older generation, this sort of argument is blasphemy. The debate represents the youth’s desire to have their voices heard in the town and to assert their right to a history that they feel belongs as much to them as to their elders. However, the elders are staunch in their position that the proper role of a young person is to learn and adopt unquestioningly the teachings of their elders. They respond that the younger generation was not there at the time of the Oven’s arrival (though none of the living elders were either) and so they have no authority to comment. Ironically, the citizens of Ruby do end up “being” the Furrow of His Brow, in the sense that Lone and others believe that the attack on the Convent occurs in opposition to the will of God. Indeed, the critic Philip Page argues that the impossibility of determining clearly what the slogan is, should be, or means is part of Morrison's point: “The multiplicity of the mottos is… instructive… [that] there is not reliable way of determining which one is accurate, not to mention of ascertaining a single authoritative meaning of any one of them, symbolize the value Morrison places on multiplicity."

This section also features a striking and important memory of Steward Morgan’s. The memory in fact belongs to his brother Elder Morgan, who once saw two white men beating a black prostitute on the street in New York. Elder’s tendency had been at first to identify with the angry men, given his contempt for women who work as prostitutes. However, as soon as the white men began to hit the woman, he saw the scene in color: it became not just a question of man and sinful woman but white men and black women. He was affected for the rest of his life by his failure to defend the woman because of the certain danger it would have posed to him to be caught fighting a white man. The fact that Steward “likes” this story and identifies with it but is torn as to where his sympathies should lie communicates a great deal about his character. Steward’s tendency is to defend black women against white men, but the fact that the woman was a prostitute - unlike Steward’s parallel vision of nineteen Negro ladies - touches on a strain of misogyny inside him: “it unnerved him to know it was based on the defense of and prayers for a whore. He did not sympathize with the whitemen but he could see their point, could even feel the adrenaline, imagining the fist was his own” (95). His hatred for “sinful” women shows the limit to his instinct to back black people against systems of racism. As the critic Linda J. Krumholz writes, "The twins’ shared memory of nineteen Negro ladies in summer dresses as a nostalgic and idealized vision of womanhood contrasts sharply with Steward’s… desire to punch a black prostitute… the protection of women has often justified the oppression and possession of women."