Paradise Themes


As its title suggests, the novel finds its heart in the attempts by various groups to find a kind of paradise. The families who started Haven, as well as the families who later on continued the project of Haven in Ruby, sought a kind of isolated and self-sufficient idyll away from the racism of the outside world. Likewise, women usually arrive at the Convent by accident in search of paradise. Mavis gets lost on her way to California. Gigi seeks a pair of entwined trees that she believes can provide an unimaginable ecstasy. Though the Convent is a kind of last resort, and though the women are usually in the midst of suffering, the Convent under Connie's direction becomes a kind of paradise for its residents as well (however, it was notably not a paradise for the Indian girls who were sent there during the Convent's time as a school, nor was it able to be a paradise for the embezzler who built it).

Mary Magna teaches Connie that the spirit endures beyond the end of the body, and that paradise is to be found in the heaven of Catholicism after the death of the body. However, the more durable vision of paradise for Connie proves to be Piedade, a goddess-like figure whom Connie describes to the Convent women as existing in her past. In the last passage of the novel, when all the Convent women return to people from their earlier lives, Connie is on the shore of a beach with Piedade in a place referred to as 'paradise'.

Inclusion and exclusion

The question of inclusion and exclusion is central to why Ruby was founded, but also why it may self-destruct. Ruby was founded in response to the legendary exclusion of the founding families of Haven by the town of Fairly. The founding fathers responded to the exclusion of the outside world by creating a self-sufficient community that did not need the outside world for anything. However, the citizens of Haven and Ruby turned from creating a community where they could be included to creating a community where no one else could be included. The intolerance of Ruby for outsiders and those who live differently causes significant frictions, notably with the Convent.

Both the town of Ruby and the Convent are isolated from the world in self-selected ways. Ruby purposefully lacks connections to major roads, and those who stop there usually do so by accident. The Convent, likewise, does not have a TV, radio, or receive newspapers. Connie tells Mavis that any news that arrives there must arrive in person; when Mary Magna dies and Mavis is away, Connie must start a fire to signal that something has happened. Despite this shared characteristic of isolation, only Ruby is exclusive: the Convent welcomes all those who enter its doors, regardless of where they have come from and why.


More specific than inclusion and exclusion is the theme throughout Paradise of racial discrimination based on skin tone. For much of the novel we have the impression that Ruby, an all-black town, was founded to avoid the racism of the outside world in general. We learn, however, that the citizens of Ruby are almost entirely from a set of racially "pure," "eight-rock" families, and that the project of Ruby is motivated by an experience of racial discrimination much more specific than black against white: prejudice against dark-skinned blacks by light-skinned blacks. After being expelled from public office, the old founding fathers of Haven could not find decent employment, though others expelled from office could. The difference was that these others were light-skinned, whereas the founding fathers had dark skin of which they had been proud, because it signified a kind of racial "purity." The defining rejection, however, was the Disallowing. The founding fathers did not anticipate that their fellow blacks would adhere as much to a hierarchy of colorism as whites. The fact that decades later the inhabitants of Ruby would create their own racially discriminatory society - even if with the inverse bias - speaks to the pervasiveness of prejudice.

The meaning of Christianity and God's will

Questions of how to correctly interpret the teachings of Christianity and accurately divine God's will recur throughout the novel. These questions go to the heart of several of the conflicts in the novel, such as the conflict between Reverends Misner and Pulliam, the conflict between Lone DuPres and the men who attack the Convent, and the internal conflict experienced by Connie.

Senior Pulliam, a Methodist minister and member of the conservative elder generation of Ruby, believes that the youth of Ruby are blaspheming God as well as disrespecting their predecessors by attempting to change the slogan on the Oven from 'Beware the Furrow of His Brow' to 'Be the Furrow of His Brow'. He delivers a fiery sermon at the wedding of K.D. and Arnette where he argues that God's love is not owed to anyone, and that it must be continually worked for, without ever knowing whether it has been earned. This angers Reverend Richard Misner, who possesses an antithetical interpretation of Scripture whereby God's love is everywhere and inherent in humans and their actions.

Lone DuPres also offers a distinct interpretation of Christianity and its teachings. She decides that the wholesale disappearance of the dead bodies from the Convent following the attack is an act both attesting to God's affection for his servants (the Convent women), as well as his mercy for Ruby, who has been spared the consequences of punishment by white law. She also tells Connie that her gift for prolonging life or raising the near-dead is a gift of God that she only has because He wants her to use it, despite Connie's fears that it is a sinful gift.

Memory and storytelling

The role of memory and the stories that people tell about themselves occupy a central place in the novel. The Morgans are described on multiple occasions as having infallible memory, reaching back through history beyond the span of individual lives. Steward and Deek recall the slights against the founding families of Haven as though they had happened to them, and retain both their pride and the offense experienced by their ancestors. Richard Misner, on the other hand, wonders why the citizens of Ruby only ever tell stories about the glorious past instead of considering the present or the future.

At the same time, over the course of the novel we learn that there are parallel accounts of Ruby history that sometimes differ from the "official" version and that sometimes have kept the record where the official history has neglected to at all. Notably, the keepers of these alternate histories - often concerning marginalized members of the community - are mostly women. Pat's historical and genealogical research is a formalized version of this alternate history, and she draws on the oral histories of as many women as will speak to her. These alternate histories show, for example, that the wives of the founders of Ruby resented the transportation of the Oven to Ruby at the expense of other necessities like food.

The place of women

Though official Ruby history speaks of the men who founded the town, it is clear that the place of women in society is a key motivation behind the establishment of the town. Part of what was so offensive to the founders of Haven about the Disallowing was the slight rendered to the pregnant women in the group, a vulnerable group that the men felt obliged to protect. Likewise, the town of Ruby is named after Deek and Steward's sister, for whom they were unable to get medical assistance in an emergency because of segregation. Steward in particular treasures a memory of nineteen elegant Negro ladies whom he and Deek saw in a wealthy all-black town in their youth, and reflects that Ruby was founded so that a vision like this could prosper. That is to say, Ruby was established in large part so that the black men residing in it would be able to protect the women in their community from the specific kind of racism present in the external world. However, this "freedom" for the women is also a kind of restriction, because the men have stringent ideas about how women should behave.

The strong feelings that various members of the Ruby community have as to the proper place and comportment of women are also why the town comes into violent conflict with the Convent. Lone, on the other hand, believes that the men despise anything they cannot control, and that they are especially afraid of a group of women who do not appear to need or desire men for anything.

Intergenerational conflict

A key element of the conflict within Ruby is the clash of older and younger generations. The older generations would like everything to stay the same. Steward reflects regretfully that this youngest generation is not as malleable as he would hope: they are not willing to be molded obediently into the kinds of heirs he would desire. Reverend Pulliam accuses the youth of blasphemy for wishing to change the slogan on the Oven from 'Beware the Furrow' to 'Be the Furrow', which he feels suggests the citizens of Ruby are a part of God, rather than His subjects.

On the other hand, the young people of Ruby wish to align themselves with what is happening in the world outside. An important element of the novel that is consistently in the background but not explicitly elaborated is the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Reverend Misner, the young and newly arrived preacher, is influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., has participated in civil rights actions, and teaches the lessons and methods of the civil rights movement to the youth in Ruby, something that the elder generation regards with suspicion and hostility. The suppression of the youth and the limited options available to them in Ruby threaten to tear the community apart.