Paradise was published in 1997, the seventh of Morrison’s novels and her first after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. It completes a trilogy that begins with Beloved and follows with Jazz, each probing themes of memory, violence, and the afterlife of slavery.
The novel draws from the rich history of all-black towns in Oklahoma. Though it opens in 1976, the historical and narrative backdrop of the novel is the post-antebellum South. In response to black Americans receiving the right to vote and other rights of citizenship and protection, many white Southerners demanded an effective return to the social conditions of slavery under the term “Redemption” (as opposed to Reconstruction), achieved via such means as sharecropping and excluding black Americans from property ownership. It is during this era that a group of black families - subject to a double discrimination based on race but also colorism - decide to found an all-black town in Oklahoma named ‘Haven’. During the decades of the World Wars, Haven begins to falter, and a number of Haven’s sons, perceiving that the world remains as hostile as before, decide to found a new all-black town named ‘Ruby’.
Paradise tells the story of two very different groups in exile, following their own visions of a kind of paradise. In Ruby, the town does indeed create a refuge from some of the world’s prejudices, but in other ways preserves them. The social order in Ruby is maintained precariously through discrimination against and exclusion of light-skinned blacks, as well as the rigid surveillance and policing of women’s behavior. There is a generational divide between those who perceive the role of God as an enforcer and those who perceive themselves as part of God’s benevolent, divine plan. At the neighboring Convent, no longer a religious institution but in fact a kind of refuge for troubled women, a group of mostly black women forge a community for themselves. Whatever flaws the women have, the Convent becomes a place in which they can live removed from the oppressive circumstances of their past and the judgmental eye of society. The two come into conflict when the leaders of Ruby, battling against the tides of change, decide that the Convent is the source of the town’s troubles.
The initial critical reception of Paradise was mixed. Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that it was “heavy-handed,” “a contrived, formulaic book that mechanically pits men against women, old against young, the past against the present.” Though it “employs familiar Morrison techniques -- cutting back and forth from one character's point of view to another, back and forth from the past to the present,” Kakutani argued that it lacked the power of Morrison’s previous novels, instead featuring “thin and papery” characters and “hokey” attempts “to endow the story with a symbolic subtext.”
Patricia Storace in the New York Review of Books was more positive, describing it as a rare “serious work of fiction which also functions as a parable, a novel that is, effectively and ironically, also a work of literary criticism.” To Storace, Paradise more directly than any of Morrison’s previous novels “draws… black presence forward from the margins of the imagination to the center of American literature and history.” By taking on a classic theme of American literature - the utopian community - “Paradise subverts a kind of unspoken literary class distinction, the assumption that a story told with African-Americans or women in the foreground will necessarily be a story of impenetrably special experience and concerns, its subject somehow provincial, confined exclusively to itself, or to its response as a community to the power of the dominant community, a shadowy adjunct to the ‘real’ normative story of national life.”