Scott Hardie | December 13, 2001
For an extra credit paper, I had to compare Paradise and Song of Solomon. In discussing it with Kelly (thanks for the help!), we realized how much the characters have in common with one another and how well they'd get along. I decided to write a paper describing what it would be like if the characters all lived together in the town of Ruby from Paradise. Though there are some errors in it (K.D.'s fate is given two ways), I'm posting the entire paper here because I like it. If you are planning to read either book, there are spoilers.

What If Song of Solomon Took Place in Paradise?

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is the story of a young man growing up wealthy in a poor neighborhood in Detroit. Named Milkman after an incident in his youth, he struggles against external sources of identity and eventually goes on a journey to explore his family's history and to learn something about himself in the process. Significant characters in the book include: Macon Dead, Milkman's father, who greedily rented property in the neighborhood; Ruth Dead, his mother, lost in a sea of depression caused by incestual love for her father and son; Pilate Dead, his aunt, who demonstrates powers that may be witchcraft and who earns her living as a bootlegger; Hagar Dead, his cousin, who becomes homicidally insane after Milkman dumps her following twelve years of casual lovemaking; and Guitar Baines, his best friend, who becomes a member of a retaliatory black militarism group as an outlet to his own homicidal tendencies.

Paradise by Toni Morrison is the story of Ruby, a proud all-black town in rural Oklahoma founded after the failure of Haven, an attempt at the same. The people of Ruby are conservative and paranoid, and a former convent seventeen miles outside of town causes controversy. The women there are wild and sexual, and as bad events befall Ruby, seven of its men go to the convent to kill the women, who they believe are witches. One woman is killed in the assault, but the other four manage to escape. The convent includes Connie, a white woman with the power to enter a dying person's soul and make them hold on to life indefinitely; Mavis, a psychologically broken housewife who "accidentally" killed her twin sons by leaving them to suffocate in the car while she went inside a store; Gigi, a sexy woman who has grown utterly tired of sex, flirtations, and lovemaking; Seneca, a young woman whose only caregiver, her sister, abandoned her in childhood, and who spent the time since wandering the country and obsessing about cutting herself; and Pallas, young and pregnant and in need of help. Among many supporting characters from Ruby, some standouts are: Deek Morgan, the miserly town banker who keeps a judgmental eye on the town; Steward Morgan, his twin brother, who had an affair with Connie in his youth that he came to regret; Reverend Misner, a thirty-something priest who stirs controversy by letting the young adults in town have a say in town affairs; Sweetie Fleetwood, who sees her four children waste away to death and loses her mind; K.D. (Kentucky Derby), who chases Gigi until she breaks off their affair; Billie Delia, K.D.'s girlfriend and then wife, who kills her baby after delivering it in the convent; Anna Flood, a young shopkeeper from Detroit who loves Misner and reluctantly agrees to marry him; Pat Best, who researches geneologies of members of Ruby; and Reverend Pulliam, a bitter old man who resents Misner's attempts to let the young people have a voice.

Though the two novels have completely different characters and take place ten years apart (Song of Solomon in 1963 and Paradise in the early seventies), there are a great many similarities between the two in their themes and characters. Both involve a quest for identity: Solomon concerning itself with Milkman's personal identity as a grown man and Paradise with the identity of the town of Ruby, whether it will be conservative or progressive. Both include women who live seemingly wild lives and who support themselves with food and alcohol that they produce and sell: Pilate, her daughter Reba, and her granddaughter Hagar in Solomon, and the five women in the convent in Paradise. Both concern themselves with what happens to women after they are abandoned by men: Hagar turns homicidal and later suicidal after Milkman stops loving her in Solomon, Billie Delia delivers her abused, dying fetus at six months in the convent and strangles it to death after K.D. stops loving her in Paradise. Both include wise women, old many years beyond their natural lifespans, who appear in one scene and counsel the heroes (Circe in Solomon, Mother Magda in Paradise). Both include mysterious, wise matriarchs who possess magical powers but rarely use them (Pilate in Solomon, Connie in Paradise). Both include moneymen whose greed taints their concern for others (Macon Dead in Solomon, Deek Morgan in Paradise). Both include men who set out to get revenge against oppressors but wind up attacking their own people out of vengeance (Guitar Baines in Solomon, the assassins, especially Steward Morgan, in Paradise).

It doesn't matter that the books serve different purposes for Morrison. Song of Solomon, published in 1977, concerned the quest of a young black man to find his identity, and spoke for the many young black men who were the first generation to grow up after the civil rights movement had empowered them, all of them searching for their own identities. Paradise was the conclusion of a trilogy about love: Beloved (1987) concerned parental love, Jazz (1992) concerned romantic love, and Paradise (1997) concerned love for community. These differing purposes are irrelevant in the face of so much evidence that the books do, indeed have much in common.

Since the books seem to exist on different sides of a mirror, it's not a great leap to imagine the characters intermingling. The citizens of Ruby and the convent are firmly rooted in their setting, but the Dead family and the vengeful warrior Guitar are not as implacable. Imagine the characters of Song of Solomon living ten years later in the town of Ruby, and the connections between the novels become even more apparent.

Milkman, the central figure of Solomon, would probably grow up good friends with K.D., since the two think a lot alike. They are both cocky and shoot off their mouths, but don't have firm senses of identity, and are easily seduced by women they should know better than to take to bed. If K.D. and Milkman grew up good friends, then Milkman wouldn't have needed a close friend in Guitar, and the differences between the two as adults would have driven them apart. This would have saved Milkman's life because Guitar would not have turned on him after their agreement turned sour following a misunderstanding, but eventually the two might find themselves attending the slaughter of the convent women. Guitar, full of wrath and a need to satisfy his lust for killing, would hurry to murder the women of the convent, and would be one of the most stringent, if not quite vocal, members of the group of assassins. Milkman, through his friendships with K.D. and Guitar, would probably be invited along, but his essential goodness would probably prevent him from going. He would turn on his friend K.D. after K.D.'s complicity in the murders, ending their friendship, but wouldn't face any consequences like he did with Guitar. If Milkman did go along, he would have hesitated at the wrong moment, and would have faced assault and injury at the hands of the violent, unleashed women in their flight. Not as many women would have escaped with Guitar Baines, a masterful hunter, pursuing them. Guitar, probably with his partner Porter as his backup, would have stayed near the Cadillac parked in the driveway, waiting for the women to try to use it as an escape vehicle, and would have shot them dead as they tried to flee that way. It is liked that they would have made it out anyway due to their numbers, but more than one would have perished. (Reba, with her gift of good luck, definitely would have survived.)

Macon Dead would have found soulmates in the conservatives in town, including Deek Morgan, Steward Morgan, and Reverend Pulliam, but would have formed a strong friendship with Deek. In Song of Solomon, Macon had an assistant, Freddie, and had his son work for him in his office for many years, but never found any true friends, anyone who could break through his force field of hardened greed. Deek Morgan's own "field" operated on a very similar wavelength, and the two would probably have made a real connection. Deek was the only banker in town, lent money to everyone, supported everyone, and saw it as his duty to guard everyone from danger, all kinds. Macon would have been the only landlord in town, owning all of the abandoned land around the town and renting it to newcomers and grown children whenever the opportunity arose. He probably would have also tracked down the missing deed to the convent and acquired it, attempting to collect rent from the women there when no one else wanted to bother. The women at the convent couldn't have paid, and would certainly have faced eviction, but they could have succeeded in charming him out of his nefarious intentions with the help of his sister, Pilate.

A perfect match for them, Pilate would have come to the convent out of curiosity and stayed there out of a sense of belonging. Her own home in Macon's neighborhood was clean but empty, devoid of most material possessions. She made bootleg alcohol to sell during the Prohibition and kept selling it afterwards to loyal customers, and so her cash flow was irregular. She would have first tried alcohol in Ruby, but since there was little drinking in the town and Anna Flood's store provided a legal source for those who desired booze, Pilate probably would have moved on to the convent. As capable of raising crops as brewing liquor, Pilate would have given direction to the lazy women when Connie, going blind and crazy over the years and gradually retreating to her basement, gave up. The place would have earned more money than it had, and Pilate would have been a more healthy mother figure to the women than Connie, though she would have been less of a good listener. Pilate would have raised the hot chili peppers that Steward Morgan, his tongue so numbed by years of chewing tobacco, so desired, but would have resisted his romantic inclinations because she had determined in her youth to stay away from men. Eventually Steward would have shot Pilate dead (no pun intended) at the slaughtering of the convent women, his heart broken by her instead of Connie. Prior to that, Pilate could have helped the women use a semi-magical charm on Macon to prevent him from evicting them from the convent. She seemed to understand her brother very well, and if she could give Rose a charm to let Macon impregnate her with Milkman late in their thirties, she could have easily softened up her brother's stance on evicting the convent women. If nothing else, he feared her, and would have feared her more inside that unlocked fortress. If Macon did sneak to her window like he did in Chapter 1 of Song of Solomon, he would have been even more repulsed by the uncivilized ways of the convent than he was by the unconventional home in which Pilate lived in Detroit.

Other women of Song of Solomon would change as well. Ruth, Macon's isolated, eccentric, depressed wife, would have avoided the convent, knowing that she could be tempted into staying there. She would be willing to tread on its ground if necessary to protect her son, and if Milkman had fallen for Gigi instead of Hagar, she might well have confronted the harlot at her borrowed home. Ruth, a Methodist who demonstrated in her youth a willingness to participate in other religious ceremonies, might have fit in with the churches in town, and would probably have joined one of their congregations, possibly finding something to fill the void in her life.

As for Hagar, she was as broken a woman in her story as Billie Delia or Sweetie Fleetwood, but circumstances might have been different for her. If she and Reba had lived in the convent, she would have been surrounded by other role models, and might have gained self-esteem when not everyone around her doted on her and satisfied her every need. She might have gained enough self-respect to turn down Milkman's advances, leading him to pursue Gigi instead. If K.D. came to court her, she might have given in, leading to problems when she discovered that K.D. had called Billie Delia his girlfriend for a very long time. The difference would be that Hagar would accept K.D. when Gigi rejected him, and he would have happily married her, both satisfying her life's goal and settling the chaos in his life. Billie Delia, already pregnant by this time, would still have walked to the convent to deliver her baby, but would have found Pilate in charge instead of Connie, and would have had a more comfortable delivery. She wouldn't have had reason to mind Gigi's presence there, and Hagar would have moved to Ruby to live with her husband K.D. instead of staying at the convent. This change probably wouldn't have saved Billie Delia from insanity, but it would have helped, and she wouldn't have been as violently angry against the women of the convent from then on. Billie Delia's baby Che would have become a ghost seen by Mavis playing with the ghosts of her twin sons, but Pilate would have seen the ghost as well, if it was truly there.

Macon and Ruth's other children, daughters Lena and Corinthians, would have found love in Ruby. They would first have gone away to college to court lawyers and doctors, of course, but they would have returned home, and the respectable men of Ruby would have wanted them as mates. Reverend Misner, a good man who listened closely to other people when they spoke, would have made a good match for Corinthians, leaving Anna Flood single but not bored. (Anna with Porter? Not likely.) Milkman would have found no quarrel with Misner, who actually might have gotten the young man to form opinions about important (civil) matters when he was young, and Milkman would not have had a falling out with Lena over their sister's destiny.

If Milkman was accepted by Lena, supported by Misner, rejected by Hagar and then Gigi in a reasonable manner, befriended by K.D., and still protected by Pilate, he would have been a contented man, and wouldn't have left for Pennsylvania to explore his family history. Pilate Dead wouldn't have had the bag of bones in her home for Macon to mistake it for gold, since Gigi and possibly Seneca would have peeked inside the sack and, while keeping it in the convent out of respect for Pilate, hidden it from Milkman's view. Milkman wouldn't have made his journey to Virginia and wouldn't have learned to fly, but wouldn't have needed the trip to complete himself, since he would be content in Ruby, and might have even been comfortable enough to start a business of his own. He might have bought Ace Flood's general store from Anna Flood when Ace died, since Anna didn't want to live in Ruby and discovered by staying there a while that she liked it, but Milkman would have known that he liked Ruby from a young age and wouldn't have wanted to leave. If necessary, Milkman could have asked Pat Best to do research into the Dead family, and she may or may not have had success in tracing his roots to Solomon himself. (It's a difficult family tree to research, but Pat Best was very good at what she did.)

Mavis, still psychologically unhinged after the suffocation of her twin babies and the death threats from her own husband and children afterwards, would have made friends with Reba, the only woman her age in the convent, and this might have helped her make some progress. Pallas, convinced by Pilate that her baby was a good thing, instead of getting Connie's neutral response, would have stayed at the convent, and might have come out of her shell around the extroverted Pilate and Reba. Seneca would have made friends with the empowered Hagar, seeing her as the older sister that she needed, and Hagar's newfound responsibility would have helped her become a mature woman. If she discovered Seneca's tendency to slice her own body, she probably would have been able to deal with it, having a similar darkness in her own soul. As for Gigi, she would lead Milkman on for a while, but would cut him off just when he was getting comfortable with the relationship, giving him the kick in the pants that he needed. From there, she would have been the same, as sarcastic as ever, though Pilate would have been more effective than Mavis in getting her to bite her tongue.

It is not only interesting to speculate on how the Dead family and the residents of Ruby would be changed by intermingling, but it reflects on the similarities of the books. Pilate Dead is more clearly seen as a character when it is understood how well she personifies the values of the convent. The theme of the hatred of whites being able to spill over into violence against blacks occurs in both novels, and mixing Guitar Baines with the convent assassins illuminates this connection. The theme of women being wronged by men, especially through abandonment, is more clear in the two books when we see how Milkman, Hagar, K.D., and Gigi are similar and how the choices those two women make affect the lives of all four of them. Finally, we learn that Milkman's quest for identity, so central to his novel, was generated by his circumstances, since if he grew up in the town of Ruby, he would have felt little or no need to explore his past. Song of Solomon and Paradise have much in common in terms of plot, themes, and characters, all of which can be explored by literally combining the two.


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