Reading Guide: ‘Paradise’ by Toni Morrison

Voyage Out meets the last Sunday of every month at BookPeople. On April 29 at 5 p.m. the group will begin a three month exploration of the literature of Los Angeles, starting with Helena Maria Viramontes’ Their Dogs Came With Them. You (and your friends) are invited to join! Below, Brian offers a reading guide to Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, which Voyage Out discussed last month.

Voyage Out reads books in three-month, themed regions. The group is open to all, and all are welcome. (For more information about Voyage Out, including how the group chooses titles, click here.)

This series of ‘guides’ is designed to help other book groups focus meetings of their own when they read the same title. These are not definitive or perfect, but they do reflect the conversations Voyage Out has.



Book information:

Paradise by Toni Morrison; 336 pgs; ISBN# 9780804169882; Vintage Paperback


Toni Morrison’s “Jazz Trilogy”

Other books in the region:

Beloved, Jazz

About the author:

There may be no other author in American history that has Toni Morrison’s combination of critical and popular acceptance. Her work has been honored by the Swedish Academy when she was awarded literature’s highest honor, the Nobel Prize, and her work has been championed by one of the most substantial pop culture entities ever: Oprah.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison is a writer who notably chronicles the American experience, the experience of African American women in particular.

Growing up in the Midwest, her family took pride in and valued greatly African American culture, including storytelling, songs and folktales. Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 and Cornell University in 1955. She taught at Texas Southern University for two years — she taught at Howard for a bit longer. In 1965 she became a fiction editor at Random House, where she was able to champion writers of color and black writers specifically. From 1984 she taught writing at the State University of New York at Albany. In 1989 she took her talents to Princeton University.

Morrison published her first book, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 and has continued to publish high end literature to the present.

As mentioned before, she was awarded the Nobel Prize (1993). Additionally, in 2010, she was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor, and was later awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.


  • Paradise was once, in an earlier version, titled War. The title was changed as the result of conversations between Morrison and her editor. How does each title change/work with the novel?
  • Over the past nine years we’ve read a number of incredible first lines, but the first line in Morrison’s Paradise is so great that it begs exploration. Read the line, discuss how it sets the book up and how it sits on the reader. Break the line down into single words and discuss the weight of each word separately.
  • What symbolic importance does the oven have? What actual importance does/did the oven have? Discuss how things that are of actual use become useful symbolically, and the ramifications of that.
  • How does history inform the present in Paradise? How does history inform the future in Paradise?
  • Who gravitated towards these built places – Convent, Ruby, the oven, and Haven – and how do these four places interact with each other?
  • The end is told in the beginning (again). How does this change your reading?

What we talk about when we talk about this book:

  • We batted around the idea of ‘paradise’. It hits on biblical themes, utopian themes, and the possibilities of what is even possible. We also talked about the violence that is often perpetrated under the need for paradise.
  • We talked about Toni Morrison’s novels presenting themselves as something that explores, for her, an overarching idea, and how that idea is sometimes obscured by her challenging style, and how this is all a wonderful show of faith towards readers.
  • We talked about the exclusions and inclusions that the novel’s communities perpetrated. This was shown through the racial history of the setting and through the light/dark skinned tensions in the book and through purposefully matriarchal/patriarchal hierarchies in the Ruby, Convent, and even Haven.
  • We talked about the Convent being a place that desires to be separate, left alone, but also is open to all without judgements.
  • We talked about whether, after reading what’s considered the ‘Jazz Trilogy’, these three books can be considered a true trilogy, and why.
  • We talked about the myth and the idea of Toni Morrison. Whether we talk about the Oprah connection or the Nobel connection or the movies or a thousand other points of contact that folks make when building their ideas about Dr.Morrison, we talk about how these ideas are contradicted or impacted by the actual reading of her work.


Mark your calendars:

Voyage Out next meets April 29 at 5 p.m. to discuss Their Dogs Came With Them by  Helena Maria Viramontes. Join us at BookPeople!


— Brian C.

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