- Viewing Toni Morrison’s Paradise as a Response to William Carlos Williams’s Paterson
To unlock Toni Morrison’s often opaque and fleeting references in her novels requires a patient eye; in the case of Paradise, one of the keys to understanding Morrison’s authorial intent lies within a single referential word, a word which links Paradise to William Carlos Williams and his long-format poem Paterson. This reference appears in the “Mavis” narrative (21–49) of Toni Morrison’s Paradise. Mavis, recalling when her mother came to visit and help out with her children, mentions that her mother drove from Paterson, New Jersey. With many authors, the brief mention of a town would normally be labeled as ephemeral. Morrison’s authorial style, however, in which her choices of words, names, and places are rarely gratuitous, makes it especially important to explore the purpose of the town of Paterson in Paradise. Over the course of almost a dozen years, William Carlos Williams composed his epic poem Paterson, which focuses on what he calls “the city, the man, the identity.” While many critics have explored Paradise through a variety of critical perspectives, none have examined the novel as a metatextual feminist response to Paterson. By juxtaposing Paterson with Paradise, it becomes clear that Morrison’s Paradise is an attempt to both supplement and critique William Carlos Williams’s sometimes contradictory and opaque views on the forging of identity, gender, and historical narrative in Paterson.
At first glance, the two works are vastly different. Paterson, written in the years from 1946 to 1958, is an epic poem that deconstructs the relationship between what Williams calls “the city / the man, an identity” or “[a] man like a city” (Paterson 4, 7). The city and the man—both named Paterson—venture through the streets, searching for answers to the formation of their collective identity. Along the journey, Williams attempts to explore, with varied success, society’s views and attitudes toward women. Morrison’s Paradise, conversely, focuses on the deep interpersonal relationships between men, women, and their shared historical narratives. Paradise tells the story of an all-African American town, Ruby, and the effects a group of women who live in the Convent on the outskirts of Ruby, have on the town. The similarity between these two works, however, lies both in their intent and structure. Williams sought to explore how a city and its history affects identity (and vice versa); Morrison does much the same.1 Both authors also create a textual structure with fine nuance to achieve their goals. Williams uses poetry, prose, shifting narrators, and historical texts throughout five books of Paterson. Morrison tells the narrative of Paradise through the views of several different women in an effort to give not a single voice to the feminine perspective, but to exhibit how women in history have multiple, unique and rich voices.2 Morrison’s creation of an intertextual conversation with Paterson, however, becomes much more apparent when we examine specific instances in which she diverges from or “signifies on” Williams’s conception of the man and the city.
The “thematic interrelationship” between Paterson and Paradise explores gender identity, as Morrison critiques the destructive yet overwhelming influence of patriarchy on females. Precisely because of his oblique language, Williams “leaves him[self] open to current charges of sexism because it seems to support the sex roles that Western culture has traditionally supported” (DeWitt 64). While there is some critical argument about Williams’s personal outlook on the roles of women and artists as [End Page 421] members of society, his often patriarchal stance in Paterson is too great to be overlooked. Paterson, which Williams claims is an exploration of the idea that “a man in himself is a city” (xiv), is reconstructed by Morrison as the town of Ruby in Paradise. Morrison’s “man as city” is dominating but, unlike Williams’s masculine thematic, has a competing perspective: the Convent. Morrison juxtaposes the two societies—Ruby and the Convent—to explore the phallocentric deficiencies in Paterson. This exploration allows readers to more thoroughly understand the underlying themes of Paradise.
The two works remain closely connected in spite of their vast differences...