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Isolated Communities in Toni Morrison and Michael Ondaatje

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Molly is currently an undergrad student majoring in Earth Science and English and minoring in Studio Art.

Communities are all around us: sports teams, religious groups, book clubs, and so on. These communities are all connected to the greater web of society; we move in and out of these groups, but all ultimately remain connected to humanity as a whole. In the two books this paper explores—Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise and Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient—we, the readers, are presented with notably different forms of communities from what we are accustomed to in our own everyday lives. Specifically, both books explore isolated communities, in which the people who make up their respective community are no longer tethered to greater society. These individuals choose to detach themselves from the ‘normal’ world.

In Paradise, we are given two examples of isolated communities: the town of Ruby and the Convent. This paper will mainly focus on the Convent, as Ruby is where the societal standards within the novel are derived from; the women of the Convent choose to separate themselves from Ruby. In The English Patient, the four people living in the villa—Hana, the English patient, Caravaggio, and Kip—form a community far away from the historical backdrop of late WWII and isolate themselves from the events of the world. This paper aims to compare community in these contemporary novels, specifically analyzing why these isolated communities form and what keeps the individuals tethered to these communities. Both communities ultimately fail when greater society—the town of Ruby in Paradise and the events of WWII in The English Patient—force their ways back into the characters’ lives.

In both Paradise and The English Patient, the communities revolve around a central figure; a person to whom all the other characters are tied to in one way or another. In Paradise, this figure is Connie, also referred to as Consolata. Connie has lived in the Convent since it was a school: “Christ the King School for Native Girls,” (Morrison 224), headed by nuns. As the other women who come to make up the Convent begin to show up on its doorsteps, one nun remains: Sister Mary Magna, who Connie is said to have “worshipped” from a young age, working hard to “become and remain Mary Magna’s pride,” (224). Connie uses her gift, referred to as “stepping in,” to prolong Mary Magna’s life. She gains “entrance” to Mary Magda’s body and, once she ultimately dies, Connie both physically and figuratively takes Mary Magda’s place as the matriarch of the household. This is the beginning of the Convent as a community; whereas before Connie has trouble distinguishing the new women from one another and wants “to snap their necks…anything to stop the badly cooked indigestible food, the greedy hammering music, the fights, the raucous empty laughter, the claims,” (222), after Mary Magna’s death she begins to accept “the sympathy…the help and murmurs of support,” from the women of the Convent (247).

The women of the Convent view Connie as a mother: she is an “ideal parent, friend, companion in whose company they [the women] were safe from harm…[a] perfect landlord who charged nothing and welcomed anybody…who could be confided in or ignored…hugged or walked out on,” (262). Connie tells the women, “If you have a place…that you should be in and somebody who loves you waiting there, then go. If not stay here and follow me,” (262). These women, of course, do not: “in no time at all they came to see that they could not leave the place that they were free to leave,” (262).

Each of the women at the Convent has her own trauma. Mavis is haunted by her dead twins, Seneca has a long and continued history of self-harm, Gigi is lost and seems to have nowhere to go, Pallas has a complicated family life and a child on the way. In a way, all the women’s traumas are very individual, diverse, and unconnected experiences. Nevertheless, the people of Ruby lump them together as one; their societal digressions all equally unacceptable. In other ways, too, the women fail to function as a community—Mavis and Gigi are constantly at one another’s throats, they constantly argue and they even “scramble” from a car and “[fight] on the road and its shoulder,” (168). The women are unable to work together even to simply manage the Convent’s garden, leaving it “untilled” (265), a mix of “neglect and unconquerable growth,” (305).

This inability to work together, and on occasion to even trust one another, does not signal a community. Yet, when juxtaposed against the town of Ruby, with all its whispered communications and passive aggression, the constant bickering and lax attitudes of the women in the Convent seems healthy. Indeed, despite the many imperfections between the Convent women, some more serious than others, they all choose to stay. Some may take brief leaves, but they all ultimately return, indicating that they are most comfortable and safe in the Convent. Their traumas, while different, are all rooted in the same issues: racism and sexism, and especially the combination of the two. In forming this unusual community, they escape the violence of the patriarchal society outside the doors of the Convent.

The Convent community can even be viewed as a method of survival: when the women begin “loud dreaming,” (264), a concept introduced by Connie, the women truly bond with one another. They share their memories in ritual. Rhese shared stories are no longer shameful but rather a part of the women’s collective experiences: “…it was never important to know who said the dream or whether it had meaning,” (264). These loud dreaming experiences transform the women’s lives: when Seneca “had the hunger to slice her inner thigh, she chose instead to mark the open body lying on the cellar floor,” (265). The reader is told that a neighbor would notice “the charged air of the house, its foreign feel and a markedly different look in the tenants’ eyes—sociable and connecting when they spoke to you,” (265).

Indeed, the narrator tells us that “the Convent women were no longer haunted,” (266). The way that these women think about their bodies, experiences, and identities begin to shift. The women collectively heal one another and, in doing so, engage in a form of reciprocity that is more commonly associated with community, especially such as in The English Patient, which will be discussed later. In the words of Michael Jackson, “Stories make it possible for us to overcome our separateness, to find common ground and common cause,” (Jackson 240). This loud dreaming is, in a way, a form of storytelling, and it is one that brings these women together as a marked community.

These women thus actively choose to create community, but this community is notably different from the more typical, normative community of Ruby that they live outside of. In Ruby, it appears that individual identity is secondary to communal identity. The town puts forth a face of a Black utopia—a paradise, if you will—while many of its individual constituents suffer. The Convent, on the other hand, envisions a different form of community. Not only is it matriarchal, but the identities of the individuals in the community are front and center. Through openness and authenticity, the women can form communal bonds with one another while also engaging in individual personal growth. These eclectic women from diverse backgrounds are able to come together in sisterhood, centered around Connie as their maternal figure and spiritual guide.

In The English Patient, the central figure around which the community revolves is the English patient himself, later named Almásy. Although there is some aura of mystery about Connie and some of the Convent women, they are all named and easily identifiable, with strong personalities and identities. The English patient, however, is somewhat of an enigma: he is so badly burnt that his skin is blackened, leaving him raceless, he (initially) has no known name or nationality, he does not even have a typically human body. He is thus disembodied and ambiguous, and the other characters can project their own ideas and desires onto him.

Hana is drawn to the English patient as someone that she can save: “There was something about him she wanted to learn, grow into, and hide in, where she could turn away from being an adult…she wanted to save him, this nameless, almost faceless man…” (Ondaatje 52). Hana’s father, Patrick, was also badly burned in the war and subsequently died. This is likely a key part of Hana’s attachment to the patient—she sees him as someone who can still be saved, a “despairing saint,” (3). Because the patient is, in many ways, unknowable, he can be painted as a net ‘good,’ someone who is in many ways childlike, and thus inspires those around him to protect him.

Although the patient is physically ambiguous, he still has the ability to tell stories and to create meaning. The other characters often hang on to his every word, intently listening as he recounts fragmented bits of his past. They romanticize him as well: Hana imagines his sleeping body “miles away in the desert, being healed by a man who continues to dip his fingers into the bowl made with the joined soles of his feet,” (35). The characters debate his origins, whether he is truly English or some ‘other,’ they allow their imaginations to recreate the pieces of his story that he leaves out.

Thus, the English patient gives back to those staying in the villa. He gives them food for thought, a person to protect, and a reason to stay away from the remnants of the war and greater society. Although Caravaggio accuses Hana of being “tied…to a corpse” and “[throwing] herself out of the world to love a ghost,” (45), Caravaggio eventually becomes entranced by the patient’s stories as well—so much so that he feeds him excessive amounts of morphine to hear more. This idea of reciprocity is often key in creating community. While Hana gives medical attention—and friendship—to the patient, he returns the favor in the aforementioned ways. Yet the patient is not the only one engaging in reciprocity; the other characters ‘give’ to one another as well. Hana and Kip, perhaps most obviously, give one another love: both physical and emotional. Hana gives Caravaggio medical attention and, indirectly, morphine. He, in return, cares for her as a “friend of [her] father,” (61).

This creates a more classic form of community than witnessed in Paradise. A great deal of the reason why the four characters stay is, simply put, for each other. Yet, in another likeness to the women of the Convent, the characters in the English patient are all notably diverse—they come from different countries, are different genders, ages, and races; their backgrounds and identities are completely dissimilar. What they do have in common is direct personal experience in World War II. Participating in a war, regardless of what side you are or how far removed from the action you may be, is almost always a traumatic experience.

The characters all appear to be undergoing personal identity crises as a result. Perhaps most notably, Hana is often described as undergoing significant physical changes as she removes “all mirrors” from the villa and hides then in “an empty room,” (23), going on to cut off most of her hair. Caravaggio notes her transformation into a woman, the “sharpness” of her face and her “translation” into an adult (222). The English patient, meanwhile, has no known identity, he can create whatever version of his own self that he desires. Whether his stories are factual or not can never be known. Caravaggio is undergoing a transformation as well; while at the beginning of the novel he is presented as a thief who forces unwanted advice onto Hana, attempting to bring her home, by the end of the novel he grows fond of the English patient who he previously wrote off, and even Kip as well. Ondaatje writes that “[Caravaggio’s] days at the villa had loosened his body and freed his tenseness…he was a friendlier human,” (265-266). Kip experiences a psychological transformation in which he learns to open up and trust the other members of the community—whereas he is initially closed off, refusing to even dine with the others in the villa, by the end of the novel he finds himself talking to them about “his family and his brother in jail,” (217) as well as his religion and other personal stories. He could also be said to transform from a colonized man to a more free, post-colonial self—at the beginning of the novel, he made the choice to enter the war for the English. By the end of the story, he openly decries England: “American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman,” (286).

Thus, this isolated community creates a space that is so separate from society that their primary identities—or, what their primary identities may be in greater society—become secondary. The villa allows the characters to leave behind these identities, at least partially. The characters’ shared trauma (they constantly recount their histories to one another) and shared growth allows them to form bonds to both one another and to their greater community. We can see how the characters show respect for one another, perhaps most obviously through the physical and emotional space that they allow between themselves. Hana appreciates “the distance [Kip] leaves her, the space he assumes is their right,” (127). The characters spend time gardening, fixing plaster walls, and going on walks. There is no pressure to constantly discuss the war, or to be working, or any other of the stresses that society forces onto war veterans. Therefore, despite the characters’ diverse backgrounds, their shared trauma from the war allows the characters to recreate themselves while simultaneously being understood and accepted by those around them. This creates community and tethers them to one another.

There are many parallels between the communities formed in Paradise and Ondaatje’s The English Patient. While The English Patient presents a more classical form of community on the surface, both of the communities are composed of extremely diverse characters with unique identities and experiences. What most strongly holds these communities together is the shared trauma that their members have experienced. In The English Patient, we observe a group of people attempting to handle the violence of World War II. In Paradise, the women of the Convent are escaping the violence against women and especially Black women. The ability to bond over shared trauma allows for significant intrapersonal growth as well as interpersonal growth.

Yet, in both Paradise and The English Patient, these created communities ultimately fail. The women of the Convent are murdered by men from the town of Ruby who deem them to be a threat to society. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki drive Kip to almost murdering the English patient and to ultimately leaving the villa forever. Despite the personal growth and bonding that occurs in these communities, they are unable to effectively escape greater society. You cannot escape systemic violence against women, especially violence against Black women. You cannot escape the traumas of a war. While the authors use these communities to explore shared traumas and experiences as well as human connection, they know that greater society is omnipresent and inescapable.

Works Cited

Jackson, Michael. The Politics of Storytelling: Variations on a Theme by Hannah Arendt. Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013.

Michael Ondaatje. The English Patient. Vintage International, 1992.

Toni Morrison. Paradise. Penguin, 1997.

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