Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

22 July 2011

(Novel) A Mercy by: Toni Morrison

(Reaction) Good Intentions by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Toni Morrison.

A Mercy takes place in the New World when it was still new - virgin, unexplored, untapped. This is America before they paved over paradise to put up a parking lot; a time when every American was an immigrant. While the setting though is terra nova, its inhabitants are still cut from the same human cloth, full of prejudice and hate, love and faith. The novel explores how these attitudes result in contradiction and how the characters attempt to resolve these ironies with the basic element of human decency: kindness.

While the main character of A Mercy is Florens, a slave from Africa, the conflicts of the novel are not merely between white and black, free and slave. Indeed, every character throughout the novel has his or her unique prejudice based on their social standing.

The unity of discord (as it were) among the characters is emphasized by the novel's structure. Each chapter is told through the point of view of a different character, with only Florens's view repeating. Consistently in each chapter the character will express some discontent against an individual or an institution. (For reference, the sequence of characters is: Florens/Jacob/Florens/Lina/Florens/Rebekha/Florens/Sorrow/Florens/Willard and Scully/Florens/Florens's mother.)

Jacob, the only primary character to be a free white man, would be presumed to occupy a privileged position in the narrative. Yet Jacob's position in this new world is also tenuous. He is not as rich as the people he deals with (His rough clothes were in stark contrast to embroidered silk and lace collar.) and he finds the wanton luxury of the slave trader D' Ortega particularly odious (There was something beyond Catholic in him [Ortega], something sordid and overripe.)

Social standing and religion are the twin spectres which bedevil Jacob. That said though, his being a free white man certainly allows him tremendous freedom in the new world. Only in early America, where else could rank tremble before courage?

In contrast, the women of the novel (both white and colored) live under a tremendous burden. As woman there are treated as inherently inferior to men and are mostly viewed as servants (at the best) or chattel (at the worst). Without a man a woman is literally nothing. This is noted by Lina, the wiliest of the women in the novel, three unmastered women and an infant out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone.... Female and illegal. In Lina's words, female and illegal practically become synonymous.

Even Rebekha, who was happy and well-treated by Jacob, notes the promise and threat of men. Indeed, a woman has no future if she has no man, As with any future available to her, it depended on the character of the man in charge. Simply, this new world is chaotic, a place riven with rivalries and feuds, inequality and strife. Everyone here is burdened by the prejudice cast upon them by someone else. In short, 1682 and Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land?

These deep running conflicts, based on beliefs which run to the core of the respective characters, eventually result in contradictions. It is in these contradictions that the characters in A Mercy become people instead of mere caricatures of an African slave, imported wife or rescued native american. Because in these contradictions a slave can be more free than her owner or a mother can love her daughter by giving her away.

The whites in A Mercy are a bundle of contradictions. It is Lina, ever astute, who notes how convoluted European society is, On the one hand they would torch your home; on the other they would feed, nurse and bless you... that plucking cherries from a tree burdened with them was theft.

From the general contradictions found in European society, there are the contradictions found on the level of the individual, particularly in Jacob. Jacob's contradiction is painfully ironic. He dreams of a future where his family and name are established. As he explains to Rebekha, What a man leaves behind is what a man is... I will have it. In a bid to secure that immortality, he commissions a great house, to be grandiuous where his previous dwellings were humble and serviceable.

Yet in Jacob's bid to ensure his mark in the world, he unwittingly causes the destruction of his real legacy to the world - his child. For while his dream house is being built, one of the horses used for construction kicks his daughter Patrician in the head, Men, barrows, a blacksmith, lumber, twine, pots of pitch, hammers and pull horses, one of which once kicked her daughter in the head. The child dies soon after and the couple will have no more children. Thus Jacob's contradiction is that in attempting to assure his future, he inadvertently ruins it.

The free and the slave in A Mercy also show deep contradictions. It is the blacksmith who is free yet surprisingly it is Florens, the slave, who is literate while he cannot read, You read the world but not the letters of talk. Moreover, it is Florens who has a name, she is a personality in the world. It is the smith, free and skilled, who is anonymous, who has no standing in the world where he is free.

The very nature of freedom in the novel is riven with contradictions. This is a point that the smith shares fittingly with Florens, You say you see slaves freer than free men. For it is Florens, though a slave, who has the most freedom among all the primary characters in the novel.

She has the freedom of movement. For indeed the novel is about her journey to find the blacksmith. While it may be argued that in her journey she is not free, as she is merely following the orders of Rebekha; she could have forsaken those orders and run away. Yet she opts to complete the task and find the smith. Thus she has the freedom of choice. Moreover, this freedom of choice is complemented by her freedom of thought. The impetus of the entire novel is testament to Florens's thought, as she narrates it to the reader.

This capacity to choose also extends to whom she loves, a freedom not accorded to her mother or even Rebecca. Florens loves the blacksmith, without pause or trepidation, despite the words of warning of her mother-figure, Lina. In this is another contradiction. For if Florens is the freest of them all, as argued above, she is also the least free among all the characters. For she gives up all these freedoms and hands them over to the blacksmith, You are my shaper and my world as well. It is done. No need to choose.

How do the characters make sense of their world, and each other, faced with these numerous contradictions? It's a crazy world and the characters of the novel respond to the absurdity with a classic human response - with kindness. A Mercy is littered with numerous instances of mercy, various acts of kindness between the characters to each other.

There is Lina, whose village is struck by pestilence and who is taken in by Europeans. Rebecca survives the trans-Atlantic voyage through the friendship and kindness of the other women on board her ship, Together they lightened their journey... the company of these exiled, thrown-away women. Sorrow is taken in by the family who discovers her (after she swims to shore from her abandoned vessel) and later on is taken in again by Jacob and Rebecca.

In particular, Jacob views his taking in of strays as a kindness. On taking in Florens he muses, From his own childhood he knew there was no good place in the world for waifs and whelps other than the generosity of strangers. His view on accepting Sorrow, and later Florens, is that the acquisition of both could be seen as a rescuee.

Yet this mercy inevitably goes awry. Malaki (another waif taken in, this time by the blacksmith) breaks the bond between the smith and Florens. Rebecca (who attributes her life to the kindness of God) survives her illness but is left broken by the experience, Mistress has cure but she is not well. Jacob, who is a kind and upright man, dies with neither name nor heir. And finally, the central kindness of the novel - where Florens's mother gives her up in order to save her - is not understood by Florens herself.

Florens takes her salvation as abandonment, her rescue as a casting off by her mother. Mercy and kindness produce, paradoxically again, suffering and loss. The inadequacy of the human response to the contradictions in the novel calls into question the efficacy and utility of mercy and kindness. If we mean well yet fail to do well is that reason enough to quit the trying? However flawed though the human response is at the very least it shows we give a damn about each other. This is in contrast to how the novel views God, a being who is supreme, even in His apathy. Rebecca makes the case that all the human foibles of the world, in our wretchedness, our suffering and our kindness, are preferable to indifference, Well, she thought, that was the true value of Job's comforters... when he felt even worse, he got an answer from God saying, Who on earth do you think you are? Question me? Let me give you a hint of who I am and what I know. For a moment Job must have longed for the self-interested musings of humans as vulnerable and misguided as he was.

In the end Florens continues the tradition of self-interested musings as she impregnates Jacob's house with words etched on the walls. Her telling of her story through the walls is an act of assertion as well as a bid for understanding. In a house that is a testament to man's hubris (Jacob) and woman's loneliness (Rebecca), Florens seeks to reclaim her life as well as theirs. Ultimately we show compassion, kindness and mercy, even though they may go awry, because perhaps we might be redeemed in their telling.


The narrative itself is simple but there are dazzling phrases here which compel the reader onward in search of further nuggets of fine writing. Also Rebecca's reflection on the Job story is quite unique. I've encountered several reflections on the Book of Job but none capture the unknowability of the Lord's ways (and the inherent apathy of that state) quite like Toni Morrison in A Mercy.

On a negative personal note, I thought that the changing of Sorrow's name to Complete after the birth of her child was a bit maudlin. Yes, mothers form an integral part of the novel's themes but this seemed a rather blatant exposition of that idea. Also the deliberate stylistic choice of several run on sentences fused together struck me as an ersatz stream of consciousness approach which seemed neither here nor there.

Lastly, a reader may also like to explore the motif of shoes in the novel. Florens is first distinguished by her affinity for shoes. In fact she pinpoints the origin of her story to her shoes, The beginning begins with the shoes. Later Lina remarks that Florens's feet are useless as they have grown accustomed to being shod. It is in her shoes too that Florens hides Rebecca's letter attesting that Florens is on a mission for her mistress and that she is not to be hindered therefrom. In the end though Florens's feet are toughened by her flight from the blacksmith and she is no longer in need of shoes. Just as her feet have become tough, the Florens of the novel's end is a much more resilient character than they shy girl at the beginning of A Mercy.

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