A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is an award winning novelist and professor. Her novels are known for the unique themes that are centered around African American characters. Her way of story telling really connects the reader with African American experiences through slavery and the early 1900’s. Toni Morrison particularly talks about the African American female experiences in an unjust society. Her use of fantasy and poetic styles gives her novels great strength and texture.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison is told through different perspectives and the timeline is non-linear. The basic premise of the story is that a mother who is a slave must decide between several difficult decisions that concerns her daughter. While the novel is a work of fiction in historical context, it does a great job showing the perspective from a female slave with a child who must make a life or death decision and how that decision affects her daughter. Morrison describes the 17th century in America when humans were considered no more valuable than a piece of property. This is also around the time when Europeans are fighting for power and through a character named Lina, the author also describes the crimes that were committed against native Americans.
Since the timeline of the book is non-linear, it is sometime difficult to pinpoint when certain events takes place. In the first chapter, Florens, a teenage girl describes how she hated being barefoot when she was a little girl and found a pair of broken high heels that were thrown away but her mother Lina did not want her wearing that type of footwear. Her mother asked what she will do with the “ hands of a slave” and “feet of a Portuguese lady”. This statement made by Lina is to describe in a joking manner that she will look funny working with those shoes on because high heels were worn by a certain class of women and she was just a daughter of a slave girl.
A mercy takes place during a time in America when humans were used for various forms of slavery. A slave could not earn his freedom and the children of the slaves were also slaves. Morrison also gives historical perspective from slave owners and their fear of rebellions. A character named Jacob, who’s a friend of a slave owner describes how slave owners were compensated if their slave would run away or be killed by their master. “separated and protected all whites from all others forever.” During the first slave rebellion, poor whites would sometimes join poor African people to rebel against the rich but that law was changed to form racial segregation. Jacob thinks about how the land he owns does not belong to him and is stolen from the native Americans. Morrison shows the readers that slave owners were in fact aware that while they worked their slaves to death, the land they owned did not belong to them.
African Americans were equated to to the likes of cattle and physical property. The following conversation occurs between Jacob Vark and D’Ortega who are both slave owners. “Disaster had struck…D’Ortega’s ship had been anchored a nautical mile from shore for a month waiting for a vessel, due any day, to replenish what he had lost. A third of his cargo had died of ship fever. Fined five thousand pounds of tobacco for throwing their bodies too close to the bay; forced to scoop up the corpses they used pikes and nets a purchase which itself cost two pounds, six. He’d had to pile them in two drays (six shillings), cart them out to low land where saltweed and alligators would finish the work.” D’Ortega is a Portuguese slave trader who describes to Jacob that he lost a third of his cargo. The author describes how casually the slave traders would talk about Africans as if they were a piece of furniture lost during transport with no regard to humanity.
In the novel, Jacob desires to have a big house like his friend D’Ortega and this becomes one of the main forms of symbolism. This also becomes a big plot which revolves around all the main characters. Jacob who is not in favor of slavery ultimately receives profits from a sugar mill which is a form of profiting through forced human labor. Lina, mother of Florens was always unimpressed by the big house and when Jacob dies due to an illness, she believes that he will haunt the big house. The book really emphasis the importance of Superstitions that was believed by the slaves. The house symbolized power but the events surrounding the incidents during it’s construction shows how unpredicted human life can be.
Many of the main characters of the book are orphans. During his childhood, Jacob became an orphan which made him more sympathetic to his slaves Lina and Sorrow who were also orphans. The concept of orphans in the book serves the base to discuss motherhood through the novel. While Florens is not an orphan, she considers herself to be one because her mother abandoned her. The author also talks about orphans to describe the mass separation of families that occurred in the colonies. This also allows characters to form an untraditional relationship between each other. Florens was sold to Jacob by her mother Lina, to save her from lifetime of physical and sexual abuse by D’Ortega.
“They would forever fence land, ship whole trees to faraway countries, take any woman for quick pleasure, ruin soil, befoul sacred places and worship a dull, unimaginative god…Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable…Lina was not so sure”. This quote describes how easy families were separated. Morrison describes to the reader that human trafficking was just considered normal and was not at all considered cruel or unmoral. Human trafficking was not the only aspect of European colonization but stealing natural resources as well. They would also cause a lot of environmental damage and destroy sacred places of worship.
During the peak times of African slave trade, Christianity was was the dominant religion and was one of the only religion allowed to be practiced among the Africans. Many Africans were diverse and had their own beliefs before they were captured to be sold. Florens talks to the blacksmith, who is a free black man and he tells Florens that his ancestors approve of the work he is doing. This shows that some form of African spirituality had heavy influence in the beliefs of African slaves. Unlike the religion of the book, many Africans believed in communicating with the ancestors.
Motherhood is also a big part of the novel. Depending if a woman is free or a slave, motherhood can be very different. Rebekka, a Polish caucasian woman has children who are the product of a legal marriage, for her, motherhood is a privilege because she is free to make choices. Motherhood is completely different under slavery. Legally speaking, Lina could not be considered the mother of Florens and the mother and daughter relationship is not recognized between the two. But Lina still cares for Florens despite the harsh realities of the enforced slave laws. Morrison shows that motherhood could be a beautiful experience and an endless nightmare depending on your social status.
Domestic violence is also one of the themes of the book. Morrison describes to the reader that during the 17 century, domestic violence was institutionalized even if you were a white woman . “ Wife beating was common, she knew, but the restrictions— not after nine at night, with cause and not anger— were for wives and only wives. A character named Rebbeka describes how wife beating is a common practice but only allowed before nine at night under certain circumstances. Unmarried women were not protected under the same law as married women.
Many of the female characters in the novel had suffered from sexual abuse in their childhood. Florens mother Lina had been a victim of rape from lack of laws that prevent violence against specifically black women. A character named sorrow is shown to become pregnant in her early teenage years which indicates that the sexual intercourse was not consensual. Just like motherhood, sex was also a privilege only enjoyed by certain women who had not been abused by it. Most African women were not interested in love or sex because of their childhood experiences.
The novels really discusses the limitations of women due to commodification. “ They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess”. Morrison explains how despite characters getting along to share common experiences especially female characters, at the end of the day, their future was uncertain because they have no say in it.
During the 17th century, there were two types of systems, slavery and indentured servitude. Slaves were not compensated for their work and indentured servants would have contracts that would be long term. There were laws that allowed native Americans and Africans to be killed for no reason by a white man. “By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only; by granting license to any white to kill any black for any reason”. Jacob explains how the white man created a system where black people were not allowed to gather in fear of a revolt. And at any time for any reason a black or a native American could be killed on site with no consequences.
Morrison also goes into great details to explain the simplicity and striking descriptions of the landscape of early America. When Jacob travels through the wilderness of Virginia to reach Maryland, he describes the landscape of North America as “forests untouched since Noah”. This is the only time in the novel that America is glorified and described in detail of it’s beauty. Native Americans had been living on that land admired by Europeans for hundreds of years before their arrival. Unlike Europeans, Native Americans had a simple lifestyle that revolved around nature instead of harming it.
Native Americans did not have a system of property ownership and believed in taking only the essential tools to survive. Jacob describes how the European kings have created a system of land possession which had caused signifiant amounts of blood shed of Native populations. Land and Agriculture were both heavily depended on slavery and in the south, slave owners made massive profits from the free labor. American Agriculture was solely based on slavery. Jacob explains that white landowners only acquired the land through the deaths of the native populations who were originally living on the land and he feels that this is the system of injustice.
Since Jacob has a small family farm, he cannot compete with other farmers with stolen land and forced African labor. Later on in the novel, Jacob constructs a big house but ends up dying just before completing the project. Morrison is describing the motivation that was given to the average European who did not have slaves and stolen land. They could not compete in a competitive market with other people. If you owned a business and payed your servants, your business would not be that profitable.
At the end of the novel, Florens has all her misconceptions cleared. Florens always thought that the reason her mother had sold her because she preferred to keep her brother over her. Florens mother did not have much of a choice and had to make an absolute horrific decision for the sake for her daughter’s life. Florens mother did not want her daughter to experience the physical and sexual abuse she had endured her whole life and in some instances she was even considering to kill her daughter rather than let her suffer what she has gone through.
In conclusion, the novel is about the experience of a girl who feels that her mother had abandoned her and that experience really reflects on her life when it comes to her relationship with the blacksmith who is a free black man. Morrison goes into great detail from different character perspective’s to show what life was like in the early 17th century. Reading about a historical event cannot give you the same perspective as to what people felt during that time. There are many events that take place in the novel through different characters but the important message that the author wants the reader to see is the great extent of human suffering that was caused by slavery.