A Mercy by Toni Morrison is about New World
A Mercy is not just about life in America in 1680s, it is much more. It is about pain and sorrow. It is about trauma. It is about violence inflicted upon people in the New World that attracted divergent races to it. The violence rooted in the clash of cultures can be seen in a society that is at the pre-formative stage. There are no rules and norms governing human behavior. Such a world is the world of turmoil. It is the world of uncertainties and fear. It is the world of chaos and also of meaninglessness to an extent. It is the world that depicts horrors of slavery.
The author of A Mercy is Toni Morrison, the much acclaimed recipient of Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, and associated with tenure at PrincetonUniversity. Her books challenge the readers as much as they entertain. The novel is remarkably intricate that could have been culled in brief 167 pages. Yet every page leaves the reader with new amazing insights so compelling that a reader would want to re-read the earlier passages and dig deeper into the narrative.
Deirdre Donahue, writing in the USA Today, finds the author Toni Morrison examining slavery through the “prism of power, not race” in this work: “In both print and her public persona, Toni Morrison is an original thinker. She once famously called Bill Clinton our first black president. Now in the month in which the country elected Barack Obama president, the Nobel laureate has published a new novel, A Mercy, which examines slavery through the prism of power, not race” (2008).
This is evident when we compare this work with Morrison’s earlier work Beloved . It is her 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning novel with the themes of a mother that “kills her daughter rather than see her returned to slavery. In Beloved, skin color and slavery are inextricably linked.” (Donahue 2008). In contrast the slavery in 1680s America “was a color-blind, equal-opportunity state of misery, not yet the rigid, peculiar institution it would become” (Donahue 2008).
Critics and commentators have seen A Mercy as a prequel to her earlier work Beloved (1987). Michiko Kakutani (2008) writing in the New York Times says, “A horrifying act stood at the center of Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterwork, “Beloved”: a runaway slave, caught in her effort to escape, cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw, determined to spare the girl the fate she herself has suffered as a slave. A similarly indelible act stands at the center of Ms. Morrison’s remarkable new novella, “A Mercy,” a small, plangent gem of a story that is, at once, a kind of prelude to “Beloved” and a variation on that earlier book’s exploration of the personal costs of slavery — a system that moves men and women and children around “like checkers” and casts a looming shadow over both parental and romantic love”.
The plot in A Mercy involves Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader. His household can be described as multicultural but powerless living in the wilds of Virginia. Rebecca, his wife is white who has come from the merciless London slums. She is actually a part of the exchange against the supplies that Jacob made to her father. Jack has never seen her before although it is by pure chance that they love each other.
The other members in the household include a native American slave woman, two young girls Sorrow and Florens, and two indentured male white servants Will and Scully. While Sorrow, a white orphan is discovered on a foundered ship, Florens is a 16 year old black slave that finds shelter in the household because her mother cannot afford the burden of upbringing her. Will and Scully are there in the household because they are illiterate with little hopes of breaking out of slavery since their masters have loaned them to Jacob.
The events keep happening in the household that have larger symbolic implications. For instance, two such notable events include the arrival of a blacksmith and Jacob’s death. The African blacksmith is free. He is charismatic and draws others’ interest in him. Florens cannot resist the bewitching charm he has and falls in love with him but all she gets in return is despair and heartbreak. Jacob’s death is symbolic of the inability of survival against powerful forces arrayed against the powerless men and women that are rootless in a ruthless alien land that is not just mysterious but brutally heartless.
At a yet higher level of analysis, we find the real clash of cultures that took place in the New World that promised wealth and prosperity no matter the ethics and morality involved in acquiring wealth in a lawless world. Everything and absolutely everything could be bought and sold in this world despite the threat of natural or manmade annihilation. The agenda of all the interacting actors was not merely wealth. Europeans sailed to this land in hopes of either prosperity or escape. Natives suffered an apocalypse, the divine wrath or mysterious threat to their calm and peaceful existence going back centuries. Slaves from Africa and Europe were at the mercy of their turbulent fate transported across the wild seas. All of them from diverse lands where consigned to the common melting pot that was cruel and merciless.
Morrison poses and answers some of the most difficult questions that expose the ironies and intricacies of life lived during those times. These are the issues men and women that go through the grind and turmoil of the pre-colonial era live and experience. Ill begotten wealth through trade in human beings can be compulsively scornful for a man, yet the same man envies the riches of those that have turned slavery into a profitable trade. A young slave girl is abandoned by her mother. She doesn’t know what freedom means, yet this slave girl finds her love. Ultimately, how can a powerful nation emerge out of this confusion, turmoil, and brutality? These are some of the issues that Morrison raises that have no easy answers, yet the answers come from human virtues of struggle, hard work, friendship, resilience, and survival skills that must owe their origin in divine source.
Perhaps, the most disturbing fate is reserved for the slave girl in this novel. This slave girl is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady” who is luckless and love less. She looks for love from an older slave girl Lina first, but is later drawn to the African Blacksmith, that is not a slave. The first words spoken by Florens are the words of confession and perhaps premonition as well:
Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark—weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more—but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog’s profile plays in the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain. Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know. One question is who is responsible? (p.3)
The other characters fare no better. Lina comes from a tribe that has been wiped out by small pox. Rebecca, from the slums of London has been a victim of religious intolerance back home.
From the circumstances of Rebecca, readers can infer that the social conditions in the civilized Europe were no better than the prevailing social world in savage America. The white slaves came to the New World escaping persecution back home. Rebekka doesn’t fear violence in the colonies that to her is “the occasional skirmishes and uprisings” in contrast to the horrifying violence that was so pervasive in her home nation.
The narrative is a fictitious account of pre-colonial America, yet it is the repository of a wealth of information that no history text book can probably offer. The information we get relates to the emotional life of people in the wretched world, of Christian practices, faith and belief, of the world of native Americans and their social world, of how Christian and tribal religion take care of sick, of the larger social forces that shape human destiny, of what it meant to be African, native American and women during those days, of the condition of being orphaned.
The voice of Florens emerges powerfully in the narrative. Addressing her story to the blacksmith, Florens says, “You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle” (p.3). Florens uses strikingly powerful language. It is eccentric and poetic at the same time. It reveals her experiences as also who she is as she addresses the blacksmith: “I am happy the world is breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me” (p5), and next “Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here” (page 7).
Like Florens, others like Jacob, Lina, Florens’ mother and Sorrow use distinctive language that helps reader decipher the world of these characters and social background. The author has made an excellent use of multi-vocal narrative that has distinct advantages over a single voice. The narrative takes the readers in the world in which these characters existed and reveal their social position and perception of life. This might not probably have been possible with the use of single voice.
The novel also informs us of the healing practices of the natives when Rebecca falls ill. Lina uses traditional medicine to treat her and also wondered if she could repeat some of the Presbyterian prayers she learned, but then she decides against using those prayers because they could not save “Sir”. Instead she uses practical earth based herbs – periwinkle, Saint-John’s wort, mugwort, devil's bit, and maidenhair.
Morrson’s novel is urgent, poetic and lyrical. The world of history and myths has been poetically woven together where daily life merges with the life of fable. The central characters, all of them orphans and cast aside by their parents are the victims of human or God’s cruelty. Jacob, the Anglo-Dutch trade has been an orphan on streets, stealing foods as he remembers his own childhood days. No wonder he is so compassion toward orphans. Rebecca was sent to marry him because his father would be happier having to feed one less mouth. Florens’ mother perceiving Jacob’s kindness begs him to take her daughter in his care so that she might one day become free.
One man’s mercy is abandonment to the other. The abandonment that Florens experiences at the psychological level leaves her with a scar pining for love all her life. Jacob’s farm gives her an illusion of belongingness. There is a home of a kind with other slave girls that share personal pains together in a bond of friendship. One day, Sorrow, another orphan that was half drowned in a river enters their life. While Rebecca finds her useless, Lina, the survivor of mass epidemic sees in her the symbolic bad luck that brought successive deaths of Rebecca’s young children.
In contrast to Sorrow, Lina feels highly affectionate toward Florens whom she embraces as a long-lost kin. Florens arouses maternal instinct in Lina. Florens is described in the following words: “A frightened, long-necked child who did not speak for weeks but when she did, her light, singsong voice was lovely to hear. Some how, some way, the child assuaged the tiny yet eternal yearning for the home Lina once knew, where everyone had anything, and no one had everything.” Lina protects Florens with maternal passion, when she warns Florens of the perils involved in falling in love with charismatic blacksmith who is there to work in Jacob’s new house but miraculously cures Sorrow out of illness. Lina tells Florens, “you are one leaf on his tree” even as Florens insists, she is the only tree. The blacksmith however, leaves Florens heart broken not even bothering to say her goodbye when he quits after completing Jacob’s fancy gate.
Jacob’s compassionate presence gave the slave girls a feeling of bondage and family life. It was easy to hide the fact that they were not a family. They were not even a like minded group of people brought together by cruel circumstances of their lives. This could not have been possible without Jacob and yet we find a contradiction in Jacob’s character. He despises flesh trade or slave trade. He is kind and compassionate toward them, yet he has slave women in his farm. The contradiction is resolved when the readers begin to empathize with Jacob and his line of thinking. He doesn’t treat his people as slaves. They are an extension of his family. And like an extended family they share their joys and sorrows together.
The life was going be tough for them when Jacob dies suddenly of pox and Rebecca too is on her deathbed with little chances of her survival. The three women without a master living in the lawless world could have been easy target for hunters ready to assault and abduct them. Their only hope lay in the blacksmith with his magical cures.
We can see in Morrison’s A Mercy a parallel that is comparable to the nation that is America, a family of orphans:
We are a nation of orphans. It’s our New World inheritance. White, black, red, we’re fatherless, motherless. The whites orphaned themselves, leaving behind the Old World, its comforts and strictures, for a trackless wilderness. The blacks were stolen from their homes, packed into slave ships and sold into orphanhood. As for the natives, the “savages,” their way of life was gutted by the European invasion—some tribes were decimated on contact, others suffered a gradual, inexorable dispossession: They were orphaned bit by bit. One way or another, our ancestors were foundlings—do we feel it still, a trace memory of thrilling, terrifying isolation? And is that primal loneliness a condition, weirdly, of our freedom? (Begley 2008).
We may claim to have fairly good understanding of history. There are text books that teach us history. We may also claim to understand the diversity that characterizes our social life, the origin of those diversities. We may even pity with the condition of those slaves that came from Europe and Africa. However, our understanding of pre-colonial America can never be complete unless we address Morrison’s A Mercy . True, it is fiction. However, this fiction stands on a solid foundation of facts. We cannot truly feel the pulse and vibration of the age without a narrative and voice that transports us in time 300 years back. Morrison’s accounts make us participate in the drama that was enacted here three centuries ago for each of the reader can see a little of himself or herself in the drama. The reason they can feel so poignantly a part of drama lies in the common root that is actually “rootlessness”. We may not remember the events but our collective memory by some mysterious power compellingly reminds us that we are a part of it. A Mercy is not merely the story of slavery or the facts of it. It is about the blood, toil, and emotion that goes in making an order out of chaos. It is about being orphan and being abandoned. It is about not being ever able to get over the feeling of being abandoned not matter how and where we go off from there. It is about collective guilt in our psyche and the subsequent catharsis, and confession.