by Sonya Jin
Written by African American author Toni Morrison in 2008, A Mercy details the epic journey and psychological struggles of fictional sixteen-year old slave girl Florens in pre-colonial America. Traded in by her mother to pay off a debt, Florens’ subsequent narrative is told through several perspectives of diverse backgrounds, consisting of both slaves and slave owners. After the farm on which she lives on and its inhabitants are infected with smallpox, Florens is ordered to find a healing Blacksmith whom she had fallen in love with years ago. The story climaxes when Florens purposely injures a baby boy living in the Blacksmith’s house, due to jealousy and remembrances of abandonment from the time her mother sold her away. It climaxes again when readers learn the true reason behind her mothers’ abandonment, which was an act of selfless motherly love that Florens will never realize or be able to accept.
In this contemporary and raw literary work, the estranged messages between Florens and her mother are never resolved, and they represent the complexity of the scars left by slavery. Though its plot is presented as a quest to find a long-lost lover, A Mercy’s overarching tale is one of maternal rejection, exile, and searching for an identity in a world where race and gender define power.
Historical and Cultural Context
A Mercy was published on November 11, 2008, one week after America’s first black president, Barack Obama, was elected into office. It has been suggested that it was not coincidence A Mercy was released at such a significant time in history, and that the messages in the novel act as a reminder about the actual extent of racial progress in America. For example, in her journal exploring this specific context, Wells Cantiello claims the reaction to electing a black president demonstrates the tendency of people to simplify multiracial people into a black and white binary. Although Obama has a mixed-race background, the media and society have been quick to label him as just “black”, illustrating the affinity for simple racial categories in a supposedly “post racial” world. Similarly, despite coming from diverse backgrounds, the multiracial slaves in A Mercy are grouped in a single identity of the underprivileged and powerless servitude. Following Obama’s election, many have referred to recent times as “post racial” yet A Mercy is a sharp reminder that the fundamental legacy of racism is a permanent presence; thus, the timing of the novel further amplifies its purpose.
In terms of historical context, A Mercy is set in the 17th century, a defining period for people of color because their place in society had not been hardened yet, although the majority of them were already indentured servants or chattel slaves. The 17th century was also the time in which Bacon’s Rebellion happened, which led to a series of laws limiting the rights of black slaves, signifying the beginning of racial boundaries. According to Morrison, precolonial America was a pre-racial era in which “slavery had not been coupled with [one] race”. This specific setting then sets the groundwork for exploring how servitude and bondage spiraled into racism. Morrison especially portrays the beginning of the coupling of race and slavery through the personal experiences of Florens. Florens first experiences being treated differently due to her race when she stays with a white widow and her daughter, who is being investigated for witchcraft. When the officials show up at their house, they are distracted from the task at hand by Florens’ race and pay special and intrusive attention to her, examining her feet, arms, legs as if she were a spectacle instead of a human being. Humiliated by this incident, Florens’ view of the world and her own skin is forever shaped by this exposure to racial hierarchy, and henceforth views color as a means of classification.
Themes and Style
In concurrence with her other works, Morrison relies heavily on the theme of maternal rejection in A Mercy, as well as emphasizing the loss and search for identity. In her journal article discussing the tropes of maternal loss and failed messages, Wyatt refers to the “historical reality that slave children were sold away from their parents, parents away from their children—a daily occurrence in a system that circulated human beings according to the price they could bring at market”. This is the narrative of the main character, Florens, who inevitably sees the world through a tainted lens due to her forced separation from her mother, the struggles it entailed, and the many questions it left unanswered. The memory of her mother saying “Take the girl” to her future owner haunts Florens for the rest of the life, and she obsesses over that line, convinced her mother did it out of hatred. Florens is never able to understand this act of love while her mother is never able to explain it to her though she longs to, even saying “in the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you” (A Mercy). Morrison uses this irremediable relationship between Florens and her mother to showcase the historically accurate damage inflicted on slave children by premature separation from their parents. Therefore, Morrison especially condemns slavery in this way, and deems the psychological scars left by it irreparable as it was with Florens and many other children like her. In a symbolic gesture, the novel ends with guilt-stricken messages from Florens’ mother that Florens needs to hear but will never reach her, emphasizing Morrison’s stance that slavery has an unforgivable and permanently damaging history.
The tropes of migration, exile, and home are often seen in A Mercy. Morrison primarily uses Florens’ exile from her home as an illustration of the migration from Africa that displaced millions of people. Florens’ exile is a focal point in her shifting identity and parallels the loss of identity experienced by slaves as they are forced to start over in a strange, oppressive world. For example, Florens and her mother’s dialogue is a “highly symbolic gesture that seeks to bridge the psychic, geographic, and linguistic gulf between Africa and the New World” (Montgomery). Shifting identity can be seen on Florens’ journey to find the blacksmith even from the beginning when she carries a note from her owner that grants safe passage. The fact that written approval from her white oppressor has power and meaning to other white people indicates beginnings of racial separation in America and also further fragments Florens’ identity. After being humiliated by the villagers, Florens painfully realizes she is “a thing apart” from the white settlers and once again is forced into a socially constructed identity. This feeling of being categorized is not limited to Florens, but also expressed by other characters including her mother when she says “It was there I learned how I was not a person from my country, nor from my families. I was negrita” (A Mercy). Thus, A Mercy examines the roots of slavery and its long-lasting consequences on an entire culture and identity of a people.
Since Toni Morrison is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a world known author, the publication of A Mercy automatically generated critical conversation and reviews. In one such New York Times review, author David Gates criticizes and discusses the novel’s pastoral genre, set in the beautiful American countryside. The slave owner in the novel, Jacob Vaark, believes he has created an “earthly paradise” for the farms’ slave inhabitants. However, Gates says this only emphasizes the divide between whites and blacks as only the former gets to reap the benefits of living in such a paradise. Gates puts it into words concisely and strongly: “In this American Eden, you get two original sins for the price of one–the near extermination of the native population and the importation of slaves from Africa”. For slaves, entering into this American Eden is “entering the world of the damned”, which is why the genre of this novel is so ironic.
In another article, writer Karavanta praises and examines Morrison’s ability to give a voice to the historically silenced. Karavanta aptly states in their journal that Toni Morrison “questions the exceptional politics of the national community that operates at the expense of the marginalized”. Adding onto the aforementioned idea of racial simplification, she questions the history of a country that managed to reduce all the different cultures and ethnicities of the “expropriated constituencies, indentured laborers, and slaves from Africa” into a single identity, even before the obvious divide between white people and the slave population. From the beginning, there are two identities, people who have power and people under power; it just so happens that the narratives of the latter are often lost in history. Thus, Karavanta suggests that Morrison gives voice to and excavates the stories of the historically “forgotten” people such as slaves and women.
In her journal article, Strehle points out the irony in America exceptionalism and how Morrison emphasizes this irony by making the narrating characters slaves. Strehle includes quotes from Morrison stating that an important focus of the novel was distinguishing slavery from racism, and then uncovering “the process by which racism joins slavery in a distinctive American conjunction”. By identifying this process, Morrison relays the important fact that slaves were never included in the idea of exceptionalism and were merely justified through it. In the novel, Florens says “I am a thing apart”, implying that she “pays the costs of the racism infusing American binaries with her isolation”.
Gates, David. “Original Sins.” Review of A Mercy. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/books/review/Gates-t.html.
Montgomery, Maxine L. “Got on My Traveling Shoes: Migration, Exile, and Home in Toni Morrison’s ‘A Mercy.’” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 42, 2011, pp. 627–637.
Strehle, Susan. ““I Am a Thing Apart”: Toni Morrison, A Mercy , and American Exceptionalism.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 54, no. 2, 2013, pp. 109–123., doi:10.1080/03017605.2012.722569.
Wells Cantiello, Jessica. “From Pre-Racial to Post-Racial? Reading and Reviewing A Mercy in the Age of Obama.” Melus, vol. 36, no. 2, 2011, pp. 165–183., doi:10.1353/mel.2011.0030.
Wyatt, Jean. “Failed Messages, Maternal Loss, and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 58, no. 1, 2012, pp. 128–151., doi:10.1353/mfs.2012.0006.
Bennett, Brit. “Ripping the Veil.” New Republic, New Republic., 2 Aug. 2016, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/135708/colson-whiteheads-fantastic-voyage.
Karavanta, Mina. “Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the Counterwriting of Negative Communities: A Postnational Novel.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 58, 2012, pp. 723–746.
Martin, Michel. “Toni Morrison On Human Bondage And A Post-Racial Age.” NPR, 26 Dec. 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98679703. Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.
Morgenshṭern, Noʻomi. “Maternal Love/Maternal Violence: Inventing Ethics in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., vol. 39, no. 1, 2014, pp. 7–29., doi:10.1093/melus/mlt071.
A Mercy, Toni Morrison, Pastoral, Abandonment, Psychological scars, Precolonial America, Identity, Culture