Study Guide

A Mercy

by Toni Morrison

A Mercy Summary

Introduction

A Mercy, published in 2008, joins Toni Morrison’s celebrated body of work exploring the African American experiences of slavery and freedom. But in A Mercy, Morrison’s handling of those issues is more multifaceted than in her previous novels. Morrison goes back to the beginning of slavery in America, in the late seventeenth century, a period during which America was far more diverse and complex than is generally imagined today. The novel includes Portuguese, Dutch, English, Native American, African, and mixed-race characters, all vying for a place in this new world. Neither religious freedom nor religious tolerance is a given, and while the Southern colonies are clearly strongholds of slavery, the North is by no means an innocent bystander. Diseases such as measles and smallpox run rampant. Nevertheless, there is an Eden-like quality in the beauty and richness of this new world, along with many decencies that transcend the evil elements.

The novel’s main narrator, Florens, is a slave born in America of an African mother, originally owned by Portuguese plantation owners. Through an act of mercy, she becomes part of the household of the Vaarks, who are a farming and trading couple. The household includes Florens, one Native American slave, one foundling of mixed race, and two male indentured servants. Each of these characters is given a voice in the story as well. The voices combine to form a narrative that allows the reader to see the history of the characters, as well as their present circumstances, and that allows the plot to move forward as a kind of mosaic. The action in the story is framed by the journey of Florens, a journey that is both literal and figurative.

Because of the complexity and diversity of the setting and the characters, many themes emerge in A Mercy. Morrison explores the concepts of freedom and slavery in every man (and woman), not just within the context of the African American experience. She examines the power of literacy in a world in which literacy is by no means a right, connecting it to freedom and personal autonomy. Biblical themes are present in the work, with America as the Garden of Eden and America as the Promised Land, both perhaps being precursors of the modern “American Dream.” The religious intolerance of the Old World is recast in the New World, allowing an exploration of the myth that America is the land of religious freedom. The variability of love is a theme demonstrated through the relationships in the novel—relationships between mother and child, between husband and wife, between two males, and between lovers. Morrison also expands the reader’s perspective on what makes a home and what makes a family, showing that these are constructs we create out of need and love, not only out of blood or marriage. And finally, acts of kindness and humanity—large and small—run through the story, showing that it is not so much God’s mercy that rescues us as much as it is our mercy to one another.

A Mercy Summary

A Mercy opens with Florens, a black slave, about sixteen years old, on a journey to visit the lover to whom she is addressing her thoughts and feelings. Florens is a literate slave, taught by a priest in defiance of the law. Florens recalls how she was given to her present master, Jacob Vaark, in partial settlement of a debt her prior master, a slave owner from the brutal Portuguese slave colony of Angola, owes to Vaark. Vaark is offered Florens and her mother, but her mother encourages Vaark to take only Florens because her mother is still nursing a baby boy. Florens, about eight years old when she is taken, recounts her shock, pain, and bitterness at this abandonment by her minha mae, “my mother” in Portuguese.

The second chapter, told by a third-person narrator who reveals Jacob’s thoughts and feelings, recounts Vaark’s journey to meet with D’Ortega and something of his story as an orphan and beneficiary of 120 acres in the New World. Vaark, a trader and businessman, has a soft spot for “orphans and strays.” He owns Lina (a Native American slave acquired after Lina’s tribe is nearly decimated by an epidemic of measles) and has taken in Sorrow (a half-drowned foundling girl) in another business deal. The reader gets some sense of the politics and prejudice of the period, learning of Vaark’s attitude toward the “popishness” of Catholic Maryland and its luxuries, built upon the free labor of slaves, in contrast to his simple life as a northern trader. Vaark comes away from his encounter with D’Ortega feeling he has bested him by getting even partial payment for the debt, but also envying D’Ortega his grand home, envisioning a mansion “rising on a hill above the fog.”

Florens continues her journey in the third chapter, telling her lover of the events of her household and of her desire for him, recalling watching him in his sleep—like a seventeenth-century Psyche watching her Cupid. He is revealed to be the African blacksmith, never enslaved, who has fashioned iron gates with kissing cobras for Vaark’s new house. Vaark contracts smallpox and dies, after which Rebekka, Vaark’s wife, finds two small sores inside her mouth. The household is quarantined, and Rebekka has sent Florens to bring back the blacksmith, who has medical knowledge. As the section ends, Florens settles for the night in a tree, the only place she is safe from human and animal predators.

The fourth chapter focuses on Messalina, or "Lina," purchased by Vaark before he brought Rebekka to the New World as his wife. Lina’s story, told in the third person, recounts her beginnings in Vaark’s household, her friendship with Rebekka (based on their respective weaknesses and strengths), the addition of Sorrow (the foundling) to the household, and the acquisition of two indentured servants, Willard and Scully. Babies born of Rebekka and Sorrow die early. In the present, Lina sees Vaark’s new house as a vain folly that has killed trees “without asking their permission,” and that has unsurprisingly led to his death and the precarious status of the remaining Vaark “family,” with orphaned females and a dying Mistress. As the section ends, Lina wonders whether Florens, on her journey to the blacksmith, will return at all, with or without the blacksmith.

The sixth chapter finds Florens still on her journey, talking to her blacksmith about making choices and the “looseness” in her, asking, “Is that how free feels.” She says that she does not like the feeling.

The seventh chapter returns to Rebekka, who has smallpox and lies in bed with thoughts that “bled into one another, confusing events and time but not people.” Hers is a fevered stream-of-consciousness narrated in the third person. She recounts her early life in England with a strict religious upbringing and lack of prospects until her father found Jacob Vaark’s advertisement for a wife. She mourns her lost children, the oldest of whom, a daughter, lived until only the age of five. She remembers her voyage to the New World and her pleasure with Vaark. Now, she awaits Florens’ return with the blacksmith, who might yet save her.

Florens continues her journey in the eighth chapter. She encounters a group of young Native Americans who offer her drink and food, a small mercy that allows her to continue, and she ponders the advice that Lina, who had been the victim of an abusive...

(The entire section is 1795 words.)