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.