Slavery and Freedom
Each of the “servants” of the Vaark household is somewhere on the continuum between slavery and freedom, in forms of bondage that are not necessarily race-based. Sorrow is “mongrelized,” of mixed race parentage, with curly red hair, and she does not appear to be considered black by anyone. She is an unpaid servant, though, who is threatened with sale. Lina is a Native American slave, and Will and Scully are white indentured servants. Florens is the sole household slave considered black. The blacksmith, described as African, has never been a slave. He stands as a free counterpart to Florens, telling her she is a slave to desire for him, not to her literal enslavement by the Vaarks. Morrison thus offers an atypical means of looking at enslavement, which can take many forms and which is not solely a function of race or legal status. This way of looking at slavery is rare, since its history is usually presented as inextricably linked with that of race. Thus, Morrison allows the reader to contemplate the myriad permutations of slavery, contributing a new idea to the literature of slavery.
Another theme relating to slavery and freedom is the link between literacy and freedom, or perhaps more specifically, between writing and freedom. Much is made of Florens’ literacy, which she acquires with great risk, and at the end of the book, Florens literally writes herself out of a room, telling her story on the walls and floor of the new mansion. There is some suggestion here that one can write oneself out of enslavement, that finding a voice is akin to finding freedom.
Two Biblical themes are prominent in the story—the Garden of Eden and the Promised Land. Morrison’s New World is a lush Garden of Eden, with resources for all, but there are snakes in the garden, fashioned by the blacksmith on the gates of Jacob Vaarks’s new mansion. Vaark, whose vanity has prompted this mansion, dies before he can move in, much like Moses, who dies with only a glimpse of the Promised Land, the mansion “on the hill,” reminiscent of “the city on the hill” of the Puritans (and the New Testament.)
The New World is filled with more than Puritans, and religious intolerance is a theme of the novel as well. Florens, from Catholic Maryland, notes that the priest who delivers her to Vaark is unloved in Vaark’s territory. And Vaark, traveling to Maryland,...
(The entire section is 1000 words.)