The title of Morrison's novel suggests one of its themes: Mercy. A mercy is a compassionate act towards one who is powerless. Having received an act of mercy himself with the inheritance of land in the New World, Jacob Vaark comes to America and takes Floren from her dangerous environment, Messalina, "Lina," who is orphaned from her tribe by an outbreak of smallpox, and Sorrow, another orphan from a shipwreck, as well as Rebekka, his mail-order bride sent by her father. Together they construct a family out of need and an unusual love.
The social oppression of Africans as slaves,"who never shape the world" runs through the narrative as Florens is given as payment for the debt of the cruel D'Ortega. Also, the Native American Lina is enslaved as is Sorrow, a mixed child who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck.
The slaves are never part of their own worlds; they exist in the world of Vaark instead. With no real family, they forge bonds with each other as much as possible. Poor Sorrow, however, must create an imaginary friend for herself because she is so fearful and alone. Early in the novel, Lina tells Rebekka that she will always be alienated,
“You and I, this land is our home,” she whispered, “but unlike you I am exile here."
- Female Victimization
As Lina observes, the women are "of and for men," humans "who never shape the world." The world shapes us." While they need men to protect them in the New World, women are also victims of their desires and/or cruelty.Lina notes that she and the others are
"three unmastered women and an infant out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone.... Female and illegal."
However, Sorrow is so naive that she does not make the connection between the male exploitation and her pregnancies.
- The Journey
Florens sets out on a journey of love to find the blacksmith, who has a knowledge of herbs, so that he can attend to Rebekka, who has contracted smallpox. The journey of Florens is also a journey in love that ends with the resolution of her sense of abandonment by her mother. For, in the end of the narrative, Florens's mother explains why she sent her daughter from her; her act was one of love to keep her from being raped.
At one point in the novel, Lina relates an allegorical tale of a hawk, whose eggs are threatened by man. When the hawk tries to protect her eggs, the man harms her, but the eggs hatch on their own. This story that Lina tells Floren encourages Floren to make her life her own.
The name Florens is suggestive of flowers; the young Florens blossoms as a woman and finds her own identity at last. Sorrow's name denotes her subjugated life.