A Mercy Summary

A Mercy is a novel by Toni Morrison about sixteen-year-old Florens, who lives as a slave.

  • Florens, a young slave girl, is sold to the Vaark family at the age of eight. Her mother stays behind, leaving Florens bitter.

  • Years later, Vaark dies of smallpox, and his wife, Rebekka, falls ill. Rebekka sends Florens to fetch the blacksmith.

  • The blacksmith is Florens's lover. She hopes to stay with him now that Vaark is dead, but he sends her away.

  • Florens's mother narrates the final chapter and reveals that she sent Florens to the Vaarks to protect her from the cruel and predatory slavemaster, D'Ortega.

Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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,...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1795

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 lover in her youth, has given her, warning Florens that her infatuation with the blacksmith can come to no good. Seeking shelter, Florens spends the night in the home of the Widow Ealing, whose daughter Jane has a “lazy” eye (strabismus) and thus is suspected of witchcraft. When the village cabal of witch-hunters visits Widow Ealing’s house, Florens falls under suspicion as well because of her skin color, and only the letter she carries from Rebekka saves her from further accusations. She leaves the Widow’s house, making her way to the blacksmith.

The ninth section focuses on Sorrow. She is the daughter of a ship’s captain, and having been carried to shore after a shipwreck, this is her first experience living on land. When her father’s ship wrecks, Sorrow acquires an imaginary companion, Twin, who is a great comfort to her. Sorrow is found half-drowned by the sawyer’s wife, who gives Sorrow her name. Sorrow reaches adolescence during her time at the sawyer’s house and is impregnated by one of the sawyer’s sons. When the sawyer’s wife realizes this, she quickly gets rid of Sorrow by passing her along to Jacob Vaark. When Sorrow bears her child, Lina tells her it is too young to live and takes the infant to “set it a-sail in the widest part of the stream...." Sorrow becomes pregnant again, having been seduced by gifts of cherries and walnuts from the deacon and falls ill with smallpox. The blacksmith provides a kind of osteopathic cure by slicing open a swelling and feeding the resulting contaminated blood to Sorrow. When Rebekka falls ill with the pox too, Rebekka sends Florens to get the blacksmith, who returns without Florens and finds that Rebekka has recovered. The section ends with Willard and Scully delivering Sorrow’s daughter, who is full-term and healthy. Sorrow looks into her new daughter’s eyes and introduces herself with a new name of her own choosing, “Complete.”

In the tenth chapter, Florens arrives at her journey’s end—the abode of the blacksmith. The blacksmith decides to return to Rebekka alone. He will travel faster, and there is a young boy, Malaik, a foundling the blacksmith has taken in, whom Florens can watch over in his absence. Florens determines that she will stay with the blacksmith forever. But she is threatened by Malaik, still haunted by her minha mae having chosen her younger brother over her and sensing that Malaik is competition for the blacksmith’s attention and affection. In her resentment, she hides his cornhusk doll, and after the boy kicks over his stool, she tries to restrain him and breaks his arm. Malaik faints, and the blacksmith, finding the boy unconscious on the floor, strikes Florens, assuming she is responsible. She is told to return to Rebekka. Florens protests, telling him she adores him. He says she is a slave, with an empty head and a wild body, a slave to lust, a “wilderness.” Enraged, she tries to attack the blacksmith with his hammer.

As the eleventh chapter begins, Jacob Vaark, now deceased, appears to Willard and Scully, the indentured servants, at the newly built, never occupied mansion.  The section focuses on the pair, who have formed a homosexual relationship and feel that the Vaark household comprises their family, with two parents, the Vaarks; three sisters, Lina, Florens, and Sorrow; and themselves as “helpful sons." But they see a certain deterioration in their family since the death of Vaark and Rebekka’s illness. Rebekka has retreated to her Bible, Lina is not the same, and Florens has turned “feral.” Only Sorrow seems improved, tending to her child and acting “less addle-headed.” Some history is provided for Willard and Scully, allowing the reader to understand why each needs the other and a family. But their family with the Vaarks is now threatened, as is their ability to earn enough money to be free of indentured servitude because Rebekka in her present state, trying to run a farm without her husband, is quite likely to remarry.

In the twelfth chapter, told in Florens’ voice, she and the blacksmith have a violent physical altercation. She returns to the Vaark household and haunts the new house, which explains why Willard and Scully think they see Jacob Vaark’s ghost. Realizing Rebekka wants to give Sorrow away and sell Florens, Sorrow wants to escape with Florens. But Florens has to finish something before she can go anywhere, the story she has been telling the blacksmith. She has written her story with a nail on the floor and walls of the room she is in. Suddenly she realizes that the blacksmith, her audience, cannot read. She speculates that Lina might burn the house down, so her words will rise and fall like ashes. She says that whether slave or free, she will last. But she keeps “one sadness”—that she will never know what her mother has been trying to tell her, and that her mother will never know what Florens wants to say, that the soles of her feet are now “hard as cypress.”

Florens’ mother, in a first-person narrative, completes the book in the thirteenth chapter, telling the story of how she was enslaved by other Africans, of the infamous Middle Passage, of her time in Barbados, and of her hope when she is purchased by D’Ortega. But she and the other female slaves are “broken in” by men on the plantation, and her hope diminishes. Florens and her brother are the result of these rapes, and her hope grows again with her children and when she arranges for them to learn to read and write. But she sees the eyes of D’Ortega upon Florens as she matures. When Vaark comes to the plantation, Florens’ mother sees him as someone who sees a child, not a piece of property, and she kneels, hoping a miracle will save Florens. What saves Florens, though, is not God, but “a mercy” from Vaark. She ends the narrative with the words she wants Florens to understand:

To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.

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