Florens is the main character in A Mercy, and it is through her journey to and from the home of the blacksmith that the present time of the novel's narrative takes place. Florens is the product of the rape of her mother by a plantation hand; she is approximately sixteen years old as the story opens and as it ends. When Florens is very young, her mother warns Florens that she has "prettified" ways because she cannot bear being barefoot. Florens reports that her mother also described her as “dangerous” and “wild.” When her mother appears to favor Florens' younger brother, Florens is emotionally crippled and sees herself as perpetually unchosen and unprotected. Thus her mother haunts her throughout the narrative. It is not until after her brief relationship with the blacksmith and its aftermath, with Florens hiding in the master’s unoccupied house, writing on the walls and floor, that she achieves any kind of closure and emotional balance.
The blacksmith, who remains unnamed throughout the story, is the object of Florens’ love and lust. He has never been a slave, although it is not clear why. His blacksmithing skills are considerable, and he is more of an artisan, which allows him to earn what seems to be a reasonable living for a black man in this time and place. The blacksmith and Florens meet when he is hired to create wrought iron gates for Vaark’s new mansion, and they couple shortly thereafter. The blacksmith is Florens’ counterpart, black and free.
Senhor and Senhora D’Ortega
Senhor and Senhora D'Ortega are Portuguese plantation owners, Catholics, who have spent some of their lives in the Portuguese colony of Angola, which had a reputation for exceptional cruelty to slaves. They own Florens, Florens’ mother and brother, and many other slaves. Senhor has a roving eye, particularly for attractive, young, female slaves, and this is part of the motivation for Florens’ mother to let her go with Jacob Vaark. Senhor is in debt to Jacob Vaark and seems to have no cash assets with which to pay him. Giving Vaark a slave instead is a partial repayment of the debt.
The couple provides author Toni Morrison with an opportunity to explore religious prejudice in the New World; readers see how Catholicism is perceived through Vaark’s eyes. The D'Ortegas also act as a foil to Vaark and his wife because the D'Ortegas are cruel, completely profit-driven, and represent the kind of slaveholders readers tend to picture today. But even though the kindly Vaark and his wife are not stereotypical slaveholders, the D’Ortegas’ seeming affluence, as shown by their mansion, represents a temptation to Vaark, who begins to contemplate building his own mansion. Thus, to some degree, the D'Ortegas act as snakes in the garden for Vaark. Although they appear and disappear early in the book, and play no part in the story’s present, their influence carries throughout the story because Vaark does build his mansion and because Florens’ language carries the remnants of their Portuguese heritage.
Jacob Vaark is an orphaned Dutchman who has endured a Dickensian childhood and the humiliation of the...
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