Literary Qualities

Toni Morrison’s A Mercy takes place in the late seventeenth century in the New World. The characters include slave owners, the D’Ortegas and the Vaarks; two female slaves, Florens, who is black, and Lina, who is Native American; two indentured servants, Willard and Scully; a “mongrelized” female foundling, Sorrow; and an unnamed free African blacksmith. The story is told primarily through the first-person narrative of Florens; some interspersed sections are narrated by an unknown third person who provides the thoughts and feelings of other characters in the novel.

Several aspects of the narrative make it challenging to sort out setting, events, and characters, but those challenges also contribute to A Mercy's rich literary and historical qualities. For example, only one date—1690—is provided as the “present time” of the story. The settings too are spare: first there is “Mary’s Land,” and then there is somewhere in a "northern colony." These settings and other plot elements offer the reader a glimpse into the beginnings of religious intolerance in the New World, the “popishness” of Maryland, and the threat of witchcraft. The settings also allow the reader to see the beauty and promise of the New World, before it is tamed and ruined, from the characters’ differing perspectives. Florens, for example, seeks comfort in the land as she travels, finding it safer to sleep in a tree or in the hollow of a log than to stay with other people. For Jacob Vaark, there is beauty in the land, but there is also money to be made and a fancy house to be built. Lina has a Native American perspective, and she laments the trees cut down, “without their permission," for Vaark’s new house. Rebekka Vaark, arriving from England, sees beauty in “skies taller than a cathedral." D’Ortega and his wife see a land to be raped. Sorrow, having been born and raised on a ship, is ill at ease; her feet fight the "distressing...

(The entire section is 533 words.)