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 gravity of land." Willard and Scully see the land as a means to end their servitude.
Because there are alternating sections of voices and because the book opens in medias res, the reader must move back and forth between characters, trying to understand their pasts, their present challenges, and the relationships among them. Each section provides some pieces of knowledge until finally the reader is able to see how the multiple voices coalesce into a story. Florens provides continuity and discontinuity throughout the narrative—continuity because she is the most constant “voice,” but discontinuity because of the workings of her mind and because of her language. Florens’ language, a pastiche of her early upbringing in a Portuguese household and a literacy that is primitive, is oblique. Her audience is unknown to the reader as the story opens, and what she is thinking and saying are not immediately clear. She often refers to characters that have not yet been introduced, and there is rarely a clear sequence of events, only a stream-of-consciousness monologue to an unknown lover. But as past and present become clearer and other characters emerge, the reader can see the New World through Florens’ eyes and words, and appreciate its beauty and agony.
Throughout Toni Morrison’s nine novels, certain key themes consistently appear, marking each book regardless of differences of setting, plot, character, and historical period. No issue is more significant to Morrison than the relationship between mother and daughter. Her most famous rendering of this remains Beloved (1987), in which a mother chooses to cut her daughter’s throat rather than allow her to be returned to a life of slavery. Morrison’s novel A Mercy has as its defining moment a similar horrible choice for a mother to make about her daughter’s life. The novel asks “What is the cost and what is the measure of a mother’s love?” A Mercy revisits many of the major concerns and motifs of Morrison’s work and also many defining scenes. Morrison...
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