A Mercy

by Toni Morrison. I read this novel in October last year and never got around to writing a review. It’s a slim novel, set during colonial times in America, at the end of the 17th century. Like all of Morrison’s novels, it is told in a non-linear way, with lots of flashes forward and backward in time.

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The story centers around Florens, a young black slave who is sold by her Spanish Catholic aristocratic owner from Maryland to Jacob Vaark, a Dutch Protestant who takes Florens in lieu of a trading debt to his farm in the North. He hopes that Florens, who is eight years old at the time, will be company for his wife Rebekkah, who has just lost her little daughter. Rebekkah, however, resents Florens, and she is claimed as a sort of daughter by Lina, a Native American servant of the Vaarks.

The novel is alternatively told by Florens (in the first person) and by the other characters of the novels (in the third person). The reader learns that Jacob is a self-made man, who makes his living by trading. He manages to get a farm and has a woman brought over from Holland to become his wife. Rebekkah is at first scared to be leaving her home, but she is reconciled when she finds that her life with Jacob on the farm is better that the life she led in Holland. On the farm there’s also Messalina (Lina), a servant. She is the last survivor of her Native American tribe, and she represses her memories to be able to survive. At first Rebekkah doesn’t get along with Lina but they soon become friends, as Jacob often leaves them alone to look after the farm while he is away on trading journeys. Rebekkah’s children all die as babies except for Patrician, a daughter, who survives until she is about 5 years old and is killed by a horse by accident. There’s also a young, mentally unstable woman called Sorrow at the farm, who was also brought along by Jacob. She survived a shipwreck and lived for a time with a Protestant religious sect but was given to Jacob after she was raped and became pregnant by one of the men of the community. Lina, although she doesn’t like her, helps her during childbirth, but the child is born dead or is killed by Lina, which is what Sorrow thinks. This may be true, but the reader can’t be sure, as Sorrow is an unreliable narrator (as are all the narrators).

Jakob, having seen how Florens’ master lived in Florida, in a great mansion, somehow becomes convinced that he also needs a kind of manor house. He spends a lot of money building it and hires a free African blacksmith to build elaborate iron gates for his new house. Florens falls in love with and has an affair with the blacksmith, who, however, rides off without any farewell to Florens. Sorrow had been healed of the pox by the blacksmith, but Jacob and Rebekkah also catch it. Jakob dies in his unfinished new house and Rebekkah, afraid of dying herself, sends Florens after the African to fetch him back. Florens does find him (after some encounters with people who had never seen a black person before and feared that she was a devil). The blacksmith leaves Florens at his house to look after an orphaned boy, Malaik, while he rides back to minister to Rebekkah. Florens, who has always resented her mother for sending her away and her baby brother for being allowed to stay, is jealous and mistreats the boy. Because of this, on his return, the blacksmith rejects Florens for being a slave in her mind. Florens has to return to the farm, where things are falling apart after Jacob’s death.

Rebekkah has joined a pious community and has become cruel to her friend Lina. She wants to sell Florens and send Sorrow away, but Sorrow, now calling herself “Complete” because she had another child, wants to flee with Florens. But Florens first needs time to write her story onto the walls of the unfinished new house, as a kind of justification to the blacksmith, who may one day see her writing (she had learnt to read and write in secret from a Catholic priest while still in Maryland).

The last few pages of the novel are told by Florens mother, who tells how she sent Florens away as “a mercy”, because Jacob Vaark saw her as a person, not a thing. She wants Florens to have a chance, however slim, of another life, free from becoming the sexual toy of her master. Florens never learns that her rejection by her mother was meant as a mercy. She doesn’t hear the wisdom her mother tried to teach her.

When the novel ends, the reader doesn’t know what will happen to Florens, Sorrow, and Lina.

The novel shows many different aspects of life in the American colonies during the late 17th century. There are people from different cultures of Europe, Africa and America itself. Slavery is shown in its cruelty. Even characters who are against slavery, like Jacob, still engage with it. He owns Florens and his wife threatens to sell her after his death. Lina and Sorrow are also unfree and so are the indentured servants Will and Scully, who never seems to gain their freedom, even though they are paid wages – but they at least can hope to someday gain their liberty. There’s the free African, who doesn’t show much respect for Florens. They are lovers, but he leaves her without a backward glance and later rejects her for having internalized slavery – though how could she have done else, with no other experience? Still, this experience seems to have gained her a certain understanding of herself:

I am become wilderness but I am also Florens. In full. Unforgiven. Unforgiving. No ruth, my love. None. Hear me? Slave. Free. I last.

Morrison, Toni: A Mercy. Vintage Books. New York, 2009. p. 161

This understanding shows that there is no mercy, no ruth, despite what her mother hoped for her. But she has become strong and will endure, whatever happens. The sadness remains that she can’t tell her mother and she still doesn’t know what her mother was trying to tell her when she left. And her mother will never know what happened to Florens.

I liked this novel a lot. It is the only novel of Morrison’s that deals with life in the American colonies before independence. It is many-facetted as usual, and my review only touches on some of the main themes. I heartily recommend it.

My ranking of Morrison’s novels. The novels are hard to rank because they are all so good:

  1. Beloved
  2. Paradise
  3. Jazz
  4. Song of Solomon
  5. Sula
  6. A Mercy
  7. Love
  8. The Bluest Eye
  9. Tar Baby

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