Frontiers: Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”

Morrison, Toni (2008), A Mercy, Knopf
ISBN 978-0-307-26423-7

Toni Morrison is the last American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and Americans have been whining about not getting another one ever since. Increasingly I have heard people complain that now that Updike has died and that Roth isn’t exactly young anymore, maybe Morrison should not have gotten that prize, if awarding it meant that neither Updike nor Roth would get one. Add to this the fact that her most famous and well-loved novel, Beloved, was published all the way back in 1987 and you understand why almost every single review of her latest novel, A Mercy, breathed an almost audible sigh of relief. Finally! Finally a return to form. And the topic was slavery again! Yes, I raised my eyebrows, too. But whatever the reasons for the exuberant praise that’s been showered on this novel, it’s well deserved. A Mercy is a very good novel. It’s smart, moving and, despite its short length, has a story is of epic proportions. With a writer of Morrison’s quality, this should not come as a great surprise, but it bears saying: the writing is so good, so clear, so sure that you read each page as you would a poem.

The book is ingeniously constructed: its story is told from multiple points of view, with chapters narrated by different characters. Most characters’ voices are relayed to us in a third person narrative, except for Florens’ voice and her mother’s which are told in the first person. We don’t get one long story, instead we get multiple stories, one for each important character,which actually, when we get down to it, form one vibrant history of a place and of the catastrophic events that the place and its inhabitants head towards. Morrison’s technique makes sure we understand every character and the society in which that character lives. At the center of the novel are three female slaves who work on a farm. We learn everything about the house, reading episodes about the acquisition of each of the slaves and similar events. Their owner is Jacob, a trader, who is very reluctant to become a slave owner.

When Jacob, a small-scale trader […] found himself an heir of sorts, he relished the thought of becoming a landowning, independent farmer. He didn’t change his mind about that. He did what was necessary: secured a wife, someone to help her, planted, built, fathered….he had simply added the trading life.

He opts for female slaves because he wants the “steady female labor” and is afraid of men causing mischief in his absence, since he was “a traveling man”. Jacob did not plan on having three slaves. He bought them as and when an opportunity arose. He bought Lina, his first slave, to do the kind of work a wife would do for him, which is a hint of the slots in place for people in Jacob’s society. Note that in the quote above, he talks about “securing” a wife. He and Rebekka, the woman he eventually marries, have not yet met.

In Rebekka’s voice we hear about her fate, about the reasons why she was married off to Jacob and how she experienced her arrival in the New World. In the discussion about slavery and racism, questions of class have increasingly cropped up during the past twenty years, for instance Ignatiev’s classic study on How the Irish became White (1995) or, better still, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991). While not foregrounding it here, Morrison is certainly highlighting the question when she choses this as the angle which ‘Rebekka’s chapter’ is exploring. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, we can’t help but notice similarities in the way that Rebekka was ‘sold’ and shipped off and the slaves were, not without being reminded of the differences time and again.

The similarities and the differences are reinforced in one of the most powerful episodes of the novel, one that is, perhaps, the turning-point for the events that form the main story. The youngest of the three slaves, Florens, is sent to get help. On her way she finds shelter at a widow’s home, whose daughter is accused of being a demon, because she has a lazy eye and is possibly exhibiting irregular behavior. A committee investigating the question arrives just that moment and the blackness of Florens’ skin is taken as evidence of Florens’ being a demon herself. Even after Florens produces a letter by her owner, the case is still not clear. The debate amongst the townsfolk is verging on absurdity:

A woman’s voice asks would Satan write a letter. Lucifer is all deceit and trickery says another.

So, clearly, there are similarities in what would raise suspicions among gullible puritans, but, as the widow’s daughter helps Florens with her escape, we are reminded, who, even among outcasts, is in charge and who is not. After all, it is Florens’ very skin that makes her suspicious, not her behavior. It’s her skin that she cannot shed, not change, even if she wanted to. Her being black is a clear signifier in the Manichean world of the townsmen and -women. The fact that her blackness is a cultural signifier, referring back to archaic notions of good and bad is important in a novel like A Mercy that works so much with archetypes. The three female slaves could be said to represent the virgin, the mother and crone, and so on.

Morrison is using these archetypes because her novel is less about telling a story (although it does tell a story and what a moving story it is!) than about history and the cultural assumptions that shape our understanding of it. These assumptions, clearly, involve religion. Everything here is tinged with religion, or rather religions. As we see Rebekka arrive at her new home country, we also see that this is not a New World. It is rather a conglomerate of old people owning a world they don’t understand nor care about, many of them getting rich off of the black backs of slaves. We hear Rebekka tell us about the religious intolerance in England, the intolerance that, as we all know, drove the Puritans to the shores of this New World. And we hear Rebekka’s sorrow at being confronted with the intolerance of the citizens there, who will not baptize her children. Thus, her grief at watching her children die early is deepened by her belief they will not be able to go to heaven.

Religious belief buttresses most of the cruelty that forms the backdrop to what happens. The reader should not that Morrison decides not to include the brutality within the pages of her book. A Mercy is insightful, not shocking. She channels the constant threats of brutality and cruelty through a few select emblematic episodes and images, such as, for instance, Florens’ decision to wear shoes.

When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes, even on the hottest days […]. As a result, Lina says, my feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires.

And right enough, as worse comes to worst, she loses the pair of boots she is currently wearing, and, as her life breaks into pieces, so do the soles of her feet (as is typical of this novel, these images are much more layered than I can possibly convey here. Amongst many other things, the pair of boots she wears and then loses are a pair owned by her owner. So, when the boots are stolen, his protection vanishes as well. And I have not even touched upon the issue of sexuality that is raised in this context).

The novel works with oppositions, such as free versus enslaved, and toys with them. Thus, among the reduced cast of this short book we have a black freedman, two white male indentured workers, women, and, of course the three slaves. Thus, we have different varieties of shades between these two oppositions. Another of these oppositions is civilization versus wildness.

I am remembering what you tell me from long ago when Sir is not dead. You say you see slaves freer than free men. One is a lion in the skin of an ass. The other is an ass in the skin of a lion. That it is the withering inside that enslaves and opens the door for what is wild. I know my withering is born in the Widow’s closet.

This, spoken by Florens, states as clearly as it could that “the Widow’s closet”, by which the confrontation with the demon-hunting townsfolk is meant, woke the wildness in her, i.e., the conflict with the land-owning, slave-selling civilization there. It is here that we should perhaps mention, although it may have become rather obvious by now, one of the major literary allusions of the novel The Scarlet Letter and other texts by the divine Hawthorne, just, again, with roles reversed in interesting ways. In the first chapter of that novel, Hawthorne talks about the necessities when founding a new community–you need a prison and a cemetery. Hardened, Hawthorne puts his finger on the essential properties of what, in A Mercy, as well, constitutes civilization. Punishment, i.e., restricting religious and secular behavior and the control over life and death is necessary, since a civilization needs to make rooms for its own dead. It is greedy.

The tiny farmhouse society with two white owners, three slaves and two indentured workers differs from the society around them. Every single person there feels that difference, which is positive for the slaves, who are treated more humanely than their fellow slaves elsewhere, and hurtful for the whites, since the village does not let them forget they’re different. Thus, when Jacob is killed while building a stately mansion on his land, i.e., while he was trying to stop being a traveling man and settling down, becoming part of the society at hand, the tiny society is breaking down. At the same time it is, in a way, being subsumed into the larger society around them. There is, as expected, a bitterness in the title of the novel, and much of that bitterness is due to the fact that the novel’s main characters appear to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as described.

As with Hawthorne’s work, we are made aware upon what sort of foundations modern society is erected. By interweaving the personal history of its characters with a steaming rich cultural subtext, it makes this story part of our story. I have elsewhere talked about how Hawthorne’s writing can feel like a fist jab to the stomach. There is an urgency and a drive to Hawthorne’s work that I have never found elsewhere. Morrison’s tone is different. She is a powerful, composed writer. Her level of verbal control sets her apart, but her characteristic way with images and archetypes introduces a different kind of urgency. Morrison is writing in a tradition that is a white tradition, that is the tradition of those who enslaved Florens, Lina and Sorrow. Hence the concern with slipping in and out of opposites. As we saw, the slavers are white male Puritans, with a Manichean mentality. They thrive off dichotomies. White and black. As I must have said a dozen times on this blog, Gilroy and Morrison herself in her landmark study, have demonstrated the extent to which these opposites have become culturally ingrained. There are many ways writers to deal with these complexities, none like Toni Morrison’s, who is one of the best novelists of her time. And then there are those who, ever so slightly, affirm the old oppositions, with elegance and irony, like John Updike. My allegiance as a reader is clear.


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Already Guilty

The incredible Toni Morrison clarifies a misconception

Do you regret referring to Bill Clinton as the first black President?
People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.