A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Note: when referencing the book i use the following text.

This is a short but powerful read. Toni Morrison, in her attempt to write outside the stereotypes of her race (as she explains in her essay ‘Home’ in ‘The House that Race Built’), she puts together a narrative that is both fictional and historical with a unique perspective on slavery. In just 176 pages she covers a wide scope that punches quite a kick.

The main theme of this book is not feminism but womanism, in that is covers the experience of all her female characters in a fair and in-depth fashion. Feminism, as it has become clear over the years, is largely the liberation of white middle-class women, as opposed to all women. For example, when reading Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ it becomes increasingly clear she’s  not thinking about all women. There’s a salient sense of closed-mindedness that Woolf simply doesn’t acknowledge or try to change.

Morrison on the other hand writes all women equally, not in their status but in her approach to their narratives. She’s aware of the historical inequalities but each woman has context, personality and depth that makes them interesting to read.

The Characters:

Florens: The daughter of a kitchen maid, Vaark takes Florens home with him in the second chapter. Third addition to Vaark’s farm.

Jacob Vaark: The owner of the farm on which the story takes place. Husband of Rebekka.

Lina: The only Indian survivor of her village and first helper at Vaark’s farm.

Sorrow: A survivor of a shipwreck, second addition to Vaark’s farm.

Rebekka: Jacobs wife who immigrated to the new continent from England to marry Jacob.

Will and Scully: Helping hands lent from a neighbouring farm. The two are lovers. Scully appears to be the instigator of their relationship.

Blacksmith: A free black man, he is never given an actual name but is simply referred to as the ‘blacksmith’ which may be alluding to that he is a Black Smith.


Set in early America when the continent was still ruled by the European empire.

Jacob Vaark inherits a farm from a relative that he is never met but takes it as an opportunity to build himself a new life. He finds himself a wife from England to help him look after the farm and build a family. Rebekka, having no local prospects answers Jacob’s advertisement and immigrates to America. Before her arrival Jacob takes on his first help: Lina, the only Indian survivor of her village after it is wiped out by the pox.

Lina and Rebekka farm the land together and grow as friends, especially during Jacob’s long absences as a creditor. Rebekka after giving birth to several children, sees all her babies die which sends her into a depression. On his travels Jacob finds Sorrow, a survivor of a shipwreck, and later Florens which he believes might cheer up his wife after the death of their girl who was the same age as Florens.

Rebekka, now the mistress of the farm, falls terminally sick after her husband, Jacob Vaark, dies. Florens is sent to find the blacksmith, who has knowledge of healing, to bring him back to the farm and save Rebekka. Before dying Jacob employed the blacksmith to build the grand gates to their third and biggest house. Jacob becomes obsessed with building a grander house after visiting a client and seeing the client’s mansion. The building of the house leads him to ignore symptoms of the pox and dying just as the house is finished.

His death changes the dynamic on the farm from a familial environment to one of master and slave. The death affects Rebekka the most and she becomes secluded; spending most of her time reading the bible and being cruel towards the other women on the farm.

The book is narrated by Florens, Jacob, Lina, Rebekka, Sorrow, Scully and Florens’ mother at the end where we learn the meaning of the title. The most featured narrator is Florens.

The female experience:

The salient theme in this text is the experience of different women. Each one is given a voice and a chance to tell her story. Often their own stories differ from the stories that are told of them by their observers which highlights the idea that who we are isn’t always what people see.

Throughout the text the female characters seem to be aware of their inequality to men which each woman interprets in her own way and what it means for her.

“Invisibility was intolerable to men. What complaint would a female Job dare to put forth? And if, having done so, and He deigned to remind her of how weak and ignorant she was, where was the news in that?” (p.89)

What’s interesting is the comment Morrison seems to be making when each woman makes assumptions about other female characters as opposed to when they work together in the book. All three are powerless in their environment as women, and each assumes things about the other which are in reality untrue or have meaningful reasons. It becomes increasingly clear as the narrative develops that they would benefit from trying to be a family and working together as opposed to trying to imitate male behavior.

Reinventing the Self

Overall, what each female character has in common, despite all their differences, is a fictional self. Each woman chooses her own identity by the end, and displays it to the world as the person she wants them to see. After being tired of who they were or who people tried to make them become, they take an active choice in their own identity, as both a comfort and shield against the hostility of their society and environment.

“Relying on memory and her own resources, she cobbled together neglected rites, merged European medicine with native, scripture with lore, and recalled or invented the hidden meaning of things. Found, in other words, a way to be in the world…By the time Mistress came, her self-invention was almost perfected. Soon it was irresistible. (p.46-8)

This self-invention is both a comment on the way society tries to categorize women as well as people of different nationalities. To force them into a generalised box that wipes away the individual’s understanding of their own origins as well as who they want to be.

Another theme to re-inventing the self in ‘A Mercy’ is the history of slavery in America. Morrison shows that slavery was not exclusive to people of colours, as is often assumed. In the early days of the colony, slaves were of all nationalities. People who could not pay their own passage were contracted to pay off their debt, often they were tricked into spending their whole lives working without being told when they would be set free. The only difference between them and the coloured slaves was that the white slaves could hide easier due to their skin colour. Have a look at the link below for more:

~Toni Morrison talks about ‘A Mercy’ 


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