Toni Morrison, the only living citizen of the United States to have received a Nobel Prize for Literature, is best known for books such as Beloved, Song of Solomon, and The Bluest Eye. This is her ninth novel.
The Story: The Story: In early colonial America, slavery wasn’t as simple as black and white. In addition to Africans being sold into bondage, women came to the colonies as mail-order brides, whites served as indentured servants, and Native Americans faced an alien society after disease and war decimated their numbers. In A Mercy, which takes place 200 years before Beloved (1987), characters such as these play out their lives on a small Virginia farm. While we hear each of their stories, the character with the clearest voice is Florens, purchased from a plantation as a young girl. The fate of Florens and the other women is tied to her owner, Jacob Vaark, who accepted her as repayment for a debt despite his alleged disapproval of slavery. His ethical dilemma and other moral conundrums emerge from a misty world where the racial rules that soon governed the culture had yet to be written.
Knopf. 176 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0307264238
"This is a smaller, more delicate novel [than Beloved], a fusion of mystery, history and longing that stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph in Morrison’s body of work. … This rich little masterpiece is a welding of poetry and history and psychological acuity that you must not miss." Ron Charles
Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel
"Using her trademark kaleidoscopic approach, Morrison allows these characters to unspool their unique stories of how they came together. … [A Mercy] also pays homage to our collective power to imagine a better future." Mike Fischer
New York Times
"Ms. Morrison has rediscovered an urgent, poetic voice that enables her to move back and forth with immediacy and ease between the worlds of history and myth, between ordinary daily life and the realm of fable. … [It] stands, with Beloved, as one of Ms. Morrison’s most haunting works yet." Michiko Kakutani
Dallas Morning News
"The language and structure are more vivid and accessible than her last two postmodern benders, Paradise and Love. … This is Ms. Morrison in high humanist form, even if it ultimately feels a little slight and sawed-off." Chris Vognar
"Like William Faulkner and James Joyce, Morrison is not easy to read or understand. But A Mercy offers an original vision of America in its primeval state, where freedom was a rare commodity." Deirdre Donahue
"So many voices in so few pages can be admired as a spinning prism that illuminates the story. But for others, the fragmentation will distract from a tale that reminds us, at this historic moment, of how far we have come, but how far is left to go." Carole Goldberg
"The book’s length, structure and technique tend to work against its better motives. Choosing to present the varied strains of American colonial history primarily through allusion, Morrison places her characters against a backdrop that is so abbreviated that their quest for that meaningful life is difficult to take seriously." Robert Peluso
Several reviewers ranked A Mercy near the top of Toni Morrison’s catalogue—an impressive feat. Given the subject of slavery, comparisons with Beloved are inevitable; critics tended to think of A Mercy as a more compact companion piece to that work. Many reviewers also noted that A Mercy is more accessible than Morrison’s other novels that were written since she won the Nobel Prize, showing that the award does not, in fact, curse its recipients with literary decline. But a few reviewers also noted the inevitable deference given to an author like Morrison. Some sections of A Mercy may seem obscure, they suggested, but that obscurity simply indicates that those sections deserve another read. The reviewer from the Dallas Morning News summed it up nicely: this novel is more accessible than Morrison’s recent work, and is all the better for it. But there is still plenty of allusion and poetry so that you won’t forget who you’re reading—or why there may be a few passages that you’re rereading.
Also by the Author
We profiled Toni Morrison in our Sept/Oct 2003 issue and recommended that readers start reading Morrison with Beloved, which she wrote after discovering a shocking article about a fugitive slave. It is Morrison’s most acclaimed—and perhaps best—book. Song of Solomon combines magical realism with an epic story about one man’s quest to understand his ancestry. The Bluest Eye, her first novel, explores her classic themes of black identity, family, history, and community.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. Florens addresses her story to the blacksmith she loves and writes: "You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle" (page 3). In what sense is her story a confession? What are the dreamlike "curiosities" it is filled with?
2. Florens writes to the blacksmith, "I am happy the world is breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me" (page 5), and later, "Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here" (page 7). In what ways is Florens's use of language strikingly eccentric and poetic? What does the way she speaks and writes reveal about who she is and what her experience has been?
3. What does A Mercy reveal about Colonial America that is startling and new? In what ways does Morrison give this period in our history an emotional depth that cannot be found in text books?
4. A Mercy is told primarily through the distinctive narrative voices of Florens, Lina, Jacob, Rebekka, Sorrow, and, lastly, Florens's mother. What do these characters reveal about themselves through the way they speak? What are the advantages of such a multivocal narrative over one told through a single voice?
5. Jacob Vaark is reluctant to traffic in human flesh and determined to amass wealth honestly, without "trading his conscience for coin" (page 28). How does he justify making money from trading sugar produced by slave labor in Barbados? What larger point is Morrison making here?
6. How does Jacob's attitude toward his slaves/workers differ from that of the farmer who owns Florens's mother?
7. When Rebekka falls ill, Lina treats her with a mixture of herbs: devil's bit, mugwort, Saint-John's-wort, maidenhair, and periwinkle. She also considers "repeating some of the prayers she learned among the Presbyterians, but since none had saved Sir, she thought not" (page 50). What fundamental differences are suggested here between the practical, earth-based healing knowledge of Lina and the more ethereal prayers of the Presbyterians? What larger role does healing play in the novel?
8. Rebekka knows that even as a white woman, her prospects are limited to "servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest" (pages 77–78). And Lina, Sorrow, and Florens know that if their mistress dies, "three unmastered women … out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone" (page 58). What does the novel as a whole reveal about the precarious position of women, European and African, free and enslaved, in late-17th-century America?
9. Rebekka says she does not fear the violence in the colonies—the occasional skirmishes and uprisings—because it is so much less horrifying and pervasive than the violence in her home country of England. In what ways is "civilized" England more savage than "savage" America?
10. What role does the love story between Florens and the blacksmith play in the novel? Why does the blacksmith tell Florens that she is "a slave by choice" (page 141)?
11. When Florens asks for shelter on her journey to find the blacksmith, she is taken in by a Christian widow and her apparently "possessed" daughter Jane, whose soul she is trying to save by whipping her. And Rebekka experiences religion, as practiced by her mother, as "a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred" (page 74). How are Christians depicted in the novel? How do they regard Florens, and black people generally?
12. Lina tells Florens, "We never shape the world... The world shapes us" (page 71). What does she mean? In what ways are the main characters in the novel more shaped by than shapers of the world they inhabit?
13. Why does Florens's mother urge Jacob to take her? Why does she consider his doing so a mercy? What does her decision say about the conditions in which she and so many others like her were forced to live?
14. The sachem of Lina's tribe says of the Europeans: "Cut loose from the earth's soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples" (page 54). To what extent is this an accurate assessment? In what ways is A Mercy about the condition of being orphaned? What is the literal and symbolic significance of being orphaned or abandoned in the novel?
15. Why does Morrison choose to end the novel in the voice of Florens' s mother? How does the ending alter or intensify all that has come before it?
16. Why is it important to have a visceral, emotional grasp of what life was like, especially for Africans, Native Americans, and women, in Colonial America? In what ways has American culture tried to forget or whitewash this history?
17. Did you see the stunning twist at the novel's conclusion coming? If so, when and why? If not, why do you think it blindsided you?
18. How do the stories of the women in A Mercy serve as a prequel to the stories of the women in Beloved, which is set two centuries later?
Toni Morrison, Beloved; Madison Smartt Bell, All Souls' Rising; Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Edward P. Jones, The Known World; Valerie Martin, Property; Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty; William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner; Richard Wright, Black Boy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Toni Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities, Emerita, at Princeton University. She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her previous novels include Sula, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, and Love. She lives in Rockland County, New York, and Princeton, New Jersey.