Hi bloggers! Recently I’ve started reading a very interesting book called ‘A Mercy‘ by Toni Morrison. So far it’s been a good read and it brought many controversial and serious topics to the table such as slave trade, physical abuse and the overwhelming power of illness/disease. Thanks to the unbelievably great writing skills of the Nobel prize winning author Mrs. Morrison, the novel was well structured and its plot was easily delivered and able to be understood.
Here’s a short summary of the novel by BookBrowse:
In the 1680s the Atlantic slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.
There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness.
A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment (Reading, 7 November 2017).
While reading the book, I noticed that Toni used many archetypes in her writing, specifically through different characters and through symbolism in various objects and names. An archetype is a character, symbol, theme or action that represents universal patterns of human nature (LiteraryDevices).They’re little subtle and hidden hints that if you were just skimming through the novel you wouldn’t pick up on. After re-reading some parts I was able to come up with the following analysis :
Archetypal Character Analysis
Florens’ character in the book can be interpreted as the archetypal hero. When I think of a hero I often portray a courageous, strong and likable character who fights off evil while saving the innocent. The hero is, in my opinion, the central character of the story; the one everybody roots for; and the one everybody loves. However, what I learnt while reading the story is that hero’s don’t always live a happy life and end up on the the best foot compared to others.
Florens’ character was found useful from the start and I feel as if Jacob Vaark saw the potential in her the second he laid eyes on her. The best description came from Lina when she said “who else these days has the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady?” (Morrison 10-11). Florens had the best of both worlds in the eyes of slave owners… Of course I believe that Vaark was always of kind heart and was looking to save these innocent people from their slave masters but as for men like Mr. D’Ortega, a plantation owner, all he could care about was if she was beautiful enough to have sex with and if she could do work on the fields. Both of which Florens fit perfectly.
Her name even fits the character type. Symbolically, her name means “flowers” which is a perfect representation of what she is like in the book. She is known as the young innocent girl with loads of potential and promise. While the world remains in front of her, she is cursed with being born into the slave trade lifestyle.
Lina’s character can be interpreted as the mentor or superior figure full of wisdom. I saw this since the moment she decided to take Florens under her wing at the Vaark plantation. On several occasions Lina was the voice of reason in Florens’ head, especially in situations where a young girl would not know how to react. Since Lina was of greater age, she’s been through things Florens hasn’t yet experienced and therefore could provide her own wisdom. An example of this came when Florens started learning for herself and said “I don’t need Lina to warn me that I must not be alone with strange men with slow hands when in liquor and anger they discover their cargo is lost” (Morrison 40). She was in a dangerous situation around men that were looking to take advantage of her but Lina taught her enough to realize the danger present.
Sorrow is a perfect representation of a tragic figure. In my opinion a tragic figure represents someone that is just misfortunate throughout the storyline and that never seems to catch a break. She was brought up as an orphan, found as a teenager floating down a river with a severe head injury only to be brought into Vaark’s plantation as a slave. Also, she eventually develops some sort of mental illness and her final appearance in the novel comes when she contracts smallpox and dies. I was extremely sad to see the misfortunes associated to her character but at the end of the day I don’t believe that she had any other destiny.
Lina, being the wise one out of the bunch gave a good description about Sorrow as a person:
“The sawyer’s wife named her Sorrow, for good reason, thought Lina, and following a winter of feeding the daft girl who kept wandering off getting lost, who knew nothing and worked less, a strange melancholy girl to whom her sons were paying very close attention, the sawyer’s wife asked her husband to get quit of her” (Morrison 49).
I find that its ultimately important to add the symbolic meaning behind her name. A character with the name “Sorrow” isn’t expected to have the happiest life especially in a book of fiction and therefore I feel as if she had it coming for her from the very start (her death). Its just unfortunate that it had to be her.
One particular theme that I would like to touch upon, simply due to its educational value and importance is slavery and freedom. Slavery is the system by which people are owned by other people as slaves. (Harper Collins Dictionary) Freedom is known as the quality or state of being free and is a political right. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Two polar opposites that are both seen in the novel. What I found particularly interesting is the fact that this book took place in an era way before modern slavery as we know it. “A Mercy” is based in pre-America times where colonizers from Europe were first discovering the land. It’s unbelievable how in a time so premature, slavery was heavily relied upon in every day life. It was the foundation to how successful a white man could be. In the book I saw on many occasions examples of slaves and the slave trade through the eyes of Florens, her mother, Lina, Sorrow and many more but on the other hand I saw freedom through the eyes of a black man (surprisingly), known as the village’s blacksmith. Florens depicted him as “a free man” and that “he had rights and privileges, just like Sir [Mr. Vaark]” (Morrison 43).
In no way do I support or endorse slavery and I believe every man and woman should be free. It remains unfortunate that our history has stooped to such a low and that such things were even possible. It still remains mind boggling to me how a human could own another human as property… Weird stuff…
Something I personally adore searching for when reading any novel really are the various hidden symbols that can be found in-between the lines or through objects and characters in the novel. It gives the book a different edge and allows for a deeper understanding of what’s going on which I find extremely helpful as a novice reader. Since I’m not the greatest, this helps me greatly.
1. Jacob’s House
The first symbol that I pointed out was Jacob Vaark’s house. It’s importance is seen throughout the book especially in the beginning after his visitation of the D’Ortega plantation. Jacob was so mesmerized by its size and quality that he pointed out he “had never seen a house like it. The wealthiest men he knew built in wood, not brick, riven clapboards with no need for grand pillars suitable for a House of Parliament”(Morrison 19).
I instantly saw that there was a gap between the wealth of Mr. Vaark and Mr. D’Ortega. From that point on it was clear that Jacob wanted an estate of his own that resembled the one he’d just witnessed. I made out that in those times power was greatly attributed to the size of estates, number of slaves owned and the success of your crops etc.
The second Jacob got the chance to leave D’Ortega’s estate he had to stop by a village pub for a pint and find somewhere to stay the night. He immediately started envisioning his own house and it was even said that “his dreams [that night] were of a grand house of many rooms rising on a hill above the fog” (Morrison 36).
2. Florens’ Shoes
The next archetypal symbol I was able to discover was the reoccurring mentioning of Florens’ shoes. She always complained about having tired feet and always asked to wear someone’s shoes. Her mother and friend Lina would tell her that her “feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life requires” (Morrison 10).
I always found it interesting how Morrison chose shoes as a way to anchor the reader in the novel. I feel as if she used them as a way to help whoever is reading to get a better grip on what’s going on especially since the story loved to skip from angle to angle.
Florens never cared who’s shoes she put on, as long as her feet were protected from the elements… They could be dirty, worn, heels, men’s work boots, anything goes with her.
The last and final symbol I came across was the topic of orphans in the novel. Usually, when someone thinks of southern hospitality and stereotypical families in the United States, I know I certainly envision large get togethers for thanksgiving, families with multiple siblings running around the backyard playing and having their mothers call them in for dinner. The sad part to this is that orphans never get to experience such memories and this is surprisingly a reoccurring concept in Morrison’s book. I believe it serves a sort of “counterweight” to the whole discussion of motherhood and family that you experience otherwise.
I found that to be really interesting especially since one of the slave owners and planation runners himself, Mr. Vaark was an orphan child. I believe that this is also partly why he has such a soft spot for the kids growing up on plantations, being ripped from their mothers and taken away. During his visit at the D’Ortega estate, he involuntarily negotiated the acquisition of a young girl as partial payment of a debt and this brought back bad memories. When she was brought forward he started to “feel a disturbing pulse of pity for orphans and strays, remembering well their and his own sad teeming in the markets, lanes, alleyways and ports of every region he traveled”(Morrison 33).
In the book Jacob wasn’t the only orphan, Lina and Sorrow both came from oprphanages and had unbelievably tragic youths. Even Florens can be somewhat put in that category since she felt that her mother just let her go off with Mr. Vaark without a goodbye, not realizing that her mother was saving her from a life of abuse and rape.
Until next time ladies and gentlemen!
BookBrowse. “A Mercy by by Toni Morrison: Summary and reviews.” BookBrowse.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
LitCharts. “A Mercy Symbols from LitCharts | The creators of SparkNotes.” LitCharts. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
“Archetype – Examples and Definition of Archetype.” Literary Devices. N.p., 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 July 2017.
Cipriano, Rob. “What Is a Hero.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 July 2014. Web. 12 July 2017.
“Florens.” Florens meaning | Latin Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
“Sorrow Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
“Toni Morrison.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.