A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Mine, Mine, Mine
by Toni Morrison
Knopf. 176 pp. $23.95
A Mercy is Toni Morrison’s first novel in five years, after the two critical disappointments (1998’s Paradise and 2003’s Love) that appeared in the wake of the Nobel Prize for Literature she received in 1993. Like Beloved (1987), her most admired work, A Mercy is set in the distant American past and tells the story of a slave mother’s apparent betrayal of her daughter.
“I’m just trying to look at something without blinking,” Morrison has said, “to see what it was like, or it could have been like, and how that had something to do with the way we live now.” If Beloved can be described as an attempt to see what slavery was like—to depict its historical and psychological repercussions for America—A Mercy is an attempt to see what could have been had slavery not taken full root in the New World, a tale of America “before it was America,” in Morrison’s words.
This tale of a paradise lost begins in the 1680’s with a small-time Dutch trader who hails, appropriately enough, from a northern town called Milton. His name is Jacob Vaark, and he has just arrived at a Maryland plantation called Jublio to collect a debt. The master of the estate has fallen on hard times—his latest shipment of human cargo caught fever and died—so he offers Jacob one of his slaves as payment.
Jacob is repulsed (“flesh was not his commodity”), but then a slave woman pushes a little girl named Florens toward him. “Take her,” she asks. “Take my daughter.” Himself “a ratty orphan” with a soft spot for “waifs and whelps,” Jacob agrees to take the girl back with him to Milton. He also hopes she might prove a consolation to his wife, Rebekka, who has lost three children in childbirth and is in mourning for their five-year-old daughter, killed by a mare.
The disconsolate Florens does not realize it, but her mother’s act is the “mercy” of the novel’s title. The Vaarks are kindly people, and their farm is a refuge from the horrors of plantation life. As outsiders themselves—unbelievers amidst a tight-knit Anabaptist community—the Vaarks cheerfully take in other strays, including Lina, a saintly Native American woman whose family was killed by smallpox, and Sorrow, a castaway made “daft” by her ordeals during the Middle Passage. The women are technically slaves, but Jacob’s purchase of them functions more as a “rescue,” given their other possible fates. Two white bondsmen, Willard and Scully, also work the farm; we learn they are lovers.Morrison thus completes a dramatis personae of contemporary American identity politics.
Together, this unlikely group of orphans and outcasts exists peacefully in a state of rough equality, born of their mutual dependence and shared victimhood. But there is a serpent lurking in the garden. Jacob, recalling the stately splendors of Jublio, becomes dissatisfied with his and Rebekka’s humble life in Milton. He wants a mansion of his own, and so lured by the promise of easy money, he begins investing in sugar-cane plantations. His initial horror at the slave trade is assuaged by the thought that “there was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at Jublio and a remote labor force in Barbados.” Thus does capitalism—with its nefarious abstractions reducing human beings to mere cargo—prove to be the main engine of exploitation in the New World.
These ill-gotten gains come to no good. Jacob’s extravagant house is built—its gates decorated with copper snakes—but he never sets foot inside. Instead, he dies of smallpox—leaving Rebekka and her “helpers” defenseless, “subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile.”
This ruinous change in Jacob is never explained in A Mercy. In general, Morrison does not spend much time on characterization—her women especially run together. Nor does she provide much in the way of historical detail or sociological analysis. In creating the character of the Native American Lina, Morrison recalled in an interview, she briefly worried, “Oh God, now I’ve got to know all about these tribes,” but then decided that the death of Lina’s people by plague would save her the effort of research.
Morrison’s few descriptions of Lina’s traditions are either vague (“she cobbled together neglected rites, merged Europe medicine with native, scripture with lore, and recalled or invented the hidden meaning of things”) or seem to be taken straight from the Dances With Wolves school of American Indian neo-hippie mysticism (“she wears bright blue beads and dances in secret at first light when the moon is small”).
Such sloppiness is apparent throughout the novel. One knows A Mercy is set in the 17th century only because the characters helpfully announce the year every now and then. (“1682 and Virginia was still a mess,” frets Jacob, and later Lina points out, “Florens, . . . it’s 1690”). But the characters speak in an improbable amalgam of would-be lyricism, folksy illiteracy (“still it is the continue of all misery”), and contemporary slang (“she gives off a bad feeling”). Florens, who is literate but just barely, sometimes sounds like a simpleton (“I like talk. Lina talk, stone talk, ever Sorrow talk”), and other times like, well, Toni Morrison: “I am moving north where the sapling bends into the earth with a sprout that points to the sky. Then west to you.”
A Mercy tends toward the schematic, sacrificing motive and nuance to the exigencies of myth and a standard-issue political agenda. Gentle Jacob becomes a monster of greed because, as Lina explains, “he is a man,” and a “Europe,” for whom possession is an imperative:
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.
Disconnected from the earth and one another, the “Europes” seek possession in a desperate and pointless effort to fill the emptiness of self. Jacob cuts down 50 trees without, Lina mourns, “asking their permission.”
Heirless, he sees his house as an assertion of his selfhood and his mastery over nature.
“What a man leaves behind is what a man is,” he tells Rebekka. Like the orphan Florens, he desires to master and possess so as to heal the primal hurt of being “both misborn and disowned.” Needless to say, the world Jacob leaves to his wife and dependents is hellish, in stark contrast to the Edenic society of Lina’s youth. For unlike the “Europes,” Lina’s tribe, living in harmony with nature, has no need to possess. They enjoy, instead, simple pleasures, hazily imagined by Morrison:
the company of other children, industrious mothers in beautiful jewelry, the majestic plan of life: when to vacate, to harvest, to burn, to hunt; ceremonies of death, birth and worship.
This primitive paradise is irretrievably lost. True human community is no longer possible. Even the lonely band of outcasts on the Vaark farm turns against itself after Jacob’s death. “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation,” one character woefully reflects. “But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess.” America is thus envisioned as a nation of orphans, separate, lonely, alone.
The only escape from this fallen world Morrison can offer is retreat into the self. Florens, like Jacob, is wounded, deranged by “mother hunger” into seeking the control of others—first, Lina, and later, a beautiful blacksmith, a freed slave hired by Jacob to build his house. Florens’s insane jealousy costs her the love of the blacksmith, but unlike Jacob, she overcomes her past traumas, and masters her mad desire for self-assertion. She alone stays on at the house Jacob built, writing her thoughts on the walls.
To the cry of the “Europes”—“Mine. Mine. Mine.”—Florens answers: “Mind. Mind. Mind.” She purges her pain through the act of writing, through art, and thereby finds herself. But a self alone she remains. Her work, addressed ostensibly to the blacksmith, is in fact focused on her own hurts and remains locked in the “darkness” of her own mind.
In short, A Mercy resembles its creator’s own art, which is far less of a portrait of what 17th-century America was or could have been, given its unintentionally comic stereotypes and historical inaccuracies, than it is a guide to its author’s litany of political, social, sexual, and moral grievances. Instead of the unblinking inquiry into American history Morrison promises, we just get yet another installment in the deadening literature of self: Not mine, mine, mine, but me, me, me.