Toni Morrison

A Mercy

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A Mercy Summary

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A Mercy is a work of fiction that centers on the lives of both slaves and slave owners alike. One of the main characters that the narrative focuses on is Florens, a sixteen-year-old slave girl who lives on the D’Ortega tobacco plantation in Virginia. The D’Ortegas are notorious for their cruelty toward their slaves. It is revealed that the D’Ortega family has spent some time in Angola, where the Portuguese were known historically for their severe and inhumane treatment of slaves. As such, Morrison’s fictional narrative places itself in the realistic, historical context surrounding the extreme violence and human cruelty associated with many slave owners.

Early on, the reader learns that the D’Ortegas are in financial trouble. A trader, Jacob Vaark, arrives to the plantation to collect a debt owed by the family. Vaark stands in direct contrast to the D’Ortegas, and his disproving attitude towards the cruel family is evident. Jacob Vaark does not support the family’s arrogance and political/religious views either.

The D’Ortega family is not able to make payment, but offers a slave to Jacob as partial payment. Minha mãe, another slave living on the D’Ortega plantation who also happens to be Florens’ mother, sees Jacob as a better option than D’Ortega, and decides to convince Jacob Vaark to take Florens as partial payment for the debt. Florens feels that she is being abandoned by her mother, though Minha mãe is simply trying to protect her child. Surprisingly, when Florens arrives at the Vaark farm, she finds that life with Jacob and his wife, Rebekka, is a lot more manageable than her time spent on the D’Ortega plantation.

The narrative is told from different points-of-view, including Florens and Minha mãe. As such, the reader also learns about Lina and Sorrow, two additional slaves on the Vaark farm, as well as the Vaarks themselves. All in all, the characters’ past lives allow them to exist in their present situation as a somewhat supportive family group, something nearly unheard of during the time.

Vaark then gets sick, and later dies. His death causes the once “peaceful” Vaark farm to implode from fear and panic. Things are intensified when Rebekka also falls ill. All of the slaves, including Lina and Florens, care for Rebekka, and try their best to help her get better. Lina and Florens are sent to bring back the blacksmith to aid in Rebekka’s recovery. Though Florens is thrilled to leave the farm as she likes the blacksmith, the two slaves come face to face with the cruel world of slavery while off the farm. No one wants to help the two slaves, and to make matters worse, they are almost raped by drunken men at one point in the novel.

Florens finally tracks down the blacksmith, who goes to the Vaark farm and nurses Rebekka back to health. And yet Florens has to deal with another troubling development when she finds that the blacksmith, though unmarried, has a family. Moreover, the blacksmith has a young boy living with him, Malaik. Florens ends up getting in a fight with the boy and injuring him. This of course leads to more tension when the blacksmith returns, confronts Florens, and she is made to leave.

Though Florens is depressed due to the outcome of her incident with the blacksmith, she eventually makes peace with her state in life. Throughout this time, two white indentured servants, Willard and Scully, wonder at will become of the Vaark family, which includes the slaves. Also noting the outcome of events at the end of the novel is Minha mãe, who explains her actions in giving Florens to the Vaarks. She alludes to the title of the novel, saying that she wanted nothing more than to give her daughter mercy.

The narrative deals heavily with family dynamics. It is a theme that runs through the lives of both the slaves and slave owners. It also extends to indentured servants, who are individuals that usually exchange work to pay off outstanding debts. As such, Morrison creates a rich world of family relationships that often replace nuclear families.

From Minha mãe’s point of view, family means sacrifice. As such, she wants Florens to be given to the Vaarks based on her idea of love and relationship. In this way, she hopes to protect her daughter by giving her mercy. Florens does not initially see things this way, and struggles with family relationships in the novel, as is evident with her reaction to the blacksmith and his temporary family, including her fight with Malaik. And yet the bond that Florens and the other slaves form with the Vaarks shows that family can mean more than blood relatives. In this sense, family can also be a symbol for protection and goodwill. Though the Vaarks still have slaves and indentured servants, they treat their slaves far better than the D’Ortegas and most other slave owners.

With the family relationship dynamics in the novel, Morrison also shows just how fluid definitions and relationships are. Slavery was not a practice in which slaves were treated the same way by all. Moreover, issues such as Minha mãe seemingly giving up her own child to another family show just how complicit others were in various aspects of the slave trade. Florens and Lina see how cruel the world is to slaves firsthand when searching for help. Nearly raped, the two women witness how slaves are thought of as nothing more than animals, and even less than that by many. By setting up various examples of family, and therefore, community, Morrison effectively sheds a light into one of America’s, and the world’s, darkest times, and shows hope where there is often none.