Monday, February 9, 2009

"A Mercy" by Toni Morrison

Summary: Set in the 1680's, A Mercy follows the lives of three slave women (Florens, Lina, and Sorrow), their mistress, Rebekkah, her husband, Jacob, and a free African man. The book alters point of view as the women struggle to understand themselves within the context of men and slavery.

Musings: A Mercy begins in the voice of Florens and frequently returns to Florens' voice as the novel progresses. Florens has a lyrical, child-like quality to her speech, which is both confusing and poetic. Florens begins with a confession to an unknown person: "Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark--weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more--but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain" (Morrison 3). Florens' words have only bits of meaning when she first tells them, and it is not until the very end of the book that much of her beginning story makes sense. In fact, rereading the first chapter now as I write this review I find myself understanding much more than before. Particularly when it comes to Florens' chapters, I think rereading is necessary to truly understand what she is saying.

Morrison slowly addresses the meaning of freedom, but not in the traditional slave versus free way. Each of the three women is doubly enslaved--first by her skin color and second by her status as a woman. They are "women of and for men" first (Morrison 85). Florens, in particular, has thrown herself at the free African blacksmith and is unable to understand the slavery in that action. Although the women view themselves as some sort of unity while Jacob is alive, when he dies, the women realize they cannot operate in harmony without him. They are not in a time nor a place where "women for men" can be women without men.

Each woman has been shaped by suffering but strives to make some place in the world. None is particularly successful. What does it mean to have dominion over oneself? Is such dominion possible in a world that saw slave women as nothing? Florens seeks some final freedom in her wild confession, and Sorrow seems to find release in motherhood, but none of the characters find final resolution.

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