In the introduction to an edition of “Beloved” published after she won the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison notes that in 1983, she decided to quit her job as an editor at a New York publishing house in order to focus solely on her own work. By then, Morrison had already published four novels, and she felt it was time to “live as a grown-up writer,” off royalties and writing alone.
As it turns out, this was a wise decision, if also an unsettling one. A few days later, while sitting in front of her house overlooking the Hudson River, Morrison began to feel an edginess instead of the calm she’d expected. She couldn’t fathom what was troubling her. Then the answer rose up, she said, and “slapped” her: “I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty. Enter ‘Beloved.’ ”
What emerged into Morrison’s consciousness that day on the Hudson, what her own shock of liberation taught her, was what it meant for a woman to feel free, with all its complex and roiling sensations. She remembered an old newspaper clipping she’d once read about a slave named Margaret Garner, a young mother who escaped but, when recaptured, killed one of her children rather than let the child be returned to slavery. This story became the basis for “Beloved.”
Themes of slavery and grief, of women’s struggles to escape the bitterness of the captive world, are at the center of Morrison’s work. They also lie at the heart of her new novel, “A Mercy,” which looks to history once again -- in this case, the 1680s and 1690s -- to explore the agonies of slavery among the settlers of the New World. Such a description makes Morrison’s novel sound far too pat, however; it slights the poetry and breadth of her work. Yes, “A Mercy” is about slavery, but in the most universal sense, meaning the limits we place on ourselves as well as the confinements we suffer at the hands of others.
The novel begins with the words, “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I’ve done. . . . " The speaker is a young slave girl named Florens, one of half a dozen main characters, and in some ways the most tragic of them. It is, after all, Florens’ own fear that destroys her, which makes her not unlike Sethe in “Beloved.” Both women act in ways that strip away any chance of future happiness, and the terrible part is that they do so at the very moment of possibility.
Florens tells her story in chapters that alternate with the narratives of other characters, and initially her quest isn’t clear. We know she’s on a journey, seeking someone she loves, but only gradually do we understand who this person is. Born into slavery on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, Florens was given at 7 to a Dutch trader named Jacob Vaark as payment for a debt. What she is too young to understand is why her mother insists that the trader take her daughter: She knows that Florens stands the chance of a better life with Jacob than with the abusive man who trades her away. This is the “mercy” of the title.
Jacob is an orphan himself, a self-made man with a soft spot for “waifs and whelps,” for whom he feels a “disturbing pulse of pity.” He already owns two slaves: Sorrow, a silent and moody black woman, survivor of a terrible incident on a slave ship, and Lina, a Native American who has survived the pox that decimated her tribe. We soon realize that each of the main characters in “A Mercy,” including Jacob’s wife, Rebekkah, has in some way been cast off by family, traveled far from home and survived disaster. Vaark also has two indentured servants, Scully and Willard, both white and homosexual, and it’s into this family of wounded and eccentric strangers that little Florens arrives.
Morrison evokes America as a young, wild country where a fog, often slightly mephitic, envelopes the world. It’s a place where the animistic realm of spirits and ghosts competes with codified European beliefs for the attention of men and, more important, of women who by nature are the readers of signs. “We never shape the world,” Lina tells Florens. “The world shapes us.” Only those who know how to read the omens, like Lina and Sorrow, can possibly intuit what’s coming.
When misfortune befalls Jacob, it’s because he’s called it down upon himself. He becomes arrogant and fells 50 trees, a sin in Lina’s eyes, to build himself a mansion, paid for by the laboring of slaves in the distant cane fields of Barbados. With pompous bravura, he hires a smithy to build a grand entrance. This smithy is a freed black man; of all the characters in “A Mercy,” he alone seems in full possession of his body and his soul. He is capable of unsettling lesser mortals like Florens, who is mesmerized and soon becomes his lover. The gate the smithy builds is crowned by interlocking snakes. There’s no mistaking the Edenic reference or the inevitable fall.
As in novels such as “Sula” and “Beloved,” the women in “A Mercy” end up alone, fending for themselves. The question Morrison poses repeatedly in all these books is: What are women without men? (The answer: sometimes better off.)
Another question is: What is the true nature of enslavement? The smithy provides part of the answer when he tells Florens that he’s seen slaves freer than free men. “One is a lion in the skin of an ass,” he says. “The other an ass in the skin of a lion.” It’s the “withering inside” that truly enslaves. Florens’ problem is she has no constraint. No mind. And therefore no freedom. She is “wilderness,” uninhabitable. “Own yourself, woman,” the smithy tells her at the moment of rejection. This, of course, is the great existential task for all human beings. It’s also the great theme of this book.
“A Mercy” is Morrison’s ninth novel, a work of poetry and intelligence, and a continuation of what John Updike has called her “noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American.” The story assumes even greater metaphorical power at this particular moment, with the election of Barack Obama as our first African American president. When, toward the end of the novel, Sorrow delivers a baby with the help of Scully and Willard, so powerful is her happiness that she looks into the child’s eyes and renames herself Complete. We understand now how fully she’s been delivered.