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Granger Collection

An Englishman in Barbados selling his mistress into slavery; eighteenth-century engraving

Early in Toni Morrison’s new, brief, ninth novel, A Mercy, a woman tells a story:

One day…an eagle laid her eggs in a nest far above and far beyond the snakes and paws that hunted them. Her eyes are midnight black and shiny as she watches over them. At the tremble of a leaf, the scent of any other life, her frown deepens, her head jerks and her feathers quietly lift. Her talons are sharpened on rock; her beak is like the scythe of a war god. She is fierce, protecting her borning young. But one thing she cannot defend against: the evil thoughts of man. One day a traveler climbs a mountain nearby. He stands at its summit admiring all he sees below him. The turquoise lake, the eternal hemlocks, the starlings sailing into clouds cut by rainbow. The traveler laughs at the beauty saying, “This is perfect. This is mine.” And the word swells, booming like thunder into valleys, over acres of primrose and mallow. Creatures come out of caves wondering what it means. Mine. Mine. Mine. The shells of the eagle’s eggs quiver and one even cracks. The eagle swivels her head to find the source of the strange, meaningless thunder, the incomprehensible sound. Spotting the traveler, she swoops down to claw away his laugh and his unnatural sound. But the traveler, under attack, raises his stick and strikes her wing with all his strength. Screaming she falls and falls. Over the turquoise lake, beyond the eternal hemlocks, down through the clouds cut by rainbow. Screaming, screaming she is carried away by wind instead of wing.

The story’s teller is Native American. During her childhood late in the seventeenth century, she watched her family and tribe destroyed by smallpox. Her contagious village razed to ash by French soldiers, she was taken to live “among kindly Presbyterians” who named her Messalina after the Roman emperor Claudius’s licentious wife. For a while, they called her Lina “to signal a sliver of hope” that she would evade the heathendom of her birth, but when a lover beat her bloody, the Presbyterians asked no questions and sold the fourteen-year-old into slavery.

Now an adult, Lina tells the story about the eagle to an African-American girl named Florens. As her name suggests, she is in the blossom of youth, sixteen. Florens owes her earthly existence to her mother’s great misfortunes: taken from Africa in chains, shipped to the cane fields of Barbados, the mother was sold to a plantation in Maryland. There, in the dark of a curing shed, she was “broken in” by a group of men with faces she never saw, one of them Florens’s sire.

Florens and Lina become property of the same master. On his farm, Lina, who “had fallen in love with [Florens] right away…the child assuag[ing] the tiny yet eternal yearning for the home Lina once knew,” attempts to entertain the girl with stories, and the one about the “fierce” eagle, about the “unnatural sound” of those who would claim ownership of the world, becomes a favorite. Upon its conclusion, Florens would ask where the eagle is now:

“Still falling,” Lina would answer, “she is falling forever.”

Florens barely breathes. “And the eggs?” she asks.

“They hatch alone,” says Lina.

“Do they live?” Florens’ whispering is urgent.

“We have,” says Lina.

Florens would sigh then, her head on Lina’s shoulder and when sleep came the little girl’s smile lingered.

A bedtime story, then. A fable designed to soothe, however briefly, however illusorily, the slave child hearing it as much as the enslaved woman telling it. The soporific moral: though the black-eyed eagle cannot defend herself against “the evil thoughts of man,” and though that fierce protector of “borning young” will be undone by man’s “meaningless thunder,” her eggs will survive. Alone, the children of the eagle hatch, live, endure.

Such a fable, of course, can be read quite differently: as a sketch of the strange, cruel, despairing story of America itself. Call it a creation myth. The eagle, our emblematic bird, symbol of liberty and freedom, sits far above turquoise lakes, above hemlocks (which Emerson said “almost gleam like iron on the excited eye”) and primrose (which Milton wrote “forsaken dies”), a world so jammed with beauty, then, as to delight any poet’s eye. Alas, the traveler is no poet. Rather, and all too clearly, he is a consumer, a childish one. Prone to tantrum (“Mine. Mine. Mine”), his “evil thoughts” betray a drive to possess.

Naturally, the story of a country has many more meanings than a fable can reasonably contain. Morrison’s A Mercy seeks that vaster quarry. Like Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, Morrison employs a range of reporters to cover a focal event from multiple viewpoints. Any one of these reports tells much of the story, but only in concert is a full understanding of events and implications attained. As in Faulkner, the event is a journey, but where his delivers a dying woman to her grave, Morrison’s would keep a dying woman from reaching hers.

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The year is 1690. Rebekka Vaark, mistress of 120 acres in a northern territory of precolonial America, has fallen ill. Her husband Jacob has preceded her to the grave, leaving her alone on their farm with only the three slaves Jacob in his lifetime acquired: Lina, the Native American; Florens, Lina’s young African-American charge; and a third African-American called Sorrow. Sorrow was saved from the pox now afflicting Rebekka by a blacksmith in Jacob’s employ. Thus Florens is sent on foot, a two-day journey, to find the blacksmith—with whom she is in love—and bid him return to cure her mistress. Though she will complete her mission, and though her mistress will survive, Florens will squander the blacksmith’s affection in the process.

If Florens’s journey to the blacksmith is the clear axis of the novel’s complex story, its gravitational center is dead Jacob Vaark. His road to the Mundus Novus was as curious as any. After his mother died giving birth to him in England, his father, “who hailed from Amsterdam,” named him and promptly abandoned him. Growing up in the “children’s quarter of the poorhouse,” forsaken young Vaark meets with unexpected luck when an uncle bequeaths him “one hundred and twenty acres of a dormant patroonship”—Dutch-held land in New Amsterdam. He decided to seek his fortune there:

Breathing the air of a world so new, almost alarming in rawness and temptation, never failed to invigorate him…. Now here he was, a ratty orphan become landowner, making a place out of no place, a temperate living from raw life.

Vaark’s invigoration, the pleasure he enjoys through “temperate living,” make him an unusually enlightened inhabitant of the New World. Vaark objects to laws that divide the races:

By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only; by granting license to any white to kill any black for any reason; by compensating owners for a slave’s maiming or death, they separated and protected all whites from all others forever…. In Jacob Vaark’s view, these were lawless laws encouraging cruelty in exchange for common cause, if not common virtue.

A modest farmer but an ambitious trader, Vaark exhibits similarly uncommon virtues as he travels. He crosses the fledgling land with unusual conscientiousness,

negotiat[ing] native trails on horseback, mindful of their fields of maize, careful through their hunting grounds, politely asking permission to enter a small village here, a larger one there.

As respectful to the natives and their land as he is kindly to the creatures forested there, when riding one day he dismounts

to free the bloody hindleg of a young raccoon stuck in a tree break… He tried to be as gentle as possible…. Once he succeeded, the raccoon limped off, perhaps to the mother forced to abandon it or more likely into other claws.

An apparently decent man, then, one whose descent into indecency is meant to be charted in A Mercy.

An episode in 1682 proves central. A “client/debtor” of Vaark’s, a Portuguese named D’Ortega, invites the trader to his Maryland tobacco plantation. Vaark is disgusted by the excess:

It was abundantly clear why D’Ortega was in serious debt. Turning profit into useless baubles, unembarrassed by sumptuary, silk stockings and an overdressed wife, wasting candles in midday.

To settle the debt, D’Ortega, plantation rich but penny poor, offers Vaark slaves. “Jacob winced. Flesh was not his commodity.” Still, D’Ortega arranges a display thereof, “identifying talents, weaknesses and possibilities, but silent about the scars, the wounds like misplaced veins tracing their skin”:

One even had the facial brand required by local law when a slave assaulted a white man a second time. The women’s eyes looked shockproof, gazing beyond place and time as though they were not actually there. The men looked at the ground. Except every now and then, when possible, when they thought they were not being evaluated, Jacob could see their quick glances, sideways, wary but, most of all, judging the men who judged them.

Suddenly Jacob felt his stomach seize.

Vaark, we are to understand, doesn’t have the stomach for this new world’s old barbarities. And yet, he does take a slave in settlement of D’Ortega debt. The circumstances that lead to the exchange are curious. One of the slaves, a mother, begs Vaark to take her daughter—Florens, the girl who, years later, will hear Lina tell the story of the eagle—away with him. “Struck by the terror in her eyes,” Vaark consents, hoping that “the acquisition…could be seen as rescue.”

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All of this is restrained, brutal, and well staged. Morrison suggests how a seemingly moral man could find himself in not merely an immoral position but an untenable one. And yet, the portrait of Jacob Vaark isn’t complete, and its amplification is where Morrison’s enterprise begins to teeter.

At the plantation, not all the finery and excess offends him:

The house, honey-colored stone, was in truth more like a place where one held court…. Two wide windows, at least two dozen panes in each, flanked the door. Five more windows on a broad second story held sunlight glittering above the mist. He had never seen a house like it.

And, he decides, he’ll have it. One day, he thinks, “not too far away,” he’ll “build a house that size on his own property.” And so Vaark rides off, a slave’s new papers now written in his name, “wav[ing] at the couple and once again, in spite of himself, env[ying] the house, the gate, the fence.” Much will be made to depend upon that “in spite of himself,” for as Vaark departs, he thinks of D’Ortega’s access to “a fleet of free labor” and, unambiguously, “sneered at wealth dependent on a captured workforce that required more force to maintain.”

On the brink of the pub where he hopes to have “one, perhaps two, drafts of ale, its bitter, clear taste critical to eliminating the sweetish rot of vice,” Vaark is subjected to another show of force, “a man beating a horse to its knees”:

Before he could open his mouth to shout, rowdy sailors pulled the man away and let him feel his own knees in mud. Few things angered Jacob more than the brutal handling of domesticated animals. He did not know what the sailors were objecting to, but his own fury was not only because of the pain it inflicted on the horse, but because of the mute, unprotesting surrender glazing in its eyes.

Here, the eyes of the horse recall other eyes Vaark saw only hours before: those of D’Ortega’s slaves, making “quick glances, sideways, wary but, most of all, judging the men who judged them.” The sight of the subjugated slaves literally sickened Vaark, made his “stomach seize,” and now the sight of the “unprotesting” horse angers Vaark to the point of “fury.” Such strong, interior reactions reinforce our idea of the “mindful” man whom Morrison has methodically constructed, one whose business dealings put his principles (“these were lawless laws encouraging cruelty”) in irresolvable conflict with the contemptible facts of life: in the natural world, Vaark will free a raccoon, but in man’s new world, he will “rescue”—but not free—a slave.

Still, a very different, and much less conflicted, Jacob Vaark appears minutes later, after his brief visit to the pub designed to rid him of the “rot of vice.” There Vaark listens to a man named Downes holding forth on all the money to be made in sugar cane in Barbados, where slaves are treated, Downes says, “like firewood”: “what burns to ash is refueled.” Huge profits, easy money. Vaark is wary at first.

And yet, as he leaves the pub, here is what he sees:

Walking in the warm night air, he went as far as possible, until the alehouse lights were gem stones fighting darkness and the voices of carousing men were lost to the silk-rustle of surf…. As he walked back to the inn, nothing was in his way. There was the heat, of course, but no fog, gold or gray, impeded him. Besides, a plan was taking shape. Knowing full well his shortcomings as a farmer—in fact his boredom with its confinement and routine—he had found commerce more to his taste. Now he fondled the idea of an even more satisfying enterprise. And the plan was as sweet as the sugar on which it was based. And there was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies [on a plantation] and a remote labor force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars. Clear and right. The silver that glittered there was not at all unreachable. And that wide swath of cream pouring through the stars was his for the tasting.

Morrison’s language carefully tints Vaark’s vision to the color of money. He is not thinking of the world as a place where he can turn a virtuous profit; rather, he is looking at the world and seeing it, willy-nilly and without qualm, as profit: lights are not like gem stones but are gem stones; surf doesn’t rustle like silk but its sound is silk; not stars in the sky but silver; and a Milky Way not milky, nor even creamy, but cream. No less than the traveler in the fable, suddenly Vaark cannot dam his torrent of mine, mine, mine.

But does Vaark’s plan sound like something he could stomach, much less think? In the twenty-seven pages Morrison grants Vaark in A Mercy, this creature of contradictory impulses is shown torn between what a thinker thinks and what a wanter wants: he thinks manumission is a “common virtue” but can’t conceive of violating laws against it. And yet, suddenly by the surf, want wins out: whereas hours before, Vaark “sneered at wealth dependent on a captured workforce,” now, after what seems like a most unconvincing pitch in a pub, he inexplicably sees “a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies…and a remote labor force” in Barbados—an epiphany that arrives without any convincing intervening process.

It is not that such a transit is inconceivable. Rather, Morrison’s expression of it is incomplete, her notion of Vaark’s character incoherent. The most important job of the chapter devoted to Vaark remains undone: so dedicatedly has Morrison worked to establish him as believably, if incompletely, decent that her attempts to make him as believably, and abjectly, indecent end up feeling forced. For if Morrison has shown us anything, it is that Vaark would not see “a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies…and a remote labor force in Barbados.” Having made such an uncharacteristic judgment, Vaark loses dimensionality: he becomes caricature. The most bewildering questions of human motivation—How could he? How could anyone?—are given an inconsistent, simplistic, answer: greed, we are to understand, accounts for all defects of character.

Five of the novel’s twelve sections are presented in third-person narration from five different characters’ points of view, with similarly fumbled virtues. Most fracture as they become schematic. In large measure, this failure could be explained as a problem of form: as the sections average only twenty narrow pages each, Morrison leaves herself a great deal of work to do in very little space. Certainly, and within such constraints, Vaark and the others are more alive than not, more interesting than empty.

What’s more, the interplay between these discrete sections—how stories told in one are retold in another—enriches the enterprise in simple and powerful ways. When, in an early section, one character meets another for the first time and receives, rather than a greeting, the woman “flap[ping] her hand in front of her face as though bees are bothering her,” it leads her to suppose, not unreasonably, that she isn’t welcome; a hundred pages later, though, when Morrison gives us that meeting from the opposite point of view, we learn that the flapping was, actually, an attempt on the part of a schizophrenic to shoo an inner voice seeking to stymie her welcoming hello. A Mercy is full of such scrupulous, and often meaningful, amplifications, Morrison’s sedulous attention to details and their later echoes one measure of her sophistication as a writer.

It is therefore all the more strange, given such capacities, that in the half of the book Morrison presents in the first person from the point of view of a single character—Florens on her journey to the blacksmith in hope of saving her mistress—these six sections feel so squandered and false, as incomplete as any of the rest and, in a fundamental way, far more so. For Morrison has elected to create a voice for Florens previously unheard in our literature. Naturally, the American English of a sixteen-year-old slave in 1690 is an empty vessel waiting to be filled. The trouble is, in part, with what Morrison decides to add to the mix. Florens was raised by an African woman on a Portuguese plantation where she learned to read and write Latin and English from a Catholic priest. Such a stew could yield an interesting English, and it does. Florens is as likely to say “I am shock” (for I am shocked) as “I have shock” (for same). Adverbs are sometimes inconspicuous (“occasionally seeing,” “look closely”) but more often are eye-catching (“in front of me sudden is”).

Sentences unfold in various species of pidgin: “Before you know I am in the world I am already kill by you.” “Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here.” “They move off back down where we are coming from, stepping as best they can figure in tree shelter at roadside, places where the snow is small.” The overall effect of such sentences is of a speaker, convincingly enough, making up a language out of spare parts.

At other moments, though, Florens exhibits a very different grasp of the English language, one less makeshift than masterful: “Slices of starlight cut through the shutters.” “The sky is the color of currants.” “Standing there between the beckoning wall of perfume and the stag I wonder what else the world may show me.” “Her braid is loose, strands of it escaping the hammock’s weave.” Sentences such as these, with their alliterations and syntactical resourcefulness, rob the reader of any capacity to believe not that a sixteen-year-old slave girl could have produced them but that she could have produced these as well as those in the pidgin above. Into the gulf between the two registers, Florens disappears as a believable creation.

“One question,” Florens asks in the opening paragraph, “is can you read?” This introductory question informs how we should approach the book’s conclusion—one which we are asked to read in every sense. Florens, we come to understand, is actually writing the sections of the book spoken in her voice: upon her lonely return from the home of the blacksmith who has spurned her, Florens, much like her minder Lina, seeks solace in storytelling. The “you” to whom she is writing (“You know. I know you know”) is the blacksmith. Though she believes he is illiterate, she hopes he might nonetheless come to read, and therefore better understand, the larger context for the actions that made him spurn her. How, though, might the blacksmith come to read Florens’s story?

Recall how her master, Vaark, returned from the Portuguese plantation with a desire to build a house its equal on his property. Well, he does build it, or nearly. He fells fifty trees, makes a clearing, hires laborers, and erects high on a hill a great stone two-story pile. He hires the blacksmith to make a fence and a gate of gilded iron with serpents at its summit. Vaark works in an all-consuming fever to build this house he does not need, having no heirs and a wife already happy with the house they live in, and the fever consumes him, literally. Before he can get the glazier to put the windows in, before he can sleep a night there, Vaark dies young on its new floor. And it is there on those bare walls and on that floor that Florens, with a nail, by lamplight, at night, incises the letters we are reading into the very wood. She is running out of room, though:

Round and round, side to side, bottom to top, top to bottom all across the room. Or. Or perhaps no. Perhaps these words need the air that is out in the world. Need to fly up then fall, fall like ash over acres of primrose and mallow. Over a turquoise lake, beyond the eternal hemlocks, through clouds cut by rainbow and flavor the soil of the earth.

The language here (“a turquoise lake…the eternal hemlocks”) deliberately recalls Lina’s language in her bedtime story about the eagle and the traveler: once again we are in the province of fable. This time, though, it is not Lina’s, or Florens’s, but Morrison’s. As in the earlier fable, images ask to be “read.” Here we have a great big house, built by a white man and now empty, nobody living there. What happened? Greed drove the white man to exploit the land and its peoples, to erect a monument to his own presumption, a presumption by which he—and all those he touched—were undone. How do we know? The writing, as it were, is on the walls.

“If I have an image for [America],” Robert Lowell said in 1963, “it would be one taken from Melville’s Moby Dick : the fanatical idealist who brings the world down in ruin through some sort of simplicity of mind.”* A similar image for America can be read in Morrison’s empty house, an image that would do, but which Morrison can’t resist overdoing, which is to say rendering Grand Guignol. For the image with which she leaves us is not of an empty house but of such a house covered with writing on its walls—a literalizing of the famous phrase. The phrase “the writing on the walls,” in the sense of “warning signs of impending disaster,” comes from the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel, a Hebrew captive to the Babylonian king, is called to interpret the writing by a disembodied hand on the wall above the king’s head. Daniel tells the king that the message is from God, saying that both the king and his kingdom’s days are numbered. The king is killed that very night.

In A Mercy, Florens is cast in the role of a recording angel—not writing fable but producing prophecy: no earthly kingdom built so greedily can be saved. In fact, it must be destroyed. Florens says as much:

Perhaps these words need…[to] fall like ash over acres of primrose and mallow…. Lina will help. She finds horror in this house and much as she needs to be Mistress’ need I know she loves fire more.

For the daughters of the eagle to truly be free, the white man’s house must be burned down to the ground.

I cannot help but feel, during this most unusual American year, that Morrison’s fable about America’s beginnings and its legacy strikes a peculiarly shortsighted note. Some, I suspect, won’t find it peculiar at all. Rather, some will be tempted to accept it as prophecy. After all, an economic system that permitted a different kind of separate-but-equal status quo to prevail for decades suddenly collapsed last summer. In light of that collapse, some might be inclined to say, euphemistically, that the white man’s house was revealed, as never before, to be empty, and that the writing couldn’t have been more clearly on the walls. And yet a black man was elected, easily, president—a man who, a half-century back, couldn’t have won a seat on an Alabama bus.

“Years ago,” wrote Morrison in The New Yorker in 1998, “in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” Consider that remark in relation to A Mercy : the novel embodies the belief that the only way for the children of slaves to transcend their patrimony is to burn down the white man’s hollow house to its insufficient foundation, that we might start again. And yet such a belief—such a reasonable fear—has been dramatically allayed: last autumn’s electoral advent required no such demolition. Our national house was revealed to be more stable than we knew, more richly peopled, more capable of supporting higher floors.

A Mercy offers an American creation myth that I have to believe gets the story of America wrong, that falls short in its characters and in its conception of the kind of complexity required to tell such a story revealingly. Fable, after all, with its tidy tendency to moralize, is too shallow a channel down which to steer a national story as long and deep as ours. For a hundred years of our history, blacks were property; for a hundred and fifty years, women weren’t fully vested citizens; to this day, the legacy of those appalling hypocrisies lingers, in ways all too numerous and clear. These historical facts are furiously simple; to have any enduring value, our fictions about them must not be.

This Issue

March 12, 2009

  1. *

    In Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs, edited by Jeffrey Meyers (University of Michigan Press, 1988), p. 77.