By Toni Morrison
(Knopf, 167 pp., $23.95)
Last spring, a mysterious object was discovered beneath a street in Annapolis, Maryland. According to The New York Times, the clay "bundle" was about "the size and shape of a football [and] filled with about 300 pieces of metal and a stone axe, whose blade sticks out of the clay, pointing skyward." Anthropologists determined that it was a ritual object, perhaps more than three hundred years old, combining African religious practices with local materials. Originally displayed "in the open for all to see," it was later buried when the street was paved with modern materials.
The article describing the find appeared just a few weeks before Toni Morrison's eerily resonant new novel, which, like the bundle itself, is a smallish object stuffed to its bindings with bits and pieces representing the way life was once lived in the region then known as "Mary's Land," held together by a waft of folklore and capped by a sharp and indignant blade. Starting with her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, Morrison has devoted her work to excavating the lives of black people in America, but her recent books have seemed increasingly narrow in scope and in feeling. Not A Mercy: a slender novel that plunges resoundingly into the pre-history of black America to tell the interlocking stories of three slavewomen and their mistress, it is as linguistically rich and emotionally wrenching as her best work of the 1970s and 1980s.
The year is 1682, and the setting is somewhere in what would become Maryland or Virginia, near the coast. First under Swedish and then Dutch control, the territory is fungible. "There had never been much point in knowing who claimed this or that terrain; this or another outpost," thinks Jacob Vaark, a Dutch trader making his way to a luncheon at the home of one of his planters. "Other than certain natives, to whom it all belonged, from one year to another any stretch might be claimed by a church, controlled by a Company, or become the private property of a royal's gift to a son or a favorite.... Turtles had a life span longer than towns." While claims to land may be "ad hoc," claims to people are not. The planter has lost much of his income with the recent shipwreck of a boatload of slaves he was expecting, and he wishes to repay his debt to Jacob with slaves from his household. At first Jacob demurs; but when pressed, he asks for the cook, whom he can tell is the master's concubine and favorite, knowing that he will refuse to give her up.
But Jacob is put on the spot when the woman, holding her infant son, pleads with him to take her daughter instead, a little girl of about five who hides behind her mother's skirt. This moment--the mother's offering of her little girl, whose name is Florens, and Jacob's reluctant acceptance of her--is the novel's crucial episode. It is repeated three times. We hear about it first from Florens, who narrates alternating chapters in her sometimes inexplicably idiosyncratic voice, flecked with words borrowed from Portuguese (she awkwardly uses the phrase "a minha mae" to mean "my mother") and happily unobservant of the rules of grammar:
"I see it forever. Me watching, my mother listening, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir. Sir saying he will take instead the woman and the girl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A minha mae begs no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she says, my daughter, she says. Me. Me. Sir agrees and changes the balance due."
Though Florens will be happy in Jacob's house, where she is treated with kindness by the trader's wife Rebekka and by a slave named Lina, the memory of her mother's rejection will always torture her.
We hear the story next in the voice of Jacob, who is morally repelled by slavery and mostly refuses to take part in it: "Flesh was not his commodity." Yes, he has accumulated a couple of slaves, but he thinks of them as Rebekka's "helpers" rather than as property. One of them, called Sorrow, he more or less adopted after she washed up on a nearby shore; the other, a Native American named Lina, he purchased "outright and deliberately, but she was a woman, not a child." Lina and Rebekka, left to fend for themselves on the farm while Jacob travels, soon developed a relationship of almost-equals: "Not only because somebody had to pull the wasp sting from the other's arm. Not only because it took two to push the cow away from the fence. Mostly because neither knew precisely what they were doing or how." He decides to accept Florens not primarily because of her use value, but because she is the same age as his daughter, recently killed by a horse, and he hopes her presence might help to console Rebekka.
Especially after Beloved, which relentlessly--and often excessively--depicted the brutality of slaveowners on a plantation ironically named Sweet Home, it is reassuring to see some "Europes," as the Dutch settlers are called here, who are compassionate (at least within the bounds of what is permissible in their world) rather than savage for its own sake. If Jacob takes on Florens partially because "if she got kicked in the head by a mare, the loss would not rock Rebekka so," it is nonetheless clear that the slaves in the Vaark household are treated with respect and sympathy. Scully, a young man who does occasional work for the Vaarks, believes that Lina's loyalty to her owners is not "submission ... it was a sign of her own self-worth--a sort of keeping one's word. Honor, perhaps." But even the most humane of slaveowners cannot escape the stringencies of the relationship between owner and property: later Scully will realize that "the family they had imagined they had become was false."
In A Mercy, more than in any of Morrison's previous books, slavery is as much a metaphor for the human condition as it is a historical fact. The novel is an extended consideration of the many ways in which people deliberately or unconsciously assert ownership over each other: spouses, lovers, mothers and children. The language in which Jacob considers his requirements for a wife--"an unchurched woman of childbearing age, obedient but not groveling, literate but not proud, independent but nurturing"--is a slightly more tender version of the language of slave advertisements, as Morrison represents them here: "Girl or woman that is handy in the kitchen, sensible, speaks good English, complexion between yellow and black," or "Hardy female, Christianized and capable in all matters domestic available for exchange of goods or specie." (The latter was an advertisement for Lina.) Later we learn that Rebekka's mother thought of her marriage to Jacob as a "sale," since Jacob had emphasized "reimbursement" for the requirements for his future bride's journey, including clothing and expenses. And at the planter's house Jacob, faced with the man's insipid, preening wife, finds that "his own Rebekka seemed ever more valuable to him."
Eros has always been fraught in Morrison's fiction, owing to the tension between her vision of the woman as free spirit, taking her pleasure from men without regard for marriage or other societal strictures, and what she presents as the inevitable reality that love itself is a form of bondage. (The word "free" is always a loaded one in Morrison's work.) In Sula, Hannah Peace, Sula's mother, "simply refused to live without the attentions of a man," and offers herself freely (that word again!), often on a flour sack in the pantry, to any man who pleases her. Her behavior teaches Sula that "sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable"; and Morrison notes in her foreword to a new edition of the novel that "female freedom always means sexual freedom, even when--especially when--it is seen through the prism of economic freedom." But when Sula later behaves with an even more flagrant disregard for convention, she is ostracized by the town's women, who whisper rumors that she is a devil. She dies impoverished, in pain, alone.
The overlaps between the language of love and the language of ownership are undeniable, from the declaration of mutual ownership "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" from the biblical Song of Solomon (which is also the title of Morrison's best novel) to the conception of sex as "taking" or "possession." But while such tropes can appear to be innocent and even romantic, what Morrison is out to demonstrate is that slavery of any kind, even the enslavement in passion, is dangerous to the soul. Florens will discover this when she falls in love with a blacksmith, a free man who comes to work on a new house that Jacob, envying the grand mansion of the planter he visited, decides to build. Their relationship is unconstrainedly erotic: as Florens watches him at work, sweat runs down his back and "I have shock at myself for wanting to lick there.... My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break." Florens's attraction to the man (he is never named) is depicted as a force of nature. "I wilt when you go and am straight when Mistress sends me to you," she says at one point. (The portions of the book that she narrates are all addressed to him.) Lina tries again to caution her: "You are one leaf on his tree." "No," Florens replies. "I am his tree."
But she is not, as the book's terrible climax makes plain. When Rebekka comes down with smallpox, she sends Florens on a mission to find the blacksmith, who has since moved on, and bring him back to heal her. On the journey, Florens catches sight of a stag walking in the woods, and tastes something like freedom for the first time: "I wonder what else the world may show me. It is as though I am loose to do what I choose, the stag, the wall of flowers. I am a little scare of this looseness. Is that how free feels? I don't like it. I don't want to be free of you because I am live only with you." This surrender will be her undoing. After she reaches the blacksmith, she discovers that he has taken in a child, a foundling discovered in a cart with his father dead on the horse. He leaves her to mind the boy while he goes to heal Rebekka. Fearing that the blacksmith has already transferred his affections to the child, Florens becomes mad with jealousy--"I can never not have you have me"--and in her rage she lashes out against him. When the blacksmith returns and finds them, he hits her and sends her away. Why? she asks.
"Because you are a slave." ...
"Sir makes me that." ...
"No. You have become one."
"Your head is empty and your body is wild."
"I am adoring you."
"And a slave to that too."
"You alone own me."
"Own yourself, woman, and leave us be."
Of course, there are crucial differences between Florens's romantic metaphors of ownership ("You alone own me") and the actualities of slavery. The lover's desire to posses the beloved--a desire that is one of love's most disturbingly primal sensations--does not deny the beloved his or her volition, does not reduce his or her humanity. More, the beloved may consent to and even welcome such assertions of mastery. In passion, the roles of master and slave are not fixed, and may be rejected altogether.
But in consent lies danger. At the end of the novel, Florens's mother gives her own version of the story, and her message to her daughter transforms slavery from the political to the personal: "To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing." Notice that the first scenario, which describes Jacob's acceptance of Florens, is "hard," while the second, the act of the slave-trader, is "wrong," but only the third is "wicked. " Submitting to slavery--to metaphorical slavery, at least--turns out to be more dangerous than perpetrating it.
It is not entirely accurate to say that Morrison is using slavery as a metaphor for the human condition. She is using it as a metaphor for the female condition. Rebekka, en route to the New World, finds an unexpected solidarity in her female companions on the boat, all of them whores, thieves, or other pariahs. Later, as she lies feverishly in bed, fighting her illness and mourning her lost babies, the voices of the women on the ship return to her, consoling her with their stories. As she listens, she contemplates the plight of Job. Wasn't that what his comforters did, she thinks--"they told him about themselves, and when he felt even worse, he got an answer from God saying, Who on earth do you think you are?" All Job truly wanted, she realizes, was God's attention: "simply to catch His eye." But he was a man. Would a female Job dare to offer up such a request? "And if, having done so, and He deigned to remind her of how weak and ignorant she was, where was the news in that? What shocked Job into humility and renewed fidelity was the message a female Job would have known and heard every minute of her life."
Morrison has often made the women in her novels into female Jobs, and as they suffer torment upon torment--rape, abuse, abandonment--one sometimes wonders how much they can be expected to take, and how much relentless pain the reader can be expected to bear, before the mind is numbed out of all understanding. In Beloved and some of her other novels, Morrison seemed almost to take a grisly delight in the savagery. Like many chronicles of the martyrdom of saints, her prose can become downright sadistic. In one of the most painful episodes in the new novel, Florens, midway through her journey to the blacksmith, seeks refuge for the night in a cottage inhabited by a widow and her daughter. The girl, she is startled to notice, is covered with fresh wounds, "dark blood beetling down her legs." The local men have accused her of being a demon, and since it is believed that demons do not bleed, her mother must continually open the wounds to prove that she is not.
A Mercy has its expected share of bloodshed, but here the violence, filtered through Florens's dreamy monologues, is almost minimalistic by comparison. The despair about the lot of women, though, is maximal. "Her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest," Rebekka realizes on the ship. "The one where she might have children and therefore be guaranteed some affection." As hard as her married life turns out to be--she loses all four of her children in quick succession, followed by her husband--she is almost certainly right. After all, there are "restrictions" on wife-beating: "not after nine at night, with cause and not anger." (Presumably slaves and unmarried women can be beaten at any hour of the day, for any reason, in any mood.) And the metaphor of the tree appears again to describe the love between Rebekka and Jacob, although this time in terms of greater equality: "They leaned on each other root and crown."
But anyone with even a glimmer of familiarity with Morrison's fiction cannot read Rebekka's consoling thoughts about motherhood--"she might have children and therefore be guaranteed some affection"--without a shudder. In all of Morrison's work, there is no force so transformative or terrifying, no human relationship as deeply binding, and thus no potentially greater source of life's pain, as the love between mother and child. Fatherhood, in her world, is bizarrely--and tellingly--irrelevant.
Beloved is normally read as a novel about the horrors of slavery, with its graphic depiction of the white men's brutality and Sethe's desperate response, but it is also a novel about motherhood. By murdering her baby, Sethe frees her from life as a slave; but she cannot free herself from the bonds that connect her to this child, bonds that may even have the power to reach beyond the grave, and to which she, now living as a freedwoman, remains enslaved. In a monologue Sethe speaks to her dead daughter about her lover's response when he learned of her act. "Look how he ran when he found out about me and you in the shed," she says. "Too rough for him to listen to. Too thick, he said. My love was too thick." It is love, we are given to understand, that drove Sethe to murder--love that is presented in nearly erotic terms ("me and you in the shed"), love thick as blood, thick as rope, thick as the quicksand of the past.
In A Mercy, Sorrow, the novel's strangest and most ambiguous character, has what comes closest to a happy experience of motherhood: her first child, delivered prematurely, dies (or is left to die), but she gives birth easily to her second with the help of Scully and another farmhand, and afterward she renames herself "Complete." Rebekka is unhinged by the loss of her children; this once generous and practical woman turns bitter and withdrawn, and Scully remarks that she passes her days "with the joy of a clock." And the heart-wrenching choice that her mother is forced to make at the novel's start determines the course of Florens's life--not only circumstantially, as she takes her place within the Vaark household, but also emotionally. The trauma of her mother's rejection of her in favor of her little brother, the baby boy still nursing at her breast, is forever in the shadows of her mind, revealing itself at moments of anguish or fear.
"Mother hunger," Lina calls their longing: "to be one or have one." When Florens first comes to the Vaark home and sees that Sorrow is pregnant, she feels threatened: "Mothers nursing greedy babies scare me. I know how their eyes go when they choose. How they raise them to look at me hard, saying something I cannot here. Saying something important to me, but holding the little boy's hand." (Readers of Beloved will remember that there, too, nursing plays an important role as a symbol of the mother-child connection: what Sethe finds most terrible about her assault is that the men who attacked her took her milk.) And later, when Florens arrives at the blacksmith's hut and feels threatened by the boy he has taken in, the pain of that formative moment returns in a dream: "A minha mae leans at the door holding her little boy's hand, my shoes in her pocket. As always she is trying to tell me something."
What Florens's mother was trying to tell her fills the last chapter of the novel. Her life story is, again, one of violent, vicious treatment by men: first she is brought from Africa to Barbados and gang-raped, then she is sold to the Portuguese trader, who, she worries, has already begun to show an interest in Florens. When she sees Jacob, she trusts him immediately: "There was no animal in his heart.... He did not want." She begged him to take her daughter because "I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight. I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He said yes." In this way, an act that seemed horrible is redeemed. Like Sethe's murder of Beloved, it was a terrible demonstration of maternal love. The tragedy is not that it happened to Florens, but that she will never understand why.
One of the most beautifully restrained passages in Beloved--the prose of which, as in much of Morrison's fiction, has a tendency to overheat--comes just after Sethe, with the help of a white runaway, gives birth on the bank of a river:
"Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river's edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects--but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one--will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself."
This is the mother's dream, and perhaps the primary cruelty of slavery was the near-certainty that it would be thwarted. The children of slaves, needless to say, had little chance of fulfilling any kind of a future; and slave mothers could have no confidence that the babies to whom they gave birth would "become all of what is contained in the spore" or would "live out [their] days as planned." The moment of certainty, if it ever exists at all, is just a flicker. Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, is able to keep only one of her eight children. Her two girls, "neither of whom had their adult teeth," were sold and taken away before she could even wave goodbye. "In all of Baby's life ... men and women were moved around like checkers," Morrison writes in a passage that is one of the novel's most frequently quoted. "What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children."
Of course, this is not just a tragedy for women. Surely the six fathers of Baby Suggs's eight children grieved over their incapability to maintain ties to their offspring. Surely Halle, Sethe's husband, who had the misfortune of witnessing part of her assault, was devastated by it. But these men are absent. Morrison does not tell their stories. And by focusing so rhapsodically on the physical aspects of motherhood--pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding--she effectively excludes them from the process of having children. In A Mercy, similarly, it is only the women whose stories we learn. This may seem a kind of poetic justice for the hardships that they suffered, and we do occasionally enter the thoughts of the men in the novel; but there can be no denying that men--as true, formed characters, not as sexual objects or brutes--have often been a startling omission from the universe of Morrison's fiction. She has chosen to tell the stories of mothers, not fathers; and the choice feels vaguely ideological. The incomplete portrayal of men certainly damages many of her narratives.
If the tragedy of losing a child, through death or through circumstance, is not unique to women, Morrison wants to emphasize that for women it is more primal, which of course it has to be. It is women who carry babies, first in their wombs and then on their backs; it is women's bodies that nourish them, the breasts metamorphosing into a kind of second umbilical cord. "Men don't know nothing much, but they do know a suckling can't be away from its mother for long," Sethe's lover Paul D tells her. "Then they know what it's like to send your children off when your breasts are full," she retorts. A man can understand intellectually what this might be like, but he cannot feel the physical compulsion that draws a woman back to her nursing baby, a sensation so powerful that, years after weaning, just to think of it stirs a phantom ache in the breasts. That love is too thick, indeed. But by rendering her men anonymous, or by not showing comparable interest in them, Morrison skims too lightly over their suffering. By ignoring the full spectrum of human experience, she does an injustice to all her characters, male and female.
At the novel's end, we learn that there is a secret room in the house where Florens has used the tip of a nail to scratch her story upon the walls. Her intended reader is the blacksmith, of course. "If you are live or ever you heal you will have to bend down to read my telling, crawl perhaps in a few places. I apologize for the discomfort." I apologize for the discomfort: this is not Florens speaking, it is Morrison, coolly piercing the narration. Under almost any other circumstances, this would be a tonal flaw, a sign of the novelist's release of control. But Morrison seems to have done this intentionally, to startle the reader into paying extra attention to this line, which is a kind of ironic credo.
In fact, the writer is telling us, she sees no reason to apologize. Sometimes it hurts to read. Sometimes it hurts to write:
"There is no more room in this room. These words cover the floor. From now you will stand to hear me. The walls make trouble because lamplight is too small to see by. I am holding light in one hand and carving letters with the other. My arms ache but I have need to tell you this.... What will I do with my nights when the telling stops? Dreaming will not come again. Sudden I am remembering. You won't read my telling. You read the world but not the letters of talk. You don't know how to. Maybe one day you will learn. If so, come to this farm again, part the snakes in the gate you made, enter this big, awing house, climb the stairs and come inside this talking room in daylight. If you never read this, no one will. These careful words, closed up and wide open, will talk to themselves."
The first purpose of writing, we are told here, is the exorcism of pain. But more than that, the act also allows Florens to find her way back to herself. The evidence is in her speech. Throughout the book, she has addressed the blacksmith humbly as "you," never needing to use his name, the very terms of her address giving the sense of a person bowing in submission--wilting. But toward the end of this passage she straightens up, going so far as to issue a series of commands: "Come to this farm again ... climb the stairs and come inside." And in the last sentence he disappears entirely, leaving only her words.
It is a beautiful passage, in its vision and in its language, but there is something aesthetically and humanly limiting about the credo that it expresses. For the impulse to offer testimony--which is clearly what Florens is carving into the walls of her room--is essentially different from the drive to create literature. Testimony is particular, and unembarrassed by the specificity of a single individual's perspective; but literature must be less circumscribed--it must see more than one perspective, one wound. The purpose of testimony about atrocity is to bear witness to one's own suffering or to the suffering of others, so that it may be honored and commemorated. The purpose of literature is grander: not to edify, however darkly, or to establish a public cause, but to interpret the world in all its variousness and its complication.
In an interview published in The Paris Review, Morrison complained about critics who have asked her when she intends to write a novel about white people, as if it were "a kind of compliment" to suggest that she might be capable of doing so rather than limiting her scope to the stories of African Americans. It is indeed insulting to suggest that the lives and the emotions of black people are any less universal than the lives and the emotions of white people, as if a novel as rich and beautiful as Sula or Song of Solomon were somehow irrelevant to the concerns of whites simply because its characters are black. Likewise, it was insulting for John Updike, reviewing A Mercy in The New Yorker, to praise Morrison for producing "another installment of her noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African-American." A black writer's work--any writer's work--does not have to prove itself "noble and necessary."
The horror of the central tragedy in A Mercy--the mother forced to choose between her children--is not limited to the world of slavery. It can be, and it has been, imagined in virtually any totalitarian setting: the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, Darfur. (Is slavery not a crude form of totalitarianism?) Likewise, there is surely no more universalizing experience than motherhood, which unites women regardless of their origins and their circumstances. And yet Morrison continues to insist upon her characters' separateness from "the center, " as she puts it in the same interview, although the center has shifted: it is no longer white, but male. As long as she uses her lyrical and tormented novels as vehicles for the insistence on man's inhumanity to woman, her artistic achievement will continue to be interrupted by the testimonial groan. The bits and pieces of life should not be dominated by the grinding blade of the ax.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.