We all know about slavery, don’t we? We’ve seen those iconic photos–like the one of the whip-scarred man’s back that Tad Lincoln was stealing a glance at in the movie Lincoln–and we know about overzealous overseers and philandering owners. We saw Amisted and realize that Gone with the Wind sentimentalized the reality. But in her 2008 novel, A Mercy, Toni Morrison takes us to the less known recesses of slavery in America in order to comment not just on the “Peculiar Institution” but on the broader idea of the New World and of humanity as a whole.
Life in the 17th century along the Eastern seaboard was hard, even in the most civilized and refined areas. Yes, Anne Bradstreet was churning out quite competent verse in Boston and Harvard had opened its doors in 1636, but late into the century, existence could not be taken for granted. In fact, it could not be taken for granted in the Old World either, plague erupting in London at about the time that this brief novel takes place. Involuntary servitude hardly seemed like the worst of all possible facets of a world in which smallpox and starvation loomed as very real threats.
In A Mercy, Morrison allows several characters, most of them slaves, to share their worlds. Accustomed to our national narrative of slavery, we don’t find the use of slave girl Florens as a means to repay a debt to be surprising. She is young, vulnerable, and African, the perfect person to be objectivized, monetized, and (presumably) exploited by the Europeans. But Florens is not mistreated by her new owner, and she finds a world with unexpected servants. The new home that Florens finds brings her into contact with Lina, a Native American woman whose people were wiped out by smallpox. Lina, apparently enslaved, seems to have the run of her owners’ house and becomes close to the owner’s young wife when she arrives from England. Is Lina truly worse off than the marginalized wife? If so, the difference is simply in degrees. If “freed” either from bonds of matrimony or of slavery these two women could scarcely exist on their own. In fact, we also find white men, indentured servants, who suffer under their involuntary employment but who would struggle to flourish on their own.
As a white male, I am probably not entitled to this opinion, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. In this book, the tragedy is not that of Florens or Lina or the mysterious girl Sorrow. This is the tragedy of Jacob Vaark, the marginally successful farmer who finds trade in rum, moneylending, and, indirectly, slaves to be far more profitable. It is that expansion of trade that allows Vaark to maintain such a large household and to build a new, larger house that he’ll never live to inhabit. That he is the first to perish is hardly surprising, yet the trajectory from those who came to the Americas for a chance at a successful agrarian life through the greed of Jacob Vaark to Bernie Madoff has already been lined out. Without this man’s greed, and that of thousands around him, the slave trade would never have burgeoned. But then this is a fallen world.