A powerful tragedy distilled into a small masterpiece by the Nobel
Prize-winning author of Beloved and, almost like a
prelude to that story, set two centuries earlier.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader in 1680s United States, when the
slave trade is still in its infancy. Reluctantly he takes a small
slave girl in part payment from a plantation owner for a bad debt.
Feeling rejected by her slave mother, 14-year-old Florens can read
and write and might be useful on his farm. Florens looks for love,
first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master''s house,
but later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved,
who comes riding into their lives . . .
At the novel''s heart, like Beloved, it is the
ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter - a mother
who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and a daughter who
may never exorcise that abandonment.
From the Hardcover edition.
"A powerful tragedy distilled into a small masterpiece of the
relationship between a mother and a daughter, difﬁcult
choices and future ramifications."
- National Post
- The Vancouver Sun
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Florens addresses her story to the blacksmith she loves and
writes: "You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like,
but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during
those moments when a dog''s profile plays in the steam of a kettle"
(page 3). In what sense is her story a confession? What are the
dreamlike "curiosities" it is filled with?
2. Florens writes to the blacksmith, "I am happy the world is
breaking open for us, yet its newness trembles me" (page 5), and
later, "Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are
unlove here" (page 7). In what ways is Florens''s use of language
strikingly eccentric and poetic? What does the way she speaks and
writes reveal about who she is and what her experience has
3. What does A Mercy reveal about Colonial
America that is startling and new? In what ways does Morrison give
this period in our history an emotional depth that cannot be found
in text books?
4. A Mercy is told primarily through the
distinctive narrative voices of Florens, Lina, Jacob, Rebekka,
Sorrow, and, lastly, Florens''s mother. What do these characters
reveal about themselves through the way they speak? What are the
advantages of such a multivocal narrative over one told through a
5. Jacob Vaark is reluctant to traffic in human flesh and
determined to amass wealth honestly, without "trading his
conscience for coin" (page 28). How does he justify making money
from trading sugar produced by slave labor in Barbados? What larger
point is Morrison making here?
6. How does Jacob''s attitude toward his slaves/workers differ
from that of the farmer who owns Florens''s mother?
7. When Rebekka falls ill, Lina treats her with a mixture of
herbs: devil''s bit, mugwort, Saint-John''s-wort, maidenhair, and
periwinkle. She also considers "repeating some of the prayers she
learned among the Presbyterians, but since none had saved Sir, she
thought not" (page 50). What fundamental differences are suggested
here between the practical, earth-based healing knowledge of Lina
and the more ethereal prayers of the Presbyterians? What larger
role does healing play in the novel?
8. Rebekka knows that even as a white woman, her prospects are
limited to "servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible
stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed
safest" (pages 77-78). And Lina, Sorrow, and Florens know that if
their mistress dies, "three unmastered women … out here, alone,
belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone" (page 58). What
does the novel as a whole reveal about the precarious position of
women, European and African, free and enslaved, in
9. Rebekka says she does not fear the violence in the colonies -
the occasional skirmishes and uprisings - because it is so much
less horrifying and pervasive than the violence in her home country
of England. In what ways is "civilized" England more savage than
10. What role does the love story between Florens and the
blacksmith play in the novel? Why does the blacksmith tell Florens
that she is "a slave by choice" (page 141)?
11. When Florens asks for shelter on her journey to find the
blacksmith, she is taken in by a Christian widow and her apparently
"possessed" daughter Jane, whose soul she is trying to save by
whipping her. And Rebekka experiences religion, as practiced by her
mother, as "a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred" (page 74). How are
Christians depicted in the novel? How do they regard Florens, and
black people generally?
12. Lina tells Florens, "We never shape the world... The world
shapes us" (page 71). What does she mean? In what ways are the main
characters in the novel more shaped by than shapers of the world
13. Why does Florens''s mother urge Jacob to take her? Why does
she consider his doing so a mercy? What does her decision say about
the conditions in which she and so many others like her were forced
14. The sachem of Lina''s tribe says of the Europeans: "Cut
loose from the earth''s soul, they insisted on purchase of its
soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their
destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would
destroy all primary peoples" (page 54). To what extent is this an
accurate assessment? In what ways is A Mercy about
the condition of being orphaned? What is the literal and symbolic
significance of being orphaned or abandoned in the novel?
15. Why does Morrison choose to end the novel in the voice of
Florens''s mother? How does the ending alter or intensify all that
has come before it?
16. Why is it important to have a visceral, emotional grasp of
what life was like, especially for Africans, Native Americans, and
women, in Colonial America? In what ways has American culture tried
to forget or whitewash this history?
17. Did you see the stunning twist at the novel''s conclusion
coming? If so, when and why? If not, why do you think it blindsided
18. How do the stories of the women in A Mercy
serve as a prequel to the stories of the women in
Beloved, which is set two centuries later?