National Bestseller One of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, and later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives. A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its 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 Trade Paperback edition.
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This book starts in media res. This video explains in media res. (This annotation contains a video)
How does Florens end up with Reverend Father?
The present of the novel is stated here-1690. The book will then flashback to multiple different characters' points of view to create a unified story by the end. This chapter is told from the point of view of Florens, the main character.
What are the main differences between chapter two and chapter one?
Jacob Vaark is referring to his journey to the New World, America, long before the Revolutionary War. This map shows the most common routes taken by ships. The journey typically took 66 days. (This annotation contains an image)
Watch this short video about emerging themes to help you in answering the next question. (This annotation contains a video)
Which theme seed is starting to emerge in Jacob Vaark's observations?
Do you know what synedoche is? Because "the heads" is an example of it. Synecdoche is a type of metaphor when you use a part to stand for the whole. Therefore, we are not just talking about lost "heads" here, but lost people. For more examples of synecdoche, check out this website. (This annotation contains a link)
The juxtaposition of the characteristics of Vaark and Senhor D'Ortega helps to establish what idea?
What can we infer from the description of the slaves?
Here is a historical flyer for a slave auction. (This annotation contains an image)
Use the definition feature to define "Papist." What underlying meaning is Vaark implying in regards to D'Ortega's character in this sentence?
Use the NPR Media Player to listen to Toni Morrison read this section of her book. (Click on the second one: "Morrison reads part 2: Take my daughter". This will open the media player. You will have to watch a quick advertisement, then you can click on the track to play in the Playlist.) (This annotation has embedded rich content)
During their conversation, what aspect of Downes is repeatedly focused on?
The Stuarts were the first kings of the United Kingdom. The Stuart dynasty reigned in England and Scotland from 1603 to 1714. (This annotation contains an image)
The snakes fashioned by the blacksmith on the gates to Vaark's new house allude to what?
The "you" Florens is addressing is the blacksmith, a free black man and the object of her desire and love.
Toni Morrison has won both the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved, which was named as the "Most Important Book of the Last 25 Years" by the New York Times. Watch and listen to her read another excerpt from her book starting with this paragraph. (This annotation contains a video)
What just happened with the group of indentured servants?
Lina, Vaark's Native American servant, respects nature and allows the reader to see how the New World is destroying the environment. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following defines the mood of this paragraph?
Lina and Sorrow exemplify which theme?
Messallina was the third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius. A powerful and influential woman with a reputation for promiscuity, it is said that she plotted against her husband and was executed when it was discovered. To call a woman 'a Messalina' indicates a scheming and licentious personality. This sculpture is "Messalina holding her son Britannicus (Louvre). (This annotation contains an image)
Lina believes that Mistress' babies died from which cause?
Willard and Scully are indentured servants to the Vaarks. See this website for more information on indentured servants. (This annotation contains a link)
Explain the metaphors that Lina and Florens use to describe their differing view of the blacksmith.
This highlighted section is an example of anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences. The word "before" creates the anaphora in this excerpt. Check out more examples of anaphora here. (This annotation contains a link)
Lina encourages Florens to make her life her own. The allegory illustrates that no one in the New World has family or roots because they are the first to arrive. Nearly everyone in the story is an orphan in some way. Everyone is in a new environment, removed from his/her roots. The falling eggs separated from the mother parallel the story of all the orphans in the story.
Will and Scully are white but are not not free due to being indentured servants. The blacksmith is African-American but is a free man. Summarize Morrison's thoughts on the "association between race and slavery" and how her ideas relate to these characters.
Watch this video in which Toni Morrison discusses her novel in order to answer the next question. (This annotation contains a video)
The Fifth Monarchists were one of many groups of Christian believers during and after the English Civil War whose beliefs challenged the more mainstream ideas of the day. (This annotation contains an image)
How does the violence present in the New World affect Rebekka?
Rebekka's story exemplifies which theme?
What emotion can be inferred from this analogy?
Up until the 1850s, most emigrants traveled on sailing ships, with an average voyage lasting 43 days. Living conditions on board were often horrible.
What does the novel reveal about the precarious position of women, European and African, free and enslaved, in late-17th-century America?
Jacob's story is reminiscent of another well-known protagonist from a classic work of literature. Which other character builds an ostentatious mansion and leaves it an empty shell behind him after he dies?
Rain is often symbolic in literature; it can symbolize tears, sorrow, anger, cleansing, and renewal. (This annotation contains an image)
Job is a Biblical allusion. He is characterized as a good family man who is plagued with horrible tragedies that take away all that he holds dear, including his children, his health, and his property. He struggles to understand his situation and begins to search for answers. God rewards Job's obedience by restoring his health, doubling his wealth and giving him new sons and daughters. (This annotation contains an image)
What is Rebekka a metaphorical prisoner to?
In the book of Genesis, Noah curses his youngest son, Ham, to be "a slave of slaves." This Biblical story has been the single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years. It is a strange justification indeed, for there is no reference in it to Blacks at all. And yet just about everyone, especially in the antebellum American South, understood that in this story God meant to curse black Africans with eternal slavery, the so-called Curse of Ham. (This annotation contains an image)
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 textbooks?
Do you know what anaphora is? These sentences are an example of anaphora in action. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences. The word "[s]ome" that begins each of these sentences creates the anaphora. You can see more examples using this link. (This annotation contains a link)
Which is the best explanation for how Morrison structures this sentence?
Read Philip Levine's (1928-2015) poem "The Mercy" in order to answer the next question. In this poem, "The Mercy" is the name of an immigrant ship docked for 31 days in typhoid quarantine outside Ellis Island. (This annotation contains a link)
In Levine's poem "The Mercy," what act of mercy is shown to the nine-year-old Jewish girl on the ship and how is it similar to the act of mercy the "natives" show Florens?
Who can we infer is Florens's biological father?
When Florens asks for shelter on her journey, she is taken in by a Christian widow and her apparently "possessed" daughter Jane. Rebekka also experiences religion, as practiced by her mother, as "a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred." Based on this knowledge, how are Christians depicted in the novel?
Florens ends up with a woman and her daughter in a house under attack from a witch hunt. The mother whips the daughter every day in an effort to prove she is not a demon, since demons don't bleed. Apparently, the New World is filled with the same problems and religious intolerance as the old.
Florens happens upon a religious community that thinks some of its female members are "the Black Man's minion." This scene recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller's portrayals of Salem communities. Which theme is famously portrayed by these authors and in this scene?
One of the many facets of Morrison's style is her use of magical realism, a literary genre or style that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction. This painting is by Michael Parkes, an American-born artist living in Spain who is best known for work in the areas of fantasy art and magic realism. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the best explanation for who Twin is?
Many skin creams on the market contain animal oils and fats. Tallow, a common ingredient in moisturizers and soaps, comes from the fat of sheep and cows. It's often used as a thickener in lotions and creams. (This annotation contains an image)
A flashback is transition to a story in an earlier time. This video explains flashbacks and how to identify them. Look for flashbacks as you continue to read. (This annotation contains a video)
What is the best description of this portion of the text?
This exchange of dialogue is about Florens, not Mistress Rebekka's health. It foreshadows that Florens will successfully reach the blacksmith. This video reviews foreshadowing. (This annotation contains a video)
The blacksmith is an example of which character archetype?
This website lays out a timeline of life in America during the time of the novel. Check it out for some informative historical connections. (This annotation contains a link)
Literally “my mother” in Portuguese, “a minha mãe” is the mother of Florens. The final chapter is told from her perspective, addressing Florens.
Which two literary devices are the most prevalent in this paragraph?
Why does the blacksmith tell Florens that she is "a slave by choice"?
Morrison conveys paralyzing emotion through her writing style. Check out this website for famous poems on heartache and difficult love. (This annotation contains a link)
Morrison says she wrote the novel in an effort to "remove race from slavery." How does Morrison offer an atypical view of slavery?
Watch the author discuss her novel to answer the next question. (This annotation contains a video)
What can we infer the curate and Scully were caught doing?
Willard and Scully, two gay indentured servants, imagine themselves to be the two sons of the family. When Jacob Vaark dies, there is a foreshadow that the family will disintegrate.
The household in A Mercy is reminiscent of that in Robert Frost's Death of a Hired Man, in which "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in." What is home for the characters in A Mercy? What is family?
Morrison creates a link between writing and freedom. Florens literally writes herself out of a room, telling her story on the floor and walls of the new mansion. Morrison illustrates that writing can free one from enslavement. Finding a voice is linked with finding freedom.
There are many mercies in "A Mercy," large and small. Here, as Florens' mother tell Florens of how she was not abandoned but saved, Morrison makes clear that it is not heaven's help she is concerned with, not "a miracle." Instead, it was "a mercy. Offered by a human."