Following Her Name

On Wednesday, Dr. Beth reawakened an idea that had interested me at the start of the novel: the significance of Lina’s name in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. We learn that while she was taken to live with Presbyterians, Lina was given an anglicized name. As readers, we never learn what her birth name had been. However, we do know that “they named her Messalina, just in case, but shortened it to Lina to signal a sliver of hope” (55). This follows from the death of Lina’s people, what is presumed to be the “black death.” According to the Presbyterians, it was “merely the first sign of His displeasure” (55). Already, then, Lina is accompanied by a negative aura, because she is Other.

Her anglicized name has roots in two women: a Catholic saint and the wife of Roman emperor Claudius. If we follow the trail back to the Catholic Saint Messalina, we learn that she was a virgin martyr who died for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. This traces to Lina’s Native American heritage, her status in the colonies as “heathen,” and her conversion to Christianity. A connection to Saint Messalina, then seems fairly straightforward.

However, if we interpret her name as inherited from Claudius’ wife, we learn about a woman with a ruthless, devious, and sexually promiscuous history. In Morrison’s novel, there seems to be a consensus about Lina that she is a strong character. In their advertisement, which Jacob inevitably encounters, the Presbyterians describe her as “Hardy female, Christianized and capable in all matters domestic available for exchange of goods or specie” (61). Lina is the one who cares for her master’s children, despite all of their young deaths, including the one who lives longest, Patrician.

A theory arises, though, which Hannah addresses in her post, that Lina may have been responsible for the children’s deaths. Hannah’s post cites Sorrow’s chapter, in which the reader is privy to a glimpse of Lina’s possessiveness. There exists the possibility that Lina dislikes Sorrow, and uses the excuse of a stillborn child to persuade others that she is bad luck, because she has already staked a claim on her mistress and Florens. This idea becomes increasingly plausible to me as I revisit Lina in the novel. A small detail we, as readers, may have disregarded at first may give credit to this theory and foreshadow Lina’s behavior describes her as being “Afraid of once more losing shelter, terrified of being alone in the world without family” (55). This leaves me to wonder if Lina lives up to her name, and the path of which Messalina she followed.

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