Affectionate Bears and Hostile Humans

“Why do you knock me away without certainty of what is true?” 

— Toni Morrison 

In the beginning of Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy, I witnessed the first act of expulsion that takes place in the novel when Florens is uprooted from the life she knew with her mother, her minha mãe, and is used to pay off an outstanding debt. At this point, Florens is young and according to Lina, from the state of her teeth is only seven or eight when she is brought to her new home (11). That being said, Floren’s memory of her expulsion is tainted with the memory of her mother begging: “Please, Senhor. Not Me. Take her. Take my daughter” (37). As I continued to follow Florens’s growth, it became clear that this first memory of being given up by her mother seems to amplify the vulnerabilities and fears that begin to develop as her attachment to the blacksmith grows fonder and leads to another form of expulsion later on in the novel. 

While A Mercy does not follow a linear narrative in terms of time structure, I often found myself returning to the text at various points in the novel to discern character intentions and events that were initially confusing. For example, when I returned to the page that Florens talks about being lettered, I stumbled across the profound observation that the blacksmith makes to Florens about the interactions between bears and humans: “They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger” (11, emphasis added). I will admit that when I first engaged with Florens’ retelling of the blacksmith’s observation, I was a bit confused. That being said, I underlined the phrase “which we misread” and continued reading the novel, pushing this image of an affectionate bear and a hostile human at the back of my mind. 

That is until Florens shares the details of her long anticipated reunion with the blacksmith and I am again reminded of the affectionate bear. Upon her immediate arrival, Florens notes: “I lose the fear that I may never again in this world know the sight of your welcoming smile or taste the sugar of your shoulder as you take me in your arms” but once she learns that she must be left behind because of Malaik, Florens shrinks into a younger version of herself. She even points out that this
happens twice before: “the first time it is me peering around my mother’s dress hoping for her hand that is only for her little boy… Both times are full of danger and I am expel” (174-175). It is evident that Florens is threatened by the young boy and worries that his existence places her at a disadvantage, “As if he is your future. Not me.” It is clear that Florens has become possessive over the blacksmith and seeks to monopolise on both his love and affection, and Malaik’s presence prevents her from doing this. Yet, in this particular scene I am not reminded of the affectionate bear, but rather the frightened girl hiding behind her minha mãe’s skirt before being handed over to a strange man, I am reminded of the first instance I am introduced to Florens’s vulnerability and I am surprised that her fear of abandonment has hardened her and in turn, makes her a threat to young Malaik. 

In our canvas discussion about the blacksmith’s reaction to seeing young Malaik on the floor and Florens’s observation that he is not “there when it [the blood] comes, so how do you know I am the reason? Why do you knock me away without certainty of what is true?” (183), Dr. Beth McCoy asked the following question: “@Molly and Sandy: definite expulsion. Given his *reading* of the situation that even Florens says isn’t wrong, are you prepared to defend the harming of a child (a classic Morrison trap for her readers).” While it is agreed that any act of violence towards a child is unforgivable, it also becomes clear that the blacksmith shares in that same position when he does exactly what Florens’s fears and expels her from his home, choosing the boy over her. Nonetheless, Florens’s response to the blacksmith’s outburst is significant because it depicts how she copes with being expelled from his presence, a place she was so eager to call her home: “Are you meaning I am nothing to you? That I have no consequence in your world?” (185). While these questions are directed at the blacksmith, I can’t help wonder if Florens is also thinking of her mother. 

The language that Morrison uses in her novel often challenges me, as a reader, to consider exactly what is being said and how it is conveyed. Particularly in the chapter where Florens is expelled from the blacksmith’s home, I am looped back to part of the blacksmith’s phrase, “They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger” (11, emphasis added) or in other words, which we misinterpret. On that note, it seems significant that Morrison gives Florens’s mother the last word of the novel, as an attempt to offer a correction to Florens’s interpretation of her first expulsion: “I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight” (214). Even in her confession, she points out that Florens is regarded as a “human child,” and again I am left thinking of the earlier sign that Morrison gives us in the opening chapter about affectionate bears, hostile humans, and misread interactions.

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