Naiveté and Expulsion in A Mercy

Perhaps the most notable inquiry in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy ensues on the very first page of the novel, where Florens asks; “can you read?” (3).  Here, Florens is not referring to a typical form of literacy, considering that she herself was partly illiterate as a slave, but to the ability to understand the signs and omens of the natural world. Florens herself is unable to interpret the signs and events that arise in her life, as she admits; “often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much” (4). Despite the unfortunate events she has faced so far, Florens is often blissfully unaware of her disadvantaged position in society as a black woman. Throughout Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, we follow Florens take what life throws at her without being able to understand why she faces constant hardship and expulsion. Florens’ life as a slave highlights the deep-rooted discrimination that is built into American society and how the lack of ability to comprehend one’s position in society can lead to a life of oppression and expulsion. 

It is no coincidence that our very first and last glimpses into Florens’ perspective are centered around her expulsion from the D’Ortega farm, highlighting her mother’s role in the displacement. The way Florens views her relationship with her mother is overwhelmingly negative, as she assumes that she willingly gave her daughter up out of lack of love. A few of the only memories Florens holds of her mother are the disapproval of her constant wanting to wear shoes and the day that a Minha mãe begged a strange man to take her daughter rather than herself. Florens is so traumatized by her expulsion from the D’Ortega estate and her mother’s care, in fact, that even the sight of Sorrow pregnant with a child is enough to spark a memory of her mother choosing her baby brother to keep instead of her. As a black woman born into slavery, Florens is uneducated and partly illiterate, aside from what the Reverend sneakily taught her. The lack of knowledge and ability to interpret different situations is what makes Florens vulnerable, and creates a lack of understanding of the happenings in her life. Her ignorance forces her to walk around with the burden of knowing that her mother voluntarily expelled her, but not being able to discern the reason. A Minha mãe, however, had entirely opposite intentions when she offered up her only daughter to be sold off to a different farm. Florens’ mother eventually reveals that she knew Jacob would treat her as a human rather than a slave, and sacrificed her daughter to give her a better life. A Minha mãe, who had been brought to America in the slave trade, could understand the power of dominion and was only aiming to protect Florens from a life of misery and oppression. Her words to Florens are powerful;

“In  the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing” (195-196).

Despite her mother’s words, Florens is unaware and unable to read her mother’s efforts to keep her safe. Florens continues throughout the narrative lost and in search of love to fill the void her mother left, which leads her to be especially vulnerable to mistreatment and expulsion. 

A few years after being expelled by her mother and adjusting to life on the Vaark farm, Florens became undeniably infatuated with the blacksmith that was hired to help Jacob build the new house. After spending what seems to be eight years searching and longing for a love to fill her mother’s void, Florens finally believes that she has found someone to give her happiness. Throughout her journey she expresses her lamentations, writing; “she wants you here as much as I do. For her it is to save her life. For me it is to have one” (43). Florens is prepared to give up her life for the blacksmith but is unable to read the situation for what it truly is. Her ignorance is highlighted as we read other perspectives on their relationship. Everyone else on the Vaark farm is able to see the potential for destruction in Florens’ infatuation with the blacksmith, but her vulnerability and naivete prevents her from reading the relationship as it truly is. As we read from Lina’s perspective, the danger of the situation was clear; “she should have seen the danger immediately because his arrogance was clear” (53). No matter how clear the signs were, Florens was far too uneducated and inexperienced to read them. Due to her vulnerable position as a slave, Florens continued to relentlessly chase after the blacksmith in pursuit of a happiness she had never known. When Florens eventually reached the blacksmith’s dwelling, she found that he had no interest in her presence; instead, he chose the presence of an infant boy as she had experienced once before. Once again, Florens was expelled into the world as a result of her pure ignorance and inability to interpret her circumstances.  

When we revisit Florens’ inquiry to the blacksmith in the first passage of the book, we can find a new meaning to her question “can you read?”. It seems as though most of the characters besides Florens can read and interpret the signs and omens of the natural world. Florens’ inability to read these signs stems from illiteracy, lack of education, and lack of experience. This inability to read and interpret situations places Florens in a position of vulnerability; waiting to be expelled by those she loves with no understanding of why. 

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