Protection and Expulsion in “A Mercy”

Like some of my peers in this class have expressed, I struggled with finding an appropriate topic for this prompt. Only after rereading the novel to strengthen my understanding of the characters, looking through my peers’ work, and thinkING about the unspoken forces that cause expulsion, which Professor McCoy has encouraged us to do all semester, was I able to slow down and consider the ideas of “both/and.” As I was re-reading the novel, I was struck by a similar theme from another class (ENGL 424: Toni Morrison Trilogy) I am taking with Professor McCoy. This idea of motherly love and sacrifice within the context of slavery is a heavy topic we discussed in class while reading Beloved and keeps reoccurring to me while reading this novel. In both novels, many outsiders looking into the story may be quick to judge their actions as evil/immortal, unable to interpret the pain a mother endures and why they might do the things they do in order to protect their child.

In Morrison’s A Mercy, both Jacob Vaark and Floren are displayed as characters who are unable to interpret the heart-wrenching exchanges between the slave owner and the enslaved. Jacob notices D’Ortega’s unusual interest in keeping Floren’s mother and suspects something more sinister is going on within the home considering that many slave owners sexually abuse enslaved women, but does not have the tools to do more than to pick someone because he “desperately wanted this business over” (24). While Jacob initially hesitates to take in the young daughter, his self-interest in monetary gain supersedes his moral standards despite acknowledging that slave trading is “the most wretched business” (26). We can see Jacob trying to distance himself from the slave trading business and the D’Ortega family, despite engaging and benefiting from the institutions of slavery, which expelled a child from her family and home.

Florens, as a young child, notices the events that led to her displacement but is unable to understand why her mother would give her up, assuming that favoritism is in play. Floren’s own trauma and memory of her mother is expressed by the end of the first chapter and she interprets the interaction between her mother and Jacob as her choosing her baby brother over her. This feeling of abandonment and betrayal is expressed by her describing the moment as her mother, “saying something important [to me], but holding the little boy’s hand” (8). The mother’s life is tainted by the pains of being a slave and Jacob, who is in a position of power, is unable to understand why Floren’s mother would voluntarily ask for her daughter to be shipped away far from home. He makes the assumption that her mother is trying to save herself by offering up Florens when in reality, it is the opposite. He misunderstands the forces that would cause a mother to abandon her child, while Florens is too young to understand that the prolonged abuse her mother endured forced her to expel Florens from her care. 

As readers, we can understand and justify Floren’s mother and her actions as wanting to give her daughter a better life despite the realities of being a slave. As we have discussed in class before, it is also important to look at the expelling of children from families/ homes in a more modern sense. There have been multiple cases on the news in which mothers have been jailed for enrolling their children in different school districts in order to get them better access to education. Despite knowing that it is forbidden to do so in a legal sense, a mother’s desire to protect and provide a better life for their child is a “crime” that occurs today. Financial instability and corporate greed will always be factors in controlling and destabilizing families and it is only with recognizing and amending those forces can these bubbles burst. 

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