Faults with Perception

The way that A Mercy goes about how characters perceive things, often in ways that lack the “whole picture” is very interesting, and further illuminated by the narrative arc. Psychology suggests people seldom know the entire story, and their perceptions are inherently influenced by their worldview and the beliefs that they already hold. This is partially why people are susceptible to believing misinformation, especially information that aligns with the schemas and beliefs they already hold (Lewandowsky et. al,2010). In applying this idea of human psychology to the novel, that’s why a character’s character matters and really alters the framing of the world they’re in. The way that Morrison has each main character narrate, or control, part of their story I think really emphasizes this and shows how other’s perceptions can even begin to influence our own.

            I first began to think about this when I read Lina’s passage. My initial reaction to Lina was to like her, I saw her as strong willed, intelligent and caring (albeit somewhat harsh at times). While I still think most of these things of her character, it did not suffice to formulate my opinion only based on her telling. Lina, having taken Florens under her wing, was extremely opinionated in her decisions, especially when it came to the blacksmith because she did not trust him. She imposed this naivety to Florens that I probably would not have seen as much had Lina’s passage not been included. Having immediately taken to Florens, feeding, bathing and caring for her in a way that appeared to me as maternal, I think effected the way that Lina saw Florens and her ability to make safe decisions for herself. This struggle of perception, not having the full picture and imposing traits that she believed to be there in the people in her life is further expanded upon with Lina’s perception of Sorrow. Upon her first meeting of Sorrow, Lina immediately forms an opinion and sticks to her guns, so to speak. Not only failing to completely see Sorrow for the woman she is and everything she had been through but imposing those beliefs on the people around her as well. Sorrow’s narrative at the end of the book, where the reader learns about her past and what’s causing her to be so “mongrelized” as her first owners describe her, really shed light on how Lina’s narrative painted the wrong picture of her completely. Not having the “resources”, or the full picture, kept Lina from truly being able to understand Sorrow, not that she wanted to anyway, however. This opinion that Lina formed also causes Sorrow to be relatively expelled, in terms of relationships with other people on the farm, particularly Patrician and Florens.

            While the inability to perceive the whole picture is prevalent in all the character’s stories, I think it’s particularly interesting in Florens. Florens makes me think of trust in that it seems she has an abundance of it. Trust in Lina to take care of her, trust in the blacksmith to love her, and trust in the note her mistress wrote to grant her safe passage on her journey to the black smith. This prompt had originally made me think of an Arthur meme, where DW is looking at a sign and says “That sign can’t stop me because I can’t read”- which made me think of Florens. Not that Florens cannot actually read, but that she, like so many others, struggles to read peoples motivations and intentions, whether it be from not noticing enough, trusting too much or not being given the whole picture to be able to formulate fuller perceptions. For example, with the blacksmith, she sees their act of lovemaking and this physical relationship as grounds to believe that blacksmith truly cares for her, even despite Lina’s warnings. While she trusts Lina, she trusts her feelings wrong and consequently is heartbroken when the blacksmith rejects her, expelling her of some of the trust she had previously been full of. Also, in the first introduction to Florens, when her mother is seemingly begging Jacob Vaark to take Florens in his retelling of it, she only knows that her mother gave her away, making her believe that there was no love there. However, as we learn at the very end of the novel, her mother’s decision to give her up was her way of saving her daughter. So, while she was expelled from and by her mother, her lack of access to the truth expelled the belief that her mother loved her.

            I think that this is an interesting concept to apply to your own life as well. What may I be missing, or expelling myself from in not knowing everything I possibly could in a situation? I don’t believe there’s a need to get hung up on the nitty gritty details, for fear of doubting all the decisions I make, but I think it helps me to realize that my perceptions are not perfect and I am lucky enough to have ready access to education and information that can help to make my worldview a step closer to complete. The prompt is also reminiscent of the housing crash of 2008, in that many financial agents failed to notice just how drastic the effects of these subprime mortgage loans would be, leading to the expulsion of countless people.

Familiarity

As children, we notice many things, but don’t have the tools to interpret them. Children have no choice but to trust their parents or caretakers. They are at the mercy of the adults in their lives.

Florens doesn’t understand why her mother urges Jacob Vaark to take her from Señor D’Ortega. She just knows that it happened. When Sorrow survives a shipwreck, leaving the rest of her family missing or dead, she can piece together what happened, but not how or why it did. When asked how she got to land, Sorrow responds “‘Mermaids. I mean whales.’” She is suffering from such severe amnesia that she has trouble recalling her own name. The woman who finds her comments, “‘such a dismal sight you are. Yet strong’” and becomes the first person to call her Sorrow. Jacob validates this when Sorrow—land sick and confused—pukes on his jacket, calling her “Sorrow, Indeed”. Unaware of her previous circumstances, the woman and Jacob both dub her “Sorrow”, giving no thought to the negative connotations of this word.

Lina believes Sorrow is the embodiment of her given name and outcasts her. Lina cautions Rebekka, “‘some people do evil purposefully. Others can’t control the evil they make’”. She then continues to speculate “‘Your son John Jacob. He died after Sorrow came”’, insinuating that Sorrow is the source of the misery in their lives. Lina doesn’t understand why Sorrow can’t complete a chore correctly and doesn’t find her trustworthy. However, she spends more time entertaining her suspicions than trying to understand why Sorrow is the way she is. Lina only knows that she isn’t particularly reliable, and her name is Sorrow. These two things combined fuel Lina’s suspicions that spread like wildfire.

Lina’s intuition isn’t based on anything credible, yet she allows it to influence her decisions. The narrator explains “for a little while Lina seemed to be persuaded that the boys’ deaths were not Sorrow’s fault, but when the horse broke Patrician’s crown, she changed her mind”. When Sorrow gives birth to her first baby, Lina fears it will bring more misery. Not wanting to take the chance of having another unintentionally evil creature like Sorrow around, Lina drowns it and tells Sorrow it was premature. Sorrow, not having the tools to know otherwise, remains silent, “although Sorrow thought she saw her own newborn yawn”. Sorrow’s newborn is expelled from life on Earth before it has a chance to see it’s mother’s face.

Lina is the person who tells Sorrow she’s pregnant. Earlier in the novel, the narrator explains that Sorrow feels lower abdominal pains and doesn’t know what’s causing them. Sorrow doesn’t seem to be aware she has had sex, or even what sex is. When Lina drowns her newborn, Sorrow’s understanding of the world undergoes a paradigm shift. She no longer relies on Lina for help because she “never forgets the baby breathing water every day, every night, down all the streams of the world”.

Before this turning point, Sorrow allows Lina to have a parental role in her life. Much like a young child who has no other option but to trust their parents, Sorrow looks to Lina for guidance. But Lina is not her parent, nor her ally. Lina is only willing to give this maternal love to Florens. After the damage is done, Sorrow takes this new knowledge and maneuvers the house with indifference.

The infant’s death isn’t the result of one singular event. Rather, it is the result of a series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Lina believes Sorrow is the physical manifestation of her given name.

This may have ended differently if Sorrow wasn’t suffering from amnesia after the accident. What if the woman who found her after the shipwreck had decided to call her something else? Perhaps, mystery, mermaid, or even strange. Would Lina have had the same suspicions then? Maybe if Sorrow’s father taught her how to clean and do other tasks that were considered “women’s work”, then Lina wouldn’t have underestimated her maternal instincts.

Everyone who Sorrow relies on for help after the crash set the tragic death of her newborn into motion. In society, those who are most vulnerable often have to put trust in unfamiliar systems. These systems, such as healthcare and housing, are often confusing and difficult to maneuver. They come with terms and conditions that are made to be murky. The most vulnerable people in our society often have to rely on these systems that may limit them in ways that are not immediately obvious.

I receive the Excelsior Scholarship that is available to residents of New York State. Throughout my time in college, I’ve had to navigate my studies differently in order to keep this grant money. This scholarship requires its beneficiaries to stay in New York State for the amount of time they receive the scholarship after completing their degree. Students must also maintain a certain GPA, and take a certain number of credits related to their majors each semester in order to continue receiving aid. If they don’t follow these guidelines, they will have to repay the scholarship money in an interest accruing loan.

When I first agreed to take the scholarship, I wasn’t fully aware of how it would impact my college experience and my time after college. I took the money because I needed it and wasn’t fully aware of how it would shape my time in and after college.

We’ve all had to put our confidence in government institutions at some point in our lives, whether that be with public education, healthcare or housing. Our elections are a government system that many have confidence in. We trust that our government works for the people, because we the people are the ones who operate it. However, so long as biases and prejudices exist within our society, many demographics of people will always be overlooked. Much similar to how Lina is suspicious of Sorrow because she doesn’t understand Sorrow, bureaucratic workers may bring their own biases to their jobs. What does this mean for those who are most vulnerable? It means that some of them will never be given a full chance at life. As long as ignorant prejudice exists, some of our most vulnerable will find themselves pushed under by the very hand that claims to guide them.

Taking a minute to learn about and understand one another, can put our practices of suspicion and scorn for one another to rest. If we can understand each other, and familiarize ourselves with why we are the way we are, then we can eliminate some of the toxic prejudices that perpetuate systems of oppression.

The Key Tool: Perspective Exposure

            The concept of perspective makes itself a known theme, central idea, and notable literary choice on Morrison’s part within A Mercy. As each chapter presents us with a new viewpoint, we as readers are given the privilege to see a story unfold in a way we don’t normally watch events occur in “real life;” through the viewpoints of all those that are affected. It seems with a broader perspective of the world, and of a story that you are reading and or partaking in allows you to develop a greater sense of empathy. It then also seems when you limit your perspective or ability to understand others roles within an event, you ultimately limit yourself. To put this in terms of the 2008 housing crisis (the year in which A Mercy was written, and a key event to tie our course concepts back to) we can look at the relationship between bankers and everyday people. The banker’s decisions obviously expelled many people from their houses due to their selfish decisions. Those being affected by these decisions may have read or interpreted what would happen in this situation but did not have the tools to go about stopping it from happening. The ultimate root of this is the big bankers having the ability and tools to see how painful the negative effects of their actions would be on so many people, but ultimately neglecting to see things from a “big picture standpoint.” It seems that Morrison decided to make perspective and the theme of “noticing things” so prominent in this novel to drive home that exact point, and all the negativity that comes from it.

            A side note to relate this back to present day, and the current unprecedented circumstances we are all experiencing right now, I wanted to include a link to this article. It focuses on social distancing, and how so many people still aren’t taking it seriously. We need to realize it is a privilege, and by neglecting to take it seriously, we, like the big bankers, are viewing this situation with a “well if it doesn’t negatively affect me, then why should I care how it affects others” kind of outlook. Morrison displays acts of this kind of attitude within the novel, but also shows acts of great contrast as well. However, these selfless acts we sometimes don’t see unfold until one perspective is connected to another.

            An example of such is one that we as readers can only see unfold once we have read the novel from beginning to end. This example is when Florens is given up by her mother. In the very beginning of the novel, when Jacob Vaark visits D’Ortega and makes that reluctant purchase of Florens we are led to believe that her mother is so readily willing to give her up. “Please Senhor, not me, take my daughter” (Morrison, 30). Yet, to contrast this, we see that this seemingly “unmotherly” act of giving up her daughter to be taken away with a strange man was actually an act done out of love. “I knew Senhor would not allow it. I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight. I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle” (Morrison, 195). This is an act of expulsion Florens faces as she’s forced from her home and her family. It’s an event that we as readers didn’t have the tools (yet) to see the true explanation behind the expulsion. These lack of “tools” come from a lack of exposure to various perspectives, which ultimately intertwine to form a complete story.

            If we are to look at characters lacking tools to act on things they notice, it again deals with the concept of perspective. It seemed that throughout the book, Complete was in a whirlwind of confusion about so many things going on in her life; whether it be her lack of knowledge about what a period was, or her inability to figure out why Lina treated her the way that she did. However, the scene in which Complete gives birth proves to be a very powerful one; she decides her own identity and her own personal perspective develops itself. She lets go of this need for approval form Lina, or this feeling that Florens is the glue that keeps this odd structural dynamic between them all, together. “Each woman embargoed herself; spun her own web of thoughts unavailable to anyone else. It was as though, with or without Florens, they were falling away from one another” (Morrison, 158). She allows herself to be alone in that very moment and allows the trust she has within herself to blossom. In this case, we watch Complete take all the things that she noticed around her, that dragged her down as a person and made her feel like she was something “lesser-than.” Her “tool” in this case is expulsion; the expulsion of an outdated view she has of herself, and a rebirth of a new and personal perspective she has of herself and the world around her.  

            It seems that Morrison purposefully made expulsion, observation, and perspective key elements within this novel. She uses perspective changes to display how it is one of the true tools to accessing a full story; a full understanding of each and every person’s role in a story that so many may have taken a part in. But what’s interesting is that she displays to us that through perspective building expulsion is almost guaranteed; yet it’s a positively connotated form of expulsion as it acts as an elimination of ignorance and self-doubt. Through a lack of perspective exposure, comes expulsion as well; yet it’s more negatively connotated. It leads to the expulsion of people from your life, form their homes, and even of their own positive image of self; it is an act developed from holding on to ignorance rather than letting go.

The Expulsion of Ignorance

Throughout the works we’ve read in this course, there have been many people expelled from their homes for a variety of reasons. However, an underlying force behind the majority of these expulsions can be tied to a lack of knowledge held from a person or group of people and this lack of awareness can affect how we interpret what we do have. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is a major force in expulsion and one that A Mercy perpetuates through the relationship between the characters and the relationship between the readers and the characters as well. 

           A Mercy is written through a series of narratives from different characters, each chapter telling a story while giving the readers an insight on a situation or person from another perspective. There are several relationships between the characters that have led to expulsion and the root cause being ignorance. One of these relationships is the guardian like relationship between Lina and Florens. “When Lina tried to enlighten her, saying, ‘You are one leaf on his tree,’ Florens shook her head, closed her eyes and replied, ‘No. I am his tree’” (71). From Lina’s point of view, there is a trust in her life experience and her precautions against the Blacksmith seem reasonable coming from a caring guardian. Florens looks to Lina in times of need yet refuses to believe anything that goes against how she feels about the Blacksmith. Florens lacks the tools of experience and maturity that are needed to show restraint against infatuated impulses and cannot see her love for the Blacksmith as possibly destructive. Florens is still naive in many ways and places her freedom in a person, the Blacksmith becomes her world: “There is only you. Nothing outside of you” (44). However, this tunnel vision that Florens has that doesn’t allow her to see beyond the Blacksmith ends up hurting her in the end when she gets jealous of the child. Florens’s presumed abandonment by her mother has almost given her the wrong tools of interpretation. Her childhood doesn’t allow her to see past his love for the child rather than love for a woman and becomes, like a child, jealous of the attention shown to Malaik. This causes her to respond roughly to Malaik and the Blacksmith reprimands Florens for lack of awareness saying, “Your head is empty and your body is wild” (166). The Blacksmith then expels Florens and throughout this course, we’ve seen this type of expulsion from lack of knowledge many times. The Big Short was structured similarly with different chapters containing an aspect of the story through a different person’s eyes. Although they are real people and not character, we see how harmful ignorance can be in The Big Short as no one making the important decisions seem to know not only what they are doing but what the consequences will be as well. Both intentional and unintentional ignorance ends up expelling hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. In King Lear, we built our argument on this lack of awareness on trust. For example, Edgar’s trust for Edmund leads to his expulsion, but he trusts Edmund because he is unaware of Edmund’s true motives. Edgar knows of his illegitimate brother’s status and how this will affect Edmund’s future, but Edgar is unable to see Edmund’s greed or jealousy and is, therefore, able to trust him. In A Mercy, however, Morrison continues to demonstrate how a lack of knowledge and the tools to understand what knowledge is given through the relationship when builds between the characters and the readers.

           The readers gain knowledge and tools they are fortunate to see from the different perspectives of the characters, but some of these tools of interpretation to understand what is being read is only given near the end of the novel. The readers are led to interpret the knowledge gained from chapters of Lina’s perspective that Sorrow is a bad person. It isn’t until further along in the novel that Morrison gives the readers Sorrow’s perspective and in seeing both sides, the readers learn the truth. This lack of Sorrow’s truth, however, allows Lina to successfully expel her until then. The most prominent example from the novel, however, of lack of knowledge between the reader and character’s relationship resulting in expulsion is that between Florens and her mother. Both the readers and Florens, through Florens’s perspective, interpret the knowledge the readers are given as abandonment. This abandonment is the driving force behind Florens’s negative feelings that lead to her expulsion from the Blacksmith. She frequently sees her mother in her mind, appearing as if to want to talk to her: “A minha mãe leans at the door holding her little boy’s hand…As always she is trying to tell me something” (161). At first, the readers may interpret this as Florens missing her mother and the imagery of seeing her with her son only increases the feeling of betrayal. Unfortunately, only the readers are given the knowledge that allows for the correct interpretation of what happened. The last chapter is dedicated to Florens’s mother and the truth behind her giving up Florens. The readers are then given the tools, the truth, and when Florens sees her mother trying to tell her something, the readers know that she is trying to tell her the truth: “In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you” (195). Florens doesn’t and may never have the tools to interpret her mother’s abandonment of her as a mercy.

           Ignorance is never truly bliss; it is a limitation on the achievement of happiness. People are often tempted to be content with their current situation in life, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong in that. It is, however, important to not limit ourselves in learning so that we may not be willingly ignorant. It’s easy to believe the first thing said on the news or the first post on a social media account, but it’s an active decision whether or not to educate ourselves further on the authenticity of these things or to accept them point-blank. If people remain in a bubble concerning the surrounding environment then they end up expelling themselves from that environment, shelter like Florens from the truth. I hope that people continue to strive for knowledge concerning themselves and the world around them. I truly believe what Florens’s mother says is true, “there is magic in learning” (191).

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. 

The Power of Knowledge and The Powerlessness of Ignorance

It is an old adage that knowledge is power. Understanding the how and why of life allows one to maneuver and manipulate their surroundings more easily. However, from this adage, we can garner a parallel truth: if knowledge is power, lack of knowledge must be powerlessness. If one lacks the ability to make informed decisions and perceptions, they will often act in a way that is detrimental to themselves and others. Worse, those who possess knowledge can manipulate those who don’t. Toni Morrison understood how knowledge can be a weapon yielded against those without it. Her 2008 novel A Mercy features numerous instances of its protagonist Florens being confused and ignorant of the truth. The novel highlights both the ways that ignorance harms Florens and the ways that other characters weaponize that ignorance against her. Though the novel was written before 2008, the ideas contained within A Mercy apply to the financial crisis, for bankers and investors had taken advantage of Americans who didn’t understand the potential consequences of their actions.

What does it mean to be ignorant in Florens’s world? She knows her letters, after all; she can read and write. But despite this one advantage she has, Morrison presents her as outpaced by the events around her. This idea is introduced early, as Florens begins to tell her story: “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…. Let me start with what I know for certain.” Throughout the novel, Florens consistently demonstrates a lack of knowledge. She wanders through the woods, unsure of her direction, noting her confusion. For example, when religious villagers accuse her of being the Black Man’s minion, she responds initially, “I am not understanding anything except that I am in danger.” At the climax of Florens’s story, her ignorance has highly detrimental effects on the child she is tasked to watch. Unsure how to stop the boy from crying, she grabs him too hard. “I am trying to stop him not hurt him,” she insists. “That is why I pull his arm. To make him stop. Stop it. And yes I do hear the shoulder crack but the sound is small, no more than the crack a wing of roast grouse makes when you tear it, warm and tender, from its breast. He screams screams then faints. A little blood comes from his mouth hitting the table corner. Only a little.” Here, Florens’s inexperience has damaging effects on Malaik; she does not know how to calm him, and she minimizes the extent of his injuries. Finally, Florens’s story ends with the last and most pervasive mystery of her life: why did her mother give her up? She concludes her narrative with this haunting uncertainty. “I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mãe, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.” Because she never knew that her mother’s choice to give her up was out of love, she was always eager to please. But now, because she has experienced a betrayal identical to that initial one, she is jaded and angry. Had she known that her mother was trying to save her and not hurt her, she might have matured differently.

While Florens’s ignorance affects her development and her understanding of the world, that ignorance in isolation is not as harmful as the way it is weaponized against her. Her naivete, spurred by that sense of abandonment from her mother, allows other characters to take advantage of her. Rebekka, for example, finds amusement in “Florens’ eagerness for approval. ‘Well done.’ ‘It’s fine.’ However slight, any kindness shown her she munched like a rabbit.” Because Rebekka is her mistress and praise and kindness like this is the only compensation Florens gets for good work, Rebekka is using Florens’s abandonment to increase her productivity as a slave. Scully, too, sees the potential for taking advantage of the girl’s ignorance and naivete: “if he had been interested in rape, Florens would have been his prey. It was easy to spot that combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others.” It is this same innocence that allows the blacksmith to enter a sexual relationship with her. Though neither party views the encounters as rape, the blacksmith certainly knows that Florens is childlike and trusting, for he uses that ignorance against her after she hurts Malaik. He accuses her of having become a slave to her own obliviousness; “Your head is empty and your body is wild,” he says. Thus, her ignorance acts as a weapon for the people who wish to control and hurt her.

Being taken advantage of for one’s inexperience and ignorance is not a scenario that is isolated to Florens, nor is it only contained within the pages of A Mercy. Through other works, such as Angela Flounoy’s The Turner House and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, it becomes apparent the way that ignorance harmed the homeowner in the events leading up to the 2008 housing market crash. In The Turner House, Viola Turner refinanced her mortgage, an option that seemed favorable at the time. However, that choice led to a lot of debt the family can’t pay off, and even if they can, it isn’t worth it for a house nobody lives in. Thus, a lack of knowledge is harmful to the ignorant. In The Big Short, meanwhile, average American homebuyers are manipulated by corrupt bankers who want to loan them a subprime mortgage, so that it can be repackaged and sold as a Triple-A-rated bond. Technically, the homebuyers took out loans they couldn’t pay back, and therefore one might argue that they deserved the evictions or bankruptcies that followed. However, they didn’t understand what they were doing and were guided by others to do what was against their best interest. 

Finance is incredibly complicated, and although most if not all Americans will have to engage with it at some point in their lives, few understand it. Therefore, they must trust bankers and accountants and other finance experts to advise them on how best to manage their money. Although these people can provide a great service in helping people, they can also weaponize their clients’ ignorance against them. Similarly, in A Mercy, Florens is innocent and ignorant, and the people in her life take advantage of that. It’d be ideal for Florens if she could have learned the things she is ignorant of and be less naïve. However, she is a child, and children—and people of all ages—are always going to be innocent. Florens should have been protected from the people who want to exert power over her. Similarly, most Americans will never be financial experts, and they shouldn’t have to be. Instead, the law should take measures to protect them from bankers and accountants who intentionally advise them to make ruinous decisions.

Take me home…Moral roads…

All humans have a moral compass, but when guided away from it, moral hazards occur, which can wrongly affect other people. For example, the moral hazards among the biggest Wall Street firms like Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, etc., assisted in expelling Americans from their homes during the 2008 housing crisis. While not the only force that led to Americans losing their homes in 2008, the moral misgivings of Wall Street firms perpetuated the process. The definition of moral hazards is important to understand before delving deeper into how it pertains to Wall Street firms during the house market crash. Investopedia defines moral hazard as “the risk that a party has not entered into a contract in good faith or has provided misleading information about its assets, liabilities, or credit capacity”. Investopedia also addresses the fact that moral hazards could lead a party to take unusual risks in a desperate attempt to earn a profit. In an unusual move, several Wall Street firms took the risk of buying mortgage bonds in an attempt to earn profit, while not possessing the tools to fully understand the validity of the loans. In fact, the bankers, analysts, investors, etc. weren’t 100% sure how to interpret these bonds, contributing to the cloud of confusion surrounding the 2008 housing crisis and making it a generally difficult affair to understand. This expulsion as a result of moral hazard is also seen in Toni Morrison’s historical fiction novel A Mercy, the parallels of which will be discussed further in this essay. 

Continue reading “Take me home…Moral roads…”

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. 

How Space and Community Affect Responses to Expulsion

During the numerous acts of expulsion Americans have faced, people have often been evicted from their homes due to their inability to interpret information as they observe it. These observations can be physical, or they can be symbolic, but either way they deeply affect the way people live their lives, or where they can live them. In more recent years, this occurred during the 2008 housing crisis, when people faced the repercussions of signing highly flawed mortgage loans. This also occurred in the past, specifically when slaves were freed but not given the resources to make the most out of their freedom. In A Mercy by Toni Morrison, several characters have to find their way in the world without the education or the community spaces necessary to improve their conditions and find their way in the world. 

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Ignorance and its Detriment

When thinking about Toni Morrison’s A Mercy in terms of how noticing things but not having the tools to read/interpret those things and how it works in relation to expelling people from places they call home, I’ve noticed (ha—irony) that the main source of this issue is ignorance, whether it be blind or willful.

One of the most important issues we’ve discussed in class is the 2008 stock market crash, and how it led to people being expelled from their homes; well, wasn’t the main reason people took out those harmful home loans ignorance? The CEOs of these companies that brought down the flourishing economy of Wall Street wanted more money no matter what it took, and the way to get that was by selling more mortgages; who they went to didn’t matter. They were ignorant of the detrimental effects their actions would have on not only the stock market, but the livelihood of people across the nation. In this case, their ignorance was willfull—they chose to ignore what could potentially happen in favor of lining their pockets with more. As for the homeowners who fell for these easy loan schemes, their ignorance was blind. They didn’t have anyone to advise them against the harm these loans could do.

            When it comes to A Mercy, the ignorance of the characters comes down to human nature; to judge one another without knowing the truth. Characters would notice things but have the inability to interpret things from them, therefore they would make snap judgements about people on surface-level observations. I think one of the earliest examples of this was when Florens’s mother didn’t want to subject her to the years of sexual and physical abuse she endured from her master D’Ortega, so she begged Jacob to take Florens to his estate rather than herself. To Florens, this seemed like a betrayal in that she wanted to get rid of her daughter, when in reality she was trying to protect her. But, did Florens interpret that from her mother’s actions? She remained willfully ignorant because she was hurt by her assumption. When Florens recounts her understanding of the moment her mother begged Jacob to take Florens instead of her, the memory is of a kind of dehumanizing transaction rather than a heroic effort to give her daughter a better life. The result of this being Florens’s expulsion from her home with her mother; a direct example of how expulsion and inability to interpret can relate to one another.

            Another point I wanted to emphasize is evidenced by when Lina observes Jacob building a house before he dies, saying his choice to do so is a decision to “kill the trees and replace them with a profane monument to himself”. It is in our nature as humans to judge what we think is immoral or bad, but we also tend to judge what we don’t know. Of course, you can have a stance about the environmental impact of something, however one does not understand the inner workings of someone else’s brain—it could be for a completely different reason than an egotistical monument. The same goes for the stock market crash, and how the wealthy viewed those who were expelled from their homes. They could in no way even begin to understand the situations these people were in, since the higher ups always had more than enough to live comfortably. The CEOs even continued to make millions off their severance pay, despite the financial death sentence they bestowed on the nation.

This reminds me of my statement in my last post, about how The Big Short explained the financial system in a factual, numbers kind of way, but lacked in the humanistic view of the small-scale impact the crisis had on individual people that was emphasized in The Turner House. The way the financially well-off people viewed those devastated by their mistakes was in a Big Short sort of way rather than a Turner House point of view. They couldn’t possibly understand what they were experiencing because they’ve never been in that position; they’re ignorant to the experiences of these people. They may notice it, but they could never interpret the actuality of the situation. And this is exactly how the human nature of judging someone you know nothing about without being able to interpret their reality relates to the expulsion of people from their homes, since we’re unfortunate enough to have a real-life example of the two interacting.