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.