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. 

Ulterior Motives Behind Swaps in King Lear

When considering the age-old nature of Shakespeare’s King Lear, it may be difficult to recognize how modern terms such as “swap”, “liquidity”, and “expulsion” are able to play a key role in the play. After further analyzing and sifting through multiple definitions offered for each of these terms, however, the connection begins to unravel and these concepts intertwine to contribute to the overarching theme of expulsion. According to, a “swap” means “to exchange, barter, or trade, as one thing for another” or “to replace (one thing) with another”. While this term is typically used within the context of speaking about material objects, the concept of swapping occurs regularly in King Lear within the context of power and treatment. “Liquidity” can be defined as “the ability or ease with which assets can be converted into cash”. This term can be loosely tied to the motive behind the many swaps that take place in King Lear. Overall, the play incorporates the concept of swapping in various aspects; the substantial swapping of power between a royal family, the swapping of treatment between members of a family, and the swapping of independence for dependence, all of which are swaps based upon liquidity and monetary value.

The concept of swapping first begins to come into play when King Lear transfers his power as King over to his two daughters, Regan and Goneril. Rather than dividing his estate and ruling powers equally between his three daughters, he decides to let them take fate into their own hands and compete for his inheritance. When Cordelia is deemed unworthy of power in the King’s eyes, she is expelled from his land and married off to the King of France. King Lear’s ruling power, inheritance, and kingdom is then divided between Regan and Goneril through a contractual swap. Although this swap of power was devised to expose the love that Regan and Goneril share for their father, the two sisters greatly overstated their feelings in order to gain their father’s power. Rather than being motivated by love for their father, Regan and Goneril had an entirely different motive; ruling power and access to their father’s land. These sisters were more concerned about their father’s liquid value than his actual well-being. While partaking in this swap of power, Regan and Goneril clearly took King Lear’s words, “nothing will come of nothing”, to heart (1.1.90). Without embellishing their love for their father and essentially providing him with nothing, they would receive nothing valuable in return. The sisters fully recognized the liquid value of the swap that was at stake, and jumped on the opportunity to gain power and land by placing their own wishes above the well-being of their father. Cordelia’s refusal to take part in the swap of power led to her expulsion from King Lear’s land.

Swapping continues throughout the play and can be seen through Regan and Goneril’s treatment of King Lear. Soon after these two sisters gained royal power and liquid assets from their father, they began to swap their behavior and treatment of Lear before entirely abandoning him. Once Regan and Goneril fulfilled their motive of gaining liquid assets and power, they were no longer obligated to embellish their love for Lear. By letting their true intentions be known, they were swapping their treatment of King Lear in a manner that led to his  overall expulsion in the end. During the process of this swap, King Lear is also swapping his behavior in a way that exposed his disloyalty to Regan and Goneril. Although he is outraged that his own daughters have placed a higher emphasis on power and liquid assets than his own well-being, Lear continues to swap between wanting to stay with whichever of his daughters will allow him to keep more of his men. Lear’s swaps between his daughters demonstrates his outward disloyalty and prioritization of material aspects. Although King Lear’s men and servants cannot be classified as “liquid”, they still exist in the same realm of physical and material value as a liquid asset. Similarly to the first swap that transpired between a father and his two daughters, Lear is prioritizing material value over loyalty and winds up expelled from both Regan and Goneril’s land as a result.  

The final example of swapping that occurs throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear in the form of an overarching swap of independence for dependence. As Lear faces total expulsion from land that he previously had complete rule over, the audience is able to follow his loss of sanity and swap of independence for dependence on others to care for him. As soon as Lear hands his land and liquid assets over to Regan and Goneril, the two sisters no longer have any use for their aging father and are able to become completely independent of him. Conversely, King Lear’s expulsion and lack of liquid assets causes him to completely lose his sanity and become more dependent on his daughters than ever before. While Lear’s newfound dependence and waning sanity can be interpreted as a wave of karma, the swap of independence for dependence undoubtedly contributes to the overarching theme of emphasis on liquidity and swapping. 

Looking at Shakespeare’s King Lear through a modern lense, it is clear how the terms “swap” and “liquidity” interplay to create one theme of expulsion. The characters in the play place a considerable emphasis on power and liquid assets, which leads to many various swaps throughout the plot and results in the expulsion of multiple characters.