Thursday, January 01, 2009

January Book Club: A MERCY, by Toni Morrison

Welcome all! Thanks everyone who expressed interest in talking about A Mercy here today. There's a lot to unpack, I think, especially for such a short book, and I'm so happy to have people with whom to talk about these things!

I've already said my piece and then some about this book, so I'm going to back off and just respond to discussions. But as a prompt, should you like one, I've put some discussion questions below, most of which were stolen/adapted from LitLovers.

* When I heard Toni Morrison read in November, she spoke about why she wanted to write this book about the hardship and backbreaking labor that built America. There were, of course, slaves who were brought to the infant United States against their will. But there were also free people, merchants, indentured servants, etc--people who chose to get on a boat for a journey of 4 months knowing there were very good odds they wouldn't survive the trip, never mind life in the colonies. What about their lives before America could have driven them to choose that lifestyle? "I wanted to understand that level of desperation," Morrison said. What are your thoughts about the different backgrounds of the various characters--slave, free, indentured--who are brought together in the novel? What are their various brands of desperation? (Can you imagine making the choices of the characters who have the ability to choose?)

* A Mercy is told primarily through the distinctive narrative voices of Florens, Lina, Jacob, Rebekka, Sorrow, and, lastly, Florens's mother. Did you like or dislike certain characters or narratives more than others? Which did you respond to most?

* Jacob Vaark is reluctant to traffic in human flesh and determined to amass wealth honestly, without "trading his conscience for coin" (page 28). How does he justify making money from trading sugar produced by slave labor in Barbados? What larger point is Morrison making here?

* Rebekka knows that even as a white woman, her prospects are limited to "servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest" (pages 77–78). And Lina, Sorrow, and Florens know that if their mistress dies, "three unmastered women … out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone" (page 58). What point does the novel make about women in late-17th-century America?

* Rebekka says she does not fear the violence in the colonies—the occasional skirmishes and uprisings—because it is so much less horrifying and pervasive than the violence in her home country of England. In what ways is "civilized" England more savage than "savage" America?

* Why does Florens's mother urge Jacob to take her? Why does she consider his doing so a mercy? What does her decision say about the conditions in which she and so many others like her were forced to live?

* The sachem of Lina's tribe says of the Europeans: "Cut loose from the earth's soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples" (page 54). To what extent is this an accurate assessment? In what ways is A Mercy about the condition of being orphaned? What is the literal and symbolic significance of being orphaned or abandoned in the novel?

* Anyone want to talk about the last paragraph, specifically how it applies to Florens and her blacksmith, or more generally about how it applies to us as people?


Ann Victor said...

Moon Rat, you’ve touched on most of the salient points in the novel, but I’m just going to discuss one of them (although I’d love to discuss all of them!)

You said: In what ways is "civilized" England more savage than "savage" America?

This point struck deep, because – to me - it’s as relevant today as it was in Rebekka’s time. Oh, maybe we as a so-called ‘civilized’ society don’t have public hangings, or draw and quarter people. But our veneer of civilisation is very thin. We think, that as a species, we’re so advanced from our ancestors, whether the primary peoples of a land or the invading colonists. We are – in one small area: technology.

But in our hearts, it doesn’t take much for us to savage another human. Not in the way that frightened Rebekka into risking her life on a death defying sea-journey, and risking marriage to a stranger who (but for Jacob’s conscience) could have made her life terrible. There’s laws against public hangings these days(although in some North African countries public stoning is still considered a viable punishment, for women in particular).

Think about TV shows such as Survivor, and Big Brother. Why are they so popular? Is it because of the vicarious pleasure the viewers experience when someone is betrayed, or a nasty contestant gets away with some unpleasant deed? Where is that different to the public hangings that Rebekka wanted to escape? The only difference is that the public violence is not physical.

This is where the genius of Morrison’s ‘A Mercy’ lies: in her ability to tell a story about conditions at the beginning of a new time that has relevance to our own era and the new beginnings humanity as a species are facing at this early point in the 21st century.

I could say MUCH more on this point and the others, but must start preparations for our New Year’s Day lunch! Will join in again later, to see what other discussions have come up!

moonrat said...

Ann--the idea that civilization is more dangerous than unknown wilderness is interesting. What's most interesting is that Rebekka, who grew up in "civilization," still sees it as such.

To your point about our ongoing ability to be cruel: Precie just posted this yesterday:
Her post was the first I'd heard of the Milgram experiment. There's some lively discussion about the ethics of the experiment over there, but I think the results are still worth talking about.

moonrat said...

Oh, but now I've thought it through and want to play devil's advocate.

I would like to point out the theme of enduring good people-ness in the book. Although there is tragedy and hardship, and although there are some persecutors (probably most obviously the Senhor who appears at the beginning and end) who are thoroughly vile, most of the characters are good people who reach out to one another.

Rebekka and Jacob, who live well but still struggle for survival, take in several women at potential risk to themselves. Lina does everything in her power to save the mistress and keep the "family" intact, despite her mixed feelings. The blacksmith returns to the farm (a two-day journey) to try to save Rebekka although there isn't any promised compensation in it for him. The widow takes in Florens at great risk to herself and daughter. Jacob, despite his flaws, is concerned with the human condition and knows slavery is wrong. The two laborers from the farm next door deliver Sorrow's baby, and are happy and proud to be involved. The blacksmith turns down Florens's love--for her own good.

These may look like small or scraping examples, but this is a small book and there is only room for small moments between/among characters. You might argue that in some of these cases, people's "kindness" was self-serving, but the thing is... kindness is always self-serving. People always benefit from helping others, and often pay dearly for not helping others.

Ann Victor said...

I'm not sure that I'd say the kindnesses between the characters were self-serving; the relationships were too complex for that.

But I do think that the point Morrison makes very subtly is that civilisation is far more dangerous than the so-called "wilderness". For the sake of brevity, I'll just use Rebekka as an example.

In the beginning, Rebekka had "no bone-deep hostility". She was, in fact, different from the 'civilised' people she left behind in England. She didn't enjoy the public hangings; she didn't understand God in the way her parents did. She found in the wilderness of the new country a freedom and kindness that she had not previously experienced(look at the good marriage she shared with Jacob, and the relationships she developed with the other women; they were her friends more than her slaves.)

But after she survives the pox (an illness brought to the new world from civilised Europe) Rebekka changes. She becomes that which she left behind and clings to organised religion. She begins to whip the slaves "as her piety demanded" and she takes Lina to church with her, but leaves her outside in all weather.

To me, the implication in Rebekka's final characterisation (and in each of the ending characterisations of the others)is a loss of her 'natural' goodness (which the wilderness allowed to exist)to the rigid rules of a more civilised (or organized)society which leaves no room for the instinctive human kindness based on a simple acceptance that our inner similarities are greater than our external differences. Civilised society demands conformity; conformity does not allow kindness to anything other than the 'in-group'.

Remember Rebakka et al lived on the outskirts of the village; symbolic of their difference to the negative effects of civilisation. They were not fully part of the village (where the villagers were the 'in-group')until after Rebekka changed and was heading for a rapid remarriage to the deacon; this is symbolic of her losing her natural goodness and becoming the same 'civilised' person her mother was.

So, yes, the majority of the characters were "good people", but in Morrison's A Mercy, the real tragedy of colonisation was the loss of this natural goodness in her people.

On another point, I read Stanley Milgram's book "Obedience to Authority" a few years ago (During the Truth & Reconicliation Committee in South Africa in the 90's there was a lot of soul searching!) Will pop over to the other site and have a look.

Pamala Knight said...

Hurray! Book club day. I'll be back out in a little while (youngest son is ill with fever, so computer time is limited between whining for mommy), but I'm anxious to discuss this work.

Moonrat, you've raised some excellent discussion points and I'll try to formulate my responses as well as pose a few questions of my own when I get back. The tylenol shouldn't take too much longer and my son will be asleep so that I'll have some time to myself.


Anita said...

I never got to A MERCY, but I will be completely prepared for the Feb book we know the title for Feb??? I can't find it in any posts.

Pamala Knight said...

First, I'm always glad to read a new work by Toni Morrison. She's one of the only writers that I read slowly, in order to make sure I catch all of the nuances offered without a surfeit of words.

I enjoyed all of the narrative voices, which gave me a quick yet thorough glimpse into the characters. I especially was surprised, pleasantly, with the short but complete picture drawn of Scully and Will.

Learning about both men and the life they'd led prior to their current circumstances was very enlightening. Morrison used her mastery of language to expose the character of both men. Will's jealousy over the smith's ability to earn wages but also having that jealousy assuaged by the respect afforded to him by the smith, instead of ridicule and scorn.

Scully's early life living at the tavern with his mother and being preyed upon by the Anglican curate before being sold as an indentured servant.

Rebekka was the character who garnered much sympathy from me initially because of her treatment at the hands of her parents. Her marriage to Jacob Vaark seemed a godsend but then his death and her subsequent sickness revealed a darkness to her. Maybe it was the result of losing all her children and then her husband, but she willfully orphaned all those left in her care (the servants and slaves) which made them all behave with regard for only the 'few' rather than the 'many' as the philosopher Hobbes believed is necessary for a society to thrive.

I also wondered what others thoughts were about Florens and her jealousy over her little brother being allowed to remain with her mother while she was offered up as chattel and then her intense reaction to the boy, Malaik. Did anyone else see the parallel to her feelings of abandonment by her mother and the rejection she felt upon the smith's return and his concern for the boy and his injury?

To try to answer one of Moonie's questions--I believe that Florens mother urged Jacob to take her because 'the tall man sees you as a human child, not pieces of eight." Her mother worried about her budding puberty and I think, didn't want her to suffer the same fate she herself endured. She saw one chance to allow her to be something similar to happy or normal, maybe.

The last paragraph deals with mastery of others, domination and enslavement, and submission at the risk of self. There are many situations in the modern world reflective of these tenets from political and religious situations to widespread practices like child maids in Africa being contracted out to wealthy families by their own families. I think that Morrison always makes a statement about something with her writing and this work covers a broad scope of things.

Pamala Knight said...

Also, I wondered about others interpretation of the title, A Mercy. I know that Florens' mother says it at the end, in relation to offering her daughter to Jacob, but what about the rest of the characters? Did their acts and interactions constitute a mercy?

I think that the Widow and her daughter performed a mercy to Florens and so did Scully and Will when they helped Sorrow birth her baby. Jacob Vaark performed a mercy to the women Lina, Sorrow and Florens by taking them all in. The status of women, slaves and servants during that period made self-sufficiency within society almost impossible, no? So, did Jacob perform a kindness to them?

moonrat said...

Pamala--interesting point re: Malaik/Florens's brother. I'd forgotten about that, and hadn't made that connection. I was confused by her reaction to Malaik, too, so the point is well taken.

Pamala Knight said...

Moonie, I just read your earlier comments and you expressed what I was trying to say about the characters performing acts of kindness much more succinctly. I appreciated that part of the fleshing out of their characterizations. Even when faced with situations that were not necessarily unusual to that time period, I felt great empathy for the acts of kindness they performed. It made them all much more well-rounded in my eyes.

I'm so glad you chose this book, thank you for that and I'm looking forward to the next two books as well.

The bookclub I belong to here meets at a restaurant (of whoever's moderating the book's choice) every six to eight weeks. No one has to clean their house, get rid of their significant other or kids, and we get to eat good food while discussing a book. Your book club has one up on that as I can eat junk food, participate while still in my pajamas and I don't need a sitter. All in all a very satisfying outcome. ;-).

Ann Victor said...

Pamala, great point you make about Malaik/Florens's brother. I missed that too, possibly because Florens was my least favourite character. (my 'favourites' were Sorrow & Florens's mother).

But now that you've pointed it out it makes absolute sense of the final scene with Florens and Malaik and the blacksmith.

Ann Victor said...

Anita, re upcoming book clubs I'm not sure if Moon Rat has finalised these but this is what I *think* is planned:

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro for February bookclub

Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee or March bookclub.

But I think just confirm with Moon Rat closer to the time.