Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison

In a bit of pedantic pique that has caught even the notice of Gawker, John Updike started his New Yorker review with the following observation: "Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on." Morrison responded, "He says I like starting stories smack in the middle of things and you don't know what's going on... I was laughing at that because I thought, all stories start in the middle of things!"

Well, Morrison's retort is a little misleading because, while Updike is still just being crotchety, what he was probably complaining about was not starting the story in medias res (hardly a new-fangled contraption, and one we tend to attribute to Homer's influence, not Faulkner's), but that Morrison throws the reader into a virtually unplottable position in someone's consciousness, with absolutely no clear guide (for awhile at least) as to the antecedents of any pronouns or the referents of any allusion. I'm not complaining that Morrison does this (and I'm certainly not defending Updike), but I think that this distinction holds some importance for our reading of the novel.

(I don't want to spend much time over the basics of the plot and characters, so I would recommend reading the Updike review in full, as he basically gives everything away on up to the end of the novel. Because the novel is well worth reading, not much is lost by these revelations.)

Formally, the novel is of two souls: we start off with a first-person Florens-narrated chapter, then move to a fairly close-third chapter about Vaark. This alternation is repeated for the rest of the book up until the last two chapters, though in each subsequent close-third chapter, Morrison takes us near a different character. The novel is, therefore, structurally a competition between consciousness and story.

Morrison has bigger conflicts to stage, however, and the largest one is a perennial theme: an internal debate over whether women are naturally cohesive or fractious in groups or pairs—in other words, when women congregate, do they tend to band together or break apart, reinforce each other or undermine each other? Or is one action merely the first step toward the other? Is what Jacob Vaark thinks—that "in the right environment, women were naturally reliable"—refuted by nature, or by circumstance?

As I said, this question has been a consistent theme throughout many of Morrison's novels—Sula foremost. But as with Beloved, motherhood is the primary crucible for testing this question. "Mother hunger—to be one or have one," as Morrison refers to it. A Mercy is more than this, but it is first and foremost an examination of the limited and improbable forms mother hunger can take in the New World.

And the newness of the New World is crucial here, as Morrison wants these questions about women and about mothers asked not abstractly but anchored immovably in time and place. Morrison wants to remove as much circumstance from these questions as possible, wants to minimize contingency by returning to the nub of first beginnings, to the American Eden if possible.

Yet she knows that no matter where she begins, chaos precedes her—again, Vaark's thoughts beg the question: "Where else but in this disorganized world would such an encounter be possible?" he asks as he accepts Florens in payment for a debt from a Portuguese slave trader. This improbable encounter is between men, and Morrison suggests that may be the problem. In the closing pages of the book, a male character looks at the plight of the women and considers "the consequences of women in thrall to men or pointedly without them." How can we examine the relationship of women to one another—even in the newest of new worlds—when we cannot separate them from from men? And particularly so with mothers—indeed, the title "A Mercy" refers to a man's interference in a mother-daughter relationship, though we come to find out that this interference was the selfless desire of the mother (a sort of inversion of the murder of Beloved by Sethe).

In multiple cases, a man's intervention provides mercy in the novel, but there is no action initiated by a woman that can be called merciful. Indeed, one (Florens) is asked directly, "Where is your ruth?" when she strikes a child. The closest any woman comes to mercy is sharing small portions of food or companionship, as the ragtag group of women accompanying Rebekka Vaark do on the voyage over from Europe. Even this, though, is temporary: "upon landing they made no pretense of meeting again."

The obvious disconnect between this male monopoly of mercy and the very real structures and institutions of domination perpetrated by men is felt all through the novel. Slavery, rape, religion, violence, indenturement, marriage, genocide, trade—all these methods of control are organized by men. How is this to be reconciled?

The stunning last chapter offers some direction, although it is difficult to summarize or even to parse. Florens's mother speaks to her far-away daughter, and offers the cryptic line, "There is no protection but there is difference." Like many of Faulkner's greatest characters' speeches, this chapter is part self-justification, part dream-vision. Florens's mother closes,
It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. 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.

Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mãe [your mother].
Florens, we gather from the book, does not hear, and neither does the world. But Morrison is still begging us to hear, at least, at last.

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