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Toni Morrison: A Mercy, 2008

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  1. Toni Morrison: A Mercy, 2008

  2. The novel is set towards the end of the XVII century, in rural Virginia, at is when the Maryland was still a British colony and Virginia a Portuguese colony, and people were coming from all over the world seeking fortune. • Morrison sets the novel at this time before institutionalised racism was introduced. Morrison comments:

  3. I wanted to separate race from slavery, to see what it was like, what it might have been like to be a slave, but[...] without being raced. Because I couldn't believe that that was the natural state of people who were [...] born and people who came here ... that it had to be constructed, planted, institutionalized. So I moved as far back as I was able, when what we now call America was fluid, ad hoc, a place where countries from all over the world were grabbing at land, resources, and all sorts of people were coming. ("Morrison Discusses") • The novel is constructed around Florens, who, like in The Color Purple, is the author of her own story.

  4. And as Celie in The Color Purple, she tells a complex narrative of her personal experience. • And, as in The Color Purple the narrative presents stories of many individuals: • the Portuguese slave trader D'Ortega; the Dutch plantation owner and homesteader Jacob Vaark and his wife Rebekka;

  5. But the young woman who answered his shout in the crowd was plump, comely and capable. Worth every day of the long search made necessary because taking over the patroonship required a wife, and because he wanted a certain kind of mate; an unchurched woman of childbearing age, obedient but not groveling, literate but not proud, independent but nurturing… Rebekka was ideal. 20 • Native Americans such as Lina, who serves as a mother-figure to Florens; a minhamae, Florens's biological mother;

  6. the blacksmith, the object of Florens's desire and the ostensible Other with whom she must ultimately take distance; • indentured servants such as Scully and Bond, whose contractual obligations are seemingly never fulfilled; • Half a dozen years ago an army of blacks, natives, whites, mulattoes –freedmen, slaves and indentured- had waged war against local gentry led by members of that very class. When that “people’s war” lost its hopes to the hangman, the work it had done –which included the slaughter of opposing tribes and running the Carolinas off their land- spawned a thicket of new laws authorizing chaos in defense of order.

  7. By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only by granting license to any white to kill any black for any reason, by compensating owners for a slave’s maiming or death, they separated and protected all whites from all others forever. 10 • religious groups such as the Anabaptists competing for ideological supremacy; and the other enslaved and free characters who populate the novel. • As with Celie in The Color Purple, we become closely involved with Florens, identifying with her suffering.

  8. The novel starts with a warning directed to the reader: • Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark-weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more-but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. • At first we do not know that our interlocutor is Florens; • we do not realize that we are not (necessarily) the only ones to whom she is writing/speaking;

  9. and we do not know what she has done except that it involves blood and, ostensibly, violence, and we learn that it is a confession. • In describing herself as the one whose limbs will remain closed and whose teeth won't be bared again, Florens suggests several things. • First, as narrator, she has at least a hand in the creation of this particular story. • In her now-famous essay, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” Morrison states that ,

  10. Stories are the vehicles we use to share translate, and interpret the human experience, and are, in terms: part of the process of canon building" (and that "Canon building is Empire building). Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate ... is the clash of cultures. • She adds: • Now that Afro-American artistic presence has been "discovered" actually to exist, now that serious scholarship has moved from silencing the witnesses and erasing their meaningful place in and contribution to American culture it is no longer acceptable merely to imagine us and imagine for us. We have always been imagining ourselves.

  11. As such, A Mercy tells a different story with a radically different narrator of the "founding" of America as well as offers another piece of the complicated history of slavery and the institutionalization of racism. • On another, more local, level Florens's narrative plays a significant role in a larger level for at least two reasons. • First, she is a literate black slave, unusual insofar as she was taught to read and write "every seven days" by Reverend Father, who would have been imprisoned or fined if caught. • It was de facto or statutorily unlawful to teach slaves how to read or write, though in some cases exceptions were made for Sabbath instruction.

  12. While slave rebellions were relatively rare until the late eighteenth century, slave owners believed that literate slaves were more dangerous (and therefore liable to organize a rebellion) than non literate ones. • Second, this is Florens's story to tell. Morrison states that Florens's contributions are in the first person and present tense "to give it the immediacy" of a story being told here and now. • The other characters' life stories are presented from the third-person omniscient point of view, not only adding layers to Florens' own history but also filling in the gaps left by the missing parts, splicing through the weave of her narrative fabric.

  13. That is, the narrative is structured in such a way that it necessarily impels the reader not just to participate but to fill in what the narrative ellipses leave out. • Storytelling is often nonlinear when it functions as memory or recall; thus, it makes sense that the story begins in medias res and that bits and pieces of it are missing. • So when I set out to find you, she and Mistress give me Sir’ boots that fit a man not a girl. 4 • My head is light with the confusion of two things, hunger for you, and scare if I am lost. Nothing frigths me more than this errand and nothing is more temptation. 4

  14. As soon as tobacco leaf is to dry Reverend Father takes me on a ferry, then a ketch, then a boat and bundles me between his boxes of books and food. 7 (27) • This fragments will become clear as we proceede with the reading. • Being privy to the others' narratives offers the reader the chance to participate fully in the story by filling in what Florens necessarily omits because she lacks access to certain information. She begins her story by explaining that "the beginning begins with the shoes" ( 4 ), the trope that defines her subjectivity.

  15. Unable to walk through life literally on her own two feet and recognizing that there are "too many signs" that she is unable to read clearly (4), an incomplete Florens can only relate an incomplete story. • Other sings need more time to understand. Often there are too many sings, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not rading the garden snake crawling up to the door sasddle to die. Let me start with what I know for certain. (4)

  16. Treated as property by a Portuguese slave trader, Florens cannot comprehend the motives of a mother who would seemingly willingly offer her daughter to a stranger (Vaark) as partial payment for her master's debt. • As a child, Florens identifies indirectly with her mother, to whom she refers as a minha mae, in Portuguese, and incompletely with her half-brother, to whom she refers as her mother's little boy (6).

  17. Referring to her mother's choice as an "expel" (137), she believes that her mother rejected her. • This "abandonment" ultimately becomes the core of her personality and shapes her relationship to herself as well as with others. • Whether abandoned or rejected as her mother's daughter, Florens identifies initially solely as a slave, worth "twenty pieces of eight" (27). • Her relationship with her mother is limited to the distant "figure" with whom she interacts only imaginatively or in dreams, not someone with whom she shares an intimacy characteristic of a mother and child.

  18. As readers and intimate participants in and cocreators of the narrative, however, we become privy to it via the epilogue in which a minha mae is finally able to share her story of the Midd le Passage, her destiny as the property of Senhor and his wife ( 166), and finally, her reasons for needing a mercy. • Florens herself never explicitly learns the true reasons for her mother's decision to urge Vaark to settle on the daughter wearing the "way-too-big woman's shoes" (26). • It is indeed "a mercy" that Florens and not her mother or younger brother, is traded to Jacob Vaark to settle D'Ortega's debt as we read at the end:

  19. I said you. Take 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. He said yes. • 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 giving dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is the wrong thing.; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing. • Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mãe. • In the end, these words, too, are part of the story.

  20. The awakening of desire signals the beginning of Florens's becoming. • Upon her initial encounter with the blacksmith, Florens of water runs down [his] spine," and she is "shocked" at the feelings of sexual desire that have begun to stir inside of her. • "There is only you. Nothing outside of you," she decides (37). Without realizing it, Florens has already submitted to this man, who has yet to even recognize or notice her:

  21. You probably don’t know anything at all about what your back looks like whatever the sky holds: sunlight, moonrise. I rest there. My hand, my eyes, my mouth. The first time I see you are shaping fire with bellows. The shine of water runs down your spine and I have shock at myself for wanting to lick there. I run away into the cowshed to stop this thing from happening inside me. Nothing stops it. There is only you. Nothing outside of you. My eyes not my stomach are hungry parts of me…… My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break. (37-38) • Before you know I am in the world, I am already kill by you. My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break. (38).

  22. Florens has willingly placed herself as the subordinate in this unequal relationship, which she must ultimately reconcile in order to achieve self-consciousness. • The awakening of Florens's passion marks but the beginning of her path to selfhood, but also of incredible suffering and rejection: • Why are you killing me I ask you. • I want you to go. • Let me explain. • No. Now. • Why? Why? • Because you are a slave.

  23. What? • You heard me. • Sir makes me that. • I don’t mean him. • The whom? • You. • What is your meaning? I am a slave because Sir trades for me. • No. You have become one. • How? • Your head is empty and your body is wild. • I am adoring you.

  24. And a slave to that too. • You alone own me. • Own yourself, woman, and leave us be. You could have killed this child. • No. Wait. You put me in misery. • You are nothing but wilderness. No constraint. No mind.

  25. Some concluding remarks: History and Fiction • A Mercy shows Morrison’s constant concern with History and the stories of the communities of the past She questions the exception politics of the national community that operates at the expense of the marginalized. • By excavating their remains in history, her texts travel to a site to see what remains were left. • But they also reconstruct the world that these remains imply, and thus reinvent the work of creolizing these diasporic communities manifested in the repressed music, storytelling practices, folktales, narratives and aesthetics.

  26. Her reinvention of these overlooked elements from a counter-memory to the dominant national politics and discourses and generate heterogeneous voices and narratives that reinvigorate the novel and the nation’s historical and literary discourses. • In this sense A Mercy is a historiographic metafiction. • The post-colonial novel is a form of counter-writing that relates these traces to the history that the narrated stories symptomatically reveal by attempting an imaginary restoration of their context beforeits accommodation in the dominant discourses of national history.

  27. The post-colonial novel blurs the distance between the discovery of events in the invention of facts, not only to problematize the distinction between discovery and invention as historiographic metafiction does, but also, and more importantly, to articulate the event before it is translated into fact by national discourses. • A Mercytells this history from the perspective of Florens and other narrators in order to render the story possible. • Each one of the characters in the novel will have its turn so that his/her story will be told; the are constructed as a quilt, putting the fragments together, one bay one.

  28. A Mercy unsettles the amnesiac nation that disremembers its violent beginnings to fashion itself as a unified imagined community by countering its narratives with the stories and histories that haunt the beginnings of America from the margins. • Morrison shows how the narrative of the American nation is constructed on the forgetting of the history of communities dissenting and disparate elements. • (My comments have been based on: Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities).

  29. The feminist indictmen • Rebekka • But the young woman who answered his shout in the crowd was plump, comely and capable. Worth every day of the long search made necessary because taking over the patroonship required a wife, and because he wanted a certain kind of mate; an unchurched woman of childbearing age, obedient but not groveling, literate but not proud, independent but nurturing… Rebekka was ideal. 20 • Florens (p. 26) • But thinking also, perhaps, Rebekka would welcome the child around the place…. if she got kicked in the head by a mare, the loss would not rock Rebekka so. 26

  30. He believed it now with this ill-shod child that the mother was throwing away, just as he believed it a decade earlier with the curly-haired goose girl, the one they called Sorrow. And the acquisition of both could be seen as rescue. Only Lina has been purchased outright and deliberately, but she was a woman, not a child. (34). • Sorrow: • … the sawyer’s wife asked her husband to get quit of her. He obliged and offered her to the care of a customer he trusted to do her no harm. (51) • Hardy female, Christianized and capable in all matters domestic available for exchange of goods or spice. (52)

  31. Page 52: sales of people • Status • As long as Sir was alive it was easy to veil the truth: that they were not a family-not even a like-minded group. They were orphans, each and all. (59) • Questions: • Who is Twin? Sorrow double. 117-126 • The end: did Florens and mihnamae read each other’s letters? 160-161 – 162-167.

  32. The blood? 158 • Who is Malaik ? 137, 142, 157 • END