A Mercy


Toni Morrison

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A Mercy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Toni Morrison's A Mercy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio to working-class parents Ramah and George Wofford. Morrison’s parents relocated to Ohio from the South in order to escape the racism that became increasingly violent in the South in the early 1900s. After graduating from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953, Morrison earned a Masters of the Arts in English from Cornell University. Morrison then worked as an English professor at various universities, including Howard University, her alma mater. She published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970. Since her first work, Morrison published eleven novels, including Pulitzer prize-winning Beloved, along with multiple plays, works of children’s literature, and non-fiction books. In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2019, at the age of 88, she died from complications of pneumonia.
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Historical Context of A Mercy

As a work of historical fiction, Toni Morrison’s novel references the historical climate and events of the time period and place in which it is set: 17th century America. In early colonial America, various types of human bondage, from chattel slavery to indentured servitude, were common and omnipresent. Morrison alludes to how, in the 17th century, American land ownership was constantly shifting, with European powers fighting against native tribes and each other for ownership. Through the character of Lina, Morrison describes the atrocities committed against the native peoples of North America under colonial rule. In order to frame the shifting racial climate of the late 17th century, Morrison alludes specifically to Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 uprising of slaves and indentured servants against the rule of Virginia governor William Berkeley. The rebellion, lead by colonist Nathaniel Bacon, was ultimately suppressed. However, the collaboration between slaves (who were, for the most part, black) and indentured servants (primarily white Europeans) concerned rich Virginian landowners, because it showed the subversive power of a united lower class. Following Bacon’s Rebellion, the Virginia government instated a series of laws referred to as the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, reducing the rights of black slaves and black people in general in the state of Virginia. Historians generally understand these laws and others passed following Bacon’s Rebellion as an attempt by Virginian landowners and officials to encourage racism and sharpen racial divisions. They did this in order to prevent the unification of the lower class across racial lines that threatened white landowning power in 1676. A Mercy takes place during the critical period following Bacon’s Rebellion, as racial boundaries began to harden.

Other Books Related to A Mercy

At the time of its publication, Morrison’s publisher advertised A Mercy as a companion novel to Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved. Both books center on motherhood and the impossible moral choices that people must make under the yoke of slavery and in societies founded on slave labor. Southern gothic writer William Faulkner and Modernist writer Virginia Woolf, about whom Morrison wrote her Master’s thesis, have been major influences on Morrison’s work in general.
Key Facts about A Mercy
  • Full Title: A Mercy
  • When Published: 2008
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism, Contemporary African-American Literature
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: 17th century colonial America
  • Climax: Multiple: the Blacksmith leaving Florens after she hurts the child in his house, the final revelation of Florens’s mother’s motivation for telling Jacob to take Florens with him
  • Antagonist: D’Ortega, slavery
  • Point of View: Multiple (first person narrative of Florens and Florens’s mother, third person limited narratives from the perspectives of Jacob, Rebekka, Lina, Sorrow, and Willard and Scully)

Extra Credit for A Mercy

Name. Toni Morrison’s pen name is significantly different than her birth name. Morrison adopted her last name from her ex-husband, Harold Morrison. Her nickname, “Toni,” is the shortened version of her baptismal name, Anthony.

Nobel Prize. Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize win made her the first African-American to ever to earn the distinction. She was also the first American woman to win the award in 55 years.