A Mercy opens with an unknown first person narrator, who later turns out to be Florens, addressing an unknown and not-present second person audience (who later turns out to be the Blacksmith). Florens tells the Blacksmith not to be afraid, because what she is going to recount cannot hurt him. She says that the Blacksmith can think of her story as a confession, but one full of curious, dream-like, and uncanny events and details.
Florens’s instruction about what her narrative is going to be (dream-like, a confession), shows her sense of narrative control. At the same time, that her story is unconfined by traditional reality highlights Morrison’s commitment to postmodernism, and to the freedom of subjectivity and ambivalence that it affords.
Florens brings up the questions “who is responsible?” and “can you read?” She seems to mean not just reading text, but also reading symbols. Florens tells the Blacksmith that not all signs are so easy to read, and many take more time to understand. Florens describes trying to read all the signs, but feeling like she is missing much.
When Florens asks the Blacksmith if he can read symbols, Morrison draws the reader’s attention to the fact that good reading is not a simple task. The emphasis on reading also highlights the link between slavery and suppressing literacy.
Florens states that she will start recounting her narrative from the part that she knows is certain, beginning with shoes. Florens describes how, as a child, she did not like being barefoot, and would beg to wear other people’s shoes. This upset Florens’s mother. Florens’s mother did not want Florens to wear the broken high heels Florens found being thrown away at her mistress’s house, thinking that high heels were for “bad women.” But finally she consented.
When Florens juxtaposes her narrative uncertainty with her shoes, Morrison clues the reader into how the shoes function throughout the novel— to anchor the reader in a novel that constantly changes time and narrative perspective. At the same time, Florens’s shoes, especially her high heels, later come to indicate her budding sexuality and womanhood.
Florens says that Lina tells her that this is why her feet are so delicate and weak. Lina asks what she will do with the “hands of a slave” and the “feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens explains that when she set out to find the Blacksmith, Florens’s current mistress Rebekka and Lina gave her “Sir’s” (Jacob’s, Florens’s master) boots.
When Lina talks about Florens having the “hands of a slave” and the “feet of a Portuguese lady,” she emphasizes, albeit through a joke, how the effects of slavery and class stratification are inscribed into the body.
Lina and Rebekka stuff the boots with cornhusks and hay so they fit Florens better and tell her to hide a letter in her stocking. Although Florens can read, she does not read the letter, and neither do Lina or Sorrow, who are illiterate. Florens, however, knows it is a letter to give to anyone who may stop her on her errand.
Florens’s boots, different than the high heels she wore as a child, show that her narrative moves fluidly through several timelines. Moreover, because literacy is such a marker of class and freedom, Lina and Sorrow’s illiteracy mark their slave status.
Florens is “hungry” for the Blacksmith and afraid that she will get lost. She describes her errand as frightening, but also a “temptation.” Florens has longed to go find the Blacksmith since he disappeared.
Florens’s journey is described in words (“temptation,” for example) that align it with sexuality, clearly showing how Florens’s love for the Blacksmith pervades her mission.
Florens thinks of the bears in the forest. Lina warns Florens of enormous birds in the wilderness, and of natives who are not like Lina. Florens thinks of how the neighbors call Lina a “praying savage” because she goes to church but, unlike them, bathes every day. According to Florens, Lina wears a blue beaded necklace under her clothes and secretly dances during the new moon.
The neighbor’s comment that Lina is a “praying savage” shows how religious faith is closely linked with cultural practice. It is also highly ironic to a modern reader, since bathing daily is expected in modern life, and less frequent bathing could be considered “savage” instead.
More than the animals in the woods, Florens fears getting lost at night. But now that Florens has been ordered to seek the Blacksmith, she thinks she will succeed. She imagines being intimate with the Blacksmith. The possibility of a future with the Blacksmith both excites and scares Florens, since she must leave her home to go find him.
Florens’s sense of danger and excitement at the idea of finding the Blacksmith is part of a larger trend in the book, where men are simultaneously a source of pleasure to women and a source of fear.
According to Lina, who estimates from the state of Florens’s teeth, Florens was seven or eight when she arrived at the Vaarks’ farm. Based on how many seasons have passed, Florens is now sixteen. Florens has been baptized, and her Reverend at the plantation in Maryland taught her to read and write every week in secret along with her mother and her younger brother. Teaching slaves to read and write is illegal and punishable by fine or prison, but the Reverend did so anyway.
The Reverend’s choice to educate Florens and her family, despite the potential legal repercussions for him, shows one of the few times in the book when a religious figure genuinely exemplifies moral righteousness in the face of the slave system. Moreover, the fact that reading and writing are illegal for slaves suggests their potentially subversive possibilities.
Florens, though, has forgotten most of what she learned from the Reverend. Florens likes to talk and enjoys conversation with Lina, Sorrow, and the Blacksmith. When she first arrived at the Vaark farm, Florens did not talk, because everyone on the Vaark farm spoke a different language from her family. Lina explained to Florens that her mother and brother were still in Maryland.
Florens’s language barrier with the Vaark family when she first arrives at their farm shows how diverse early America was, not only in terms of religion and race, but also in terms of language and culture.
Florens prefers sleeping with Lina in her broken sleigh to sleeping with her mother and brother on the floor. In the winter, she and Lina bundle up in fur for bed. In the summer they sleep in hammocks. Florens catalogues where each member of the household sleeps.
Florens always sleeps with Lina, showing their close relationship from the start. Florens and Lina’s connection is not only friendly; it is intimate and maternal, as shown by the fact that they always sleep in the same place.
Florens asks if the Blacksmith remembers how Will and Scully would not take orders from him until Jacob forced them to, since Will and Scully’s master owed him money. Florens recounts how Lina thinks that Jacob “has a clever way of getting without giving,” which Florens agrees with.
Lina’s comment that Jacob “has a clever way of getting without giving” could be taken as an evaluation not only of Jacob’s business sense, but also of the exploitative nature of the slave-labor-based economic system as a whole.
Florens remembers her mother holding her baby brother and talking with Florens’s former master D’Ortega, who Florens calls “Senhor.” D’Ortega did not have enough money to repay Jacob, and Jacob said that, to mitigate D’Ortega’s debt, he would take Florens’s mother. Florens remembers her mother begging Jacob to take Florens instead. Jacob agreed.
Florens recounts her understanding of the moment when her mother begged Jacob to take Florens instead of her. Florens’s account makes it seem like Florens’s mother wanted to get rid of Florens. The memory is of a kind of dehumanizing transaction.
The Reverend took Florens to a ferry to deliver her to Jacob’s farm. During the boat ride, a woman stole Florens’s cloak and wooden shoes. When the Reverend returned, he was angry and embarrassed. When a sailor spit at the Reverend’s feet after he asked for help, Florens saw that, in the part of the continent where the Vaark farm is, priests are not well loved. To Florens, though, the priest was nothing but kind.
The Reverend’s experience on the ship outside of Maryland showcases the intense hostility between different religious groups. Clearly, the sailor and the woman on the boat have no respect for the priest or his religious authority, since they believe in a different doctrine. Religion in 17th century America is a divisive force.
When Florens first arrived at the farm, the freezing temperatures in the winter made her believe she was in hell. Lina wrapped Florens in warm clothes. Rebekka looked away from her. Sorrow waved a hand in front of her face at nothing.
Florens’s belief that she is in hell because of the cold temperatures in New England shows how deeply Florens’s worldview is affected by her religion.
Lina told Florens that Sorrow is pregnant and the father is unknown. Lina believed the child is Jacob’s. Rebekka said nothing. Florens worried at her new home and said she was afraid of “mothers nursing greedy babies,” thinking back on her mother begging Jacob to take only Florens. Florens remembers her mother saying “something important” to her, but also that, at the time, she was “holding the little boy’s hand.”
Florens clearly has experienced being given away by her mother as an immense trauma. This is so scarring for Florens that even imagining Sorrow with a child evokes the scene of Florens’s mother giving her up while holding on to her baby brother. Florens clearly sees her mother’s choice as the expression of a preference for her brother.