A Mercy

A Mercy Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter 2 opens with a third-person narrator describing a man (it is not yet clear who this is, but it turns out later to be Jacob) wading through the ocean from a boat to the shore. When he arrives on the beach, he turns and waves at the crew of the sloop that has dropped him off, but he can no longer see the boat in the fog. The fog is thick and golden with the sun behind it.
The opening of Jacob’s chapter draws attention to the American landscape, emphasizing its beauty and its wildness. Morrison sets the stage for her critique of romanticized views of rural American life with Jacob’s initial love for the striking and untamed American wilderness.
Themes
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Jacob walks from the beach through the forest to a village nestled between two plantations nearby. There Jacob secures a horse named Regina. He signs his name on the papers: “Jacob Vaark.” Jacob rides along the beach to an old Lenape trail, where he slows because the path is dangerous.
The fact that Jacob takes an old Lenape trail shows how, although the Lenape are in the process of being displaced and oppressed, white Europeans continue to benefit from their land.
Themes
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Jacob thinks of how, a quarter century before, a mix of slaves and indentured servants from all the races rebelled against the wealthy white landowners in the area. The rebellion failed, and the fallout from the conflict resulted in the slaughter of natives and a slew of new laws restricting rights. These include laws forbidding black people from assembling, traveling, and bearing arms, allowing white people to kill black people without any recourse, and compensating owners for a slave’s death. As the narrator notes, this “separated and protected all whites from all others forever.” Jacob disagrees with the new laws, which he sees as cruel and unjust.
The rebellion that Jacob refers to is a clear reference to Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 revolt by indentured servants and black slaves against the Virginian government. Bacon’s Rebellion resulted in significant backlash against black slaves, resulting in harsher restrictions for slaves—restrictions that were intended to separate poor whites from black slaves and so divide their joint political power. These new laws set the stage for the legal racial segregation that continued for hundreds of years afterward.
Themes
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
Jacob thinks that it is “1682 and Virginia was still a mess.” Because of the land skirmishes Jacob must be careful traveling alone, despite the privilege of his white skin. Jacob, who is carrying money and only one knife, is a target. Wanting to get out of Virginia and into Maryland, he urges his horse to go faster. Jacob only stops to get off his horse twice, once to free a baby raccoon caught in a trap. Jacob and the horse both sweat in the October heat. He thinks that he might as well be in Barbados, where he almost moved. His idea of moving to the island did not come to fruition, however, because an uncle died and left him over a hundred acres of farmland in the North.
Jacob’s thought that it is “1682 and Virginia was still a mess” should strike the reader as ironic, since Jacob clearly thinks that 1682 is, or should be, a modern era, but is being held back. This irony draws attention the reader’s sense of their own reality as modern. In doing so, Morrison draws a parallel between the racial and labor injustices of 1682 and the reader’s contemporary world. Morrison also uses this section to orient the reader to Jacob’s class and racial advantages.
Themes
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
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Although the weather is hot and humid, and his travels are long, Jacob enjoys his journey, admiring the beautiful forests, the breathtaking shorelines, the abundance of wild food. Jacob did not come to North America to get rich, but rather because of his desire for adventure. Jacob thinks of himself as a self-made man. Having started as an orphaned child, Jacob is now an independent landowner. Jacob relishes the challenges of life in the New World.
Once again, Morrison draws attention to Jacob’s love for and romanticization of the American landscape. Morrison also reveals Jacob’s childhood as an orphan— a common trait among many of her characters and one that allows them to make alternative kinds of families not based in blood relations.
Themes
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Jacob looks around the landscape, thinking how the land has frequently changed hands, from native to Swedish to Dutch control. There is hardly any point in knowing to whom the land belongs, since it changes hands so often. Instead, Jacob thinks of the land in terms of the native tribes it belonged to originally. After navigating his way through the native villages and finding his way based on the familiar geography, Jacob arrives at last in Maryland.
As Jacob thinks about how often ownership of the American soil has changed hands, the constant change makes ownership nearly irrelevant for people like Jacob. Jacob also acknowledges that the land originally belonged to the native peoples, emphasizing the fact that the current ownership is the result of theft.
Themes
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Unlike the rest of the colonies, Maryland belongs entirely to the king. While the other colonies only do business with the country that owns them, Maryland is open to all foreign markets, making it a center for trade. Notably, Maryland is also Catholic. Jacob finds Maryland’s Catholicism, and the excess and luxury that he associates with it, to be totally appalling. Still, Jacob continues to do business in Maryland, where the slave and tobacco trade affords for massive profits.
Jacob’s bias against Catholics is not just because of their religious views, but because of the culture of excess that he associates with them. Jacob’s view of the Catholics shows how religion in 17th century America is not confined to church doctrine, but rather pervades social and economic life.
Themes
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
Jacob is in Maryland because he has been invited to dinner at the house of D’Ortega, a plantation owner with whom he has done some business. The invitation is unexpected, as Jacob has previously interacted only with the owner’s clerk. Jacob thinks that the personal invitation must mean that something is wrong.
Jacob’s perception that something must be wrong if D’Ortega invited him to dinner shows how early America was extremely stratified based on class. Although Jacob is a landowner, he still has never met D’Ortega.
Themes
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
As Jacob arrives at the plantation, which is named “Jublio,” he is impressed by its grandeur. Jacob takes in the smell of tobacco and the slave quarters in the back of the house. On the house’s veranda, a boy greets Jacob and, after he dismounts, takes his horse to the stable. Jacob walks up the house’s front steps and then descends again to get another look at the impressive structure. He admires the house’s many windows and the fact that it is made of stone.
The name of D’Ortega’s plantation, “Jublio,” is highly ironic because “jublio” means “rejoicing” in Portuguese. Far from being a happy place, Jublio is the site of immense suffering for the slaves that live there. When Jacob sees D’Ortega’s house for the first time, it plants the seeds for Jacob’s impending obsession with building a mansion of his own.
Themes
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
Jacob goes back up the steps and a servant (presumably a slave) opens the front door. Jacob explains that he is there to see D’Ortega. The servant takes Jacob’s hat and leads him into the parlor, where D’Ortega is waiting for him.
When a slave interrupts Jacob’s revelry at the house’s grandeur and beauty, Morrison shows how wealth in early 17th-century America is inextricable from systems of human bondage.
Themes
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Jacob greets D’Ortega and admires his fine clothes. Jacob drinks a beer and makes small talk. D’Ortega quickly cuts to the chase, informing Jacob that his finances are in dire straits—a third of the “cargo” on his slave ship has died of fever, and he was then fined for throwing the bodies in the bay. D’Ortega decided to keep his ship in the harbor and wait for a new shipment of slaves from Lisbon to replenish the slaves who died before sailing on to Barbados. The ship, however, sunk, drowning everyone on board except the crew and four slaves. D’Ortega asks Jacob for more credit and more time to repay the money that Jacob lent to him.
The way that D’Ortega discusses his “cargo”— the people he is selling as slaves— shows the extent of his inhumanity. D’Ortega never acknowledges the horror of the deaths onboard. He clearly does not view the slaves as people, but rather as the means to a profit. D’Ortega’s description of his “business troubles” is chilling and shows how D’Ortega, a devout Catholic, is divorced from any sense of true morality.
Themes
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Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
During dinner, Jacob feels awkward, comparing his own humble outfit to D’Ortega’s fine clothes, and worrying about his table manners. The meal begins with a prayer. Jacob tries to focus on the food, but everything is overcooked and the wine is watered down. At dinner, D’Ortega’s sons are quiet, but D’Ortega’s wife talks incessantly, making meaningless conversation. The D’Ortegas tell Jacob that their work as slave traders is God’s work, because the Angolan slaves they are “caring” for are often ill or deviant. D’Ortega explains to Jacob that Angola is a Portuguese colony, praising its beauty and Portugal’s.
The D’Ortegas’ assertion that they are doing God’s work by enslaving Angolans and shipping them overseas to die or work in miserable, cruel conditions shows how religion is used as a justification for horribly immoral and reprehensible choices rather than as a compass for moral righteousness. D’Ortega’s praise of Angola’s beauty also disturbingly mirrors Jacob’s love for the American landscape— both are colonies whose people and land are being exploited for profit.
Themes
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
Jacob learns that D’Ortega, a fortuneless third son, went to Angola in the first place to work in the slave trade before moving to America and amassing his wealth there. The D’Ortegas have six children, which makes Jacob, who is now childless, very jealous. Jacob’s children have all died, leaving him without any heir. Jacob’s jealousy makes him search for flaws in the D’Ortegas’ marriage, observing meanly that their mutual vanity makes them well suited for each other.
Jacob and Rebekka’s childlessness is a source of major anxiety for both Jacob and Rebekka, and one of the reasons why the Vaark farm becomes an alternative family based not on blood relations, but shared time together. Jacob’s lack of an heir also contributes to his later obsession with building an enormous house to leave as his legacy.
Themes
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
Motherhood, Heartbreak, and Salvation Theme Icon
Jacob thinks that D’Ortega’s opulent lifestyle shows how he has gotten himself into debt. He thinks that D’Ortega’s wife is overdressed and that the fact that they are burning candles in the middle of the day is wasteful. Jacob sees the couple exchanging devious looks and wonders what they are communicating. Jacob no longer feels embarrassed about being disheveled from traveling because the D’Ortegas ‘style is so grotesquely over-the-top.
Jacob’s sense that D’Ortega’s lifestyle is too over-the-top and that his wife is vain and overdressed corresponds to his Protestant sense of simplicity. Although Jacob is not religious, Morrison makes it clear that he retains a cultural orientation towards Protestantism, showing again how religious affiliation is deeply culturally rooted.
Themes
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
Jacob thinks about his own wife, Rebekka, comparing her humbleness favorably to D’Ortega’s wife. Jacob remembers seeing Rebekka for the first time as she disembarked from the ship that carried her across the Atlantic. Jacob had been expecting a much less beautiful woman, and seeing Rebekka for the first time was a pleasant surprise. Jacob thinks Rebekka is the ideal mate: hardworking, beautiful, and cheerful. However, after the deaths of her children, Rebekka has become much more melancholy. Still, she always does her duties on the couple’s farm reliably and without complaint. Anyway, Jacob thinks, Rebekka is still young, and will be able to have more children.
Jacob and Rebekka’s relationship is one of the only positive examples of romance between men and women that Morrison gives the reader in the book. Their marriage is, at the least, free of the violence that characterizes so many of the sexual relationships throughout the novel. It is plagued by heartbreak though, since all of their children have died.
Themes
The Oppression of Women, Violence, and Female Community Theme Icon
Motherhood, Heartbreak, and Salvation Theme Icon
Dessert comes, and then D’Ortega offers to take Jacob on a tour of the estate. As they walk, Jacob admires the various plaster buildings of the plantation. He notes that, although D’Ortega has described the financial disasters that have befallen him, he still has not told Jacob how he plans to repay him. After the estate tour, it becomes clear that all D’Ortega has left to offer is slaves.
Jacob’s admiration for the plantation foreshadows his later obsession with building one that is similar. When Jacob realizes that D’Ortega will offer slaves to repay him, Morrison shows how Jacob becomes implicated in slavery without intending to partake in it directly.
Themes
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Jacob refuses D’Ortega’s offer of slaves, but D’Ortega insists that if Jacob will not use the slaves on his own farm, he can always sell them. Jacob does not like the idea of this, because he objects morally to trading directly in slaves. Still, he allows D’Ortega to line up his slaves in front of him, so D’Ortega can tell Jacob about their respective talents. Jacob takes in the glazed looks in the slaves’ eyes.
Although Jacob finds the idea of owning slaves immoral and cannot stomach the idea, his objections seem somewhat hollow. Jacob has already been doing business with D’Ortega while knowing full well that he is slave trader, so he has already been benefiting indirectly from slavery.
Themes
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Jacob suddenly feels sick. He is unsure whether it is from the smell of tobacco or the food he has just eaten. Jacob tells D’Ortega he will not accept slaves as payment, since he does not want to go through the trouble of transporting and managing them. After all, Jacob is used to funding men who deal in the slave trade, not partaking in the trade directly himself. D’Ortega offers to arrange everything for Jacob.
Jacob’s feeling of sickness, although he attributes it to the food, is more likely because he is facing his own culpability in the slave-driven economy. As Jacob tries to make excuses for why he can’t take the slaves as payment, Morrison shows how tenaciously Jacob tries to maintain his separation from slavery.
Themes
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Jacob begins to grow angry. He knows that if he does not take D’Ortega’s offer, he may never see the money D’Ortega owes him, because the local courts will favor D’Ortega. Jacob feels that D’Ortega knows this, and is disgusted by what he perceives as D’Ortega’s aristocratic complacency. Jacob thinks that D’Ortega has probably never done any hard labor himself, saying there was “something beyond Catholic in him, something sordid and overripe.” He thinks he would never socialize with Catholics outside of business.
As Jacob becomes more and more irritated, he returns to his aversion to D’Ortega’s Catholicism. This once again shows how religion is a source of tension and prejudice between Europeans in colonial America. Jacob’s return to D’Ortega’s Catholicism also seems to be a way of making himself feel different and better than D’Ortega, despite the fact that now they both own slaves.
Themes
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Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
As they approach the cookhouse, Jacob sees a woman standing in the doorway, holding a baby and hiding a girl behind her skirts. Jacob points to her and tells D’Ortega that he will take her. D’Ortega is clearly startled. He tells Jacob it is impossible, because the woman is the family’s main cook. Jacob, suspecting that D’Ortega has some other investment in the woman, pushes D’Ortega, saying he promised Jacob any slave he wanted. D’Ortega tells Jacob to look at the other female slaves he owns, and Jacob threatens to sue, though knowing full well that a lawsuit would be decided in D’Ortega’s favor.
Jacob’s suspicion that D’Ortega has a particular interest in Florens’s mother suggests the prevalence of slave masters using their female slaves for sex. Moreover, it emphasizes D’Ortega’s moral bankruptcy— although he is a devout Catholic, he is also a slave owner and is unfaithful to his wife. Jacob’s interest in Florens’s mother seems to be at least partially because he wants to save her from D’Ortega.
Themes
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women, Violence, and Female Community Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
Jacob then changes tactics, telling D’Ortega he will have to look for another lender. D’Ortega panics, knowing that his credit is so bad that no one else will lend money to him. D’Ortega tries again to convince Jacob that slaves are a good replacement for money to repay his debts. Jacob reminds him that he is not a slave trader and adds in an insult about Catholics.
Jacob maintains his separation from the slave trade, despite the fact that he is about to take one of D’Ortega’s slaves as compensation. Again he links slave trading with Catholicism, suggesting that both are morally bankrupt and showing religion to be divisive.
Themes
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Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
D’Ortega’s hand moves toward his scabbard, and Jacob wonders if he will attack him, kill him, and then claim self-defense to rid himself of his debt. The two men lock eyes. Jacob turns his back on D’Ortega to convey his scorn for his cowardly behavior, and walks over to the cookhouse door where the woman is standing.
Jacob’s brief suspicion that D’Ortega will kill him to free himself of his debt once again shows that D’Ortega is totally devoid of morals. Moreover, it reaffirms the fact that 17th-century America is a wild, unstable place.
Themes
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
The little girl behind the woman’s skirts steps out into Jacob’s view. She is wearing a pair of shoes that are too big for her, and the sight of them makes Jacob laugh. The woman looks at Jacob desperately and begs him to take her daughter instead of herself. Jacob looks up at her, sees the terror in her eyes, and thinks that slavery is “the most wretched business.”
Although Jacob sympathizes with Florens’s mother, Jacob’s account of this critical moment in Florens’s life shows how removed he is from her horror. Although he feels bad for Florens’s mother, the moment, which defines Florens’s life, means little to Jacob.
Themes
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Motherhood, Heartbreak, and Salvation Theme Icon
D’Ortega jumps at the opportunity to give Jacob the girl instead of her mother. Although Jacob refuses, he begins to think that Rebekka might enjoy the girl’s presence around the farm. The girl is about the age of their recently deceased daughter, Patrician, who died after being kicked in the head by a horse. D’Ortega offers to send the girl to Jacob’s farm on a sloop, in the company of a local priest. Ultimately Jacob agrees to take the girl, and they draw up papers legalizing the trade.
Jacob’s decision to take Florens instead of her mother is based in his empathy for both Florens and her mother. Additionally, Jacob thinks that Florens could serve as a substitute to Rebekka for their recently deceased daughter, a hope that evokes the recurring theme of motherhood.
Themes
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Motherhood, Heartbreak, and Salvation Theme Icon
Jacob leaves the plantation, eager to get away from D’Ortega. As he waves a final goodbye, he once again admires the fine house. Having confronted the gentry for the first time, Jacob realizes that he too could have a house that luxurious. Jacob thinks about the fact that D’Ortega’s lifestyle is only made possible through slavery, and disdains his means of making a living. Jacob is determined to make his own fortune without becoming directly involved in the slave trade and deviating from his sense of what is right.
Having decided to take Florens, Jacob’s thoughts quickly turn back to D’Ortega’s house. This shows again how insignificant this decision is for Jacob, although it permanently changes Florens’s life. Jacob desires wealth like D’Ortega’s, and although he is convinced he does not have to partake in the slave trade to obtain it, he is already a part of that system.
Themes
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Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
Jacob pushes his horse to go faster so he can get to a tavern to sleep before nightfall, looking forward to a drink and a warm bed. When he arrives in town, he gives his horse to a man to be stabled and walks toward the tavern. On his way, he sees a man violently beating a horse to its knees. Before Jacob can say anything, a group of sailors pull the man away. Jacob is furious, “not only because of pain inflicted on the horse, but because of the mute, unprotesting surrender” in its eyes.
In this scene, the horse that Jacob watches being beaten to its knees serves as a parallel to the slaves that Jacob watches on the plantation. He feels sorry for the looks of defeat in both their eyes. Through this moment, Morrison shows Jacob’s empathy for slaves. However, Jacob’s pity for the slaves seems to stem not out of his sense of their humanity, but his general objections to cruelty.
Themes
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At the tavern Jacob listens to a fiddler and piper play music, and sings along. Two women (presumably prostitutes) enter the tavern, and Jacob avoids them, having tired of brothels “years ago.”
Jacob’s lack of interest in the prostitutes who approach him shows his apparent commitment to his wife Rebekka.
Themes
The Oppression of Women, Violence, and Female Community Theme Icon
Jacob eavesdrops on the people around him as they discuss the price of sugar and rum, which is much higher than that of tobacco. He joins the men at their table and listens to one who seems particularly knowledgeable, Peter Downes. He talks about Barbados. Jacob asks how they manage all the slaves, and Downes tells Jacob that they ship in more all the time, and new slaves are constantly being born. Jacob tells Downes that he has heard that whole estates are sometimes destroyed when disease sweeps through the slave population, and asks what they will do when the labor supply dwindles. Downes responds that it will not dwindle, since the slave trade is still thriving.
As Jacob discusses the rum trade with Peter, it becomes clear that, although Jacob ostensibly objects to slavery, he is drawn to the wealth it entails. Jacob’s questions center on the financial viability and risk of investing in slave plantations, rather than on the moral problems they cause. Again, Jacob reveals his aversion to slavery to be somewhat shallow—he maintains his dislike of it, but entertains business interests that deal in the slave trade.
Themes
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Jacob responds that he thinks the slave trade is a “degraded business,” and Downes tells him that sugar cane just grows on its own, with very little labor necessary and no crop failure. He emphasizes the fast fortune a person can make in the sugar and rum industry. Jacob laughs, thinking that Downes, who looks worse for wear, has clearly not benefited from that supposedly easy profit. But despite this thought, Jacob decides to look into getting involved in the rum industry.
When Jacob states that the slave trade is a “degraded business,” Peter does not seem to even register it as a critique. This suggests how little the amorality of the slave trade is genuinely considered in 17th-century America. When Peter repeatedly tells Jacob about the high profits possible in the Caribbean rum industry, Jacob easily overcomes his objections.
Themes
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Jacob eats dinner and reserves a bed. Jacob thinks about his day, deciding that D’Ortega will probably never repay him the money he is due. However, he thinks that if the king in England changes back to a Protestant king, he may have a shot at suing D’Ortega and winning.
When Jacob thinks that if the king in England changes to a Protestant king he could potentially win a lawsuit against Catholic D’Ortega, he reveals how religion pervades even the legal system in the colonies.
Themes
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Jacob’s thoughts return to the child he has acquired from D’Ortega. He hopes Rebekka will like her. Jacob knows that he decided to take the child because of his own tough childhood. Jacob was an orphan, and so he knows the difficulty of being a child without an adult for protection. Jacob’s mother died in childbirth, and his father, a Dutchman, left him with only his last name. Jacob lived in a poorhouse before becoming a runner for a law firm, a job that led him to climb the social ladder. Because of his upbringing, Jacob harbors a soft spot for marginalized children.
When Morrison brings up Jacob’s orphanage, and the fact that he empathizes with Florens because of it, she brings up a commonality between many characters in the book. Jacob’s orphanage and the orphanage of so many characters reflects the general disconnection between the colonies and their “mother” countries, abstractly evoking the theme of motherhood.
Themes
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Because of this sympathy, ten years ago Jacob took on a girl called Sorrow that a lumberjack found nearly drowned on a riverbank. At the time, Jacob needed the extra help anyway, since Rebekka was pregnant. Jacob’s land, once part of a Dutch settlement, stands alone in a community of religious Separatists. Jacob’s land inheritance was a welcome surprise, since he liked the idea of farming.
While Jacob’s sympathy for orphans is what led him to take on Sorrow, Jacob functionally owns Sorrow as a slave. Although Morrison portrays Jacob in a way that is sympathetic, she is also critiquing the inherent hypocrisy of “benevolent” slave holding.
Themes
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On top of his farm life, Jacob began trading, but his preference is for farming. Because his trading brings him far away from the farm for long periods, Jacob bought female slaves to help Rebekka. Jacob thinks of his acquisition of the slave girl, like the acquisition of Sorrow, as “rescues.” Only the third slave he owns, Lina, was, in Jacob’s view, an “outright and deliberate” purchase.
Morrison continues to show Jacob’s hypocrisy as she explains his lifestyle. Although Jacob professes to prefer farming and dislike slavery, his work as a trader means that he must buy slaves to do the farm work for him. Again Morrison shows Jacob rationalizing his slaveholding to try and keep his conscience clear.
Themes
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Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
Jacob walks as far as possible away from town to the beach. He looks out at the water and then places his hands in the ocean, washing them clean. He then walks back to the inn, setting out a new plan for himself. He thinks that, since farming has not worked especially well for him, he will invest in a sugar plantation in Barbados. After all, Jacob thinks, it will be different than D’Ortega’s plantation in Maryland, being so far removed. Jacob goes to bed in the inn, sleeping well and dreaming of a huge house.
Jacob’s imagination that he can invest in a sugar plantation in Barbados without being morally implicated in slave holding shows how Northern colonists and later American citizens continually rationalized their role in the slave trade and set themselves apart as morally superior while still benefiting financially from an economy based on slave labor.
Themes
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Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon