Toni Morrison’s A Mercy is told through many perspectives and deals with time in a nonlinear way. As result, it is hard to pinpoint where exactly A Mercy begins. One beginning might be the day that Jacob Vaark, a farmer and trader from New England, goes to Maryland to settle a debt with the plantation owner and slave trader D’Ortega.
D’Ortega offers Jacob any slave he wants as compensation for his debt, and although Jacob dislikes slavery, he proposes take a female slave, Florens’s mother. Florens’s mother, wanting to save her daughter Florens from the lifetime of sexual abuse and rape she herself has suffered at the hands of D’Ortega, begs Jacob to take her daughter instead. Jacob agrees and D’Ortega arranges to have Florens sent to New England. Florens, who does not understand her mother’s motives for giving her up, feels abandoned. On his way out of the plantation, Jacob admires D’Ortega’s magnificent house. On his journey back, Jacob decides to invest more in the sugar cane industry in order to make enough money to build a house like that of his own.
At the Vaark farm, Florens meets Jacob’s wife Rebekka and their servants Lina and Sorrow. Rebekka came from Europe to marry Jacob after Jacob advertised in England that he was looking for a wife. Rebekka has recently lost her daughter, Patrician, in an accident with a horse. Prior to Patrician’s death, Rebekka’s baby boys all died in infancy.
Florens quickly realizes that Sorrow, who was found half drowned as an adolescent and then given to Jacob, is mentally unstable. Before Florens’s arrival, Sorrow delivered a baby that Lina told her was stillborn, adding to her mental precariousness. Lina, a native woman whose entire village was wiped out by fire, takes Florens under her wing and acts as a surrogate mother to her.
Jacob begins to amass wealth thanks to his investments, and he decides to build a house like D’Ortega’s. Laborers from all over come to help build it, including the indentured servants from the next farm over, Willard and Scully. Willard and Scully, having spent a lot of time at the Vaark farm, are close with the family. Jacob also commissions an iron fence, bringing in a blacksmith to make it for him.
Florens falls in love with the Blacksmith, who is a free African man, when she meets him. The two strike up a romantic relationship. Lina, who is herself traumatized by an abusive relationship in her past, warns Florens to be careful.
During the Blacksmith’s tenure at the farm, Sorrow falls ill with smallpox and the Blacksmith miraculously heals her. When the Blacksmith finishes his work, he leaves the farm without saying goodbye to Florens, leaving her devastated.
Sorrow is pregnant and Jacob’s house is nearly finished when he contracts smallpox. All the laborers leave, fearing contagion, and not even Willy and Scully are allowed near. Jacob’s last wish is to be taken into his new house to die there, so Rebekka, Lina, Florens, and Sorrow all carry him inside, where he passes away. At Jacob’s funeral, Rebekka realizes she has pockmarks inside her mouth. The next day, she is bedridden with the disease.
Rebekka, remembering how the Blacksmith saved Sorrow when she became sick, sends Florens to go find him and bring him back with her. Lina stays behind to care for Rebekka while Florens sets out on her journey. After a wagon ride and a terrifying night in the woods, Florens comes to a village and seeks shelter in the cottage of a woman named Widow Ealing and her daughter Jane. The other villagers have accused Jane of being a demon. During Florens’s stay they come to the house to examine her. While there, the villagers see Florens and accuse her of being a devil because of her dark skin. Florens flees with Jane’s help before they can persecute her.
Finally, Florens arrives at the Blacksmith’s house. She tells him about Rebekka, and the Blacksmith decides to set out at once. He tells Florens she must stay at his cabin so that she can take care of a little boy, Malaik, that he has adopted. Florens, who wants the Blacksmith’s unrestricted attention and love, feels jealous and threatened by the boy. The Blacksmith rides off to heal Rebekka.
While The Blacksmith is away for several days, Florens becomes more and more paranoid about the boy’s presence. She remembers what she thinks was her mother choosing her baby brother over her, and feels the same thing will happen now with Malaik. When Malaik will not stop crying, Florens grabs him by the arm hard and accidently breaks it. Just then, the Blacksmith returns and sees that Florens has hurt the child. Furious, he hits Florens and casts her out. Florens hits the Blacksmith in the face with a pair of tongs, bloodying him, before running away. She makes her way back through the woods to the Vaark farm barefoot.
Florens returns to find that Rebekka is healed. Much changes, however. The farm has grown wild during the time it was left unattended, so Rebekka hires Will and Scully for help. While Florens was away, Sorrow gave birth to her baby, and motherhood improves her mental health significantly. Rebekka becomes highly religious after her near death experience, and also becomes very mean. She is cruel to Lina, beats Sorrow, and intends to sell Florens. Florens, too, is changed. She is much more moody since the Blacksmith left her, and often thinks of how (as far as she knows) her mother abandoned her. Every night she sneaks into the house and carves words into the wood of one room, narrating her story in the hopes that someday the Blacksmith will read it. Florens never finds out the true reason behind her mother’s actions: selfless motherly love.