A Mercy

Themes and Colors
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon
The Oppression of Women, Violence, and Female Community Theme Icon
Motherhood, Heartbreak, and Salvation Theme Icon
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Theme Icon
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Mercy, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Theme Icon

A Mercy takes place during a time in American history when labor was being exploited throughout the colonies through various forms of human bondage. Morrison’s characters suffer under the variety of forms of bondage that were common in the late 17th century, from lifelong, hereditary chattel slavery (as in the case of first-generation slaves trafficked from Africa and their descendants) to indentured servitude, a system in which Europeans committed to a certain number of years of labor in return for the payment of their passage to America.

In both cases, slaves and indentured servants were considered to be the property of their master. The systems, however, differed greatly. For example, slaves were never compensated for their work, while indentured servants received money for their voyage to the colonies in return for their anticipated labor. Additionally, slave status was passed on to the children of slaves, while indentured servants were freed after the end of their work contract. (Though indentured servants still often had their contracts elongated arbitrarily, leaving them to provide their labor for indefinite periods.) Unlike indentured servants, and because of their race, slaves were also horrifically unprotected under law. As Jacob notes at one point in the book, the law even allowed black and native slaves to be shot by a white man for any and all reasons. While slavery clearly was a far more unjust and inhumane system than indentured servitude, both systems are forms of human bondage that violate modern moral codes and working laws.

Throughout her novel, Morrison suggests how both forms of bondage (chattel slavery and indentured servitude) break the spirits of the people suffering under them. Jacob clearly notices this oppressive, inhumane effect when he draws comparisons between his disgust with slavery and his observation of the look of surrender in the eyes of a beaten horse, clearly implying how the violence slaves face is torturous to the human spirit. Meanwhile, the indentured servant Scully offers an example of how bondage forces people to make choices that go against their own sense of righteousness. Morrison shows how Scully would like to help Lina, Florens, and Sorrow after Jacob’s death, but he cannot do very much because he is afraid that if he does Rebekka will sell him, and so he will never have his freedom.

Among Morrison’s 17th-century white, unbonded characters, however, there is a plethora of different feelings about the prevalent presence of human bondage in the colonies. For example, D’Ortega, a Catholic slave trader with whom Jacob does business, has no moral qualms about the fact that he profits significantly from buying and selling other people. Jacob, meanwhile, is morally repulsed by the slave trade, finding it completely unsavory and insisting that “flesh is not his commodity,” and calling it a “degraded” business. Jacob also clearly empathizes with slaves and comprehends their humanity. Upon seeing Florens, Jacob feels sympathy for her because of his own status as an orphan as a child, identifying with the young slave girl even though he is a free white man. But despite Jacob’s aversion to slavery, he does accept Florens as payment for D’Ortega’s debt without even entertaining the idea of freeing her. Moreover, after Jacob visits D’Ortega’s house, he becomes more and more interested in acquiring wealth. Jacob manifests this obsession in his desire to build a mansion house. As Jacob tries to make the dream a reality, he invests more and more in the slave trade. So while Jacob is disgusted by slavery, he is content to profit from it financially, making him complicit in the entire inhumane system.

Through Jacob, Morrison seems to suggest the impossibility of building wealth in the colonial economy without becoming complicit in slavery. However, although the slave trade seems to be a boon for white traders like Jacob and D’Ortega, it also carries the possibility of backlash and ruin for them while destroying their moral fiber. Early in the novel, Jacob alludes to Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 uprising in which slaves and indentured servants united to attempt to overthrow their wealthy white masters and gain control. Bacon’s Rebellion terrified slave owners because it revealed the real danger they could face as a result of their cruelty and inhumanity. This uprising encouraged slave owners to further restrict the rights of black people and natives, and to encourage racism among poor white colonial residents in order to separate the two populations that together posed a real threat to the power and control of rich Europeans.

Moreover, in the book’s final chapter Morrison suggests that, while slavery is fundamentally based on denying another human’s humanity, slave owners are the ones whose humanity is ultimately threatened. During Florens’s mother’s narrative, Florens describes Jacob as human, unlike D’Ortega, suggesting that, through his cruelty, D’Ortega has become other-than-human. Morrison clearly shows that, although bondage produces wealth for slave owners and the owners of indentured servants, bondage is a horrific and thoroughly reprehensible system with terrible consequences for all involved.

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Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity ThemeTracker

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Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity Quotes in A Mercy

Below you will find the important quotes in A Mercy related to the theme of Human Bondage, Wealth, and Humanity.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Jacob Vaark
Page Number: 11-12
Explanation and Analysis:

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Disaster had struck…D’Ortega’s ship had been anchored a nautical mile from shore for a month waiting for a vessel, due any day, to replenish what he had lost. A third of his cargo had died of ship fever. Fined five thousand pounds of tobacco…for throwing their bodies too close to the bay; forced to scoop up the corpses…they used pikes and nets…a purchase which itself cost two pounds, six. He’d had to pile them in two drays (six shillings), cart them out to low land where saltweed and alligators would finish the work.

Related Characters: Jacob Vaark, D’Ortega
Page Number: 18-19
Explanation and Analysis:

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They both spoke of the gravity, the unique responsibility, this untamed world offered them; its unbreakable connection to God’s work and the difficulties they endured on His behalf. Caring for ill or recalcitrant labor was enough, they said, for canonization.

Related Characters: Jacob Vaark, D’Ortega, D’Ortega’s Wife
Page Number: 18-19
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 3 Quotes

They are certain their years of debt are over but the master says no. He sends them away, north, to another place, a tannery, for more years. I don’t understand why they are sad. Everyone has to work. I ask are you leaving someone dear behind?...Daft, a man says. A woman across from me says, young.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker)
Page Number: 46-47
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 5 Quotes

I don’t know the feeling of or what it means, free and not free. But I have a memory…I walk sometimes to search you… I hear something behind me and turn to see a stag… Standing there…I wonder what else the world may show me. It is as though I am loose to do what I choose, the stag, the wall of flowers. I am a little scare of this looseness. Is that how free feels? I don’t like it. I don’t want to be free of you because I am live only with you.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), The Blacksmith
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

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Sir steps out. Mistress stands up and rushes to him. Her naked skin is aslide with wintergreen. Lina and I looked at each other. What is she fearing, I ask. Nothing, says Lina. Why then does she run to Sir? Because she can, Lina answers. We never shape the world she says. The world shapes us.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), Lina (speaker), Rebekka Vaark, Jacob Vaark
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 7 Quotes

They frown at the candle burn on my palm, the one you kissed to cool. They look under my arms, between my legs. They circle me, lean down to inspect my feet. Naked under their examination I watch for what is in their eyes. No hate is there or scare or disgust but they are looking at me my body across distances without recognition. Swine look at me with more connection.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), The Blacksmith
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 9 Quotes

I want you to go…because you are a slave…
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.
And a slave to that too.
You alone own me.
Own yourself, woman, and leave us be. You could have killed this child…You are nothing but wilderness. No constraint. No mind.
You shout the word—mind, mind, mind—over and over and then you laugh, saying as I live and breathe, a slave by choice.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), The Blacksmith (speaker), Jacob Vaark, Malaik
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10 Quotes

They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess.

Related Characters: Florens, Lina, Sorrow, Rebekka Vaark, Jacob Vaark, Willard, Scully
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 11 Quotes

You say you see slaves freer than free men. One is a lion in the skin of an ass. The other is an ass in the skin of a lion. That it is the withering inside that enslaves and opens the door for what is wild. I know my withering is born in the Widow’s closet…I cannot stop…wanting to tear you open the way you tear me. Still, there is another thing. A lion who thinks his mane is all. A she-lion who does not. I learn this from Daughter Jane…She risks. Risks all to save the slave you throw out.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), The Blacksmith, Daughter Jane
Page Number: 187-188
Explanation and Analysis:

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I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mãe, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), Florens’s Mother
Related Symbols: Florens’s Shoes
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 12 Quotes

To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.

Related Characters: Florens’s Mother (speaker), Florens, D’Ortega
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

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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 given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.

Related Characters: Florens’s Mother (speaker), Florens, Jacob Vaark
Page Number: 195-196
Explanation and Analysis:

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