Throughout A Mercy, Morrison plays with the idea of the pastoral, or the use in literature of motifs and themes of idealized country and agricultural life. Pastorals recur throughout the English literary tradition, often to convey themes of innocence and romanticized views of hard labor.
Morrison connects her novel to the pastoral through her beautiful and striking descriptions of the early American landscape. Take, for example, Jacob’s ride through the Virginian wilderness to Maryland to meet D’Ortega. Jacob describes the landscape of North America, taking in the “forests untouched since Noah, shorelines beautiful enough to bring tears, wild food for the taking.” This is only one of many instances in which the American land is glorified and idealized in A Mercy.
Jacob and Rebekka, enchanted by the American landscape, dream of creating a livelihood by farming their small plot of land. Soon, however, Morrison troubles the idea of the romantic American Pastoral that Jacob and Rebekka dream of by connecting it to the slaughter of native people and to the slave trade. Just before expounding on the land’s beauty, Jacob thinks of Bacon’s Rebellion and the ongoing native genocide, connecting the land with the New World’s thriving slave trade. Then, after his statement about the beauty of the landscape, Jacob goes on to discuss how the land is continually changing hands and being fought over, possessed by Europe kings and rich aristocrats. In doing so, Jacob highlights the European understanding of land as property to be bought and sold. By narrating Jacob’s thoughts on slavery and the commodification of land in the space of minutes, the narrator seems to compare making land into property to commodifying people, suggesting that both are wrong.
Both theoretically and in practice, land and the agriculture business in the 17th century were deeply intertwined with slavery, as southern plantations relied heavily on slave labor to make their enormous profits. And not only is the American agricultural industry based on slavery, it is also later shown to be based on the deaths of native people as well. Later in the book, during Lina’s narrative, Morrison shows that being a white European landowner is only possible through the deaths of native people, who originally lived on the land. Lina remembers colonialists burning her village after a smallpox outbreak (a disease brought to America by Europeans), leaving her with lifelong trauma. This suggests that land-owning by European colonists was essentially the result of pillage and theft.
Morrison effectively shows that the beautiful land of North America and the agriculture businesses flourishing there are far from the innocent pastoral ideal, and instead are plagued by cruelty, violence, and exploitation. As the book continues and it becomes clear that the pastoral dream is linked to violence, Jacob’s pastoral dreams of a small farm die out. Jacob’s crops fail because he does not know how to handle the weather in North America, and while Lina teaches him what she knows about local farming, he does not always listen to her advice. Ultimately, the farm does not succeed in making a profit, forcing Jacob to turn to trading. As a result, Jacob profits from the slave trade that he detests, first more indirectly through men like D’Ortega, and then more directly as he becomes increasingly interested in obtaining wealth for a house. Jacob’s pastoral dream turns out to be untenable, one that concedes to the harsh realities of farm life and to the draw of wealth from the slave trade. The pastoral life that Jacob dreamed of is thus exposed as an American fiction, as, in an agricultural industry that is built on a system of forced labor, Jacob’s small family farm cannot compete. Morrison uses Jacob to mock the image of the American pastoral, suggesting that any romantic image of American agricultural life is a façade distracting from the reality, which is one of mass production made possible through slave labor and land stolen from native people.
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral ThemeTracker
Land, Exploitation, and the American Pastoral Quotes in A Mercy
Afraid of once more losing shelter, terrified of being alone in the world without family, Lina acknowledged her status as heathen and let herself be purified by these worthies. She learned that bathing naked in the river was a sin; that plucking cherries from a tree burdened with them was theft…That God hated idleness most of all, so staring off into space to weep for a mother or a playmate was to court damnation.
They would forever fence land, ship whole trees to faraway countries, take any woman for quick pleasure, ruin soil, befoul sacred places and worship a dull, unimaginative god…Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable…Lina was not so sure. Based on the way Sir and Mistress tried to run their farm, she knew there were exceptions to the sachem’s revised prophecy.
The traveler laughs at the beauty saying, “This is perfect. This is mine.” And the word swells, booming like thunder into the valleys, over acres of primrose and mallow…Mine. Mine. Mine. The shells of the eagle’s eggs quiver and one even cracks…Spotting the traveler, [the eagle] swoops down to claw away his laugh…the traveler…raises his stick and strikes her…screaming she falls and falls.
…”Where is she now?”
“And the eggs…do they live?”
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.
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.
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.
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.