A Mercy offers the reader several distinct images of motherhood in Rebekka, Sorrow, Lina, and Florens’s mother. Each of these portraits of motherhood is very different, showing the distinct ways that social factors like race, social status, marital status and financial security can all affect motherhood. The women who serve as mothers represent a variety of types of motherhood and social and personal situations. As a result, they all experience motherhood very differently.
Rebekka, a white woman whose children are the product of a happy, legal marriage to a man she loves, might be expected to have a happy experience of motherhood. Rebekka is, after all, the most stable and privileged of all the mothers depicted in the book. And indeed, Rebekka absolutely adores her children while they are alive. However, Rebekka experiences immense heartbreak in her motherhood, as each of her children dies. Rebekka’s boy children do not survive past infancy, while her daughter Patrician dies after being kicked in the head by a horse. Rebekka’s grief shows the possibility of immense pain that motherhood makes women vulnerable to.
Motherhood is especially heartrending and torturous under slavery, where mothers often cannot protect their children from horrific violence, and where families are often separated. Although Lina is technically childless, she acts as a kind of surrogate mother to Florens. Lina enjoys a close, caring, and loving relationship with Florens, brushing her hair and taking care of her. Lina’s relationship with Florens shows how motherhood does not necessarily have to be biological to be meaningful. However, Lina’s motherhood is not official or legal, so it is not recognized by the other characters, or even officially between Lina and Florens themselves. At the end of the book, Rebekka intends to sell Florens away from Lina, showing how their bond may be broken by the harsh realities of the slave system.
Morrison offers the clearest example of how slavery can turn motherhood into anguish in Florens’s biological mother, who is forced to beg for her daughter to be sold away from her in order to protect her from a life of horrific sexual violence. The situation is especially painful because Florens believes that her mother asked her to be sold not out of an immense, selfless act of love, but because she preferred to keep Florens’s baby brother rather than Florens. When the true nature of Florens’s mother decision is revealed at the end of the book, it is absolutely crushing. Florens’s mother’s nightmarish choice highlights how slave mothers were forced to make absolutely impossible, horrific decisions in order to protect their children.
Although Morrison clearly shows the potential heartbreak of motherhood, especially under slavery, she also shows how motherhood can be a kind of salvation. While many mothers in the book experience moments of intense joy through their children, Sorrow is the most obvious example of the positive transformative power of motherhood. Initially, Sorrow’s pregnancies are viewed as problems by the people around her, who believe that because Sorrow is dependent and mentally ill, she will be incapable of mothering a child. In fact, it is unclear whether Sorrow’s first pregnancy was stillborn, or whether Lina drowned the newborn because of her mistrust of Sorrow and her fear of what kind of a child she might have. However, when Sorrow has her healthy second child, motherhood greatly improves her mental health and makes her more responsible and grounded. Sorrow’s postpartum transformation is such a redemption for her that she changes her own name after the baby’s birth from “Sorrow” to “Complete,” emphasizing how motherhood has made her feel whole at last. In sum, Morrison gives the reader an ambivalent but emotionally intense depiction of motherhood, in which motherhood is both and alternatively joyous and heartbreaking, a salvation and a sacrifice.
Motherhood, Heartbreak, and Salvation ThemeTracker
Motherhood, Heartbreak, and Salvation Quotes in A Mercy
Although all her life she had been saved by men— Captain, the sawyers’ sons, Sir and now Will and Scully— she was convinced that this time she had done something, something important, by herself.
Right away I take fright when I see my face is not there. Where my face should be is nothing…I put my mouth close enough to drink or kiss but I am not even a shadow there. Where is it hiding? Why is it? Soon Daughter Jane is kneeling next to me…Oh, Precious, don’t fret, she is saying, you will find it. Where I ask, where is my face…When I wake a minha mãe is standing by your cot and this time her baby boy is Malaik. He is holding her hand.
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.
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.
To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.
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.