A Mercy


Toni Morrison

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Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Analysis

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.
Religion, Morality, and Otherness Theme Icon

Throughout A Mercy, the white characters define the people living in North America in terms of their religion, separating them and stereotyping them by religious group. As characters draw their own social distinctions and outline the biases they associate with others, Morrison shows the North American landscape to be one peopled by a diverse array of religions. According to A Mercy, the religious makeup in the colonies is a rich mix of Protestant sects, Catholics, and native religions.

As characters encounter people who are different from them theologically, they often respond to this difference with skepticism and mistrust. For example, when Morrison’s Protestant characters refer to “papists” (Catholics), they comment on their moral bankruptcy and disdain their extravagant lifestyles. Take, for example, Jacob’s judgment of Catholic D’Ortega, who he observes in disgust, and whose moral depravity, bad taste, and excess Jacob associates with his Catholicism. The narrator suggests that Jacob’s Protestant roots cause him to object to D’Ortega making money through the slave trade, although Jacob is implicated in the slave trade himself.

This animosity between religious groups is not limited to tension between Catholics and Protestants, however. Rebekka, a Protestant, dislikes the Anabaptists because they refused to baptize her daughter. In another instance, Rebekka refers to Quakers as “horrible,” highlighting the intense antagonism in the relationships between religious sects.

Interestingly enough, however, non-white characters who observe the actions of the Europeans do not pay attention to the distinctions between their religions, instead focusing on the horrific violence that Europeans as a group have brought to the continent. Lina uses the term “Europes” to discuss the culture, legal practices, and atrocities of white people, describing how they stole her land. Lina effectively erases the minute religious differences between Europeans that the European characters see as highly important amongst themselves, making them seem arbitrary and minor in comparison to horrific acts of violence from which all Europeans benefit to the detriment of native people.

And in fact, religion and religious beliefs are often used fairly explicitly to reinforce racism and the oppression of black and native people. For example, Rebekka notes that Anabaptists assert that it is impossible for natives and black people to go to heaven. Additionally, religion is used as a tool to erase native and African culture, like when white people force Lina to leave behind her native religion for their European one, or when Florens’s mother adopts Catholicism. These forced conversions are especially ironic since in the novel Christianity proves to be ineffective in comparison to other non-Christian forms of worship and healing. It is the Blacksmith’s alternative healing methods that save Rebekka, not Christian prayer.

As the Europeans fight over which brand of Christianity is best, their religions come across as completely divorced from actual morality, which is supposed to be one of the most important reasons and supports for religion. Morrison draws the reader’s attention to the lack of true morality in European religion in several instances, including when she shows the treatment of Widow Ealing and Daughter Jane. Daughter Jane appears to be sick, and her community is persecuting her and her widowed mother because the girl is supposedly a “demon.” This shows how religion as practiced by many in the colonies can be harsh and alienate members of communities (like widows and single mothers) who are already marginalized. Meanwhile, Widow Ealing and Daughter Jane show Florens true goodness when they take her in and feed her, displaying how they are more morally good than their fanatically religious neighbors.

Morrison also highlights how members of all the Christian religions present in early America seem to be complicit in slavery. Catholics like D’Ortega partake in the slave trade actively, finding no moral qualms with the practice. Although Protestants like Jacob seem to take issue with slavery from a moral perspective, their religion does not impede them from benefiting from it indirectly. Morrison draws attention to this irony through the symbolism on the mansion that Jacob builds, which features the Christian imagery of a snake on the metalwork of the house’s gate. The snake alludes to the snake in the Garden of Eden, which represents sin. This suggests that Jacob’s wealth and the house he built with it are symbols of sin, since they are the result of slave trade profits. In short, Morrison offers the reader a damning portrait of the Christian landscape of early America, one plagued by infighting but utterly devoid of true morality.

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Religion, Morality, and Otherness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Religion, Morality, and Otherness appears in each chapter of A Mercy. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Religion, Morality, and Otherness Quotes in A Mercy

Below you will find the important quotes in A Mercy related to the theme of Religion, Morality, and Otherness.
Chapter 1 Quotes

One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? …Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up the door saddle to die.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), The Blacksmith
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

A woman comes to me and says stand up. I do and she takes my cloak from my shoulders. Then my wooden shoes. She walks away. Reverend Father turns a pale red color when he returns and learns what happens…Finally he takes rags, strips of sailcloth lying about and wraps my feet. Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here. A sailor spits into the sea when Reverend Father asks him for help. Reverend Father is the only kind man I ever see.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), The Reverend Father
Related Symbols: Florens’s Shoes
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 18-19
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lina
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Lina, Rebekka Vaark, Jacob Vaark
Related Symbols: Orphans
Page Number: 63-64
Explanation and Analysis:
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:

Are you a demon I ask her. Her wayward eye is steady. She smiles. Yes, she says. Oh, yes.

Related Characters: Florens (speaker), Daughter Jane
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis: