Throughout A Mercy, Morrison describes and portrays the extremely common and disturbing violence that women face at the hands of men in 17th-century America. Over the course of the book, women characters suffer brutal beatings and sexual violence, which are in turn condoned by the male-dominated society.
Though Jacob does not beat Rebekka, Rebekka notes that wife beating is “common” in colonial America, but only legal before nine at night and “with cause and not anger.” By drawing attention to how domestic violence is “restricted,” Morrison damningly shows how 17th-century colonial society institutionalized, normalized, and legalized domestic violence against women. Moreover, the law includes no protections for unmarried women, as Rebekka notes when she describes Lina’s past trauma. Lina suffered horrific violence when she was beaten and raped by a lover, leaving her traumatized and completely uninterested in sex.
And Lina is not the only character in the book to have suffered sexual violence— both Florens’s mother and Sorrow have been victims of rape as well, and lack any protection from sexual violence because of their gender and race. Sorrow first becomes pregnant as a young adolescent, meaning that the sex she had as a child could not have been consensual. Moreover, when Sorrow watches Florens and the Blacksmith have sex, she is fascinated by its affection and intimacy because it is totally unlike her own experiences of sexual violence. As Sorrow watches the Blacksmith kiss Florens, she notes that no one she had sex with ever kissed her on the mouth, suggesting the violent nature of Sorrow’s sexual experience.
Meanwhile, Morrison reveals at the end of the book that Florens’s mother was raped at the orders of her master D’Ortega, and at the hands of D’Ortega himself. The violence that Florens’s mother endures is so traumatizing that she would rather send her daughter away from her, never to see her again, than watch her suffer the same fate.
Violence against women is perhaps so rampant in the book because of the societal space women occupied in the colonies in the 17th century, when most women in America were considered to be the property of white men, either as slaves, indentured servants, or wives. Enslaved women, who were generally black or native, were particularly vulnerable to violence and assault. Florens’s mother, for example, describes being raped by a group of men assigned by her master to “break her in”—a level of violence possible because of her low status as a black slave.
However, even white, unindentured women are depicted as property to be trafficked, though they do not suffer nearly the level of violence that the enslaved women of color do. Rebekka, for example, becomes Jacob’s wife when her father sends her away in exchange for monetary compensation. The money is supposedly to cover Rebekka’s voyage, but her father clearly sees this as an opportunity to transact his daughter for profit. Meanwhile, because women are considered to be the property of men in 17th-century America, society marginalizes women who are untethered to men, like widows and single mothers.
Clearly, Morrison shows how all the women in the book are susceptible to violence and oppression because of their gender. Florens’s mother sums up Morrison’s portrait of female pain when she states “to be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.” In other words, womanhood in early colonial America is defined by trauma, oppression, and their inevitable and lasting aftereffects.
Though the violence that they suffer causes them immeasurable pain, the women in the book find comfort in the relationships they forge with other women who have undergone similar trauma. For example, on the boat from Europe, Rebekka connects with a group of women from different social classes (including prostitutes and disgraced middle class women). Together, the women talk about their lives in the context of men and their limitations as women, and discuss sex and how the commodification of women’s bodies affects them. It is from the women that Rebekka learns about sex, showing how female communities can allow women to share knowledge and provide support. Despite their racial difference, Rebekka and Lina also enjoy a close friendship, giving a space for Lina to talk about her past trauma. Only Sorrow fails to form strong female relationships in the book, and Rebekka thinks this is because Sorrow was taught to seek male attention since she was not raised by women as a child. Morrison shows that while the trauma, violence, and oppression of womanhood burden the novel’s female characters, the women respond to these heartbreaks by forming supportive relationships apart from the male world.
The Oppression of Women, Violence, and Female Community ThemeTracker
The Oppression of Women, Violence, and Female Community Quotes in A Mercy
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.
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.
Wretched as was the space they crouched in, it was nevertheless blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon. Women of and for men, in those few moments they were neither…For them, unable to see the sky, time became simply the running sea, unmarked, eternal and of no matter.
The blacksmith and Florens were rocking and, unlike female farm animals in heat, she was not standing quietly under the weight and thrust of the male. What Sorrow saw yonder in the grass…was not the silent submission…that Sorrow knew…It was a dancing…It all ended when the blacksmith grabbed Florens’ hair, yanked her head back to put his mouth on hers…It amazed her to see that. In all of the goings she knew, no one had ever kissed her mouth. Ever.
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.
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.
Thus her change from “have me always” to “don’t touch me ever” seemed to him as predictable as it was marked.
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.
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.
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.