EccentricMuse

Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë

 

still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
A Mercy - Toni Morrison

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. --Robert Frost

Homeless: Ladysmith Black Mambazo

I start with a quotation and a musical backtrack that seem somehow fitting, and because I have to start somewhere. In A Mercy, all homes are temporary and dangerous; the most devoted act of familial love is a mother's greatest sacrifice, perceived as an abandonment. There is--in the end--no place to go, no home left and no one at all to provide comfort or shelter to these characters. They are, all, abandoned and isolated in the most profound way.

In this novel, the arc of human connection and family begins in isolation and fear, and ends in isolation and despair. No human relationship--not the unusually happy bond between man and woman that Rebekka and Jacob enjoyed; not the unlikely bond of friendship between Rebekka and Lina; nor the quasi-mother/daughter one between Lina and Florens; and certainly not that between Florens and the blacksmith, survives. Some are torn apart by disease and death; some by all-consuming, intolerant Christianity; some by being unable to survive the social and legal structures of the time that gave so many (Indians, Africans, women) the status of property with the same rights, meaning none, as animals. (Morrison is so clever when she starts by showing us Jacob's kindness toward animals: the trapped raccoon; the horse being beaten. This is how we know, although Florens doesn't, that the kindness Florens' minha mãe sees in him is justified; her act one of mercy and not abandonment.)

In each character, Morrison shows us the impact that loss of family, lack of love, isolation, slavery and indentured servitude has upon human beings. The effects of trauma are clearly visible through the lens of our current understanding of psychology. Lina becomes obsessively jealous and ultimately murderous in defending those she loves. Sorrow dissociates and finds comfort, security and a source of emotional stability in an alterego whom she calls Twin (and who calls her by her real name--whatever that is). Rebekka seeks blind comfort in the promise of religious salvation--it is likely, although not clear, that she becomes a religious zealot following the example of many of her neighbours, which she formerly scorned. Florens' personality disintegrates into catatonia, where her last act of self-expression is to scratch out her (self-described) confession on the walls of Jacob's unfinished house.

Everyone, simply every single character, is defined by their place within a hierarchy based on the degree to which they can be bought and sold. Even Jacob Vaark, near the top of that ladder, is required to subjugate himself before Senhor and negotiate a business deal by transgressing his class status, at great risk to his own life. Though Jacob claws his way to the top, he ultimately succumbs to an unexpected death (symbolically and ironically, when building a monument to his own status), which then devastates everyone who depends upon him for their own livelihood and safety.

How have we developed into a more compassionate, just society from these beginnings? (surely we have)

Morrison shows us, with remarkable conciseness and the most riveting and rich symbolism and imagery, how crucial are human bonds to our survival as individuals, as families, as communities.

By its close, the novel leaves us with some shreds of faint hope: Sorrow, made Complete, and her daughter; Willard and Scully who seem likely to succeed, or at least, survive relatively unscathed. These characters--the ones who have the best chance of survival in this harsh world--have such because they have each other. The rest will not fare as well, we know.

At the centre of the story is Florens: the one "given away", the one who cleaves to anyone and anything that might provide her with the love she needs to survive. The one sent on an errand to save her Mistress' life, whose own motivation is used by her Mistress and Lina to assure the mission's success, but which comes to destroy Florens herself.

Florens is the feeler, the sensitive one, the reader and writer, the poet. All raw emotion and need. Every other character has some kind of protective husk or shell atop their personality, born of trauma but nonetheless, one that shelters them from the cruelty and harshness that surrounds them. Florens does not--in the end, she is stripped of all comforts, all sense of belonging, and even her precious shoes.

Florens yearns for and will respond to the simplest things--she reads the absence of cruelty as love (hence her devotion to the blacksmith--although it is more complex than that). She finally becomes, in the words of the prescient and intuitive Scully, untouchable: "if he had been interested in rape, Florens would have been his prey. It was easy to spot that combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others. Clearly, from the look of her now, that was no longer true. The instant he saw her marching down the road--whether ghost or soldier--he knew she had become untouchable." (p. 152)

She has not evolved to a more resilient state; rather, what we are seeing is Florens shutting down with grief and despair. She becomes almost catatonic after the blacksmith's rejection of her--this second abandonment is her final undoing. She withdraws into a primal emotional state, where she finally gains a defense; but loses whatever is left of her sanity.

Morrison writes Florens' chapters using a primitive, barely literate voice, giving her an extreme authenticity and also showing her as the poet she is: "Night is thick no stars anyplace but sudden the moon moves. The chafe of needles is too much hurt and there is no resting there at all. I get down and look for a better place. By moonlight I am happy to find a hollow log, but it is wavy with ants." (p. 67)

In the novel itself, it is Florens' chapters that show Morrison as a genius story-teller and writer. There is much more, of course, but these chapters--Florens' incredible voice and telling of her story--mark A Mercy as a novel of astonishing and profound substance and quality.

The final chapter, in which Florens' minha mãe returns to summarize what she has done and why, is a gorgeous denouement. But, I cannot say, a hopeful or optimistic one. Despite that, read this book. It has left me awed, inspired, moved and ... strangely enough ... grateful.