Toni Morrison's A Mercy: Summary

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  • 0:00 Florens
  • 1:46 Lina
  • 2:34 Sorrow
  • 3:08 The Journey
  • 4:45 The Aftermath
  • 6:03 Florens's Mother
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Abigail Walker

Abigail has taught writing and literature at various universities. She has an M.A. In literature from American University and an M.F.A. in English from The University of Iowa.

In Toni Morrison's 'A Mercy,' the New World seems new again. In this unfamiliar world we encounter four women - Florens, Lina, Sorrow, and Rebekka - who struggle to survive in 17th-century Virginia.


In the first chapter of A Mercy, we meet Florens, a 16-year-old slave who is about to go on a journey. She is afraid because the first time made such a long trip was when, as a 7-year old, she was taken from her family. On that day, a stranger named Jacob Vaark appeared on the plantation where she lived with her mother and brother. The plantation's owner, a Portuguese man named Senhor D'Ortega, was unable to pay a debt he owed Jacob. Instead, he offered him a slave, which Jacob did not want. He was impatient to leave because he disliked D'Ortega for his Catholicism and fancy clothing, as well as his cruelty, evident from the branding and scars on his slaves. Jacob realized, however, that to be repaid, he would have to accept a slave. He chose a woman with a small boy in her arms and a little girl cowering beside her. But the slave woman pointed to the girl, saying, 'Take her. Take my daughter.'

Afterward, in Jacob's home, Florens does not speak for a long time. She enjoys hearing stories, though, particularly about 'mothers fighting to save their children,' tales another slave, a Native American named Lina, tells. When Florens gets older, Lina worries when Florens falls in love with Jacob's blacksmith. Lina finds him arrogant, but Jacob's wife Rebekka is impressed with him. She had once seen him cure a gravely ill slave with smallpox. It is this disease that ultimately kills Jacob, and when Rebekka contracts it as well, she thinks the blacksmith can save her life. She decides to send Florens on a journey to find him. This plan worries Lina, who understands what it meant to be alone and afraid.


In her earlier years, Lina had survived a horrible conflagration that killed everyone in her village. Afterwards, she becomes a slave. Jacob buys Lina because he needs help settling land he has inherited, making it suitable for Rebekka, his English mail-order bride. Working on the land eases Lina's pain, as we can see in this quote:

'She cawed with birds, chatted with plants, spoke to squirrels, sang to cows and opened her mouth to rain. The shame of having survived the destruction of her families shrank with her vow never to betray or abandon anyone she cherished.'

Lina finds someone to cherish years later when Jacob brings Florens home. This is the second little slave girl Jacob brings into his house. The first had been a girl named Sorrow.


Sorrow had been the daughter of a captain, and she received her strange name after a shipwreck that killed him. Suddenly, alone in the world, she creates an alter-ego named Twin, who keeps her company. Other than Twin, her only companions are boys who take advantage of her. She becomes pregnant, but the baby dies. Sorrow constantly thinks about her baby. One day, fetching water, she falls down, burning and shaking. The blacksmith, who was doing work for Jacob, finds and cures her of the fever. This deeply impresses Rebekka Vaark.

The Journey

Rebekka knows she needs the blacksmith to save her life, so she sends Florens off on her journey. Although alone and afraid, her desire to see the blacksmith keeps Florens going. Florens imagines telling him: 'There is only you. Nothing outside of you.'

Arriving at a village tired and hungry, she knocks on a door. The woman who opens it agrees to let her spend the night. The following morning, villagers congregate at the woman's house to see Florens who, they think, could be a demon. Alarmed, Florens pulls a letter from Rebekka out of her boot. The letter pleads for Florens's safety at the hands of strangers. The villagers force Florens to undress so they can search her for marks of Satan. Afterwards, she is deeply shaken, imagining the eyes of the villagers still on her.

When she finally arrives at the blacksmith's cabin, she is happy. He agrees to visit Rebekka, but wants Florens to remain behind in his house, to care for a foundling, a small boy who lives with him. Florens morosely wonders if the boy is actually the blacksmith's child.

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