A Mercy: Florens’ Fruitful Excursion to Autonomy
In A Mercy Toni Morrison relies on the collective memories of her characters to tell the journey of Florens, a young African American slave, orphaned by her mother. Morrison addresses the limitations of a linear, one-sided story in the first chapter when Florens says, “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” (4). Florens is recalling her account in hindsight and recognizes that she doesn’t fully understand her transformation. Because of Florens’ flawed recollection, Morrison allows other characters to fill the breaches and allude to what Florens already knows subconsciously. This use of multiple perspectives not only allows for a well-rounded and diverse account of Florens’ revolution, but also allows Morrison to seamlessly interweave veiled literary devices through the novel. This arrangement paints a rich and vibrant picture of Florens’ journey from vulnerable and passive to confident and self-assured.
Before Florens discovers her own strength, she relies on the love of others, which prevented her from recognizing her own strength and finding her own identity. “Florens had been a quiet, timid version of [Lina] at the time of her own displacement…She was deeply grateful for every shred of affection, any pat on the head, and smile of approval” (71-72). Early in the novel, Florens desired approval from others to validate her own self-worth. She did not have the confidence or self-esteem within herself to recognize her own potential. Scully also recognized this about Florens and points out she would be the perfect prey for rape. “It was easy to spot the combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others” (179). Florens’ weaknesses were evident and obvious making her an easy target for those wishing to harm her.
In the closing chapter Florens’ mother recounts her perspective of Jacob’s arrival and reveals why she offered Florens to Jacob. Understanding Florens’ emotional vulnerabilities and constant need for reassurance, her mother believed she would have made an easy target for the prying eyes of the men on the plantation. She explains, “There was no protection. None. Certainly not with your vice for shoes. It was as if you were hurrying up your breasts and also hurrying the lips of an old married couple…”(162). Florens’ mother feared if Florens stayed, she would not only be raped, but the reference to “hurrying the lips of an old married couple” suggests Florens’ would seek outside emotional and nurturing support from the willing men on the plantation.
One chance I thought. There is no protection but there is a difference. You stood there in those shoes and the tall man laughed and said he would take me to close the debt…I said you. Take my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight. (195)
She saw hope and a chance for relative independence with Jacob, opposed to a life of emotional dependence on the D’Oretega plantation. She was protecting Florens from herself and felt Jacob would give her a better life, even if she remained a slave.
In Jacob’s memory he refers to Florens as a “bramble” bush, consequently giving us an image of her potential growth and renewal early on in the novel.
Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On her feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was the feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble sticks from the bashed broken shoes, that made him laugh. (26)
His memory of meeting Florens for the first time is a very telling account of Florens’ emotional dependency and foreshadows her upcoming journey. Upon first glance, he sees Florens and recalls her “little legs rising like two bramble sticks from the bashed broken shoes”. By comparing Florens to a bramble bush he indirectly refers to her inner strength and upcoming renewal.
Through the developing narrative, Florens as a bramble bush with dying fruit is a recurring internal metaphor for her emergence into a strong and independent woman. A bramble bush, by definition, contains perennial roots and crown, while the stems grow vigorously and develop structure and store energy. Florens, too, contains a solid foundation while still growing and developing her identity. A bramble bush produces fruit after its first year and then subsequently dies to prepare itself for the regrowth of the next season. Florens’ “fruit” is her finite love for the blacksmith. Once the relationship comes to an end and dies, she is able to experience the renewal and regrowth that replaces her yearnings to be loved and accepted with self-acceptance and strength.
The first memory Florens recalls further complicates the “bramble” bush metaphor. It suggests shoes are an external metaphor for her strength, condition, and mobility and act as a container, or planter, for her developing identity, or “fruit”. “The beginning begins with shoes. When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes, even on the hottest days.” (4) Florens begins her tale with this memory to establish its greater significance. At first, Florens is wearing tattered, broken, and ill-fitting high heels, but then dons Jacob’s sturdy boots to travel. By the end of her journey, she is free of any container and free of fear. At the end of her journey, after she confronts the blacksmith, she has lost her shoes and her core need for protection and approval from others.
When Florens begins her version of the story, she prefaces it by saying, “Let me start with what I know for certain.” (4), letting the reader know her first memory is important because for whatever reason, she remembers it vividly. Though Florens’ memories are cloudy, she does remember how her mother felt about her wearing shoes as a young girl. To her mother, wearing shoes would sexualize her and put her in danger.
My mother, a minha mae, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettify ways. Only bad women wear high heels. I am dangerous, she says, and wild but she relents and lets me wear the throwaway shoes from Senhora’s house, pointy-toe, one raised heel broke, the other worn and a buckle on top. (4)
While Florens can’t know why this is significant, she recognizes the connection between the shoes and her mother. Throughout her journey to find the blacksmith, she copes with the desertion she feels and seeks the blacksmith to fill the void left by her mother’s abandonment.
Florens’ “bashed and broken shoes” is her planter and a physical representation of her emotional strength. While she is with her mother in these shoes, she is contained, protected, and reliant upon her mother without a need for progress. The condition of the shoes, or her “planter”, demonstrates her mobility and ability to grow, metaphorically and physically. While she wears the broken shoes, she is dependent upon others for nurturing and care, thus she remains stationary in her growth and dependence. Florens clings to this memory of her mother— and shoes—because she doesn’t understand why her mother would offer her to Jacob. She isn’t ready to exorcise her abandonment and while she feels forsaken, she clings to a time where she felt protected. She associates this feeling of security with the same solace she finds in the shoes—her “planters” that keep her rooted in the protection from her mother.
When Florens begins her journey to find the blacksmith, she is dressed in Jacob’s boots: a sturdy and functional “planter”, allowing her to travel physically and to also “grow” in her realization of her mother’s message. The reader sees this growth when Florens dreams of trees bearing cherries. The fruit on the trees again references Florens as a bramble bush who is yet to discover her inner fruit, or her strength and independence.
I sleep then wake to any sound. Then I am dreaming cherry trees walking toward me. I know it is dreaming because they are full in leaves and fruit. I don’t know what they want. To look? To touch? One bend downs and I wake with a little scream in my mouth…That is a better dream than a minha mae standing near with her little boy. In those dreams she is always wanting to tell me something. (101)
While Florens commonly dreams about her mother trying to reveal her intentions, this dream is about trees bearing fruit. Florens doesn’t understand the message but she appreciates that it isn’t her mother visiting in the dream. Subconsciously, she recognizes her own growth though she doesn’t yet understand it. The dream is telling her how far she has come on her journey for self-dependence and “freedom”. Equipped with Jacob’s boots, she is now looking within for the answers, rather than to her mother, symbolizing her inner growth and strength.
Florens eventually realizes how the journey has affected her after her visit to Widow and Daughter Jane. She independently traveled with the burden of saving Rebekah and realized how strong she truly is. After being confronted by the puritans at the Widow’s house she recognizes her own true potential and her reliance and need for reassurance begins to “wither” and die. Like the bramble bush, she is making room for new strength when she addresses the blacksmith:
You say you see slaves freer than free men…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 know the claws of the feathered thing did break out on you because I cannot stop them wanting to tear you open the way you tear me. (187)
Florens recognizes her own strength and she has gained the experience necessary to stand independently on her own feet.
With the awareness of her own independence and self-reliance she accepts her orphan status and why her mother offered her to Jacob. “Inside I am shrinking…and I know I am not the same. I am losing something with every step I take. I am a thing apart…. I am born with, outside, yes, but inside as well and the inside dark is small, feathered and toothy” (135). Florens feels her neediness shrinking away and fading. With the release of her abandonment issues, Florens finds her identity and strength and questions “is that what [her] mother knows? Why she chooses me to live with out?” (135). She answers her own question when she recognizes she is no longer afraid. “Sudden it is not like before when I am always in fright. I am not afraid of anything now"(135). Florens stopped focusing on her mother’s intentions; instead she is accepting the consequence and recognizing her own strength and liberation.
Florens’ internal blossoming is also visible to those who knew her before her journey. Scully recognizes the changes right away when she returns. “The instant he saw her marching down the road—whether ghost or soldier—he knew she had become untouchable” (179). Shouldering the burden of Rebekah’s errand and confronting the blacksmith allowed Florens to experience the independence she needed to rejuvenate her “fruit”. With the new growth came a newfound identity giving birth to a self-reliance and sustainability that perseveres beyond her need to be loved. “Mae, you can have pleasure now because the soles of [her] feet are hard as cypress.” Florens is no longer the passive slave in need of shoes of and reassurance; she is fully capable of standing on her own two feet, void of abandonment issues and full of self-assurance.
The intricately woven story of perspectives and metaphors creates an intimate narrative to an otherwise historically impersonal and distant time period of the late 17th century. The complexities of the literary devices allow the reader to piece together each perspective while still maintaining a common thread. Each character’s additions detail the story from new perspectives and give the reader a haunting account of Florens’ transformation. By using an array of characters from different genders, classes, and races, Morrison contrasts Florens’ own memories and flawed recollection with those around her. The added depth gives us insight into how far Florens flourishes and matures as she finds her inner fruit.
Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. New York: Random House, Inc, 2008. Print.