Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the Age of Obama
The publication of A Mercy in 2008, by African American author Toni Morrison, coincided with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Unsurprisingly, reviewers were quick to perceive the novel as a political text – linking Morrison’s description of its 1690s setting as a sort of ‘pre-racial’ moment to the ‘post-racial’ contemporary moment posed by the media. Morrison indeed wanted to write about slavery unconnected to race, as she explained in numerous interviews following the book launch; she had had to put the clock back three-hundred years to do so. However, many critics discerned in A Mercy’s characters various aspects of identity as defined by race, although these were to a large extent defined by the specific temporal and political contexts of late 17th century North America. My thesis examines how the novel’s plot and characters construct, narrate and focalize identity by way of intercultural encounters.
The Construction of Individual and Collective Identities
My analysis of the novel’s encounters between characters reveals that ‘identity’ is a fluid concept, and a two-way street. Exactly which aspects of identity emerge for a character depends on all partners in the encounter (including the reader), and the way the encounter is narrated or focalized. Significantly, encounters are contextualized against the backdrop of larger sociocultural or religious systems; these form the frameworks that not only other characters, but also the novel’s readers, take up to sort, classify and categorize identities. Thus, given identities do not reflect ‘true’ inner selves, nor homogenous collective wholes, but are shown to be social, cultural and psychological constructs. This is in line with Sara Ahmed’s argument as put forth in her text Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Postcoloniality (2000), which we read as a central text in the thesis tutorial.
The Role of Language, Texts and Master Narratives
References to the master narratives of written and oral traditions are omnipresent in the novel, and these also serve to help establish identities. The same is true for all references in the text to acts of reading and writing, and the creative use of language. This is a feature frequently found in Toni Morrison’s work. In A Mercy these references are most intricate, not only establishing certain aspects of identity for specific characters but also revealing layers of meaning. The implicit and explicit references to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the myths and legends of Native American and Mexican folklore, the reading of symbols and signs, the Nicene Creed, reading the body as text: all are salient to the construction of identities and the subsequent uncovering of meaning.
Identities, Narrative Voice and Meaning Effects
The way in which the novel’s identities are informed and framed in encounters generates specific meaning effects for the reader. In addition, the narrative structure of the novel (each chapter being narrated by yet another character), as well as allegorical themes and techniques, further involve the reader. All in all, the narrative disrupts the reader’s thinking in binary oppositions when it comes to issues such as race, class and gender. By revealing the diverse and fluid (group) identities present in North America in 1690, and by implicitly showing how they fared over the next centuries, it seems to send out an intriguing and prophetic message about 21st century America under Obama.
Note: this is a Summary of the excellent Bachelor Thesis of (C) Karin Diks: “Hear a Tua Mãe”: the Contextualization and Co-Construction of Identities in Encounters in A Mercy. VU University Amsterdam 2013. Supervision: Babs Boter.