A Waterfall of Mercy: Ecocriticism in Toni Morrison
by Mikhaila Bishop
When reading any literary work, many critical readers regard physical environment as mere setting. Examinations of ecology in literary works attempt to understand humanity’s relationship to natural forces. Water is often undervalued as a literary device, even in ecocriticism, but in Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, water defines the life of settlers and slaves alike. In Morrison’s novel, there are two main forces of water: the ocean and the rivers. Maryland is a sea-state, so the rivers and sea ports dominating the Maryland landscape created stable living conditions for settlers. These forces have both literal and social connotations for the characters within the novel. Literally, the ocean isolates people from their previous lives and provides opportunity for new identities. The river acts as the fulfillment of that promise, supplying necessary survival tools. Metaphorically, each characters’ individual encounters with water reveals their social mobility; however, the oceans and rivers do not socially discriminate. Unfortunately, by the time the book begins, initial colonists had ingrained social classes promoting inequality and injustice. Slavery and indentured servitude robbed people of the ability to create their own lives. While formative American life was skewed by racial and social inequality, the oceans and rivers in A Mercy provided the young American colonies with opportunities for fulfilling new lifestyles. Despite nature’s lack of favoritism, each character’s individual encounters with water in A Mercy are written as indicative of their statuses as Americans.
In an examination of the American historical imagination, Gabriella Friedman’s assessment of “wilderness” is applicable to water for a critical analysis of Morrison’s novel. In Friedman’s ecofeminist analysis, she writes, “[the wilderness is] a complex and ambiguous construction… both a threat and an object of desire,” (Friedman, 311). The threat comes from the incomprehensible danger of natural forces, but the human desire to subjugate those same forces overrules the danger. For our purposes, it is possible to exchange “the wilderness” for “the waters”, because early American immigrants had very limited understanding of any ecological forces. Friedman goes on to describe how “wilderness” is a conceptual literary idea, but water literally acts as Friedman described, both threatening and tempting the pursuit of the “American national project.” Threat and temptation stem from the inability to control water, and the limitless options water provides. Water’s crucial role in creating stable living conditions is too often understated. Maryland’s early colonization is largely due to its proximity to the ocean, which created access for trading and traveling, and rivers offered rich possibilities for life.
Our character study will begin with Jacob Vaark, a white slave-owning colonialist, whose oceanic journey is the opportunity to exchange his origin for new wealth. As an English orphan, he had little ability for societal advancement or wealth in his home country. However, he was left 120 acres of American soil by a dead uncle (Morrison, 13). He is isolated from his past life when he reaches new country: “The man moved through the surf, stepping carefully over pebbles and sand to shore… Unlike the English fogs he had known since he could walk, or those way north where he lived now, this one was sun fired, turning the world into hot, thick gold” (Morrison, 10). Immediately when he steps off the boat, his past and future metaphorically blur in this fog. The “hot, thick gold” fog that descends indicates what he will find on land, as a white landowner venturing into the unknown. The “surf” he crosses is his last encounter with the sea after he has left what he knows to start a life of personal benefit. Moving towards new life, he can completely trust in his social identity as a white landowner to lead him to prosperity. This wealth is recognized upon his acres, with his bought child wife, and in the possession of three slaves. Once the ocean delivered him to a place where his identity held social status, he was able to create the life he imagined, and fulfill his promise of the American Dream.
Rebekka, Jacob’s European child wife, crosses the sea to flee danger in favor of a safer, dependable life in Maryland. Although she had a family, her English town is described to be much more dangerous and harmful than Jacob’s upbringing. Her parents marry her to Jacob for money, and she finds herself orphaned by the one-way journey to the continent. She is kept with seven other women during the journey who either fled or were exiled from their situations. At one point in their travels, they pretend to be queens serving tea to each other, and Rebekka “remembered also how the ocean slap exaggerated the silence. Perhaps they were blotting out, as she was, what they fled and what might await them” (Morrison, 100). In the cabin’s quarantine, they safely pretend their social stations are not what they truly are: vagrants, prostitutes, and commodities, the lowest of white statuses. The “ocean slaps” are recognized as contributing to a discard of the truth. The transition of traveling over the ocean metaphorically wipes away their past identity. However, half the women ended that journey in indentured servitude, due to their monetary statuses (Morrison, 96). For this reason, the reader is never given a physical view of the ocean from their perspective. Some colonists were limited from achieving success by extending social circumstances, including gender and finances, even in the new colony.
A sea storm alters the identity of Sorrow, a multiracial woman raised on the ocean, and she is involuntarily drawn into American life. The poorest of these characters so far, Sorrow loses her entire family and most of her memory to a shipwreck that abandons her at Chesapeake Bay. Young Sorrow had always lived on her father’s ship, and the ship’s destruction effectively sank the life she knew. “…Sorrow remembered freezing day after day on the ship. Other than icy wind, nothing stirred. Aft was the sea, fore a rocky beach below a cliff of stone and brush. Sorrow had never set foot on land and was terrified of leaving ship for shore. It was as foreign to
her as ocean was to sheep” (Morrison, 149). Sorrow’s boat is destroyed against rocks, so “icy wind” creates a dangerous absence of warmth. The sea spared Sorrow; she was not smashed against rocks or drowned by the volatility that took her previous life. However, she was “terrified” by the possibility of civilization, having been raised in the confines of a trade ship. She is compared to a farm animal because she was being raised with a blind purpose, to repair sails for her father (Morrison, 149). The tides pull her out of the sea and into a river (Morrison, 139); out of isolation and into civilization. The river offers her a new lifeline. However, Sorrow is described as “mongrelized”, which means she is multiracial, so when she is rescued, she is put to work as a slave for Vaark.
Later, Sorrow’s river birth finally gives her fulfillment in life. The river acts as another hand in the birthing process, allowing the miracle of life to occur completely naturally. Sorrow seeks help at the river, finds white male indentured servants to assist, and the birth takes place there: “Kneeling in water as Sorrow pushed, they pulled, eased and turned the tiny form stuck between her legs. Blood and more swirled down to the river attracting young cod” (Morrison, 156). In this visceral action scene, nature takes its course, and other animals recognize the sequence. Birth exists in many species, in many forms, but for human women it is a painful, extended experience. Surviving this, Sorrow is overjoyed to have a human to share her life with. “She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the grey glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee” (Morrison, 158). “By-the-lee” is a nautical term describing a ship in a sheltered position from the wind (OED). In her daughter’s eyes, she sees both the opportunity of a new life and the promise of safety, shelter, and love, which she severely lacked. The sea destroyed her past life and ripped away her family. The river was able to assist her with the exact thing she missed in the new land: companionship. Even after her masters die, and her social status becomes uncertain, her daughter’s life is intrinsically good for her.
Those within the confines of slavery develop a natural perspective based upon their survival. Kimberly Ruffin, in her book Black on Earth, discusses the ecological self that slaves had to battle with as they tilled fields and worked land that was not in their possession. “[Black slaves] forged identities as ecological participants based on their work rather than a privileged position in the social fabric” (Ruffin, 29). Ruffin’s point is that slaves’ relationships are formed directly from the work they do upon the land. In the case of A Mercy, we must also understand this sense of identity to encompass other slaves of color, because many of Morrison’s enslaved characters are not black. The important relational point is that “…enslavement did not obliterate the potential for multiple, often positive associations with the natural world” (Ruffin, 29). No matter the slave’s race, they could build a positive understanding of the natural world based upon their experiences with natural forces. But Ruffin’s work, like many ecocritical perspectives, focuses upon the land and disregards water. Therefore, we must expand her “natural world” to also encompass the forces of oceans and rivers.
Continuing in the novel, a multi-racial group of escaped slaves experience society’s failure to fulfill the ocean’s promise of new life and escape to the river for survival. “…After a while [they] are pleasing themselves to whisper where they once live. By the sea, the women say, they cleaning chips, the men caulking them and repairing docks. They are certain their years of debt are over but the master says no” (Morrison, 46). In a wagon in mid-land Maryland, the women are “pleased” to remember their time by the sea because their work was an opportunity to distance themselves from servant life. They came into this life unable to afford their fare, so that work literally provided a chance for success. However, once fully removed from the sea, they come under the influence of people in similar status to Jacob Vaark. The people in the wagon have chosen to reject their masters. The distinction of “Europes” within the indentured servant caravan tells the reader it is a multi-racial group (Morrison, 75). When a Native American slave approaches them, “The river gleam[s] under a sun departing slowly like a bride reluctant to leave the marriage feast” (Morrison, 74). This is an interesting metaphor, because it is so complex in its messages. “A bride reluctant to leave a marriage feast” could mean that the sun and the river are conjoined in their relationship to give life, and the marriage feast was provide because of the sun’s success. The fact that the river gleams suggests that the river is the feast and shares goods with these escaped slaves in attendance. Because they escaped slavery, they were given another chance of survival. Using the river as a path, they can continue moving, seeking a place that welcomes them. With the inclusion of white skin, the group have an easier time navigating Maryland towns. The river provides for them regardless of who they are, but they must still be wary of their status as escaped slaves, as well as the stigma of their skin colors.
Florens, the only black slave, is also the only character to experience an absence of water in her long journey throughout A Mercy, indicating she will never be able to change her fate. During her journey, she dehydrates and functions solely by her hope to be reunited with the blacksmith. She spends most of her travels “try[ing] not to think of water” (Morrison, 79). Near her final steps, she falls asleep and has a dream. “I notice I am at the edge of a lake. The blue is more than sky, more than any blue I know…. I want to put my face deep there. I want to. What is making me hesitate, making me not get the beautiful blue of what I want?…Where my face should be is nothing. I put a finger in and watch the water circle. I put my mouth close enough to drink or kiss but I am not even a shadow there” (Morrison, 162). In her dream, she literally cannot reach her source of life. However, the dream-state of this imagery indicates subconscious meanings. We can also read this as a desire to alter her social situation by living with the blacksmith. Her inability to see her reflection in water indicates that what is available to immigrants and slaves of lighter colors is not available to her. As a young black woman in servitude, she understands life to be difficult; there are certain rules she must follow and people she must obey, and she does not have the ability to question social foundations. But she does not encounter the opportunity of the ocean or the fulfillment of the river and cannot recognize herself in the image of water; therefore, we can understand that she will never have this chance to alter her identity. She is trapped within the social confines allocated to her skin color and age. That could be why she seeks the blacksmith; in him, she sees the opportunity for complete freedom, for an existence characterized by love, sex, and free will. But as she is born into slavery, and into a skin tone that others despise, she is not even awarded a taste of opportunity, potential, or fulfillment—she will never taste that water.
As each characters’ individual experience with water reveals their social truth in A Mercy’s colonial Maryland, the reader understands how water defines the ecological and social self. For the Jacob Vaarks of the past, creating a better life was as easy as stepping off a boat; for women like Florens, receiving the bare minimum required a struggle against societal and ecological circumstances. Kimberly Ruffin capitalized the point that black slaves formed an intimate relationship with the land, due to their lack of claim or property to the land they worked. However, there are American identities represented in the fall between spectrum ends. Indentured servants were taunted by the promise of a free life, living in desiring awe of the land they worked. Multi-racial or bi-racial people experienced discrimination based upon their skin tone, but Sorrow found security in the provisions of love. In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, water is revealed as the defining ecological force behind the “American national project” (Friedman, 311). More than that, it is the force that ties the globe together, allowing for expansion and growth worldwide. Places without water cannot flourish due to water’s natural power to create life. Water isolates us or connects us. Water can define our basic survival. Water has had an incredible defining power on human history; we should give it more credit.
Bready, James and DiLisio, James. “Maryland: State, United States”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Nov 2018, https://www.britannica.com/place/Maryland-state Accessed 28 Nov 2018.
Friedman, Gabriella. “”Cultivating America: Colonial History in the Morrisonian Wilderness.””
MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Project MUSE, vol. 64 no. 2, 2018, pp. 311-333.
Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. Random House Inc, New York, USA, 2008.
Ruffin, Kimberly. Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions. University of Georgia Press, Georgia, USA, 2010, pp. 25-40.
“Undergirded”. “By-the-lee”. Oxford English dictionary, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Accessed at OEDOnline Nov 28 2018.
by Kurtis Matthew
your facial muscles
contradict your words,
and I feel like
I’ve been lied to
when you say
it’s just the truth
that has changed.
a mountain lion
you still embody
a mountain lion,
but a mountain lion
with a silly propeller hat
surrounded by nervous deer.
Take what you will
So long as
I don’t look like
a puffer fish trying
to devour a cloud…
The last time that happened
it rained for eleven months
and come the twelfth,
I fell back to the ocean
only to find
it wasn’t salty enough
for me anymore.
You can reveal
just about anything
to a mountain lion
and it will ignore you,
move its head around
to lick invisible flies,
and finally return
is like letting
the air do the
by Saqif Maqsud
Hold them foremost.
Your hands, your wands, your pens.
Be it whatever may.
Shadow the hypocrites.
Show them the least of pity-I plead you.
The sun has vanished long before.
The light we hold now, be not the aura of god.
We are all children of the devil now.
Trapped in a game of reality and fiction.
Fools who do not comply, are fools.
Only to the many, for they are the few.
It is their hands that are raised.
Their tears that matter. Their hearts – for they are still pure.
Unbridled with guilt, greed and blood and power.
Release your prayers for them.
Join them as they mourn the death of humanity, the death of nature and the death of god.
For I too am no longer with the living or the dead.