Toni Morrison’s A Mercy grapples with maternal responsibilities and the simultaneous value and presumed danger of female independence. As the two “unmastered” women watch Rebekka run to her husband Jacob for comfort, Lina tells Florens, “We never shape the world…The world shapes us” (Morrison 83). Yet, at the climax of A Mercy, we witness the transformation of a character who was shaped by her male-driven world as she begins to shape her own world through feminine autonomy and maternal devotion.
Morrison’s character of Sorrow is the most strikingly independent character of the novel, since she is both rejected by the women around her and isolates herself due to her tendency to trust men over women. This lack of female community creates a sort of social pariah out of Sorrow, who seeks companionship from her imagined “Twin.” However, Sorrow undergoes a vital change after giving birth to a daughter, even deciding to change her name to “Complete.” In A Mercy, Sorrow, reborn as Complete, is representative of an “unmastered woman” who is fulfilled by not simply motherhood, but building a supportive female community of her own and a promise to end the novel’s cycle of maternal trauma with her newborn daughter.
The arc of Sorrow throughout A Mercy is essentially organized into two sides of the story: first, Sorrow through the eyes of others and then, Sorrow’s own perspective in the third-person limited narrative focus of Chapter Eight. In the early chapters of the novel, we see Sorrow through the eyes of the three other “unmastered” women of the Vaark plantation as useless, bad luck, and wild, but in Chapter Eight, we discover the internal awareness and transformation of Sorrow/Complete.
Although Florens is portrayed as the main protagonist, being the only character to tell her own story in first-person narration, Sorrow’s chapter starts off the final third of the novel as a climax within a climax. As I will develop later in this essay, Sorrow becoming a mother runs parallel to the development of Florens. The relationship between the two young girls is close to nonexistent, since Lina engages her maternal fears and protects Florens from Sorrow. In their few interactions, their positions in the cycles of motherhood and daughterhood are greatly emphasized. Regardless of their closeness in age, Florens is frightened by the maternal instincts that Sorrow contains — even while Sorrow is unaware of these traits. When she first sees a pregnant Sorrow, Florens muses, “…mothers nursing greedy babies scare me. I know how their eyes go when they choose” (Morrison 9). Even upon first glance, Florens has aligned Sorrow with her own mother, a minha mãe. This could simply be interpreted as Florens’ distrust of all mothers and maternal aspects, yet the focus on Sorrow seems to foreshadow a trend in the novel’s timeline, tracing the maternal cycle through every female character.
When it comes to Lina and Rebekka, Sorrow seems to serve as a simultaneous character foil to both women. Revisiting Lina’s advice to Florens, Sorrow is a young girl that has existed in a world shaped solely by men. Sorrow has depended on men many times in her life, and her reliance on them has been rewarded: raised by the Captain, taken in as an orphan by Jacob, cured of her illness by the blacksmith, her baby delivered by Willard and Scully. Even in her mistreatment by men — her lack of romantic experience, instead being sexually exploited by men and left impregnated — Sorrow holds greater regard for male figures, since all of the women she has interacted with do not trust her.
An outside view of Sorrow considered her as devilish, perhaps even subhuman: in Lina’s words from Chapter Four, “In the best of times the girl dragged misery like a tail” (Morrison 65). Following the death of all of her children, Rebekka fears that Sorrow is the consistent bearer of misfortune on the Vaark land. Although Rebekka is aware of all of the women’s common “promise and threat of men” (Morrison 115), her religion leads her to prioritize God over forming a female community — Rebekka retorts to Sorrow, “‘God alone cures. No man has such power’” (Morrison 157). Lina’s distrust of men contrasts directly against Sorrow’s trust of men, and because of this, Lina as a maternal figure chooses Florens over Sorrow to be her surrogate daughter. To Lina, Florens is the embodiment of innocence, and Sorrow is therefore “corruption” (Morrison 70), damaged by the trauma of a male-dominated upbringing. Sorrow, who seems to be most in need of maternal guidance and female community to protect her from dangerous male forces, cannot receive this from Rebekka or Lina.
The defining aspect of Sorrow, seen both through the interpretations of others as well as a self-defined trait, is her “wildness.” This abstract concept of being “wild” is a prevailing theme throughout A Mercy, mainly explored through the emotional arc of Florens. In her eternally unreceived message to her daughter, a minha mãe explains that she feared for the safety of Florens against the perverted and dangerous D’Ortega due to the young Florens’ growing female body and acclimation to wearing high heels. She fears that Florens will be put in harm’s way due to her “wild” femininity: “To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal” (Morrison 191). The male characters of Willard, Scully, and the blacksmith view the wild quality of Florens in a negative light, especially following her violence against the blacksmith and Malaik that leaves her blood-stained and disheveled. Yet, Florens now interprets her wildness as a form of freedom, “survival, and persistence” (Morgenstern 23).
To Sorrow, the mystery of her wildness and independence is not a mystery at all; she learns by the end of Chapter Eight that the privacy she deems necessary is an emotion that every woman feels, one that should be used to unite rather than allow to separate. Twin, the imaginary partner of Sorrow, seems to be the metaphysical incarnation of this internal soul-searching and feminine self-discovery that Sorrow needed to fulfill. In her essay “Toni Morrison’s Disrupted Girls and Their Disturbed Girlhoods: The Bluest Eye and A Mercy,” Susmita Roye concurs, “Every time Twin calls her to play or talk, Sorrow joins her to enjoy a kind of freedom that is unknown to Lina or Florens” (Roye 223). Many women at this time did not seem to understand the transcendent common quality of female experience, and Sorrow herself only discovers its power after giving birth to a daughter and watching the women of the Vaark plantation completely isolate from one another: “Each woman embargoed herself; spun her own web of thoughts unavailable to anyone else” (Morrison 158).
As I mentioned earlier in the essay, the conclusion of Sorrow in Chapter Eight comprises the first half of the emotional climax of A Mercy, immediately followed and juxtaposed by Florens narrating her violent response to the blacksmith choosing to defend Malaik. Although the novel is written in a nonlinear fashion, these events — and the characters of Florens and Sorrow — feel strangely connected and parallel. As Sorrow brings new life into the world, Florens is assumedly taking away life. However, I do not interpret this parallelism as a direct comparison of the two characters, or even Morrison framing Sorrow and Florens as foils of one another. In her characterization of Sorrow following her entering motherhood, Morrison has captured the final moment of Sorrow in A Mercy as a modern reincarnation of Florens’ a minha mãe. In her essay “Maternal Love/Maternal Violence: Inventing Ethics in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy,” Naomi Morgenstern asserts,
“Morrison’s mothers, then, might be said to invent ethics or to bring an ethical realm into being because, through performance, they must constitute the right to mother as an absolute responsibility. Florens’s mother counters slavery’s attempt to completely usurp the mother’s role by wresting from slavery the right to give her child the gift of death. She founds a new state for herself and her child in this wilderness of rightlessness” (Morgenstern 23).
All her life, Sorrow has been stranded inside her feminine privacy, constantly dependent on men to save her or move her forward in life. Yet when she gives birth to a daughter, her own flesh and blood, Sorrow realizes her power as a mother and unmastered woman: “…she was convinced that this time she had done something, something important, by herself” (Morrison 157). Just as a minha mãe had only her own guidance in her decision to protect her daughter by giving her to Jacob Vaark, Sorrow has now acquired a pivotal understanding of autonomy and the unconditional love of a child. While the reader only knows a minha mãe as a message to Florens frozen in time, the transformation of Sorrow simultaneously distinguishes her as a human portrayal of hope and pain in the unbreakable maternal cycle of slave women.
The final words of Sorrow in Chapter Eight spell out her climactic transformation: “‘I am your mother,’ she said. ‘My name is Complete’” (Morrison 158). Sorrow has chosen for herself a name of her own, portraying newfound autonomy and “[exerting] her will to counteract the shortcomings of an interrupted girlhood and emerge into a complete womanhood and motherhood” (Roye 223). Even more than this, though, Sorrow has independently “completed” the cycle of motherhood and femininity, even without experiencing a maternal upbringing. With her daughter, Complete will initiate the supportive female community she has always needed. Looking back on the quote, “We never shape the world…The world shapes us” (Morrison 83), the character of Sorrow has shifted from being personally shaped by a male-dominant environment to individually shaping her own world through the power of motherhood.
Morgenstern, Naomi. “Maternal Love/Maternal Violence: Inventing Ethics in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” MELUS, vol. 39, no. 1, 2014, pp. 7–29., www.jstor.org/stable/24569889. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. New York: Knopf, 2008. Print.
Roye, Susmita. “Toni Morrison’s Disrupted Girls and Their Disturbed Girlhoods: The Bluest Eye and A Mercy.” Callaloo, vol. 35, no. 1, 2012, pp. 212–227., www.jstor.org/stable/41412505. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.