A "Feminist" Approach to A Mercy

In A Mercy, by Tony Morrison, there are several female characters, both slaves and whites that are mis-treated terribly or below the status of most man. The first character we are introduced to is that of Florens, a young slave girl who starts out in the care of a richer plantain owner with her mother and younger brother, and is then sold to Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader to pay off a debt.

From the very beginning the young girl is not looked upon as anything of self-worth from her first owner, as she is so eagerly cast away with a simple, “Why yes, of course, I’ll send her to you immediately (26).” He is neither bothered or shaken at the fact that he is losing a seemingly healthy enough slave, because she is female, and therefore not valued nearly as high as the male slaves who are automatically considered stronger, smarter, and more capable at completing tasks. This sets the tone very early in the story, showing the audience that this is the reality of the situation, and the women really had no say in their fate.

She is also mis-treated later in the story by the blacksmith by whom she not only had sexual relationships with, but fell deeply in love with. When she is sent out on her journey to retrieve the blacksmith so that he may come cure her mistress, he leaves a small boy in her care. When he comes back he finds that the young boy has been injured and immediately blames Florens, as she describes “The back of your hand strikes my face…No tender fingers to touch where you hurt me. I cower.” Although Florens has been a part of his life for a longer period of time, he immediately disowns her when he finds the boy is injured, again putting the male in front of the female and giving him a higher worth.

The native American woman, Lina, also receives abuse at the hands of a male. We come to find in the story that Lina has a rather tragic past, but where feminism is most shown is once again in the case of a lover. When taken in by the Presbyterians after her village is killed off my disease, she is beaten by a lover and forced to walk through town, bruised an bleeding, a very humiliating experience. Again this shows how invaluable women were, and the way Lina describes the wounds as if they are nothing is even more frightening when she says “Lina’s swollen eye had calmed, and the lash cuts on her face, arms and legs had healed and were barely noticeable.” The novel describes it as if these injuries were just a minor thing that she just had to suck up and wait to disappear, when in actuality this woman suffered a great deal of abuse. It is a subject that should never be taken lightly to, but in this novel it clearly points out that domestic violence against women was not considered a punishable crime, and was not looked further into.

Rebekka is a special case, because unlike the two other women previously described, she is not a slave, but a mistress, ordered over seas to be Jacob Vaarks wife. Due to religious intolerance in England, Rebekka is forced by her family to go over to America and be this man’s wife, whom she has never met before, and therefore cannot be in love with. She has absolutely no say in her future, and is merely the answer to an add put in the paper, which says enough about the value of women right there, since it was perfectly normal to put ads up for women. Even when she is placed on the boat to take her over, she is immediately aware of the different treatments of genders when “soon as they were separated from the males…and led to a dark space below next to the animal stalls.” Women were treated on the same level as animals, and it was never thought twice about.

After getting a brief glimpse into the lives of the characters, it is now important to take a briefly deeper dive into the feminist criticism. One important concept in this view is that of ” traditional gender roles” in which Lois Tyson describes as “casting men as rational, strong, protective and decisive, and women as emotional/irrational, weak, nurturing, and submissive.” This is demonstrated all throughout the book, as has been previously described, and these “traditional gender norms” are the main cause for such discrimination. It is what feminists have been fighting against for centuries now, and unfortunately these norms are so deeply engrained into people’s minds that we see it not only in works of literature, but also in day to day life.

Another important concept to understand is the “patriarchal system”, which Tyson claims to “Continually exert forces that undermine women’s self-confidence and assertiveness, then points to the absence of these qualities as proof that women are naturally, and therefore corrective, self-effacing and submissive.” In lame-mens terms, what this concept is merely saying is that this is a male-dominated country, in which men hold a majority of higher-level/power positions, and therefore have the authority to literally “run” everything. Women are constantly answering to men, and therefore men are the ones making most of the decisions for us, which can lead to many women’s needs being overlooked. This again is obviously demonstrated in the book, seeing as how all the men hold the positions of power and the women are constantly submissive to them, whether it be household chores, sexual interactions, etc.

The Patriarchal system has a huge influence in this novel. Although feminism, as was stated earlier, is not about male-bashing, it does have a strong focus on how this country in particular is a male dominated one. In this story, the same is true. The men are the heads of the households without fail, and there are multiple examples of infidelity when it comes to the men and their women slaves. It appears that the women are just expected to turn a blind eye as the slaves become pregnant with mixed children, so obviously created by their husbands, while if a woman were to do the same the consequences would be tremendous.

When Jacob Vaark comes into a bit of money, he decides to build a separate house, even though they could use the money for so many more things that they actually needed. Although Rebekka is his wife, he does not consult her once to see what she feels the money should be spent on. She has no say in the matter, because he is in charge and what he says goes, her opinion is not valued as it should be in a marriage. As was mentioned previously, their marriage was also arranged, once again showing that when a man wanted a woman for this or that, women were expected to do so without a seconds thought, because men ran the show.

Although Morrison’s novel is a very severe case of the Patriarchal system at it’s worst due to the time period in which it was set in, it still does a pretty accurate job at getting the point across. The female characters attitudes and behaviors are shaped by that system, because they are in lower-status positions than the male characters at all times. Their needs and wants are second or over-looked completely, because those with more power are the ones making all the decisions. The women depicted in the novel behave as though it is the norm for their opinions to not matter in any way, and by showing this type of mental abuse in the story, it opens people’s eyes to the fact that something must be done to change this.

Over-all, A Mercy is not just a tale of slaves, but a cry for help. Although discrimination like this is not nearly as prevalent in today’s world, (obviously since slavery has been abolished), it is still very alive in today’s culture. We still live in a patriarchal system, and women still have to fight ten times harder to earn the same respect, and positions as men do. A Mercy is a great piece of work to take a feminist approach to, and there is much to be learned if you take the time to read between the lines.

Source by Gillian Smyth

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