A Mercy: Clear Archetypes in an Unclear Book

A Mercy by Toni Morrison is a painfully confusing book with (what seems to be) an interesting story line. I currently have a love-hate relationship with this book. I love the theme, but often have a difficult time understanding what is going on. I have never read a book that has been presented in such a confusing manner. Morrison has written each chapter of the book from a different character’s perspective. I am constantly finding myself focused on trying to figure out which character is speaking, rather than the story line itself. However, Morrison introduces common archetypes into the book which helps me understand the story a lot better.

a mercy

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

From what I understand, the story takes place on Jacob and Rebekka Vaark’s tobacco plantation, where three female slaves work. When Rebekka becomes sick, a slave by the name of Florens slave is sent out on a long journey to find medical help from their former blacksmith. The book heavily revolves around slavery, unlikely lovers, and motherhood. I do not want to spoil the book for anyone, so that is all the information I will tell!

As I said earlier, this book is not very easy to follow. Fortunately, many characters introduced in this book could be considered “archetypal characters.” This helped me understand certain characters to a higher degree, as their behavior and personality is something I have seen in other stories. For example, I had a difficult time understanding Lina, one of the female slaves. After reading more about the way she mentors Florens, one of the younger slaves, it became clear that Lina is the “loving mother” archetype. A mother archetype is someone who “has the capacity for the immense expression of unconditional love, devotion and caring” (Couch). I think that definition describes Lina perfectly. Although Lina is not Florens’ biological mother, she still expresses love, guidance and concern for her. For example, Florens has a difficult time dealing with her broken heart, so Lina snuggles up beside her and tries to comfort her (Morrison 150). Lina remembers Florens’ favourite story and tells her the uplifting tale (Morrison 150). Lina knows the perfect way to put Florens’ mind at ease and makes it clear that she a mother’s magic touch.


A caring mother reading a story to her daughter to make her happy.

The relationship between Lina and Florens reminds me of the relationship between Katniss and Rue. Katniss and Rue are characters in the movie entitled The Hunger Games. In the movie, Katniss acts as Rue’s mentor and motherly figure. Katniss provides protection and support for her, just like Lina does for Florens. Neither Katniss or Lina are biological mothers; however, this does not mean they are incapable of showing compassion and empathy towards others. The scene where Katniss and Rue share a meal reminds me of the mother-daughter relationship between Lina and Florens. Similar to Lina, Katniss is very poor. Katniss struggles to find food, but once she does, she makes sure to share it with Rue. While eating together, Katniss and Rue tell each other stories about their past to help put their minds at ease from all the chaos that surrounds them. The way Katniss provides Rue with comfort and love is very similar to the way Lina provides for Florens. Katniss and Lina reveal that a loving mother archetype can still apply to characters who show no biological relation to their son or daughter figure.


Katniss and Rue (Characters in The Hunger Games) laughing together as they eat.

In the book, one of the female slaves by the name of Sorrow gives birth to a baby. However, the baby dies shortly after being born. Sorrow becomes emotionally and physically distant from the other slaves. Lina is concerned for her, which further shows her motherly love for others. Lina decides “to look for Sorrow down by the river” as that is “where she often went to talk to her dead baby” (Morrison 59). Rivers are common archetypes which are used to symbolize death (Rudd). Through the introduction of a river archetype, Morrison was able to express to the audience that Sorrow is feeling distraught at the death of her baby.


A river which symbolizes death according to common archetypes.


Sorrow is not the only slave undergoing hardship. Florens is also experiencing a troublesome journey. However, Florens’ journey seems to be more like a typical archetypal hero’s journey. A archetypal hero’s journey is described as someone who leaves the world they are familiar with and enters a new one in order to find something/someone needed to save the day (Winkle). Typically, the someone/something they need is far away, and so there are often roadblocks along the way. For Florens, her journey consists of a long and lonely walk through the forest in order to find the blacksmith who has the medicine needed to heal Rebekka (Morrison 41). Some of the roadblocks that stand in her way are the animals lurking in the forest (Morrison 41). Florens decides that she must protect herself from the animals by sleeping in the uncomfortable branches of a pine tree (Morrison 41). Florens is very determined to reach success as she makes sacrifices like this in order to get the medicine needed save someone’s life. I hope that Florens ends up finding the blacksmith and getting the medicine, as her journey will feel well worth the trouble once she feels like a hero.

Much like Florens, who has yet to finish her journey, I have yet to finish mine. My journey consists of me trying to read this book. My roadblocks are the book’s constant perspective changes. However, I hope to not be phased by them throughout the second half of the book. I also think that the second half of the book will include many more archetypes which shall presume to help with my understanding. Lastly, I have learned some things on my journey that I would like to share. If you are thinking about reading A Mercy by Toni Morrison, I strongly advise you to review some common archetypal symbols beforehand. The book can become very confusing at times; however, Morrison uses many archetypes throughout the book which can aid in your understanding of the interesting story line.


Works Cited

Couch, Stacey L.L. “The Mother Archetype” Wild Gratitude. Wild Gratitude LLC, 2 May 2016. Web. 12 July 2017.

Golden, Carl. “The 12 Common Archetypes.” Soul Craft. Soul Craft, n.d. Web. 12 July 2017

Hunger games. Dir. Gary Ross. Lions gate, 2012. Film.

Morrison, Toni. A mercy. London: Vintage, 2016. Print.

Rudd, Deborah. Archetypes in Literature. N.p., 27 Jan. 1997. Web. 12 July 2017.

Winkle, Chris. “The Eight Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey.” Mythcreants. Mythcreants LLC, n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.