A few days ago, I started reading an amazing novel. It is the second novel I have ever read that I finished in one day, which is a great compliment to the author since I haven’t been satisfied with most of the award-winning books I’ve recently read. The novel is called A Mercy, written by Nobel prize author Toni Morrison.
Here is a short summary about the plot from Goodreads:
In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland.
This is Florens, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, and later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives.
A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart, it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter – a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment (Knopf, 11 November 2008).
I have an odd habit when reading a good book. After I’m done reading, I skim through the book again to be able to reflect on all the events that happened all at once. I’m not sure if that’s odd, but I haven’t met anyone who does it. Anyways, as I was re-reading this novel, I noticed something quite interesting. I found several archetypes that is worth elaborating on.
Archetypal Literary Theory
Literary theory describes the perspective a reader views a story (Brewton, n.d.). There are many different ways a reader can analyze it, but for now, lets focus on archetypes. Archetypal literary theory analyzes text by focusing on the symbols, characters, and the main journey found within it that can also be found in another story (“Archetypal Literary Criticism,” 10 July 2017).
The following three points are about the different character archetypes found in the novel:
1. The Sacrificing Mother
Florens remembers the day that Jacob visited D’Ortega’s plantation when she was young. She remembers Jacob choosing her and her mother as payment to cover D’Ortega’s debt but she also recalls her mother begging Jacob to take only her daughter. Florens remembers her mother saying: “Take the girl, […] my daughter” (Morrison 8). By the end of the novel, we find that Florens’s mother actually sacrificed her daughter with good intentions. On the day Jacob visited, Florens’s mother noticed that Jacob wasn’t like all the other slave dealers. Sadly, he wanted only her and her daughter, and not her new-born son. She couldn’t leave her baby son but she believed that Jacob won’t let her daughter enter the world of drug and rape. Florens’s mother let her daughter leave with a strange man whom she trusted with the intentions that she abandoned her.
To sacrifice means to give up on something you dearly desire in order to achieve something beneficial (“Sacrifice,” n.d.). Florens’s mother is categorized as a sacrificing mother. She lets her daughter go for the purpose of Florens to avoid living the life she lived. This archetype can also be found in the animated film, Prince of Egypt. In the film, during the crisis of jewish slavery in Egypt, a poor Jewish mother places her new-born baby son in a basket and lets him float down the river. She doesn’t want him to grow into a life with hardships and cruelty. She sings to him, “I have nothing that I can give” (The Prince of Egypt, 1998).
In both situations, the mothers are struggling and can’t care for their children the way they should be cared for. They love their children very much and only want the best for them. Florens’s mother lets Florens leave with a man that may offer her a better life. The mother from the film lets her son go down a river with hope that someone with a good heart will find him and care for him.
2. The Envious Girl
The last memory Florens has over her mother is her abandoning her only daughter to stay with her son. Because of that, she wants to have the people she care for only for herself. When she goes to the Blacksmith’s house to ask for his help to heal Rebekka, she finds that he has an adopted son, Malaik, and can’t leave him alone. At that moment, she feels the same exact feeling when her mother abandoned her; she fears that the Blacksmith will choose Malaik over her. She notices, “how [the Blacksmith] offer[s] and [Malaik] owns [his] forefinger. As if [Malaik] is [the Blacksmith’s] future. Not [Florens]” (Morrison 160). But to save Rebekka, she is forced to stay with the little boy while her lover goes heals her Mistress. Florens envies Malaik and she avoids him as much as possible.
To envy a person is to be discontent with what the other person has. Florens is recognized as an envious girl. She is jealous of Malaik because the Blacksmith loves him. This archetype is also found in the musical film, Grease. In the film, Danny is in love with Sandy but she is currently dating another man. Danny despises the man she is dating, so he tries very hard to impress her. He tries out for every school team hoping he’d find a sport he likes and can show that he is a passionate man (“Grease,” n.d.).
In both situations, the main characters envy the person that their lovers care for. Both characters don’t want to be alone and want to be with the person they love. Florens wants Blacksmith all for herself because she doesn’t want to feel that he may love Malaik more than her. In Grease, Danny wants to be with Sandy because he loves her and wants to ruin her relationship with her boyfriend so she could be with him.
3. The Cheating Husband
D’Ortega owns a tobacco plantation. He also owns many women slaves who, either, work for him at his house or at the factory. He has a small happy family: a wife and six young children. D’Ortega is known for his desire for intimate intercourse. Even though he has a wife, he has raped most of his slaves, yet his faviroute woman is Florens’s mother. When Jacob chooses her and her daughter to cover D’Ortega’s debt, he becomes mad because he doesn’t want to lose his faviroute sexual partner. However, he is very relieved that she has chosen to stay with him.
Here is the discussion Jacob has with D’Ortega with wanting Florens’s mother and her daughter:
“Barely listening to D’Ortega’s patter, sly, indirect, instead of straight and manly, Jacob neared the cookhouse and saw a woman standing in the door-way with two children. One on her hip; one hiding behind her skirts. She looked healthy enough, better fed than others. On a whim, mostly to silence him and fairly sure D’Ortega would refuse, he said, ‘Her. That one. I’ll take her’.
“D’Ortega stopped short, a startled look on his face. ‘Ah, no. Impossible. My wife won’t allow. She can’t live without her. She is our main cook, the best one’.
“Jacob drew closer and, recognizing the clove-laced sweat, suspected there was more than cooking D’Ortega stood to lose.
“‘You said ‘any’. I could choose any. If your word is worthless, there is only the law’.
“D’Ortega lifted an eyebrow, just one, as though on its curve an empire rested. Jacob knew he was struggling with this impertinent threat from an inferior, but he must have thought better of returning the insult with another. He desperately wanted this business over quickly and he wanted his way.
“‘Well, yes,’ said D’Ortega, ‘but there are other women here. More. You see them. Also this one is nursing'” (Morrison 27-28).
Therefore, D’Ortega is recognized as a cheater and an unfaithful husband. This archetype can also be found in the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. This archetype relates to the character of Tom Buchanan. He is also recognized as a cheater because he is unfaithful to his wife, Daisy Buchanan. He has a mistress who he can easily visit and take to their apartment in New York to be sexually active with and to party wildly with friends (The Great Gatsby, 1925).
In both situations, the husbands are unfaithful to their wives sexually. D’Ortega often rapes his faviroute slave and Tom often visits his mistress. This can show that the husbands are unhappy with their wives and are only married for status purposes. They can’t be with the women they care for because of their low status and, due to society, in order for the men to be with them, they need to be wealthy women with good reputations.
The following point is about a motif archetype found in the novel:
4. Fighting For Love
Relating back to the second point, Florens works really hard to impress the man she loves. She struggles very much on her journey to go see him by riding a bus on her own and prone to being raped, getting lost in the forest filled with wild animals, and being pursued by racist people. This situation relates to the archetype, fighting for love. This archetype is also found in the Disney animated film, Sleeping Beauty. In the film, the prince faces a lot of difficult obstacles to get to the top of the tower, where the princess is sleeping. He fights to reach the beautiful princess and so he can marry her (“Sleeping Beauty,” n.d.).
In both situations, the main characters struggle and face many challenges to reach the person they love. I can understand that in both plots, the main characters need to struggle to get the thing they want most. Both stories show that a person needs to struggle a little bit and not everything can come served-in-a-plate to them, which is a very good lesson to learn.
Literary theory analyzes a text in different perspectives. Literary theory can show a reader that there is almost an infinite amount of ways the author can imply a moral message in a novel or any other media project. Archetypal literary theory shows the different perspectives a reader can interpret a character, symbol, and motif. It finds the deeper meaning behind the existence of the archetype.
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“Envy.” Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/envy>.
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“Sleeping Beauty.” IMDb. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053285/>.
The Prince of Egypt. Dir. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells. 1998. DVD.
“The Prince of Egypt.” IMDb. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120794/>.
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