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Power and Imagination


A Mercy by Toni Morrison.

A Mercy follows the path of a young slave, Florens, from a Maryland
tobacco plantation to a farm in northern New York in the late 17th century. In
her PBS interview, Professor Morrison (
v=7IZvMhQ2LIU) states that she situated the novel in a time before slavery
had become strictly racialized, when the forced exploitation of fellow humans
still included a variety of forms and hues. She also said she was interested in
exploring the tension in American culture between individualism and the
essential need for community in a Hobbesian world.
Choose one of the two prompts below for your essay. Provide your reader
with context regarding character and plot, but dont devote your essay to a
summary of the book. Bring in enough details about the narrative to make
your analysis understandable to someone who hasnt read the novel. Ill look
for you to incorporate quotes and references to specific events that will
support the claims you make about the novel _ show your reader the specific
moments in the novel that are important to your analysis. You may, but are
not required to draw upon other readings from the class that are relevant to
your thesis.
1. When we view some of the shameful chapters in American history such
as the genocide of the native peoples, the centuries of slavery followed
by an additional century of Jim Crow segregation, we find it hard to
imagine that people could be so cruel and uncaring. Certainly not us,
or our friends and neighbors. One of the functions of good fiction can
be that it allows us a brief glimpse into the minds of both the
perpetrators and the victims. Hopefully this gives us a measure of
understanding that may help us avoid either role, and to judge from a
more informed, humane perspective, rather than a reflexive, dualistic
condemnation (always defining the perpetrator as other). The
mistreatment of others, or even just the assertion of dominance, is
frequently linked to an emotional distance, a denial of empathy. This
distance can be achieved by a denial of commonality, a socially
constructed distinction of us and them. Morrison states that she is
interested in how the emphatic boundary between African and

Caucasian Americans developed, but the novel includes a wealth of

others. In this period of American history, boundaries of race, gender,
class, religion, and nationality created identities and divided people.
Rather than address all the permutations of bias and oppression in the
novel, choose one (race, gender, class, ) and explore when and how
it allowed individuals to withhold empathy and shared humanity with
the outsider.
2. The first prompt focuses on the psychological and sociological
mechanisms that allow normal people to withhold empathy from those
who do not belong to their group. A Mercy is populated by
individuals who exist outside the security and shared identity of an
established community. Explore the ways in which Morrison brings
these disparate characters into a supportive, improvised community of
growing empathy, only to have it cut down by circumstance. What
pulled them together in common cause, what were the tensions that
weakened the links, what was the vulnerability that brought it all
down? Morrisons portrayal of the closed communities of the time is
hardly flattering, but her lesson on the vulnerability of those without
community is frightening. What might her message be to us regarding
the tension between independence and community? In a time of
uncertainty and challenge, consider the outsider status of the various
main characters in A Mercy and ways in which they find support and
safety in their improvised communities. How does Morrison portray the
traditional communities in the novel and the price of belonging? What
is the authors response to our glorification of individualism?
Id expect your response to be about four pages, double-spaced, 12-space
font, and using MLA citation format in your bibliographic page (page 5).