We’re All in This Together: The Importance of Community as Demonstrated by Sorrow in ‘A Mercy’
In the stereotypical high school hierarchy, jocks always reign over the band kids, theater geeks, and math geniuses. These athletic students separate themselves from the others, and as this occurs, the geeks, nerds and other social pariahs must choose between two options: to remain alone, or to seek the support of others. In general, those who select the former are bullied—so most choose the latter choice. A similar situation arises in A Mercy. Sorrow, a mixed character, finds herself estranged from her black, native, and white counterparts. Rather than going it alone, she takes on the world with Twin, and later her daughter, by her side and survives in a hostile post-colonial America. By including Sorrow in the narrative, then, Morrison exemplifies the importance of community in increasingly alienated populations.
Communities help people maintain their sense of identity, just as Twin and her baby do for Sorrow. After she washes ashore, Sorrow begins her new life in the sawyer’s house, where the housewife names her Sorrow. Although Morrison notes that Sorrow had a different name on the ship, she also mentions that “she did not mind when they called her Sorrow so long as Twin kept using her real name” (116). The Oxford English Dictionary defines a name as “a word or phrase constituting the individual designation by which a particular person or thing is known, referred to, or addressed.” By giving Sorrow a different name, the housewife attempts to alter how Sorrow “is known, referred to, or addressed”—her identity. Sorrow preserves the identity she knows, however, by keeping her birth name a secret. Only Twin, her community, refers to Sorrow using her real name; only her community can remind her of her true self. Later, when Twin disappears, Sorrow finds a new community in her baby. When the Vaark farm begins to fall apart, Sorrow turns her attention completely to her newborn: “She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee” (134). As Lina, Mistress, and Sorrow drift away from each other, Sorrow risks losing her sense of self, like many do in times of chaos and confusion. However, unlike the ties that held the farm together, Sorrow’s identity does not disappear. When she looks into her baby’s eyes, she sees “the gray glisten of a winter sea” and “a ship,” elements reminiscent of her early days on the water. By reminding Sorrow of her own beginnings, the baby helps Sorrow regain that sense of self—especially in a world that spins out of control.
Throughout the novel, Twin looks out for Sorrow, demonstrating how communities, likewise, protect the individual. When Sorrow regains consciousness after the shipwreck, “they asked her name, [and] Twin whispered NO, so she shrugged her shoulders and found that a convenient gesture for the other information she could not or pretended not to remember” (118). As mentioned previously, a name represents identity. By warning Sorrow against sharing that part of herself, Twin prevents the sawyer’s wife from taking ownership of Sorrow’s identity. Thus, Twin protects Sorrow’s identity from transformation. Twin not only defends Sorrow’s identity; she also shields Sorrow from her fatal flaw. Later, Sorrow, living in the Vaark household, sees Lina checking the jars of food. She assumes the best, but Twin convinces her otherwise: “Checking the stores, thought Sorrow. No, said Twin, checking you for food theft” (122). Throughout the novel, others take advantage of Sorrow due to her naivety—one of her biggest weaknesses. Twin compensates for this innocence by providing a more realistic and more cautious viewpoint. In this, she teaches Sorrow to take everything at face value and protects Sorrow from her own naivety. Finally, Morrison maintains that communities equate with survival. In a hallucination that she has after she receives treatment for her boils, Sorrow explores her past: “Peeking here, listening here, finding nothing except a bonnet and seagulls pecking the remains of a colt” (126). By including the “seagulls pecking the remains of a colt,” Morrison depicts how people cannot survive on their own. She portrays seagulls, a plural noun, pecking at a dead colt, singular—the group triumphing over the individual. Thus, while people in a community can survive, those who go it alone cannot; therefore, communities protect its members from demise.
Twin stays with Sorrow through thick and thin; when life hits its lowest point, communities provide hope and support. Sorrow’s time in America proves difficult from the start. After the shipwreck, she finds it difficult to step onto land because it “was as foreign to her as ocean was to sheep. Twin made it possible” (126). Using the analogy to sheep, innocent and naïve like Sorrow, Morrison illustrates how frighteningly alien the New World seems to her. Likely traumatized from losing the ship and everyone on it, Sorrow initially fears what she sees a place completely opposite of where she came from. Despite these fears, she steps onto land with the help of Twin. Put simply, Twin provides the support Sorrow needs to conquer her fears. Shortly after this episode, Sorrow wakes up in the sawyer’s house and believes she has died: “That was good news, because Sorrow thought she was [dead] until Twin appeared at the foot of the pallet, grinning, holding her face in her hands” (119). In this instance, Twin takes Sorrow out of a dark place, what many see as the ultimate low—death. Not only does Twin provide reassurance, her presence convincing Sorrow that she is alive, but she also brings hope. For Sorrow, Twin’s presence presents itself as “good news” in dismal times: hope in the dark. Sorrow experiences another low point in her life when her first baby dies. In the aftermath of her child’s death, “Sorrow wept, but Twin told her not to…With no one to talk to, she relied on Twin more and more” (123). As she tells Sorrow not to cry, Twin placates Sorrow and provides moral support. Furthermore, Morrison indicates that Sorrow “relie[s] on Twin more and more.” The author’s repetition of “more” twice illustrates Sorrow’s increasing dependence on Twin after an emotional ordeal. As a result, Twin serves as a crutch—an emotional support.
Morrison’s emphasis on community through Sorrow’s character not only depicts the low status of mixed people in America, but it also reveals the origin story of Twin. Sorrow needs community because of her low position in the social hierarchy. A hybrid, Sorrow cannot fit in with the whites, natives, or blacks; Rebekka, Lina, and Florens all alienate her. Because she doesn’t have other people to turn to, Sorrow must improvise, so she decides to form a group of her own—a mixed one. To create this mixed community, Sorrow imagines Twin, a mirror image of Sorrow. She looks exactly like Sorrow for one obvious reason: the only mixed person Sorrow knows is herself.
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