Land of the Unfree: How A Mercy Exposes America Through its Portrayal of Jacob Vaark

By Estelle Anderson

In Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, a vivid, evocative account of colonial America in the late seventeenth century, Jacob Vaark represents the archetypal American individual. One of many colonists at the time attempting to create a life for himself in the unstable New World, his ascent from orphan to landowner is a quintessential American success story. However, Jacob is also one of Morrison’s most ironic characters, whose climb up the social hierarchy is accompanied by a departure from reason and morality. By depicting Jacob’s journey as one of self-destruction, Morrison parodies traditional literary epics and, more specifically, American origin mythologies. In doing so, she critiques America’s hubris, calling for a reckoning on the values of individuality and material prosperity that form the pillars of the American Dream.

Morrison’s ironic treatment of Jacob as the “American Adam”—a literary trope conceptualized by scholar R.W.B. Lewis—aims to condemn the romanticization of America’s founding. As Jacob rides through the Chesapeake, the narrator illustrates his surroundings using biblical echoes: “Breathing the air of a world so new, almost alarming in rawness and temptation, never failed to invigorate [Jacob]. Once beyond the warm gold of the bay, he saw forests untouched since Noah, shorelines beautiful enough to bring tears, wild food for the taking...” (14). Morrison consciously invokes the Garden of Eden through describing early America as a breathtaking, “untouched” region brimming with “temptation.” Her allusion to the biblical figure Noah, who sailed to a new land to restart the human race, conveys the profound rawness of the country that Jacob has entered, presenting the land as having an innocence of its own. The narrator’s portrayal of Jacob as a man of great independence, who engages in heroic acts such as rescuing wounded animals, represents him as the Adam inhabiting this new Eden. However, rather than glorify early America and its first inhabitants, Morrison’s narration is drenched in irony that reveals the fundamental impurity that America was founded upon. Jacob, while seemingly moral, fuels slavery through his commerical pursuits, despite his attempts to convince himself that “his own industry could amass the fortune, the station, D’Ortega claimed without trading his conscience for coin” (32). Ironically, “trade his conscience for coin” is exactly what Jacob does through supporting the slave trade. Morrison presents Jacob’s self-delusion as reflective of America’s tendency to perceive itself as exceptionally moral, while ignoring the evils that are at the heart of its founding. Furthermore, while the American Adam is described in literature as entirely independent and self-sufficient, Morrison disrupts this myth by revealing how Jacob’s independence is inseparable from a dependence on the unfree, whether it be Willard and Scully, Rebekkah, or the enslaved people on his plantation. Ultimately, Morrison’s representation of Jacob as the American Adam is a parody, one that reveals the moral rot that festers under the Edenic facade of colonial America.

Through her exploration of different forms of individuality on the Vaark patroonship, Morrison interrogates the flaws of American individualism. Lina, whose Native American culture has instilled her with a unique appreciation of community, reflects on the dangers on Jacob and Rebekkah’s mentalities: “Sir and Mistress believed they could have honest, free-thinking lives, yet without heirs, all their work meant less than a swallow’s nest. Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy...Pride, [Lina] thought. Pride alone made them think they needed only themselves, could shape life that way...” (69). While American culture praises the individual and their “private,” self-motivated scramble to the top, Morrison expresses a different sentiment through Lina’s reflection: to solely focus on one’s own needs, as Jacob does, is an act of “pride” that leads to a myopic, delusional existence. By defining Jacob’s obsession with individualism as his fatal flaw, Morrison condemns the way in which a prioritization of “privacy” and material prosperity shoves aside spiritual values of love and generosity. In contrast to Jacob’s “selfish privacy,” Lina and Sorrow reflect different, healthier understandings of individuality. Both develop their identities and learn to respect themselves through the relationships that they form with others: Sorrow becomes symbolically “Complete” by raising her child, and Lina gains a sense of self-worth through her efforts to protect Florens. In her demonstration of these differences between Lina, Sorrow, and Jacob, Morrison underscores the power of community and the value of forming authentic human connections.

In her depiction of Jacob’s “Fall” and the highly symbolic house that he leaves in his wake, Morrison rebukes American exceptionalism, refocusing America’s history on its oppression of the unfree. After Jacob dies from smallpox, Rebekkah and the other women fulfill his dying wish by bringing him to his empty mansion, “laying him in the mud” in order to unbolt the door (105). Although Jacob certainly has obtained “success” as defined by the American Dream—property and social mobility—his pursuit of material prosperity has led him to sacrifice his integrity. By giving Jacob a lack of dignity in death, where the mud he lies in implies his “muddied” conscience, Morrison parodies heroic portrayals of traditional epic protagonists. Often in literature, epic heros culminate their quests by reaching an achievement that is central to the traditions and beliefs of their culture (Notes and Quotes). In A Mercy, the house that Jacob builds is a reversal of this aspect of an epic: rather than a cultural “achievement,” the house is a testament to the evils embedded in the fabrics of America, in which the serpent gate symolizes the sin of slavery. Through describing Jacob’s mansion as a “grand house of many rooms rising on a hill above the fog,” Morrison parodies and critiques John Winthrop’s infamous “city on a hill” metaphor asserting American exceptionalism. If Jacob’s house represents America, then it is significant that it was constructed by a “crew of [unfree] laborers:” America was, indeed, built and developed through the labors of the unfree (175). Willard, one of the workers who assisted in the building of the house, describes how “neatly [the] iron bars led to the gate, each side of which was crowned by a flourish of thick vines. Or so he thought. Looking more closely, he saw the gilded vines were actually serpents...” (132). Just as the serpents appear at first glance to be exquisite, “gilded vines,” Morrison implies that America is a master of deceit and equivocation, a nation that uses a facade of exceptionalism to hide the sins that lurk beneath. Furthermore, the fact that each character in A Mercy describes the house and its serpent gate differently—Lina believes that the house is “sinister,” while Willard and Scully view it as awe-inspiring—speaks to the complex variety of perspectives through which America is and always has been viewed.

Especially in today’s polarized political climate, there are many who vehemently oppose critiques of America. Just this past week, the White House denounced a suggestion to integrate the New York Times’ groundbreaking “1619 Project” into California public school curriculums, claiming that “no American student should be made to feel ashamed of their history or identity.” Quotes like these are almost Orwellian, proposing to erase essential aspects of American history because they do not fit the bright, “city on a hill” idealizations of America that many politicians prefer. As Morrison expresses throughout A Mercy, engaging in uncomfortable analyses of American history and extracting the flaws from American mythologies are the sole way that we as a country can achieve true national growth and enlightenment. Reexamining American history and values from a critical lens is only the first step, however: it is also the responsibility of every American to actively devote themselves to dismantling American systems of oppression. In a way, Jacob Vaark’s self-delusion mimics the privileged Americans today who continue to remain blind to the ways in which they benefit from those systems.