In Toni Morrison’s 2008 novel, A Mercy, the mistress Rebekka Vaark gives the journeying Florens an authenticating letter that twice describes their domicile as “Milton” (110). Appearing two-thirds of the way through the novel, this detail strongly suggests what has been only hinted at until this point: that the writings of John Milton (1608–74) are an important presence herein. My aim in this article is to explore A Mercy’s subtle and complex engagement with the work of the seventeenth-century poet, statesman and political activist. I argue that Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) significantly informs Morrison’s representation of life in Virginia, Maryland and New England in the 1680s and ’90s. The novelist’s engagement both with that poem and with its status in that specific time and locale is key to A Mercy’s central concerns: the nature of freedom and oppression, of power and powerlessness, and of good and evil.
In his keynote address at the Toni Morrison Society Conference of July 2008, Marc Conner declared that “the context of the seventeenth century, of Descartes and Milton . . . opens all sorts of doors into Morrison’s worlds, particularly her relation to Modernity” (5). In the same speech he suggested that Adam and Eve’s banishment “at the end of Paradise Lost . . . has been a meditation for Morrison,” pointing out that “her novel Paradise . . . is hardly her first investigation into the concept of Paradise and its loss” (4). Several scholars have analyzed the ways that Tar Baby and Jazz as well as Paradise—in their portrayals of flawed and/or lost utopias—engage with the Genesis stories of the Creation, and of Adam and Eve’s temptation and fall.1 Yet (with the exception of Conner’s remarks) there has been a regrettable critical silence on the subject of Morrison’s dialogue with Milton’s version of these events. To some extent, this is not surprising: from one perspective, no two authors writing in the same language could have less in common, and the stern-faced, Puritan-leaning, white Englishman does not immediately come to mind when we think of Jadine and Son, Joe Trace and Dorcas, or even Consolata and Deek. The interactions with Milton in A Mercy, however, are sufficiently charged that it would be an act of wilful scholarly oversight to ignore this intertextual relationship any longer.2
It is in A Mercy that Morrison most obviously shares Milton’s preoccupation with (if not his perspectives on) the conflicts between order and chaos, reason and sexual desire, and the divine and the human. His fascination with the nature of power and government, with the status of women, with the relationship between Puritanism and Roman Catholicism, with the limits of language and literature, and even with the viability (or otherwise) of binary oppositions, resonates significantly in the contemporary work. Morrison’s allusions to Paradise Lost at once unpack Miltonic certainties and exploit Miltonic uncertainties and ambivalences, and in so doing, contribute to the scrutiny of the nascent Enlightenment world-view and of the transition into constructions of “America” that A Mercy enacts. [End Page 593]
Concepts of “Dominion”
In contrast to the scant critical attention paid to the subject of Milton and Morrison, scholars have written extensively on the subject of Milton and America. This scholarship contextualizes what might be at stake, politically, in Morrison’s own engagement with Milton in the interventionist version of American history and identity that is A Mercy. In 1845, in his introduction to the first American edition of Milton’s prose works, the editor and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold claimed that “Milton is more emphatically American than any author who has lived in the United States” (Stevens 789). In recent decades scholars have both reiterated and challenged the conventional wisdom that the poet’s republicanism, reforming brand of Protestantism, and stake in individual liberty have an exceptional resonance within dominant American ideologies, and they have explored the various and often conflicting uses to which his work has been put in American religious, political and literary discourses. For example, in his...