- Florens in Salem
Reading A Mercy in an undergraduate class focused on seventeenth-century magical belief made for an alchemical experience. When I have taught the book in other kinds of courses, students took Florens's belief in the supernatural, particularly her reports of signs and omens, as idiosyncratic, expressions of a particular ignorant or wounded character within a culture like our own, built on a rational understanding of the world. Placing Morrison's work next to wonder tales and witchcraft [End Page 183] trials, however, we experienced a kind of sympathetic vibration in which both the novel and its historical antecedents seem sharper and more resonant.
I used the novel as a capstone text for students in an upper-level undergraduate course I entitled "Witchcraft and Wonder in Early American Literature," a course that surveyed three moments of wonder or magic in colonial New England: the Antinomian controversy, the Salem witchcraft outbreak, and the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic. Among the students' assignments was a response paper discussing how the history of witchcraft in America is used in Morrison's novel.4 My aim was simple: to find out which elements of our historical study had stayed with them, and by applying that historical study to a contemporary work, to prompt them to see the ways that their study of the past could be used in criticism of contemporary events and culture.
Having read of monstrous births, babies with scales and horns who were the direct reflection of the mother's heresies; of witchy descriptions of ghostly, glowing jellyfish laid out on a fireplace mantle; of animals and children struck down by a look, my students were primed to read all kinds of wonders as possible within Morrison's historical-fictional universe, set as it is in the years leading up to the Salem witchcraft trials. They approached A Mercy with a suspension of disbelief in which a kettle's steam really can shape itself into a dog's head omen, men's spirits actually do rise from their graves, and young girls are bewitched by strange men. Returning to the historic materials after reading the novel, they took from Morrison a sense of the poignancy of the situation in Salem in 1692. Reading historical accounts of wonder caused them to suspend disbelief as they read of Florens's magical signs or Rebekka's ghosts. Moreover, after reading Morrison, they seemed to find it easier to see how the seventeenth-century belief in an enchanted universe permeated all who were involved, that accusations of witchcraft were not (always) in bad faith, even if the results were scandalous, and that scapegoating is never a simple or straightforward evil.
For this short essay, I want to focus on the reading we constructed together of chapter 7, one of Florens's chapters, in which Florens journeys into the wilderness in search of her blacksmith lover, finds a night's refuge in the house of Widow Ealing and her daughter Jane, and becomes the focus of a witch hunt. Florens's journey takes place in 1690, just two years before the Salem witchcraft trials began. My students noticed immediately [End Page 184] details that had not struck me as significant in my earlier readings. For instance, the chapter opens with Florens's portentous dream of "cherry trees walking toward me. . . . One bends down and I wake with a little scream in my mouth" (101). We knew from our reading of David Hall's Worlds of Wonder that such dreams were often taken as supernatural signs in the seventeenth century. Florens wakes to realize that "nothing is different," but my students nonetheless read the wild landscape as haunted: a clearing "remember[s] the burning of itself " (102). The air is filled with "bird talk"—which my students thought resonated with Salem accounts of familiars in the shape of little yellow birds. Even her encounter with flesh-and-blood people, young Native men who give her food and water, partakes of the magical: "I blink and they all disappear" (103).
Soon after, Florens leaves the haunted landscape of the wilderness and lands in a proto-Salem village, just two years before the historic...