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Her Dark Materials: John Milton, Toni Morrison, and Concepts of "Domimon" in A Mercy.


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. 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 1964 work, Milton in Early America, George F. Sensabaugh argues that "Milton moved through the whole cultural community, impressing not only poets but also editors and free-lancers, statesmen and lawyers, doctors and clerics" (viii), that "before the end of the eighteenth century he had become a household and a community word" (5), and that at that time it was common to cite "Milton and scriptural authors as peers" (12). While numerous scholars have examined Milton's role in the intellectual underpinnings of the Revolution and the early Republic, Sensabaugh's study contributes usefully to consideration of A Mercy because it demonstrates that copies of both Milton's prose and poetry were in circulation in the Colonies during the earlier period in which the novel is set. (3) Among his most significant observations, for my purposes (and one to which I shall return), is that Cotton Mather "paraphrased three times from Paradise Lost" in his history of New England published in 1702, Magnalia Christi Americana (36). (4) The subversive power of Morrison's own intertextual relationship with Milton in A Mercy is due in no small part to the way she destabilizes his erstwhile assuredly dominant role, as quasi-scripture, and quasi-myth in the historical decades that are her focus.

It is clear from the vast quantity and lively discursiveness of scholarship on Milton that his work, and in particular his famous epic poem, has no fixed meaning and gives rise to no single line of interpretation. Anyone familiar with Morrison's writing knows that the same is true of hers. It would therefore be fraudulent to claim, in its depiction of the lives of Florens, Lina, Sorrow, Jacob, and Rebekka, that A Mercy somehow refutes or subverts a stable, identifiable and consistent Miltonic perspective or ideology. Rather than making broad and ultimately indefensible generalizations, therefore, this article depends on close readings of both the novel and the poem. I focus on the implications of specific echoes, reversals and transformations, showing that particular moments of Morrisonian revision of particular motifs in Paradise Lost are fundamental to the novelist's examination of the instability of freedom, of power, of happiness, and of goodness. My starting point and organizing idea in this process is the four-syllable Latinate word "dominion," which dominates the closing pages of A Mercy. The unanticipated, long and formal sentence in which it is intoned three times--"to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing"--stands out in the otherwise simple diction and syntax of Florens's mother's pidgin cadences (165). The sentence as a whole reads as a sermonic interpretation of or aphoristic conclusion to the narrative that precedes it, and the repeated noun, with all its connotations of power and mastery, and its biblical and literary genealogy, repays close scrutiny.

While this is an important word in the Book of Genesis, where God gives Adam and Eve "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth" (1:26), it is a hugely significant concept in Paradise Lost, where it involves a range of connected meanings. Adam echoes Genesis in talking of the "dominion given" to Eve and himself, by which he means the right to rule over other living creatures (IV.430; VIII.545). Satan, in turn, uses it to mean "power" when he urges his forces to pursue "honour, dominion, glory and renown" during the war in Heaven (VI.422); in a striking juxtaposition, the Heavenly Host praise Messiah, after his victory in that war in Heaven, addressing him as "Son, heir and Lord, to him dominion given" (VI.887). The same sense is echoed by Sin, with unconscious irony, when she erroneously believes she is acquiring "new strength" and is "dominion given" after Satan's supposed triumph (X.244). Milton, as narrator, later uses the word in another sense, to mean "kingdom" or owned territory in referring to Adam's "dominion" (V.751), while Satan uses it in the same way to describe the "spacious empire" of Chaos (II.974; 978). It is also used in the poem to connote abusive power held by one human being over others. For example, Michael's revelation of the future in Book XII includes the tyrannical Nimrod, who "arrogate[s] dominion undeserved / Over his brethren" (XII.27-28). This prompts Adam's indignant assertion that "man over men" God "made not lord" (XII.69-70). Michael explains that since the Fall, man's debased irrationality has led to some men fulfilling the curse on Ham, to be "servant of servants": in other words, to be slaves (XII. 104; original emphasis).

Adam's dismay at the wrongful exercise of "dominion absolute," and Michael's discourse on the elusive nature of "true liberty" resonate in A Mercy (XII.68, 83). In Morrison's depiction of America's evolving culture, of both individual and political lust for and abuses of power, the term "dominion" has a striking range of applications. On one level, it refers to geographical and political frameworks: after the Restoration of the English king, Charles II, in 1660, one of Virginia's nicknames became "the Old Dominion" (which of course gave rise to the name Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia), while in, 1686 James II organized the colonies of New England into a single "Dominion." (5) To "wrest dominion" describes religious and moral power struggles (for example, in inter-denominational suspicion and contempt, or in Jacob's conversion to slave-dependent business interests), as well as cultural and linguistic oppression (such as in the Europeanizing of Lina). The phrase also alludes to power structures based on hierarchies of race and class--witness the slavery at Jublio and the peripheral status of the various laborers at the homestead named Milton. Most obviously, it describes the acts of sexual violence that punctuate this novel, and with which Florens's mother is primarily concerned.

After demonstrating the principal ways in which Paradise Lost maps onto A Mercy--in the fraught relationship Morrison constructs between Milton's Paradise and the New World, for example--the remainder of this article focuses on the kinds of power, or "dominions," to which the central characters Vaark and Florens are separately both subject, and in turn, exercise. It is noteworthy, and at first surprising, that the process castigated by Florens's mother as a "wicked thing" (as opposed to a "hard" or a "wrong" one) is "to give dominion of yourself to another" (165). If we as readers were to apply this assessment to Florens's passion for the blacksmith, we would be passing a judgment that is not unproblematic, one that is at once true and disproportionately harsh. From one perspective, Florens does enslave herself to the blacksmith, and this precipitates her downfall. Yet she is also made by her passion, in that it gives her the determination to succeed on her quest, and it is also the impulse behind her later writing. Morrison's exploration of Florens's relation to several Miltonic characters, I contend, informs the novelist's investigation of this character's ever-changing relationship to "dominion" or to power.

There is a second, and no less important way in which we can interpret the idea of "giving dominion of yourself to another" in the novel. Although clearly not the specific and primary meaning of Florens's mother, Morrison depicts the act of succumbing to temptation in this novel as a kind of surrender of the self, and engages significantly with Milton's poem as she does so. Vaark's surrender of his better judgment to Peter Downes, and his ensuing conversion to slave-dependent interests in Barbados--both of which are replete with Miltonic echoes--are not of an entirely different order to Florens's all-consuming passion for the blacksmith. Significantly, Florens herself describes her love for the blacksmith as a surrender of her better judgment: of her "errand" she tells us on the second page of the novel that "nothing is more temptation" (2). In what follows, I suggest it is the sense of surrendered self-government in Milton's portrayal of the tempter and the tempted--Satan, and Adam and Eve that Morrison refracts in her depiction of Vaark's evolving greed and ambition and of the moral collapse that his new house embodies. Finally, in the section "Are you a demon?," I explore the ways that the novelist's portrayal of Florens's encounter with the Separatists, of her subsequent behavior and other characters' responses to her, engages differently, but no less tellingly, with the seventeenth-century epic.

"Sometimes good looks like evil; sometimes evil looks like good"

On his way to meet D'Ortega at Jublio, Vaark notices that lines of poetry expressing vitriolic anti-Catholic sentiment, recalled from a children's "primer," are running through his head: "Abhor that arrant whore of Rome ... / And all her blasphemies" (12). The book which he recalls from his London poorhouse schooling, which must have taken place some time around the late 1650s, presumably had much in common with later extant pedagogical publications by Benjamin Harris: The Protestant Tutor, first printed in London in 1679, and The New England Primer, which was printed in Boston in numerous editions from the 1680s onward. Ostensibly designed to advance children's literacy, these anthologies consist of dogmatic Puritan morality and religious instruction. Both contain the anti-Catholic poem Vaark recalls: named an "Exhortation to his Children," it was written by the protestant martyr John Rogers before he was burned at the stake in 1555. (6) As the historical appearance of the Tutor and Primer coincides exactly with the decades in which Morrison's novel is primarily set, their contents shed dazzling light on the world and world-views with which A Mercy engages.

In his introduction to the New England Primer's 1897 reprinting, Paul Leicester notes that "the court records of early New England reveal a condition akin to all frontier settlements in lawlessness and immorality," and quotes the description by a leading Puritan, one Reverend John White, that the first settlers of the region were "a multitude of rude, ungovernable persons, the very scum of the land" (52). Conceptions of lawfulness and lawlessness, the ways in which notions of "good" and "evil" are constructed, and the exercises of power that are justified on the grounds of those constructions, have preoccupied Morrison since the beginning of her novelistic career. As early as 1976, for example, in an interview on Sula, she observed: "Sometimes good looks like evil, sometimes evil looks like good--you never really know what it is" (Stepto 14). Her fascination with the nonbinary nature of morality may in no small part explain her fascination with Milton's poem: it is itself a work in which the distinction between good and evil could hardly be clearer and yet which is simultaneously fraught with ironies and ambiguities.

In his very useful essay, "Milton's Satan," the Milton scholar John Carey illuminates the fact that in Paradise Lost the poet "presents evil as real and traceable to a single Evil One," an impulse derived "from a Manichaean view of the moral universe" (160). Carey's meditation may strike a chord with readers of The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Paradise as well as A Mercy:
 The wish to isolate evil in this way argues a particular mental
 configuration which seems to be associated with the belief that, once
 isolated, evil may become containable or punishable. Hence has arisen
 urge to locate evil in a single kind of being, which has borne fruit
 throughout history in pogrom, ghetto, and racial massacre. (160) 

These lines would serve well as one explanation for the scapegoating of Pecola, the neglect of Sula, and the massacre at the Convent. Through the story of Vaark's succumbing to the temptations of greed and his subsequent fall, and of Florens's treatment by the Separatist Elders and subsequent violence towards Malaik and the blacksmith, Morrison returns to her time-honored theme of the complexity and the instability of the relationship between good and evil, and hence the fragility of and potential dangers inherent in the imposition of law and the exercise of authority. Apparently, her perspective could not be more different from Milton's. And yet, as Carey writes, "Milton's effort to encapsulate evil in Satan was not successful," and the historical tendency of Milton scholars to polarize as either "Satanists" and "anti-Satanists" testifies to the fact that "the character of Satan is essentially ambivalent" (161). What gives A Mercy's dialogue with Paradise Lost its energy, then, is not that Morrison simply presents a moral universe that exists in juxtaposition to a stable Miltonic or Puritan one, but rather that she responds to and exploits the paradoxes and rich failures of the poet's attempt to portray "Evil" as a unified, containable force. Her engagement with the Miltonic world-view thus has much in common with Hawthorne's representations of Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Yet Morrison complicates the perspective of that novel as well, through giving voice to those more marginal even than Hester Prynne. (7)

In Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather three times describes settlers' conflicts with the Indians through analogies to Milton's accounts of the War in Heaven between the angelic and the infernal hosts in Book VI of Paradise Lost (Sensabaugh 38-41). Unsurprisingly, and yet of profound importance to any consideration of A Mercy's dialogue with the poem, Mather identifies the Puritans with the forces led to victory by Messiah, and identifies the Natives with the routed Satanic rabble. Milton's poem undoubtedly lends itself to associations between Adam and Eve's experience and European settlement of the Americas: the poet repeatedly calls Eden "a new world" or a "new created world" (11.403; III.89), and one of Satan's envious soliloquies about the earthly Paradise could almost serve as a description of the reforming zeal of the colonizers of Massachusetts Bay: "O Earth, how like to Heaven, if not preferred / More justly, seat worthier of Gods, as built / With second thoughts, reforming what was old!" (IX.99-101). A Mercy at once participates in and disrupts these compelling but politically dangerous connections and analogies. For example, Morrison describes both the landscapes and cultures of Virginia and New England in terms that recall both the Miltonic "reign of Chaos and old Night" that precedes Creation, and the nature of the "void" surrounding earth that follows it, described in Books I, II and VII (1.543). (8) On his journey to Jublio, Vaark muses on "the recent thicket of new laws authorizing chaos" and the "lawless laws" of the territory that, in 1682, "was still a mess" (8-9), while further north, Scully "saw dark matter out there, thick, unknowable, aching to be made into a world" (154). At the same time, both Jacob's thoughts about Virginia's and Rebekka's first impressions of the Milton homestead invoke both Genesis and the poet's Paradise before it is lost: Vaark is invigorated by "a world so new, almost alarming in rawness and temptation," by "forests untouched since Noah," and "shorelines beautiful enough to bring tears" (10), while Rebekka's rejoicing in the "sweet air," the clean rain, the trees, the birds and the streams, recalls the euphoric descriptions of Paradise in Books IV, VII, and IX of Milton's epic (A Mercy 74-75).

Yet Morrison undercuts any easy association between the Vaarks and prelapsarian Adam and Eve, and hence between European settlers and divine or moral superiority. Lina is critical of the couple for acting as if they were the first humans on earth: "Pride alone made them think that they needed only themselves, could shape life that way, like Adam and Eve, like gods from nowhere" (57), while Rebekka's questioning of her "illegal" status after Jacob's death, "was that not the way it should be? Adam first, Eve next ...?" (96), calls into question not only her equivalence to Eve, but also the desirability of the Genesis paradigm. The Anabaptists' thinking appeals to her; in her mind, "Adam (like Jacob) was a good man but (unlike Jacob) he had been undermined and goaded by his mate" (97). Rebekka's enthusiasm for their afterlife--"not a blue and gold paradise of twenty-four hour praise song, but an adventurous real life, where choices were perfect" (97)--reinscribes her distance from the prelapsarian Eve and the "praise song" world of Book IV of Paradise Lost.

Morrison's depiction of her central Native American character, Lina, in turn disrupts Milton's version of the fall of man in significant ways. Several critics have remarked on the fact that in Paradise Lost it is the fallen Adam and Eve who, in their leaf-clad nakedness, are compared by Milton to Native peoples at the time of the Columbian voyages. (9) Of the couple s vain attempt to hide themselves in their newfound shame, Milton writes:
 ... Such of late
 Columbus found the American so girt
 With feathered cincture, naked else and wile
 Among the trees on isles and woody shores. (IX.1115-18) 

Yet in A Mercy it is Lina's now-lost traditional way of life that has much in common with the customs of Milton's unfallen Adam and Eve. She has erased from her mind most memories of the time "before destruction. Before sin" (59), and in place of "the majestic plan of life: when to vacate, to harvest, to burn" is left with "a tiny yet eternal yearning for the home [she] once knew" (48, 58). She nonetheless retains traditional practices and beliefs that appear to fulfil a restorative function. For example, Florens discloses early on that the Native girl "wears bright blue beads and dances in secret at first light when the moon is small" (3); similarly, Adam and Eve perform their daily worship, outdoors, at dawn (PL V.144-52). Lina respects trees, and "cawed with the birds, chatted to plants, spoke with squirrels, sang to the cow, and opened her mouth to rain" (46-47), which recalls both the animals gambolling for the entertainment of Adam and Eve (IV.343), and the fact that Adam "understood their nature" (VIII.353). Ironically enough, Lina's "pagan stuff" (78)--her harmonious relationship with the natural world--suggests that Native people are neither Mather's infernal hordes nor Milton's fallen sinners, but rather survivors from a prelapsarian (and pre-European) idyll to which they were neither subject, nor over which they exercised "dominion" of any kind.

Close analysis reveals that both Jacob and Rebecca Vaark exist in complex and shifting relationship to Milton's starkly drawn, would-be, and freed good and bad characters. For example, it is worth remembering that while Rebekka may seem Eve-like on her arrival in Milton, enthralled by "the absence of city and shipboard stench" (74), in Paradise Lost it is Satan who is compared to "one who long in populous city pent / Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air," and who "Forth issuing on a summer's morn to breathe / ... from each thing met conceives delight" (IX.445-49). Meanwhile, in succumbing to the temptation to achieve D'Ortega's wealth through Peter Downes's means, Jacob becomes an increasingly ambivalent figure, and it is during this transformation that Milton's poem makes its presence increasingly felt. In the tavern where Jacob sits after accepting Florens as payment, he encounters Downes "holding forth with the authority of a mayor" (27), just as Satan works on Eve like "some orator renowned / In Athens or free Rome" (IX.670-71). Downes extols the virtues of rum, serendipitously known at that time as "kill-devil" (27), while Satan waxes lyrical about the wonders of the forbidden apples. The slave trader tells "mesmerizing tales" of Barbados and the risk-free enterprise of sugar (28), while Satan "glozed" and "glistered" about the new powers Eve will enjoy (IX.549, 643). Morrison's choice of the name "Downes" is apposite: the word "down" is associated at once with an ascent (it is a longstanding English word for a "hill") and with descent, just as Jacob's upwardly mobile aspirations to fame and fortune signify the beginning of his downfall. It may or may not be coincidence that in Paradise Lost, when the flushed and fallen Eve approaches Adam, now herself the temptress, she holds out "a bough of fairest fruit that downy smiled / New gathered" (IX.851; emphasis added). To read these lines aloud is to hear Vaark's tempter named and shamed.

Infernal Architecture; Ambiguous Architects

At the moment of Vaark's conversion to a remote labor force in Barbados, he imagines Heaven to be suddenly within his reach (33). Looking at "a sky vulgar with stars," he believes that "the silver there was not at all unreachable," and that the "wide swath of cream pouring though the stars was his for the tasting" (33). In this pun on the Milky Way, Morrison alludes to Raphael's description to Adam, in Book VII of Milton's poem, of the route to Heaven by which Messiah and the angels return after the Creation:
 A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold
 And pavement stars, as stars to thee appear,
 Seen in the galaxy, that Milky Way
 Which nighty as a circling zone thou seest
 Powdered with stars.... (VII.577-81) 

Yet the sky at the moment when Vaark commits to slave-based trading also suggests the "false glitter" of Milton's Satan (X.452), who after his first visit to Eden travels back to Hell with "an host / Innumerable as the stars of night" (V.744-45), and who after Adam and Eve's fall appears "star bright" to his infernal followers (X.450). And in a second double-sided allusion, Jacob's dreams that night are "of a grand house of many rooms rising on a hill above the fog" (33). He may well think this is a vision of heaven, of his "Father's house" of "many mansions" (John 14), and he perhaps identifies with his namesake in Genesis, who famously dreams of a ladder up to the "gate of heaven" and the "house of God" (Gen. 28:12, 16). (10) But those familiar with Milton's poem will also recall, at this moment, the poet's description of the "palace of great Lucifer" in "the limits of the north" (V.760, 755): "High on a hill, far blazing, as a mount / Raised on a mount, with pyramids and towers / From diamond quarries hewn" (V.757-59). Vaark's dream may in fact be a vision of Hell.

Morrison's Jacob is further linked to Milton's Satan through the fact that the poet describes the fallen Satan's first sighting of the "gold / embellished" gates of heaven through a deliberately dissonant simile invoking the biblical Jacob's vision (III.503-15). Morrison's alliance of her protagonist with his Old Testament forerunner is similarly ironic, in that while in Genesis, Jacob is shown the extent of the Promised Land, and told that "in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 28:15), Jacob Vaark is to die heirless in his uncompleted "great house" (147). It is worth noting that Morrison devotes an extensive proportion of the novel to describing and redescribing the construction of this building, and includes nearly every character's perspective on the process. While the significance of houses and homes is a me-honored theme for this author, in A Mercy she implies distinctive parallels between Pandemonium, the infernal palace that Satan constructs in Book I of Paradise Lost, and both the palatial Jublio and Vaark's ill-fated dominion. Recognizing the Miltonic echoes in the Morrisonian details also brings the blacksmith's more sinister affinities to light.

In his notorious "Exhortation," the poem in the primer that Jacob was taught as a child, the soon-to-be-martyred John Rogers advises his children:
 Be never proud by any means
 Build not thy house too high
 But always have before your eyes
 that you are born to die. (Castillo and Schweitzer 298) 

Despite his initial noble intentions about the ways in which his own planned mansion would be "pure, noble" and would "not be compromised as Jublio was" (25), Jacob Vaark proves deaf to this particular warning in pursuing his ambition to compete with D'Ortega's abode, which "was in truth more like a place where one held court" (12). The Anglo-Dutch trader is overwhelmed by the "prideful entrance to a veranda," by the windows "glittering above the mist," and by the "grand pillars suitable for a House of Parliament" (13). The emergence of Satan's "infernal court" in Paradise Lost (I.792), meanwhile, the site of his "solemn council" (I.755), which in Milton's description could connote both the corrupt power of the English Court and of Parliament, is described as follows:
 Anon out of the earth a fabric huge
 Rose like an exhalation,
 Built like a temple, where pilasters round
 Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
 With golden architrave. (I.710-15) 

The devils swarm in the "spacious hall" of their new seat of government like "bees," writes Milton (I.762, 768). D'Ortega's "honey-coloured house," meanwhile, in its mist and furnace-like temperatures--"long hall, probably, parlors, chambers ... but Lord, the heat"--functions as a witty translation of Milton's hellish edifice (87).

According to Rebekka, the blacksmith commissioned by Jacob to decorate a house to rival D'Ortega's creates "ironwork aglitter like a gate to heaven" (87). Lina, on the other hand, is uncompromising in her contempt for Sir's decision to build "a house like the one he saw on his travels" (42). It is a "profane monument to himself" (42), she perceives. She finds its gate, replete with the oft-mentioned "snakes" or "cobras," to be "sinister," and she is not fooled by the fact that wrought flowers are in the place of fangs. There is a flicker of satisfaction in her utterance "sure enough" that introduces his premature death (49, 43). Other characters are slower to condemn him: at the outset, Florens perceives the ironic fact of his illness as a "cheat," declaring in her narrative (addressed to the blacksmith) that "the ironwork is wondrous to see" and that "the house is mighty, waiting only for a glazier" (34). Willard, in turn, believes the house "grand" and the gate "spectacular" (147). While Rebekka enjoys the frenzied process of construction, not least because it keeps Jacob on site, she is agonized that "the fever of the building was so intense she missed the real fever, the one that put him in the grave" (87). It is fair to say that Morrison's analogy between Vaark's building project and significant architectural features of the world of Paradise Lost are at times unnecessarily labored: the novelist's detail that "there was trouble at the gate" while unbolting the hinges to let the dying Master through, for example, reiterates the parallel with Milton's gates to both Heaven and Hell to no great additional effect (87). (11) The less-resolved engagements with Puritan hermeneutics are sometimes more successful, for example, in Rebekka's inability to decide whether "Patrician's accident by cloven hoof was rebuke or proof of the pudding" (79), or in Lina's surprise at Sir's nonchalant slicing-up of an apple and sharing it with the equally nonchalant blacksmith (59).

Lina is as quick to judge the blacksmith as she is to judge Vaark; in terms that recall Milton's Satan-as-serpent, she sees "peril" in his appearance: "too shiny, way too tall, both arrogant and skilled" (58). The sinister dimensions of the blacksmith's character and presence undoubtedly refute readers' expectations about how a free, black, African artist/healer should or will function in a novel by Toni Morrison, yet here, once again, the resonances of seventeenth-century epic arguably serve to heighten the dangers associated with that figure. Milton includes, for example, in his description the building of Pandemonium, that the "architect" was "Mulciber," also known as Vulcan or Hephaistos, the Greco-Roman god of fire, conventionally understood to be a blacksmith or metalworker (I.730-51). Milton relates that before his fall with the "rebellious rout" and his pivotal role in the construction of Satan's palace, this personage had built a "towered structure high" in heaven (I.733). Alastair Fowler, editor of the Longman-annotated edition of the epic, notes that Milton's description of the construction of Pandemonium involves "an ironic allusion to Ovid's description of the Palace of the Sun built by Mulciber" (I.713-17, n.i.). Given Morrison's engagement with the Metamorphoses in her previous novels, Ovid's description of the "soaring columns" and "double doors" that "dazzled with silver" may also resonate in the palimpsestic descriptions of Vaark's house (Metamorphoses II.1-6). (12)

Both Ovid and Milton include details about Mulciber, or Vulcan, that contribute usefully to the final ambiguity of Morrison's blacksmith. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid celebrates the nobility of the god's "artistry," and as Fowler notes, in classical mythology he "presided over all arts ... that required the use of fire" (I.738-40, n.i.). In Book XI of Milton's poem, a second blacksmith appears, a descendant of Cain known as Tubalcain, who here is shown inventing the arts and is known in Genesis as "an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron," and whose skilled craft here is described in detail. (13) So, even though Florens is guarding Malaik, and sees "the curl of a garden snake edging toward the threshold" (137), we cannot straightforwardly identify Morrison's blacksmith with the devil of the seventeenth-century Puritan world-view. While Sorrow wonders if "she had been wrong" about liking the blacksmith before dismissing her doubts (129), even Lina is forced to recognize the ultimate ambivalence of his presence. While she feels, when the snaked gates open, as though "she were entering the world of the damned," she also recognizes that he has "brought one girl to womanhood and saved the life of another" (49).

Morrison depicts the blacksmith admiring his own ironwork after ensuring Rebekka's recovery, testing "the gilt for flakes" (129). About the extent of his guilt, however, she remains equivocal. Kind and respectful to Willard, what he (like Sula, or like the women at the Convent in Paradise) ultimately embodies is freedom, as both a positive and a negative force: as a "free black man," Lina believes he brings a "shattering" and a "disruption" to the already precarious order of things at Milton (59), while Rebekka perceives him as "an anchor holding the couple in place in untrustworthy waters" (94). Justine Tally's point that his defining motif of snakes or serpents engages with the Gnostic, as well as the Christian interpretations of Genesis, is pertinent here. Tally observes, "In the second and third centuries, Gnostic speculators commended Eve for taking the initiative in seeking wisdom, and saw the serpent as an emancipator" (Daniel Burston qtd. in Tally 69). Like many Morrisonian protagonists before him, the blacksmith is "dangerously free" (Bluest Eye 125).

The significant presence of non-Christian traditions in this novel itself illuminates the complexity of the relationship between good and evil that is one of Morrison's principal motivating factors in engaging Paradise Lost. Indeed, that presence could be seen to modify the cultural "dominion" of Christianity itself. The ambiguous Malaik would seem a fit companion for the blacksmith in that his moral status is similarly indeterminate. While (to the best of my knowledge) there is no intellectual genealogy for the precise name "Malaik," associated names and sounds contribute significantly to the meanings that attach to this enigmatic boy. "Maalik," or "Malik" for example, has an eschatological tradition in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. Perhaps most interestingly, in the Qur'an, Maalik is an unsmiling guardian angel of the hellfire, though not evil in himself. (14) The different word, Malik," meanwhile, in both Hebrew and Arabic, means "chief" or "king," from which the name of the devil-like god Moloch in Leviticus, whose worship involved human sacrifice, is derived. In Paradise Lost, Moloch has a significant role: in the first book of the poem, he is the first devil (and fallen angel) to receive a mention in Milton's roll call of the twelve infernal disciples--a list that also includes Dagon, Osiris and Isis, among others. (15) As critics have observed, such deities have long been significant presences in the Morrisonian oeuvre, but for Milton they appear to have been particular betes noirs. In his early poem, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1645), he dramatizes the birth of Christianity through the flight of "the brutish gods of Nile" as well as "sullen Moloch" (205, 211). (16) Through the character of Malaik, then, Morrison counters intolerant, empire-building expressions of Christianity in a manner that recalls Sula, Paradise and Love.

"Are you a demon?"

Performing at the Musee du Louvre in November 2006, Morrison read aloud from the unfinished manuscript of A Merry, which was at that time entitled Mercy. The scene she chose to share was that of Florens's overnight stay with the Widow and her daughter, Jane, and of the next-day encounter with the elders of the Separatist community. It is of course this episode in which the author plays most explicitly with the simultaneous fragility and destructiveness of certain conceptions of Satan or the devil. In an uncanny foreshadowing of a slave auction, Florens is subjected to a naked inspection by the villagers, some of whom are convinced, on account of her skin colour, that she is "the Black Man's minion" (111). Florens escapes in small part due to her letter from Rebekka, but in large part due to the kindness of Daughter Jane, herself under suspicion, who packs her food and shows her a path by which to escape. The two girls part in a moment of simultaneous great comedy and profound seriousness:
 She kisses my forehead then watches as I step down into the
stream's dry
 bed. I turn and look up at her. Are you a demon I ask her. Her
 eye is steady. She smiles. Yes, she says. Oh yes. Go now. (112) 

Later in the novel, as part of her recapitulation of the lessons she has learned through her rejection by the blacksmith, Florens attests to the heroism of Daughter Jane, asserting that it was she who "risks all" to save the threatened girl (158). With the irony that an act of unselfishness is enacted by the only character to consider herself a "demon," Morrison's complex engagement with the paradox at the heart of Paradise Lost--the ambivalence of Milton's Satan--comes to the fore.

It was presumably the engagingly human, flawed but aspiring nature of Milton's Satan that inspired William Blake's often quoted but nonetheless brilliant inference about the epic poem: "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it" (71). This ostensibly throwaway line, which appears at the end of "The Voice of the Devil" section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), ultimately calls into question the nature of evil itself, recalling Morrison's Blakean sentiment that "sometimes good looks like evil; sometimes evil looks like good" (Stepto 14). (17) Critics such as LaVinia Delois Jennings have illuminated the ways in which Morrison's oeuvre-wide engagement with West African conceptions of evil destabilizes Euro-Christian beliefs about its fixed and containable nature. It is also worth remembering that the devil in African American tradition has never been a uniformly malign figure: legend has it that the blues were born when Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Mississippi, and the devil is often a comic figure, a parody of a white person, in folkloric culture (Nash 213). In The Bluest Eye, Cholly's single happy memory from his childhood is of the church picnic at which one of the men present prepares to crack open a watermelon "like a strong, black devil" (105). In these contexts, as well as that of Paradise Lost, Jane's decision to define herself as a "demon," and even the accusation leveled at Florens--"the Black Man's minion"--may paradoxically involve goodness and emancipation (113; 111).

While the word "minion" is an interesting echo of the word "dominion," both phonetically and in the sense of servitude, the etymology of the two words is surprisingly different. The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that "dominion" is derived from the Latin nouns dominium, meaning "property" and "absolute ownership," and dominus, meaning "master," while "minion" is conversely derived from the French noun, mignon (and Old French, mignot). The French word involves concepts of huge resonance in the Morrisonian context: that of "a beloved object, darling, favorite," or "a lover or lady-love," besides the more current sense of "an obsequious or servile dependent." As the passionate lover of the blacksmith, Florens, in one sense, aspires to be "the Black Man's minion," yet despite her violence towards both her former lover and Malaik, she clearly disassociates herself from the Satan of Genesis and of Milton's poem. She pointedly mentions her terror of "garden snake[s]" (2137), and her wish to hide, on her journey, from "everything of creep and slouch" distances her from Milton's Satan, who searches for the serpent, in order to possess him, "like a black mist low creeping" (40; IX.180). The crucial fact that Florens can read and write disassociates her from the Satan of the Puritan imagination in turn. For as Castillo and Schweitzer point out in their introductory passage to that ideologically burdened educational tool, The New England Primer, "The Puritans ... carried with them a need for widespread literacy, especially in a vernacular language, the prevention of which they regarded as the work of Satan or demonic, Latin-spewing Papists" (293). The fact that in A Mercy it is the Roman Catholic "Reverend Father" to whom Florens owes her literacy is an irony at both the Puritans' and Milton's expense (4).

As she negotiates the complex and various dominions of late seventeenth-century New England, to whom in Paradise Lost, besides Satan, does Florens stand in significant relation? Through disassociating her from Milton's unfallen Eve, Morrison suggests that Florens is at once excluded from Paradise and equipped to avoid catastrophe. In the epic poem, Eve experiences an epiphanic self-realization when she sees her reflection in a "clear / Smooth lake that to [her] seemed another sky" (IV.458-59). 'As I bent down to look," she explains, "... A shape within the watery gleam appeared / Bending to look on me" (IV.459-61). She then hears a voice: "What thou seeest, / What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself" (IV.467- 68). In a passage that may well signify on this episode, following her "expel" by the blacksmith, Florens "dreams a dream that dreams back at [her]" (135). She recalls:
 I notice I am at the edge of a lake. The blue of it is more than
 sky .... I want to put my face deep there. I want to .... Right
 away I take fright when I see my face is not there. Where my face
 should be is nothing. I put a finger in and watch the water
 circle.., but I am not even a shadow there. Where is it hiding? Why
 is it? Soon Daughter Jane is kneeling next to me .... Oh, Precious,
 don't fret, she is saying, you will find it. (136) 

The absence of Florens's reflection, in contrast to the powerful visibility of Eve's in Paradise Lost, may signify the absence of her meaningful presence in American culture of the 1690s, the invisibility to the dominant culture of young black girls in that time and place. Yet at the same time, the words of Daughter Jane offer grounds for hope.

It would be hard to overestimate the significance of Florens--a surviving, literate, storytelling, black, quasi-orphan--to the Morrisonian project. Her insights gained from the blacksmith once again bring the revelatory typology and embrace of contraries of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell to mind: "you say you see slaves freer than free men," Florens says. "One is a lion in the skin of an ass. The other is an ass in the skin of a lion" (158). In "A Memorable Fancy," Blake declares that "One law for the Lion & Ox is oppression" (80). More optimistically, he closes the Marriage with "A Song of Liberty," in which the apocalyptic "starry king" declares that "Empire is no more! and now the lion and the wolf shall cease" (82). (18) Morrison must be well aware that Blake repeats these lines in his very next work, America: A Prophecy (1793):
 Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field;
 Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing
 Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are
 For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

A Mercy does not declare that "empire is no more." But through the collapse of the homestead in Milton and the "flourishing" of Florens and her story, it demolishes the legitimacy of imperialism, both large and small.


In its own marriage of heaven and hell, its disruption binaries, its breaking down of the division between good and evil, A Mercy is antithetical to the ostensibly sharply defined morality of Paradise Lost. Yet in speaking to the instabilities and radical potential of Milton's poem, qualities that Blake before her identifies, Morrison's novel poses a challenge to the apparently ordered and ordering powers of the Enlightenment. The author shows that in its mutually constitutive relationship with both England and the American colonies of the late seventeenth century, the Enlightenment was always and already defined by paradox, moral ambiguity, and even chaos. In such a world, and over such a world, "to wrest dominion" is certainly a dangerous thing. "Especially then," as Morrison would say. "Especially now" ("Unspeakable" 18).

Works Cited

Blake, William. America: A Prophecy. 1793. Johnson and Grant 83-95.

--. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 1790. Johnson and Grant 66-82. Carey, John. "Milton's Satan." The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 160-74.

Castillo, Susan, and Ivy Schweitzer, eds. The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.

Conner, Marc. "Modernity and the Homeless: Toni Morrison and the Fictions of Modernism." Keynote Address for the Fifth Biennial Conference of the Toni Morrison Society. Charleston, SC. 25 July 2008.

Jennings, La Vinia Delois. Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Johnson, Mary Lynn, and John E. Grant. Blake's Poetry and Designs. 1979. New York: Norton, 2008.

Jones, Maldwyn. The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607-1980. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

Leicester, Paul. The New-England Primer." A History of its Origins and Development, with a reprint of the unique copy of the earliest known edition. 1897. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962.

The King James Bible. 1611. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, n.d.

The Koran. n.d. Trans. M. H. Shakir. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, 1983. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Web. 4 Mar. 2010.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667. Ed. Alastair Fowler. 1971. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1991.

--. "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." 1629/1645. Milton: Complete Shorter Poems. 1971. Ed. John Carey. 2nd ed. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1997. 101-16.

Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. 2008. London: Vintage, 2009.

--. The Bluest Eye. 1970. London: Vintage, 1999.

--. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 28.1 (Winter 1989): 1-34.

Nash, William R. "Dialect Poetry." The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L., Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 213-16.

The New England Primer. 1727. Castillo and Schweitzer 293-99.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans A. D. Melville. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

The Protestant Tutor. 1769. Ed. Benjamin Harris. British Library P3483-1491-17.

Sensabaugh, George F. Milton in Early America. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964.

Stevens, Patti. "Milton in America." Milton in America. Eds. Paul Stevens and Patricia Simmons. Spec. issue of University of Toronto Quarterly 77.3 (Summer 2008): 789-800.

Tally, Justine. "Contextualizing Toni Morrison's Ninth Novel: What Mercy? Why Now?" Toni Morrison's A Mercy: Critical Approaches. Eds. Shirley A. Stave and Justine Tallys. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2011.63-84.

Stepto, Robert B. "Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison." 1976. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Ed. Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 10-29.


I am indebted to the two anonymous reviewers of this article for their careful readings and constructive suggestions.

(1.) See, for example, Helen Chavis Othow, "Comedy in Morrison's Terrestrial Paradise," CLA Journal 47.3 (March 2004): p. 366-73; Lauren Lepow, "Paradise Lost and Found: Dualism and Edenic Myth in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby," Contemporary Literature 28.3 (Fall 1987): 363-77; or Terry Otten, "The Crime of Innocence in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby," Studies in American Fiction 14.2 (Autumn 1986): 153-64.

(2.) For further discussion of Milton and Morrison, in a parallel or sequel to "Her Dark Materials," see Tessa Roynon, "Miltonic Journeys in A Mercy," in Toni Morrison's A Mercy: Critical Approaches, Shirley A. Stave and Justine Tally, eds. (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2011), 45-62. This chapter explores the engagement with Paradise Lost and Comus (1634) that characterizes the journeys of both Florens and Vaark, and discusses Morrison's interest in the concept of logos, meaning (as it does in St John's gospel) both "the Word" and "the Way."

(3.) Sensabaugh writes, for example, that "By 1683 the Boston merchant John Usher had received The History of Britain and in 1685 ordered three copies of the Artis Logicae, one year after his invoice showed that he had purchased four volumes of Paradise Lost" (35), while "About 1698 or shortly thereafter the Corporation of the City of New York purchased for its library the Artis Logicae, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, the Pro Se Defensio, and the 1669 edition of Paradise Lost" (34). Other books on Milton in America include Keith W. Stavely, Puritan Legacies: Paradise Lost and the New England Tradition, 1630-1890 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1987); Lydia Dittler Schulman, Paradise Lost and the Rise of the American Republic (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1992), and R. P. Van Anglen, The New England Milton: Literary Reception and Cultural Authority in the Early Republic (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1993).

(4.) The significance of Milton in American culture continues to fascinate both scholars and literary writers alike. In July 2008, Paul Stevens and Patricia Simmons guest-edited a special issue of the University of Toronto Quarterly entitled "Milton in America." Essays there of particular relevance to my concerns in this article include those by Stevens; Christopher Kendrick, "Un-American Milton: Milton's Reputation and Reception in the Early United States" (903-22); Mary Nyquist, "Contemporary Ancestors of de Bry, Hobbes and Milton" (837-75); and Sharon Achinstein, "Cold War Milton" (801-34). It is interesting that in two contemporary novels--Edward P. Jones's The Known World (2003) and Marilynne Robinson's Home (2008)--characters read Milton's verse as quasi-scripture, not unlike the way it was viewed in the American late seventeenth century. See E. Jones, The Known World (New York: Amistad, 2004), 5-6, and Robinson, Home (New York: Picador, 2009), 21-22.

(5.) Of New England, Maldwyn Jones writes, "in 1686 ... James II combined all the New England colonies into a single unit, the Dominion of New England. The existing assemblies were abolished, and a governor appointed with autocratic powers. Later on New Jersey and New York were added to the Dominion. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 soon ended this experiment" (Jones 15). I have already cited this fact in another essay on A Mercy, "Sabotaging the Language of Pride," which discusses the representation of sexual violence in the novel. See Roynon, "Sabotaging the Language of Pride: Toni Morrison's Representations of Rape," in Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives: Violence and Violation, Sorcha Gunne and Zoe Brigley Thompson, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 38-53.

(6.) The lines from Rogers's quoted in A Mercy appear on p. 45 of the digitalized British Library edition of The Protestant Tutor (1679). Leicester writes that the earliest edition of the New England Primer is thought to have appeared in 1686 (15), while Castillo and Schweitzer date it to 1683 (293). Castillo and Schweitzer, who reproduce excerpts from the 1727 edition of the Primer in their anthology, state the astonishing fact that an estimated "six to eight million copies" of the NEP were printed between 1680 and 1830 (294). There are over one hundred different versions available in full text on the digital archive, Early American Imprints, all of which include Rogers's poem.

(7.) For discussion of A Mercy's engagement with The Scarlet Letter, see Tally.

(8.) E. g., Milton writes of God surveying "the vast immeasurable abyss, / Outrageous as a sea, dark, wasteful, wild" (VII.211-12).

(9.) See, for example, Nyquist.

(10.) See Tally's chapter for a detailed analysis of biblical allusions in the novel.

(11.) For example, in Paradise Lost the gates to hell (guarded by the monstrous Sin and Death) are "thrice threefold..., three folds were brass, / Three iron, three of adamantine rock" (II.645-46).

(12.) Ovid's description of Chaos in Book I of the Metamorphoses resonates in both Milton's and Morrison's accounts. For a discussion of Morrison's oeuvre-wide use of this poet, see Tessa Roynon, "Toni Morrison and Classical Tradition," Literature Compass 4.6 (November 2007): 1514-37.

(13.) See Gen. 4:22, and Paradise Lost XI.564ff.

(14.) See, for example, Sura 43.77, in which those in hell "shall call out: 'O Malik! Let your Lord make an end of us.' He shall say, 'Surely you shall tarry' " (Koran).

(15.) Milton writes:
 First Moloch, horrid king besmear'd with blood
 Of human sacrifice, and parents' tears,
 Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud
 Their children's cries unheard, that past through fire
 To his grim idol. (I.392-96). 

Critical works on Morrison's engagement with Egyptian traditions include Justine Tally, Toni Morrison's Beloved: Origins (New York: Routledge, 2009), and Tessa Roynon, "The Africanness of Classicism in the Work of Toni Morrison," in African Athena: New Agendas, Daniel Orrells, Gurminder K. Bhambra, and Tessa Roynon, eds. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 381-97.

(16.) Interestingly, William Blake's illustration to Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" is "The Flight of Moloch."

(17.) Johnson and Grant write of Blake's poem, "instead of abolishing or simply inverting moral conventional moral categories, the Marriage encourages exuberant exploration; what it attacks are unimaginative, simplistic value systems that automatically favor passive or repressive 'good' over active or liberating 'evil' " (66).

(18.) Given that Blake's works include Milton: A Poem (1804; c. 1810-18), and that he frequently references Africa in his writing, a study of his simultaneous passion for Milton and relevance to Morrison could fill a book in its own right. One line from the Marriage of particular pertinence to A Mercy is in "A Song of Liberty": "O African! O black African! (go, winged thought widen his forehead.") (82). As the editors observe, "these exclamations probably urge abandonment of confining ethnic stereotypes" (82n3).
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Author:Roynon, Tessa
Publication:African American Review
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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