Jacob Vaark in a Mercy

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Although some consider material wealth to represent one’s worth, no financial measure can express the value of personal integrity when an individual encounters moral challenges. In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, the author explores this concept through the behavior and character of Jacob Vaark, a white farmer trying to make a living in the New World. Initially committed to avoiding slave trade, he involves himself by accepting Florens, a fourteen year-old, from the affluent D’Ortega to repay a debt. This decision begins his spiral from modest sustenance farmer to obsessed, narcissistic landowner who then destroys himself and his legacy. Consumed with building a mansion as a monument to him, Vaark loses his path and his moral clarity and transforms into an amoral consumer just like D’Ortega. His pursuit of material wealth leads to his death and causes great suffering for those he loves. While Vaark justifies building his opulent mansion with self-perceived superiority over D’Ortega, he forgets to consider how this reflects his own moral character. Vaark enters his meeting with D’Ortega as a humble, self-made farmer vowing not to participate in the slave trade, but leaves the meeting as a man not too different from D’Ortega himself. In his visit to settle his debt with D’Ortega, Vaark’s “Seeded resentment now bloomed.” (19) He then asks himself, “Why such a show on a sleepy afternoon for a single guest well below their station? Intentional, [Vaark] decided; a stage performance to humiliate him into groveling acceptance of D’Ortega’s wishes” (19). Vaark finds that D’Ortega uses the extravagance of the afternoon to confirm D’Ortega’s higher standing in their community. With his disdain for D’Ortega and all he represents, Vaark commits to displaying his integrity, a characteristic absent in D’Ortega and pledges not to acquiesce to D’Ortega’s ways. He says to himself, “Where else could rank tremble before courage?” (29). He then turns his back to D’Ortega, “letting his...
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