The Known World
Juxtaposition of Two Worlds Perspectives in The Known World, a Novel by Edward Jones
The novel, The Known World, by Edward Jones is imbued with literal and metaphoric representations of the known world during the period of nineteenth century America. Life in Manchester revolves around slavery where both master and slaves coexist.’The Known World’ is the title of a map of Earth which lies in Skiffington’s office and shows the geography of the then known world in miniature. Because the known world exists, we can confidently deduce that there lies an unknown world. The North and the South share diametrically opposite opinions on slavery and therefore the inhabitants of each space occupy different worlds and share different worldviews. The novel’s title is derived because the world assumes not only physical space but contain situations with which the characters are familiar and have come to accept in the midst of slavery and racial marginalization. Slavery has at its base the financial interests of the Euro-American therefore within the economic world the slave is not human. He has a price on his head and toils in the plantation for his master’s gain. Storms are images employed by the author to depict the travel of William Robbins as he crosses from the world of blacks to the world of whites. Storms also convey to the reader feelings of depression and grief. A Child’s Dream depicts Counsel Skiffington’s world literally and metaphorically. The Known World covers geographic regions, the worlds of the North and the South, the world of the Southern paradise, the world of storms and the world of a Child’s Dream.
The Known World encompasses a world with which we are familiar geographically and so may represent a physical land mass. The title of the novel, The Known World derives its name from a map found in John Skiffington’s office titled The Known World which dates back three hundred years ago to the 16th century. On the old map, North America remains nameless, is smaller in dimensions since it is largely unexplored and ‘unknown,’ while “America” on the map refers to South America. There is no great familiarity with the New World and so the places are not clearly defined. The map represents the worldview of the German author Hans Waldseemuller who gives a smaller and imperfect version of what the world truly is. Knowledge, background and personal experience mould the author’s worldview which is narrow in scope. The progress of time changes realities in the world geographically. Because of advancement in technology and deeper exploration, the map of the world has improved. New dimensions and locations expand the boundaries of the map. Jean Broussard argues to John Skiffington that he can acquire “a better map, and more map of today”(175). The previous narrow worldview has expanded over time to previously unknown areas.
In The Known World some characters are only acquainted with a limited area because of deficiency in their personal experience and knowledge. Moses, the overseer of Henry Townsend’s plantation, is “world-stupid…(he) does not know north from south (350). This lack of information works to Moses’ detriment for when he finally breaks free from bondage, he is unable to find his bearings and go north to freedom. Moses’ familiarity of the world does not exceed the confines of the plantation so slave patrollers ultimately capture and kill him. A publicist who desires to publish a Polish poet’s literary works resigns in his ignorance of the country and says “forget Poland, I can’t even find the damn thing on my map (357). The publicist has his worldview restricted since Poland is missing on his map. Mrs. Broussard, a French woman, also has a limited worldview. She “never had a fixed idea of America and was never able to comprehend (it)”(175). America is still unknown, unsearched by the European and is a novelty to the rest of the world. However one character, Alice Night, knows and understands her world more than any other.
One overarching irony in The Known World unfolds toward the end of the novel where the seemingly lunatic Alice masterfully recreates and immortalizes her world through art. She captures firstly “the map of life in the county of Manchester, Virginia”(384). The unquestionable accuracy of the map forces itself on Calvin, Caldonia’s brother, so much that he likens the map to “what God sees when He looks down on Manchester”(384). In this map, Alice gives us a panoramic view of life in Manchester with its “houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells”(384). Through Alice’s nocturnal ramblings through the county, she is able to capture and retain vivid images of daily life in Manchester. She supposedly feigns madness for it allows her to run free and unmolested even by slave patrollers. Houses denote settlement and family life. Barns symbolize daily activity and food. Roads express journey, travel, movement – the daily commute and transit from one place to the next. Cemeteries signify the reality of the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Wells are a central communal location where one daily draws water to satisfy his basic needs and meets neighbours and friends. Hence, Alice’s map of life clearly captures the essence of life in Manchester.
Alice Night’s second work of art depicts her world of people on Henry and Caldonia Townsend’s plantation. In this painting, she illustrates every member of the working force and the masters. “Not a single person is missing…each person’s face…is raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God”(385). Alice makes a very important point in this painting. Although life is made up of daily activity and objects referring to daily employment, she recognizes that life is made up of people. Masters, co-workers, masters, family, neighbours, and friends are in the map of life. Alice fits the human family in the framework of the universal and the transcendent. God the Creator and Divine Overseer sees all and He alone can capture the world in its completeness where “there is nothing missing.”(385). The deceased and the living of Alice’s circle are never forgotten. They are still alive in her mind. Her known world includes not only her surroundings and community, but her world also contains the social circle with which she has daily contact and has forged an inextricable bond.
The North and the South in the context of the Known World allude to slavery and the polar disparities of opinion with regard to the rights and the freedoms of the African American. The world of the North stands for the emancipation, and civil rights of slaves. It was common knowledge that “in the Northern States, (it) is well understood to have been fixedly averse to all pro-slavery views”- Slavery (10/10/1851) NY Times. Therefore the north is a haven to fugitive blacks and Negro freemen. In separate incidents, Elias and Augustus try to escape slavery and judging from the position of the sun and the stars, they determine the north and head in that direction. On the other hand, the South believes in the natural subservience of the blacks and therefore is supportive of slavery. “The slaveholding interest is held to be ‘the South’” – Southern Politics 11/15/1859 NY Times. This statement rings true since the main plot, scenes and action unfold in the South. “Everyone interested in the Old South knows that its peculiar institution, chattel slavery, was justified in a number of different ways.” (3) Chattel Slavery and Wage Slavery. The Anglo-American Context 1830 – 1860. Marcus Cunliffe . Slavery is a world and a reality that exists. Moses, one of Henry’s main slaves, “had thought it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man” (9). The South espouses the view that slaves are but brute animals who “will answer to” his master. This term is so common among southerners that Counsel introduces Minerva as one who “will answer to Minnie or Minerva or whatever you choose” (32) and Winifred, her loving mistress, puts “will answer to” on a poster announcing Minerva’s loss. Robbins, a prosperous southern slaveholder, objects to “the fool’s idea of nigger heaven in the North” (37). He disagrees with the idea of the abolition of slavery and the upgrade of the status of slaves to free and equal beings.
Chattel Slavery is an institution which generates income for capitalist America and Europe. “In a country controlled by white men’s interests (the negro) had no master with an interest in him to safeguard” (17). Indeed, slavery is commonly known as The Slave Trade and this term underlines its economic connotations. In The Known World, instances of slave commerce recur repetitively. Henry Townsend and William Robbins, chief slaveholders, take inventory of their slaves entering in a log the physical description, birth, marriage, cost price, selling price, and death of each slave they own. In the business world, chattel slavery dehumanizes the slave by commodifying him. He is reduced to property, an asset, a means of production and even a “legacy”(74) according to Maude. Family ties, civil rights, justice and human dignity are trodden underfoot and give way to the almighty dollar. In the economy, slavery becomes such a business that insurance covers the mutilation, escape and accidental death of slaves. In business, nothing is for free. To purchase his freedom, the slave, at the discretion of the master, has to pay sums of money beyond the reaches of his pocket. For several years, Augustus Townsend earns money to redeem himself and his entire family from slavery. Robert Colfax, William Robbins and Counsel Skiffington build their sprawling empires on the backs of slaves. Slave speculators like Stennis and Darcy kidnap and sell free and enslaved blacks to the willing buyers of the South. Henry and Caldonia own an extensive cotton field – cotton being a product much in demand on the world market.
The storm is a metaphoric image that describes a world of chaos, turbulence, disquiet and discord. When Robbins transitions from the black world to the white world on his visits to Philomena Cartwright, his black paramour, he lapses into a state of unconsciousness which he describes as “storms in the head” (21). The storms rage as Robbins moves from one world to the next because of incompatibility and undoubtedly the hostile antagonism existing in the white and black world. Divergent principles, ideals, and standards govern both worlds. Irreconcilable disparities and ingrained prejudices of both worlds make the journey from one place to the next a torture to Robbins. The world in which Robbins lives disallows any friendly interaction between whites and blacks beyond the common relationship of master and slave. Robbins loves Philomena deeply more than he does his white wife but the fury and intensity of the storms in his mind signify that he has his thoughts unsettled about the extra-marital and interracial relationship. Storms are also symbolic of foreboding doom and illustrate to the reader the depth of sorrow into which a character is plunged. There are two actual storms mentioned in the novel. One storm bursts upon Stamford, an elderly slave who is repulsed and rejected by all his lovers and women folk on the plantation. As a child, a senior slave tells him that without women it is impossible to survive slavery. He believes and lives this theory and so his world becomes one where women are indispensable. After repeated rejections, “he (thinks) that he was not long for the world, that no young stuff would ever love him” (197). In a fit of grief, loneliness and depression, he contemplates suicide . As a consequence, “all the heart he (has) for living in the world (leaves) him” (200). Women are the world for Stamford and so without women, “young stuff” (21), he sees his life as unbearable and nothing. The other storm presages Luke’s death. Luke, a boy slave, plays on the outside oblivious to the dangers of lightning while Elias tries to save him. Six pages later, Elias tries to save Luke from working on a plantation notorious for cruelty to slaves and its arduous hardship but the master decides that Luke must work there and so the frail boy dies of overwork. On the contrary, when Elias falls in love with his future wife, Celeste, he describes the feeling as a “quietness and stillness in the world he had never known before” (98). The harmony, compatibility and legality of the relationship have nature’s blessing.
The world of Southern paradise is called A Child’s Dream – Counsel Skiffington’s grand slave plantation and estate, “the finest …in the South” (368). A Child’s Dream evokes images of a world of passing fancy, a wonderland of transient bliss and even a utopia. Furbished with many comforts and known as the most luxurious mansion in the county, it crumbles to naught. Paradoxically, A Child’s Dream is also a place of hardship. Counsel owns one hundred and twelve slaves so he perpetuates the culture of serfdom, and oppression of black slaves. His dream becomes a nightmare when disaster strikes. His home becomes suddenly infected and infested by the deadly, contagious smallpox and his crops begin to fail. His family and slaves die and the empire goes up in smoke literally. He burns his home in a fit of grief for his own misfortune and to rid himself of the painful memories of a departed wife, children and prosperity. A Child’s Dream is a metaphor for Counsel’s success and then unexpected failure. At first he enjoys material success and happiness but later on, he awakens to a harsh reality and becomes humbled by the adverse vicissitudes of life.
In conclusion we see different worlds existing in the 19 th century through the eyes of slave and master. Each world is formed by the background, views, choices, experience and individuality of each person. As one progresses through time, the known world changes dimensions for circumstances never remain constant. The known world however expresses acquaintanceship and understanding of life’s occurrences and explores individual reactions related to what life brings. In The Known World, environments, surroundings, people, opinions, and institution play important roles in shaping the life and worlds of characters.
The Historical Context and Its Main Features in The Known World
The Known World
The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a fictional account of the history of Manchester County, Virginia. It is set in the Antebellum South, and focuses on a black slave owner, Henry Townsend, and the effects of his death on the Townsend plantation. It sheds light on a slice of history that is often ignored- black ownership of slaves. Although the writing style was slightly confusing, the book delivered an accurate, engaging description of the historical landscape of the era by using a wide array of characters and describing important events.
The book begins at the death of Henry Townsend. As the book goes on, the history of Henry’s life unfolds, and we learn that he was born a slave to Mr. William Robbins, the richest man in Manchester County. Henry develops a close relationship with his master, especially after his father, Augustus Townsend, buys himself and his wife out of slavery, leaving Henry alone on the plantation for several years. Robbins takes Henry under his wing and becomes his mentor when Henry’s parents finally pay for his freedom. Henry buys his first slave, Moses, and builds a house and a plantation. Robbins pays for Henry’s education– he is tutored by Fern Elston, a free black women who is highly respected in the community. Through Fern, Henry meets Caldonia, whom he marries.
After Henry’s death, Caldonia is overcome with grief and although she tries her best to keep the plantation in order, things begin to fall apart. She has an affair with Moses, the overseer. He, excited by the chance for power, convinces his wife and son to run away so that he can marry Caldonia and become the master of the plantation. He sends them away with Alice, a slave whom everyone assumes is crazy because she sings very loudly and wanders around at night aimlessly. The Sheriff, John Skiffington, is a god-fearing man who believes that slavery is morally wrong, but still enforces the laws surrounding the issue. When the three slaves escape, he is unable to find and bring them back. The town stirs, and folks begin to doubt the sheriff. Meanwhile, Augustus Townsend is captured by two of Skiffington’s patrol men and sold back into slavery unlawfully.
Moses, frustrated that Caldonia will not free him, runs away and hides with Mildred Townsend in Augustus’s house. Skiffington and his deputy find him hiding there and John accidentally shoots Mildred. The deputy, Counsel Skiffington, kills John, loots the house, and leaves to take Moses back to Caldonia’s plantation. More slaves have run away and the plantation has become disorganized. The author goes on to explain the respective futures of certain characters.
This book is significant to the study of U.S. history because it provides an in depth understanding of slavery and the social structure of the Antebellum South. It is easy to read about slavery in a textbook and automatically assume that all slave-owners were evil people and that all free blacks were abolitionists. Important details are left out, and so are all of the emotions connected with the issue. You get a very flat, distanced description of the way things were. The Known World is an excellent way to really step into the past and see how slavery affected all sorts of different people. Jones describes many different characters and their views on slavery during the story. For example, Fern Elston, educator to most of the free blacks in Manchester County, is interviewed by a Canadian pamphlet writer named Anderson Frazier. She tells Frazier of Henry’s relationship with Mr. Robbins and also gives some interesting insight on her beliefs about slavery. He shares with her that he finds black slave-owners to be an odd phenomenon, and compares it to owning one’s own family. She denies that it is comparable to that, and she states dryly that, “We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did.” But during the conversation, Fern becomes slightly emotional and it is clear that it was not that simple to her. Back in that era, slavery was so normalized that even former slaves like Henry Townsend, had trouble reconciling their moral issue with the matter because it was “what was done.” Certain free negroes wanted to exercise all the freedom and power they could, because they had been oppressed to such a degree. Caldonia’s mother, Maude, portrays this trait. She believes that slaves and land are a “legacy” and she goes to great lengths to preserve her legacy. She poisons her husband when he threatens to free their slaves, and she relentlessly badgers Caldonia about buying slave insurance. The character of Maude shows that owning slaves is ingrained in the culture as a symbol of success or wealth.
The author does a fantastic job of creating an atmosphere that normalizes slavery by using small anecdotes about the history of the county, and little excerpts about one plantation or another. He provides information on the laws that were in place at the time, and how they were enforced. It helps the reader to understand that the way people thought back then was different from how we think now, which is valuable insight.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones provided me with rich information regarding slavery. I learned about the hardships that the slaves endured and how they lived on the plantation. Most slaves were not overworked, but on occasion, a master would be neglectful and work someone for too long. These brutal instances could take the life of a slave. In the story, a slave woman named Celeste works for too long in the field while she is pregnant and miscarries her baby. They had no protections against such long hours and hard labor. They mostly ate poor-quality food that could result in malnourishment and illness. Jones writes that Townsend always rationed the slaves enough food, but it was the type of food that was the problem, not the amount. Slaves were subject to many abuses because of their perceived inferiority to other human beings. He mentions that, “In many minds, raping a slave was not even a crime,” and describes that it was common practice to punish runaway slaves by cutting off an ear or slicing through their Achilles tendon.
The enslaved coped with their positions in a variety of different ways. Many settled down with a partner, had children, and focused on their families to find some happiness in their lives. Some attempted to run away. One particular character, Stamford, is convinced that all he needs to emotionally survive slavery is “young stuff”. He is constantly courting women half his age because someone once told him that younger women were the key to dealing with life as a slave. Moses, the overseer, is power-hungry and attempts to marry Caldonia in order to get his freedom. Alice spends the majority of her life enslaved pretending to be insane so that she can escape easily someday. All these different coping mechanisms were interesting to me because they taught me about how slavery affected the individual, not just society and the country as a whole.
Edward P. Jones is an American author who grew up in the sixties and seventies. He is a black man from a very low-class background. Although he did not experience slavery first hand, he is familiar with racism and discrimination. He became interested in the history of slavery in America through his love of reading, which also lead him to major in English for college. When he became inspired to write The Known World, he first wrote out his ideas without doing research. He says in an interview, “The creative part of the brain can’t be held back. So over ten years, while I kept avoiding doing research, the creative part of my brain worked away” (Edward P. Jones, The Art of Fiction No. 222). Then, he researched, edited, and published the book. The story is a work of fiction, but Jones did the appropriate research to ensure that it provided an accurate picture of the era. Although he did not live through this particular era, I believe he still has a connection to what he wrote about because he has experienced racism and oppression first hand and is able to depict the emotions that result from it quite well. Jones is a very intelligent, qualified writer, and has won many awards for the historical truthfulness and poignancy of his work.
Overall, I thought the book was thought-provoking, but it lacked a true plotline. I enjoyed learning about the fictional town of Manchester County and the events that occurred there, but I would have appreciated a more explicit story. I think there were too many characters in the book for the author to truly focus on the lives of one or two of them. Instead, the main character was essentially the Townsend plantation. The writing style was unbiased, which is difficult to pull off when writing about a subject as ugly and controversial as slavery. Jones merely described events and the way certain characters acted and felt about them. This allowed the reader to observe what was going on in the book subjectively.
However, Jones had a tendency to go off on tangents within the book. There were so many small anecdotes about the past or futures of certain characters that it became slightly confusing and irritating. I found that it distracted from the present that he was trying to describe in the book. I would not recommend this book to a friend unless they were studying U.S. history and wanted to find a more in-depth description of slavery. The book was interesting, but not engaging enough to be a recreational read for a teenager.
The Known World offered a pathway into understanding the minute details of life during slavery, effectively emerging the reader in the era. It provided information about the thoughts, perspectives, relationships, and struggles of life in the South during the nineteenth century. It was a useful tool in understanding the time period and the “peculiar institution” that was so normal for the people who lived through it. I thought it was an interesting read and would recommend it to adults who enjoy reading historical fiction or learning about the struggle for human rights.
The Inspiration and Hope to Find in the Book of Revelations
Hurricanes, war, disease, and occasionally the walking dead, humanity has a constant obsession with the end of our time on this Earth. Apocalyptic predictions and fantasies have been a part of our human experience since Rome dominated the known world. Much lore and oral history surrounds the Apocalypse. Some believe it will come in the form of rising oceanic tides, others believe it will come on the back of thermo-nuclear war. Regardless of the delivery method this end to our existence on Earth will be a fiery, dismal, and macabre experience. Arguably one of the most vivid and detailed predictions of what the Apocalypse will be like comes from the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. While on the surface the Book of Revelation appears dark and disparaging, to a second century Christian the Book of Revelation is a hopefully message for those who are loyal followers of Christ.
The second century was turbulent time for Christians. Most of the known world was under the control of the Roman Empire and her Emperor. Christians were actively persecuted by the Roman government due to their religious beliefs. The legalization of Christianity was still decades away and in the mean time Christians needed something to turn to for hope. The Book of Revelation provided this hope for early Christians. Facing violence and discrimination, the Book of Revelation helped the second century Christians to remain stead fast to their faith. One of the recurring images throughout Revelation is the Lamb. “Then I saw standing in the midst…a Lamb that seemed to have been slain” (Revelation 5:6). It is clear from the fact that the Lamb is both appearing to be slain and standing near the throne, that the Lamb is a metaphor for Jesus. The use of Jesus in through out the book serves as a beacon of hope. Second century Christians would look for Lamb for guidance through out the coming events. One of the key things the Lamb is tasked with is breaking the seven seals. Only the Lamb can carry out the divine plan since it is hidden from God (Revelation 5:7-9). This again would create hope for second century Christians because of the power of Jesus. The Lamb has considerable power during the events in Revelation. Not only is he tasked with breaking each of the seven seals, but also he is more capable of this task than God.
Another reason why the book of Revelation served as a source of hope for the second century Christians was the removal of the Devil. The Devil is seen as the root of all evil and wrongdoing in the world. He is responsible for leading nations astray and causing much suffering (Revelation 20:2). Symbolically, he could also be responsible for all the pain and suffering the second century Christians were facing. The angle throwing the Devil into abyss shows how that evil is released from the world and no longer poses a threat (Revelation 20:4). The disappearance of evil with Christ’s coming would have been a significant source of hope for Christians in the second century. Having faced persecution at the hands of the Romans, which included such horrors as being pit against lions for sport, the ending of this evil would provide much hope for them. When the Lamb finally comes, they would no longer have to face such events and they would be able to live and practice their religion without fear.
The finals chapter of Revelation offers a beautiful image of how those loyal to Jesus will be rewarded after the end of the Apocalypse. Chapter Twenty-Two paints a picture of what will come at the end. “The river of life giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year” (Revelation 22:2). The passage also goes on to describe how the leaves of the trees’ leaves can be used as medicine for the nations and that “nothing accursed will be found there anymore” (Revelation 22:3). It is hard to read the description of this place and not think of the Garden of Eden from Genesis. The place that the believers will eventually be brought to is a paradise. There is no evil or want, and both God and the Lamb are present. This type of place would serve as a huge source of hope for second century Christians. Despite the turmoil and pain of their current situation, they will eventually be delivered to a sanctuary free from persecution. For a people living in such a desperate time, the hope of a paradise would be a key source of distraction from their present pain.
While there is a strong message of doom and destruction in Revelation, the book would have been a crucial source of hope for second century Christians facing persecution. The promise of the return of Jesus, freedom from the Devil and their Roman oppressors, as well as the eventual paradise that will come in the end would all seem like a ray of light in the very dark place second century Christians were living in. The Book of Revelation serves as a reminder to all Christians that no matter the challenge, no matter how difficult the obstacle; as long as one remains faithful and strong in the faith, they will be saved and rewarded.
The Commodification of Slave Identities in The Known World
Karl Marx’s Capital: Critique of Political Economy examines the use and exchange values of commodified material relative to social relations between people. Marx suggests that social relations are continually mediated and expressed with objects, such as, commodities and money. Marx submits, “The value of a commodity originates from the human being’s intellectual and perceptual capacity to consciously (subjectively) ascribe a relative value (importance) to a commodity” (Harris 3). Conceptually, such capitalistic principles can be applied unconventionally, assigning value not only to objects, but to intangible products such as identities and skills. The resulting value will thus determine how the product is perceived or received by society.
In Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, the commodification of certain identities and skills determines an individual’s position in society within the institution of slavery. As society is economically dependent on the institution of slavery in the novel, it equates wealth with power, as in William Robbins’ case, inciting several characters to seek advancement and greater status. Within this system, labor skills are weighted relative to profit, and thus, slave identities are valued according to their skill set. Consequently, the slave or former slave characters in the novel are exploited in various ways in this pursuit of wealth and status. Among many forms of exploitation, three in particular determine the slave characters’ ultimate fates: alienation of labor, disenfranchisement, and dehumanization. Such exploitation can be particularly observed with three victims, Henry Townsend, his father Augustus, and Minerva, as their distinct backgrounds in slavery impact their eventual positions in The Known World.
To fully grasp the correlation between the societal desire for power and its tendency to assign value to human beings, it is imperative to first examine the power of wealth, which can be observed with William Robbins, a figure of distinguished status in the novel. Robbins was one of the wealthiest land and slave owners in Virginia. He was known to have mental “storms” that made even himself believe he was “losing his mind” (25). Despite Robbins’ lack of sane credibility, his influence did not waive. In one instance, Robbins was able to convince four other major landowners that “something threatening was loose in the land” (37). Robbins was bitter about a slave sale that he had recently conducted in which he later concluded that he was cheated by an abolitionist. On a whim, he called for a formation of a militia that would patrol such slave misconduct: “He was never definite about any of it, but if William Robbins said a storm was coming, then it did not matter how blue the sky was and how much the chickens strutted happily about the yard” (37). No matter how unwarranted or contradictory Robbins’ claims may sound, like the probability of a “storm” while “blue skies” and “happ[y]” chickens suggest otherwise, his word is taken incontestably because of his wealthy status. In this way, Robbins’ wealth represents power, and such is the standard that motivates several characters throughout the novel.
Here, Robbins functions as an example to the rest of society of how business, specifically agrarian, promotes such power and influence. It is the desire for such power, that causes identities and skills, of slaves in particular, to be commodified and subject to exploitation in order for owners to obtain more profit. Consequently, such capitalistic attitudes forced slaves in the novel to build value in order to gain recognition from their owners.
To achieve greater value through labor, slaves often sacrificed parts of their identities, a concept examined by Marx known as an “alienation of labor” (Harris). An alienation of labor occurs in Henry Townsend’s life in two parts: First, in his childhood as a slave, and later, as a slave owner. As a child, Henry started building his own value on Robbins’ plantation when his parents were freed. As Henry’s parents were still saving money to eventually buy his freedom, Henry felt compelled to climb the ranks of the plantation system and assume the role of Robbins’ horse groom: “An older boy, Toby, had been the groom but Henry had bribed the boy with Mildred’s food and the boy had commenced telling the overseer that he was not up to the task of grooming” (20). Henry sacrificed the food that his mother packed for him in order to “bribe” the groom and ascend the ranks of mere field labor. While obtaining this new role, he becomes more focused on building value in Robbins’ eyes and loses interest in his parents’ visits and affection: “Sometimes Henry did not show up, even if the cold was bearable for a visit of a few minutes” (18). Henry’s pursuit of advancement caused him to neglect and disregard his familial obligations.
Further, he also worked physically harder in order to obtain the recognition he desperately desired from Robbins: “Sometimes, if he thought he could escape the other tasks of the day, he would stand on a stool and comb the mane until his hands tired” (21). Henry became willing to “tire” himself out in hopes of his master’s acknowledgment of him. He knew that he had to please Robbins in order to achieve greater status. Through this process, Robbins “came to develop a kind of love for the boy, and that love, built up morning after morning, was another reason to up the selling price Mildred and Augustus Townsend would have to pay for their boy” (28). In this way, it can be observed that Henry’s alienation of labor to establish a good rapport with Robbins was induced by society’s tendency to place higher value on commodifiable skills.
Ultimately, this alienation of labor extends into Henry’s adult life as he eventually assumes the role of a slave owner after his parents buy his freedom. Having endured the sorrows of slavery, Henry’s parents disapprove of his new identity as a slave owner. Although they empathize with Henry’s desire to obtain status within the undeniable institution of slavery, Henry’s parents hope to inspire moral uprightness in him. With Robbins as his mentor, however, Henry fails to adopt his parents’ sense of morality by following Robbins’ leadership advice.
In an instance when Elias, one of Henry’s slaves, was caught escaping, Henry resorts to cruel punishment that he had learned on Robbins’ plantation: “He had decided that a whipping would not be enough, that only an ear would do this time. He had just not decided if it should be the whole ear or only a piece, and if a piece, how big a piece?” (89). In this instance, it can be observed that Henry’s sense of humanity has diminished as he contemplates violent punishments towards his own slave. As society values the wealthy, Henry buys into the institution of slavery, despite his prior position therein. Although he eventually became free in the physical sense, his learned and conditioned skills under Robbins has placed him in an immoral and counter-intuitive position in society as a slave owner, separated from his humanity by virtue of his labor.
Next, the commodification of human beings in The Known World leads to Augustus’ disenfranchisement as a freed slave. Despite his earned freedom, Augustus is reduced to a price in an unfortunate encounter with slave patrollers. Travis, one of the patrollers with a biased and prejudicial agenda, disregarded Augustus’ claim of freedom: “You ain’t free less me and the law say you free” (211). When Augustus brought out his legal papers indicating his right to freedom, “Travis began eating the papers, starting at the bottom right corners, chewed the corners up and swallowed” (212). Then, Travis further disenfranchised Augustus by illegally selling him to a passerby for a mere “fifty dollars” (215). Because of Augustus’ history as a slave, Travis clings to the idea that slaves are never “free” and rejects Augustus’ rights and humanity. Society’s prescription of inferior value to slaves fosters Travis’s false sense of entitlement in conducting this illegal transaction, depriving Augustus of any claim. Ultimately, Augustus is once again enslaved by exploitative powers as he is reduced to potential profit for his new master.
Similarly, such prejudicial societal standards entail the dehumanization of the child slave, Minerva. For John and Winifred Skiffington’s wedding, Minerva was given as a gift from John’s cousin, Counsel, and his wife, Belle: “About three o’clock, after matters had quieted down some, Belle went out to where her maid was in the backyard and returned with a slave girl of nine years and had the girl, festooned with a blue ribbon, stand and then twirl about Winifred” (31). In this scene, Minerva was objectified and treated as a prize that could be won with a “blue ribbon” on. Minerva is dehumanized as she is instructed to “twirl” about, like some pet who has been conditioned to perform tricks for the mere amusement of human beings. She is further degraded when Belle informs Winifred of her name: “She will answer to the name Minnie, but her proper name is Minerva. She will, however, answer to either, to whatever you choose to call her” (32). Essentially, Belle implies that Minerva can be and do whoever and whatever her new owners desire. Here, Minerva is reduced to a mere object of amusement and obedience as a result of her lack of status as a child slave. Her limited skills as a child foster the treatment of her as a mere “wedding gift” whose sole purpose is to please her new owners.
Commodification of identities shapes the way people are viewed and consequently, how they are treated by society. In The Known World, wealthy members of society exhibit a tendency to assign distinct values to slaves or former slaves based on their skill set and how much profit they represent. As human beings are reduced to objects of profit, the institution of slavery that exists in this novel requires readers to view and apply commodification beyond materialism, and instead, metaphysically. In the novel, the varying skills of slaves, and even freed slaves, contribute to their commodification, thus determining how they are treated by others in their environments. The slave characters are forced to constantly adhere to their masters’ desires despite the various forms of exploitation they must endure. As a result, these enslaved characters become dehumanized and objectified, as in Minerva’s case. Additionally, freed slaves become subject to the corruption of the slave system, as observed in Henry’s role-switch and Augustus’ disenfranchisement. Society’s treatment of the slave identity as mere commodity in the novel forces the characters to be perpetually subjugated. In this way, the desired values in The Known World, imposed by society, surrenders the morality and humanity of its members.