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 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.