The Known World Book Review

991 words - 4 pages

The Know World- Book Review
The fact that free African Americans used to own other blacks as slaves is an ironic peculiarity of U.S. history that Edward P. Jones probably contemplated for a long time. Beginning with the life and death of Henry Townsend, a black slave master, Jones’ novel explores a fictional county in antebellum Virginia over several decades. Jones writes about the fictional Virginia county of Manchester and flourishes it with a host of vivid characters and their interrelationships. When Henry Townsend bought his freedom from slavery, he followed in the footsteps of his mentor, white slave-owner, William Robbins. Henry runs a plantation of over 30 slaves, an irony that is ...view middle of the document...

As an ambitious young man trying to cultivate himself in his master’s image, Henry associates the ownership of slaves with prosperity and success in general. At first, he does not even seem to believe that he is different or separate from his slaves, which is why he sees no problem with wrestling with Moses in the mud. He begins to think and act as though he is superior to slaves, however, after Robbins and Fern indoctrinate him in this convention. Other characters, such as Caldonia, by contrast, see the role of master rather differently, associating it less with economic prosperity than with paternalism. In other words, Caldonia believes that she will help and protect the slaves under her care, guiding them to a good life as they could not manage alone. Meanwhile, characters like Harvey Travis reveal that their conception of slavery is based on cruel and petty feelings of jealousy and hatred.
Despite revealing a great diversity in how various people conceptualize slavery, however, the novel reminds the reader that an institution which reduces people to property is always immoral and always fueled by the desire for superiority and control. Sometimes characters express the notion of control in terms of order and stability; Robbins, John Skiffington, and others worry that any breakup of the system of slaveholding will result in chaos and disorder. Even in these cases, however, the novel reveals the grim reality of slavery by displaying the violence and injustice that are its inevitable results. From Henry’s decision to have one third of Elias’s ear cut off to Counsel’s order to cut Moses’ Achilles tendon, the horror of slavery never ends.
Another central theme in Jones’ novel pertains to the connection between personal ownership and love or sex. The novel frequently draws attention to characters whose ideas of superiority, slavery, and property intersect with their intimate relationships and desires,...

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