The known world

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The known world

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Nov 5, 2007, 11:11am

I just loved The known world. This is a novel about black people who own slaves, and about thoses slaves lives. I do tend to like antebellum literature.

Juil 13, 2008, 12:49am

After reading The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, I found that the 6 questions online in a reader's guide format were inadequate for my book group. Here are add'l questions I formed that may help another book group grapple with the issues/themes/characters in this novel:

1. Who (is/are) the "moral center" character(s) and why?

2. The story begins and ends w/Moses' thoughts.
-On pg. 2, naked and lying in the rain in a patch of unproductive woods, we have "When he (Moses) was an old man and rheumatism chained up his body, he would look back and blame the chains on evenings such as these, and on nights when he lost himself completely and fell asleep and didn't come to until morning, covered in dew"
-On the last page, "Moses could barely move in the morning, the result, he would always think, of the times he spent w/himself in the damp woods."
What are we to make of this parallelism?

3. Alice also is introduced on pg. 3 as a slave, night wanderer and liar about being kicked in the head by a mule--as she spies on Moses in the woods. On the 3rd from last page, Alice responds sanely to Calvin "I been good as God keeps me." She is now an acknowledged artist and innkeeper. Reflect on Alice's role in this novel.

4. Houses and rooms feature in the "consciousness of Henry, Augustus, Mildred and John Skiffington at the moment of each one of their deaths. What are we to make of these images?
-(pp. 10-11) Henry dies--walks up steps into tiny 4-room rented house w/low ceiling--He says, "This will not do." God talks to him.
-(pp.346-347) Augustus dies--rose up in the air and walked 100 times faster than when confined to earth. Came to VA to his home--opened door--found Mildred upstairs sleeping in bed. He looked at her a long time, then went to bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.
-(p. 365) Mildred dies--Walks into dark house, up stairs, saw Henry sleeping- found Augustus in their bed--had good sleeping weather. She got in bed next to Augustus and was happy.
-(p. 369) John Skiffington dies--he enters the house that he took his bride to. He ran down the upstairs hall where his family are all in different rooms-Huge bible is about to fall-he got to it in time to prop it up with both hands.
-When Barnum Kinsey and when Belle Skiffington die--nothing is recorded.

5. Some names' meanings corresp. to characters in this story.
HENRY--Ruler of the Home / AUGUSTUS--Great, magnificent / MILDRED--strong yet gentle / CALVIN--immature in a naive way / MOSES--to draw out-to rescue / CELESTE--Heavenly / ELIAS--My god is the lord

6. The character of Job is alluded to as the Chapter 7 subtitle: Job, Mongrels, Parting Shots.
In what way does Counsel Skiffington resemble Job? In what ways does he differ? In this chapter are at least 3 amazing stories. First is that of Saskia Wilhelm and her husband from the Netherlands. Second is of the family of Hiram Jinkins, and third is the strange assembly of people streaming in the opposite direction from Counsel on his travels. What are we to make of these episodes in the context of the whole work?

7. Another episode, this time involving Stamford the slave who becomes Stamford Crow Blueberry. This man who was always chasing after "young stuff" goes out of his way to benefit a child who wants blueberries in the middle of a deluge. "He knew he was going to die but he thought this little thing might provide him with a nothing stool way off in the corner of heaven that nobody cared about. The corner of heaven reserved for fools, people too stupid to come out of the rain. People got to that corner by heaven's back door."
What purpose does this episode serve in this novel?

8. Milton is mentioned several times in The Known World, relating to Henry Townsend. On his deathbed, Cladonia Townsed offers to read him 'a bit of Milton--or the Bible.' Henry responds that he is weary of Milton. Also, Fern Elston told the white pamphleteer years later that of Milton, Henry said, "Ain't that a thing to say' is what he said of the Devil who proclaimed that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. He thought only a man who knew himself well could say such a thing, could turn his back on God with just finality. I tried to make him see what a horrible choice that was, by Henry had made up his mind about that and I could not turn him back. He loved Milton and he loved Thomas Gray."
Two themes in the epic poem Paradise Lost are: The Importance of Obedience to God & The Hierarchical Nature of the Universe. Can you see how these themes are also true of this novel?

9. The episode of Winifred Skiffington's relation, Clara and her slave Ralph raises the issues of fear, trust, love, loyalty, and family of the slave owner and slave in VA. The use of irony in this episode is heavy. Did this episode add to your understanding of slavery?

10. Chap. 8, whose subtitle includes "Scheherazade" and again in Chap. 9, Caldonia allows Moses increasing intimacy while asking in return for words of Henry from this slave who knew her husband best--Henry's first slave. This exchange leads to Moses' high expectations, and downfall. What was Caldonia thinking? Caldonia, a free-born black marred Henry Townsend, a former slave. In the society in which she lived, would a marriage to Moses have even been a possibility? What do you think about Moses' action toward his wife and child, in order to clear his way to marry Caldonia?