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Monday, February 8, 2010

Blog Assignment #4

Assignment: Post a one paragraph question that stems from the assigned reading for class on Wednesday night. Questions are due by noon on Wednesday.
Reading: Up to page 243 in The Known World

9 comments:

  1. In our last class discussion on The Known World, we discussed a lack of sympathy for the characters discussed within the book. Granted, we had only read the first one hundred odd pages, but it seemed more of a study of a culture than a study of individual lives and how the culture altered perhaps their inherent character in fundamental ways. From the next section of reading, the book seems to become a tragedy. The tragic circumstances surrounding each character and how they connect with one another in equally unfulfilling circumstances. I am of the mind that life has a lot of beauty to offer. I find this narrative of the South and the people that inhabit it more troubling because of the plans so many of them dream up that never come true. Philomena dreams of Richmond, Calvin dreams of New York and what is beyond the photograph, what was not captured. Augustus dreams of freedom only to re-enslaved, Skiffington dreams of God only to defy his action by ignoring his own part in the economy of slaves, Henry dreams of being just when that was impossible the minute he considered being someone's master "just". Everyones lifestyle centers around the concept of ownership, where daughters own their mothers, where fathers own their children, where to own is to secure.

    My question then becomes about the author's intent. Did he compose this narrative to demonstrate the history of the south, the irrational dreams of a multitude of interconnected characters, just to leave the reader with hopelessness? I think more than questioning southern ideals, the south has become a background in questioning human ideals. The environment for an experiment on how far people can be pushed before they surpass their ability to be human. Again and again people abuse each other and abuse their power. Is this a southern attribute or a human attribute?

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  2. I found it interesting that Fern was resentful of her family members that had moved on from their place of birth and created a new life where they passed as white. Though it is understandable that Fern was uncomfortable denying her race and born identity, I wonder why she would begrudge her family the opportunity to “pass” and experience a better quality of life. Though Fern and her respective husbands seem to have forged a satisfying and comfortable life, they were still subject to the discrimination and racism of the era, though maybe to a lesser degree because of their success and her education. Could she not understand why her family would seek to escape an environment of oppression and domination?
    It seems that a statement like this could raise concerns about being true to oneself, embracing who we are born to be, and accepting some of the predetermined qualities of life. However, one is left to ponder questions of escaping oppression, forging a new identity, and abandoning predetermined notions of race, intelligence, and ability.
    Is Fern upset that her family is denying their African heritage? Is she afraid to leave her hometown and attempt to pass? I wonder if (and how) her role of slave owner affects her perception of her family and their secret lives.

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  3. In 2004, 56% of African-American children live in a home with no father. This is notable because of how it compares to white children (22% in a home with no father) and Hispanic children (31% in a home with no father). Many studies have been published about how the absence of a father impacts children, specifically boys who then look elsewhere for models of what it means to be a man.

    In “The Known World”, Henry has two fathers, two models to follow towards becoming a man in the world. Though the way in which they model these characteristics for Henry is very different (and in both cases arguably flawed), both Augustus and Robbins are models of sympathy and conviction for Henry.

    Robbins believes it is his natural right to own slaves, this is his conviction. Unlike Skiffington, Robbins is not conflicted about this and as such has honest and genuine relationships with some of them. When Philomena runs away to Richmond, Robbins places a bounty on her as he would any other slave and he beats her. Still, she is allowed to speak to him as a wife on page 117 when she pleads with him not to make her go back. Initially, he responds to her as a wife, not a master. We discover that he has paid to educate Louis and Dora when he approaches Fern and hires her to educate Henry who is a) no longer his slave and b) not his child. He has great sympathy for Henry and does “not want to see him hurt by all that he does not know.” Henry’s personal life is arguably improved by the individual sympathy Robbins feels for him, potentially because Robbins knows that his way of life disables Henry from ever growing into a man who can be his peer. This kind of realization would trouble both a father and a son.

    Augustus has lived a life of conviction, of working toward his own freedom and the freedom of those he loves. Unlike Robbins, Augustus’ sympathy is for an entire system rather than an individual. Though his helping to free Mildred (Henry has two mothers and two fathers) suggested a sympathy for one person, his breaking Henry’s shoulder is an act of violence expressing the sympathy for the man (soon to be more than one man) that Henry was master to: for everyone enslaved.

    Henry seems to be a child serving two masters, two races, two fathers throughout this novel: neither of them is served well in spite of Henry’s beliefs about himself. With an internal need to model his life after both his fathers, could Henry have ever become a man of conviction himself? Though Fern claims he is intelligent, he is treated as a child by having her as a teacher. Can Henry see past the actions of his fathers to understand their convictions? Can he ever think himself a man under their shadows and under the tutelage of Fern (a relationship made permanent by marrying Caledonia)? If he could never become a man, his life would be spent aiming to impress and please those he believed to be men. Sympathy cannot grow within such a life.

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  4. What is striking, I believe, is the tying together of two main themes in our discussions thus far. The first is the sympathy we feel for the characters. During this portion of the novel we are given the inside of daily living, thoughts,and actions of the characters opposed to the ever-jumping setting near the beginning where history seemed to be battling with the development of character. I think the thing worth noting here is that I became so much more attached to the characters and therefore sympathetic. Yes, in part because of the plight they faced such as when Luke died after touching our hearts as he reached out to Elias or Philenoma's longing for Richmond even despite being treated not as a slave but as a partner who, in large, had Robbins tied around her finger, Ferns shortcoming. All the characters are being introduced in both good and bad light. However, I find myself sympathetic toward all because as I understand them I suddenly understand their actions. I think at that point readers must be cautious in not letting their attatchments provide justification.
    Everyone is struggling just trying to make sense of the South and their place in it, whether they want a place in it, how to escape physically and find freedom within their own hearts. Yet I see much of the white population doing the same thing. The French journalist needed to escape his family and Canada and where else did it lead him but to the South. Robbin's is all about status yet falls for Philomena. Caldonia doesn't want to own slaves and neither does Skiffington.

    Everyone is in bondage and I cannot but have sympathy for the floundering of every character to escape to freedom, a seemingly unrealistic dream for all.

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  5. What strikes me is the seeming subconscious guilt each of the black slave owners has throughout the novel and the use of conscious thought to put that guilt at ease. I am referring especially to the passage at the top of page 181, where Caldonia considers her mother's discussion of her legacy and then justifies why Henry had been a good master. She uses God as an excuse for the abuses Henry had performed on his slaves: rationing food, beating slaves, etc. Although the while missing the point, the issue is not whether or not Henry was a good slave owner, but whether or not owning slaves is moral. Which brings my following question. My question is about the use of religious thought to quell subconscious feelings of guilt for doing something that is clearly wrong. Has this self-imposed delusion of performing God's will by owning slaves, enslaved the owners on some level? How has this use of self-delusion hindered their ability to participate in the world? In a world dominated by self-deluded people are the few that refuse to adopt this same delusion hurting their chances of survival? How can one cope with the subconscious guilt without deluding oneself? Can giving up the slaves appease this guilt or will the guilt still exist for the actions of the past?

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  6. though I missed the first discussion of the first couple of chapters of this book, i am under the impression that a debating on whether or not to sympathize or have sympathy for the characters went on. I found myself becoming more attached to each character, developing feelings of dislike and like depending upon the actions they take. During this time period, everyone was trying to understand the South and why the South ran things differently compared to other parts of the states. What I have a hard time understanding why Fern seems to hate the fact that her family moved away from a place where oppression of blacks was still occurring. Did she not want them to feel acceptance from others regardless of their skin color? Trying to progressive forward and turning the US into an equalized country where everyone has the same rights and everyone is accepted for who they are, why does it matter if her family moved? They were wanting to life of acceptance and equality.

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  7. In our last discussion, the topic of morality and the place of God came up. It seemed from the discussion that religion and God were used as a means to justify actions taken by the characters and to justify conditions the characters found themselves in.

    While the issue of God is still relevant up into our current reading, I think there is another angle of morality being displayed here. There seems to be a struggle between identifying the morality of the culture and seperating it from the morality of the individuals within the story. I say this because in think the book is written within the context of our generalized education of that period of time, where southern white slave owners were unequivocally bad or even evil and the black slaves are unequivocally innocent and good. That's not to say the culture of that time was not terribly destructive and inhumane. But I see this work with morality as an attempt to widen the rather narrow understanding of our own history.

    Within the book, there are plenty of examples of racism and inequality. But as we read on there are equally numerous examples of people who try to do good (as we see frequently with the Robbins/Henry interactions), and also discriminatory and knavish acts as with episode with Harvey Travis and the cow he sold to Clarence and Beth Ann and also with the short bit about Mr Boussard's trial results being skewed by his accent, resulting in his execution.

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  8. Something that has struck me recently while reading the book is the difference in the relationship between master and slave worker and master and slave overseer. The particular relationship that I was intrigued by is that of Henry and Caldonia, and their overseer Moses. Although Henry and Caldonia are rarely outwardly offensive to their normal slaves, there is a large difference between how they treat them and how they treat Moses. The part of this that struck me odd is that, according to how thing's worked at that time, they were playing favorites with their possessions. Playing favorites like this made it seem to me that there was something more to these relationships than just that of owner/object. Would it be possible for any master to truly have a friendly relationship with a slave? I think not, and I think this point is most illustrated after, upon Robbins' instruction, Henry is told to treat Moses like the slave that he is, instead of being able to have fun with him. This is so serious a violation of the norm that Robbins' begins to doubt Henry very seriously.

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  9. A passage on p.182 has finally helped me articulate one of the reasons I find this novel so moving. This part of the text is written from Loretta’s point of view: “Some white mistresses did not care what their servants heard; they felt their servants had no more the ability to hear and judge than the cups and saucers. And some, like Caldonia, saw few servants as confidants. But others, like Maude, felt God had pitted the world against them and no one could be more against them than property that could hear and speak and think.” This comment powerfully highlights the difficulty of living in a society that allows living human beings to be someone’s property. In this case, Maude is afraid of what her property might do to her.

    There are numerous sub-plots in the novel that contain similar fears. Perhaps the most poignant one for me is the one focusing on the relationship between Clara, Sheriff Skiffington’s relative, and her slave Ralph. The description of the three days they spend in the intimacy of each other’s company, Ralph combing her hair as Clara drifts to peaceful sleep, is infused with lyricism that reveals more than a master—slave dynamic in their interactions. Clearly, Clara thinks of Ralph as a companion. Clearly, there is a physical component to their closeness. Yet, because of the social rules their relationship necessarily has to follow, Clara cannot trust or even verbalize her attraction to Ralph. Though they continue to live in the same household after the end of the Civil War (which begs the question of why Ralph would want to stay near his former owner), Clara dies with a knife under her pillow, unable to fully trust a man she used to own. The wasted potential for closeness in their relationship is devastating.

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