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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bog Assignment #5

Assignment: Please post a one paragraph question concerning the text for Friday's class. Due by noon on Friday, February 19.
Text: From page 243-end of The Known World.

10 comments:

  1. The most striking part of this novel for me came at the very end, which is difficult to say given how the author tosses you between despair and flying hope so quickly with the fates of each character. However, it was Calvin's letter to his sister Caldonia that gave me a better understanding of the "known world." The idea of a slave-master society may be ingrained into the culture of the south, but it does not mean that the culture cannot rise above this concept. You see it when Augustus refuses to work, when Mildred refuses to hand over a slave, when Barnum leaves Virginia, and at the end when Calvin witnesses the beauty that Alice created from the horror of slavery. He grew up in the south, but yet he knew he was capable of more than owning humans. He realizes this when he is in awe of Priscilla, Jamie, and Alice's new life, and incredibly ashamed of his own history. In class I sometimes argued for the idea that they went along with the institution of slavery because it was all they knew, it was their world. However, I think the end of this novel really shows what people are capable of, rising above their circumstances and defying what they deem is evil. Calvin mentions that he is ashamed because they were the same Race, but I think it surpasses even that, to his overall understanding that they are all human and exploiting a human is savage and immoral. In the end, even with all the hurt and murder and wrongs, there is hope in this story, because their is hope in the intentions of the characters. Their intentions may not always be enacted, but their dreams and their hearts take them to places where they can be more human than slavery allows.

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  2. The last several chapters of the novel present a great deal of information about the fates of the multiple characters we encounter through the text. Throughout this reading, I continuously recalled our previous class discussion in which Austyn brought up the notion of human nature vs. social institution. Time and time again, we see examples of malice, self interest, and evil (for lack of a better term) committed by individuals who would likely adamantly claim to be good, God fearing Christians. Not only do we see Moses send his wife, child, and Alice into a situation he assumes will kill them so that he will be free to marry Caldonia (and hopefully gain his own freedom), we see Skiffington murder Mildred, and then Skiffington himself is murdered by Counsel. These chapters also chronicle Augustus’ unfortunate final days as he was sold back into slavery and taken far from his home—not one person would listen to him or the other captives; no one seemed to consider their stories against the shady businessman.
    The extent to which self interest and greed factor into these chapters leads me to again address the question of human nature and socialization; socialization is without a doubt one factor contributing to the vile nature of a majority of the characters in “The Known World,” but what else accounts for the bloodlust that seems so prevalent in Manchester County. Why are so many characters willing to kill, oppress, or harm people who should be allies or loved ones (For example, Oden Peoples and his role in reselling Augustus or Moses causing Celeste to miscarry)? Does the institution of slavery or racialized hierarchies in general cause an inherent evil (or moral deficit) in all of those who are affected by it or is there some other factor at work here? Does (or can) the good Alice, Jaime, and Priscilla eventually create provide some atonement for the evil from which they were able to escape? What should we infer from Calvin’s letter and the fact that he does not attempt to recapture Alice, Jaime, and Priscilla?

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  3. Towards the end of the book, we are shown just how far a man can fall with the corruption of Skffington. Once upon a time in the book, he was one of the more morally sound characters. Although he was not perfect, he was miles ahead of most of the people of Manchester county. His murdering of Mildred is the the apex of his fall from grace. It seems that there were many factors leading up to this point that allowed him to pull the trigger. He was dealing with his lust for Minerva, his failure to find the runaways and the resulting disapproval from Robbins, his frustrating cousin Counsel, and also his mad tooth. All of these factors ultimately led to his demise. My question is this, would he have eventually come to this state of lunacy had any of these factors been missing? Are there other causes that the author implies? Is the guilt that he feels after shooting Mildred caused by the realization that she is human?

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  4. The end of the novel was beyond encouraging. Being from the South and most of my family from Mississippi and Louisiana, it is often hard to see hope when so much of our history is not history at all. It is what we knew and we have settled for it being what we still know - it is our known world. Along the Mississippi River delta, where cotton is the only snow, jokes are still made of a time of "oreo fields"...the black of African American skin and the cotton fields. This kind of stuff still makes me wail and turns my stomach upside-down. But this novel, being so stark at the beginning and "impersonal", I now draw on in my personal life through the characters and what they were able to accomplish. Yet I constantly struggle with the reality that this work of fiction actually holds? I have seen success stories... but on one hand can I count the success stories of African Americans I have known that were not hated and isolated as outcasts from their own community when they broke of the Known World and tried to create a new world. And then, it just seems like as far as the black communities building off that, they see the effects as negative, and accept life as they know it. I wish a fiction novel could actually be a part of my real world.

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  5. sorry ...reality is not always pretty

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  6. By the end of the novel Celeste clearly emerges as the character who speaks for what the narrator thinks is right: treating others with sympathy and love, not according to a power structure in which one is either a master or a slave. She feeds Moses after he causes her to lose her baby. She tells Elias “It just ain’t right to go and do what they bought you for” (336), even if her husband goes in pursuit of Moses to avenge for the loss of their baby. Along with Augustus and Mildred, then, Celeste is able to escape being part of a system that the novel portrays as all-pervasive, even if, unlike Augustus and Mildred, she remains enslaved. I have always wondered what makes her able to do that. If we can answer this question, perhaps we can figure out how to save ourselves in our own time?

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  7. Printed words in The Known World repeatedly become suspect because of their lack of attention to the lives of the black people, free or slaves, who populate the novel’s world. For example, there is the historian who is more interested in “the quirks of the county” than she is in the slaves who support the county economically (pp.43-44). Printed words don’t pay attention to the slaves’ humanity even when they have to do with their physical health. As Maude and Ray Topps, the man from the Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance Company, discuss the policy Caldonia will buy, Maude points out that “most of the slaves in the cemeteries in Manchester County had died while working, so there was no use insuring for ordinary dying” (356). Like the word “perishment,” thought up by a man in the company’s Hartford office, the life-insurance policies are not interested in the lives of the slaves being insured but in personal profit.

    My question: Does Jones use words in a way that is caring about the people, the human beings, that populate his narrative? What distinguishes his novel from the books of the historian we repeatedly hear about? From the language of “perishment”?

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  8. Sherrif Skiffingtons and Moses' transformations towards the end of the book were strange, with Skiffington developing from something of a whimsical man of the law with more or less good intentions to an almost outrageously angry man, and with Moses going from his rather angry and manipulative self to a totally despondent.

    It's interesting to note how they both died as a result of their shortcomings or what might better be called their sins(Skiffington from his lack of ownership of his authority and Moses from his abuse of everyone).

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  9. By the end of the novel I found myself attached to characters that I could not relate to earlier. The situation in which Augustus is placed was beyond disparaging. The resulting actions (or rather lack of actions) of Skiffington against Travis and Oden after hearing about the selling of Augustus back in to slavery was justified by saying that these two had managed to prevent a few slaves from escaping and therefore their selling of Augustus was not as bad as it could have been. Would these patrollers actions have been less horrible if Augustus had not died as a result? Is there anything Augustus could have done differently to prevent his situation from occurring? How do Travis and Oden sleep at night?

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  10. I have noticed that the many references to ‘god’ and ‘god’s’ part or role in ‘the known world’ sprinkled throughout the book, have often found their way into our discussions of the book. It has always somewhat puzzled me, that Slaves and those descendant of Slaves- ill-treated and oppressed as they were/are, are some of the most religious, god-loving, and thankful people. How can people have so much faith, when all they have experienced is injustice at the hands of others?
    In reading this book, the answer to this question was made somewhat apparent in my mind. It seems that no one wants to acknowledge that human beings act of his or her own free will. How could one slice the achilles of another? How could a black man own a white man? How could any man own another?
    To believe that there is something/someone out there controlling things is to alleviate oneself and others of the accountability of ones actions. We trust the captain of a plane not to fly us into the ground, but what happens when he puts the plane on autopilot and nods off to sleep?

    “it just seems as if god is somewhere out there, peeling grapes and not attending to business anymore…”

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