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Issue of Slavery in “The Known World” by E. P. Jones Essay

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2022

About the Book – The Basic Theme

The book, The Known World, is a commendable piece of literature By Edwards P. Jones. It paints a realistic picture of “antebellum Virginia” where the tradition of keeping slaves was in full swing. (ReviewsOfBooks.com, n.d.). The number of slaves a master owned, the vainer he felt. The story is based in a period of time when the culture of slavery was not at its climax. It is clearly elucidated in the book some of the African American slaves, although fewer in number, were freed.

The book presents a very interesting and rather strange case of a master named, Henry Townsend. It unusualness lies in the fact that Townsend was an African American master unlike most of the masters in Virginia or for that matter, in United States. Only white masters were heard of in those times.

There is another element of uncommonness in the story. Although the times were changing and the African American slaves owned by white masters were being released, the salves remained somewhat an outcast and it was difficult, if not impossible, for them to climb up the rungs of the ladder of social and economic class hierarchy. The slaves were remained in the custody of the white masters received the same treatment as that of bondage slaves. However, the book presents a story of an African American master, Townsend, who himself was a slave once, and owned slaves and treated them with kindness and sympathy (Deusner, 2003).

Henry Townsend himself was a slave. He was freed by his white master, William Robbins. The master had a “fatherly affection” for him. It can be said that if it was not for Robbins, it would have been difficult for Townsend to reach the status of a master and own slaves of his own (Deusner, 2003).

Townsend was freed when he was a teenager. He worked hard as a “leather worker and boot maker” to earning a living. Saving on the living he earned for himself, he able to own a farm and generate more income for himself. Later, the wealth he had accumulated over years bore fruit. His sheer passion for work and great efforts paid off and he was able to build himself a house (Deusner, 2003). This is where the path to his journey to masterhood.

What is interesting to note is that despite being an important character in the story, Henry Townsend is shown to be dead in the very beginning. In fact, the story begins at a point when Townsend had passed away. The book demonstrates the power of a dead character who influences the lives of many around him.

The story depicts the lives of the slaves after their master, Townsend, is dead. There are a number of different elements and aspects of the lives of characters arise as the story proceeds. Nonetheless, the fundamental gist remains that the slaves find it difficult to earn a social reputation for themselves.

The book is a beautiful representation of pre-war life in Virginia and how the widespread tradition of masters keeping slaves affected the lifestyle the society. The entire story is well-conceived and well-written. In fact, it is more like a book which illustrates historical evidence. The story actually provides a deep insight into the lives as well as the minds of the people of Virginia in old times. Jones’ collaboration of ideas and a thoughtful concept amalgamated into a single book is definitely praiseworthy.

It is due to this amazing portrayal of the life in Virginia before the war that the book has received many awards and rewarding critic reviews. The author has earned much recognition and admiration for himself not only in the literary world but also by an entourage of enthusiastic readers.

Formalist Criticism

The concept and the tradition of slavery and the treatment given to the slaves have been given pivotal focus. They build the very foundation on which the entire story of the book is laid. The different characters and the plots have been molded accordingly to portray a true-to-life scenario and lifestyle of Virginia prior to the war.

The plight of the slaves, especially those of African American ones, has been skillfully expressed throughout the book. The slaves, despite being freed at the will of their masters or breaking the bondage themselves, were, in reality, near able to eliminate the oppression imposed on them by the society. The greatest victims were the African American downtrodden class who suffered at the hands of the whites.

The book illustrates states a concept that the manner in which the slaves or the subjugated strata of society are dealt with depends a lot on the masters. Henry Townsend was fortunate enough to have a master who helped him rose to the status of a master himself. Townsend also believed in treating his slaves with kindness.

It is well purported in the book that the slaves wanted to break from the bondage. The more brutally they were treated, the more rebellious and stubborn they became. Even those who were being treated well by their masters did not want to live under the umbrella of a downtrodden class. They wanted to breathe free and be independent. They tried in whichever way they could to end the social stigma surrounding them and their social status. The slaves who were freed by their masters, often, were faced with a glass ceiling which prevented them from elevating their economic standing.

The story depicts the trauma, the anguish and the difficulties faced by many lives over a period of a lot of years. (ReviewsOfBooks.com, n.d.). The characters in the book have all been so tactically represented that they do draw real-life sketches of the ups and downs faced by the different members of the society in Virginia in the old days.

The book states that there were 34 African American families in 1855 in the Manchester County of Virginia which were freed. However, only 8 of those families were able to rise to the level of social status hierarchy where they could afford to own slaves. (Jones, 2006, p. 7). This is evidence enough that the African American slaves found it rather difficult to break free from the bondage of their masters and in case, they were able to get freed, it was not easy for them elevate their social and financial position.

When Henry Townsend passed away, his wife, Caldonia, took the charge of the farms. She tried her level best to ensure that the plantation was well-tended by the slaves. However, her grief and sorrow over the death of her beloved husband has been overwhelming. Despite the fact, the slaves were treated with much kindness by the Townsend family, they wanted to remove the label of slavery imposed them. This is a marvelous reflection of human nature. People would always want to be climb up the ladder of social and economic hierarchy and would always look for greener pastures.

Townsend’s death provided the slaves with an “opportunity” to break free from the reign of masterhood. They started to run away at night to break free from the bondage of slavery. Caldonia becomes helpless and the hope and love with which Townsend had built the farms starts to shatter with the passage of time.

The entire state of Virginia also faces an immense upheaval. As the slaves try to untie the knot of bondage, the white masters begin to feel that they are rebelling against them. A kind of resentment and anger brews up against the slaves who have served the whites for several years. In fact, some of the slave families had been serving their respective white masters since generations. Therefore, the white masters hire white patrollers to keep an eye on the slaves and fetch back those who run away.

As the patrollers are themselves low-paid, they find an opportunity in this. They start catching freed African American slaves and presenting them to white masters. In fact, it can be said that a kind of a mafia is created which engages in trafficking of freed African American and bringing them back to the world of slavery (Fantastic Fiction, 2007). Therefore, it is right to say that a vicious circle engulfs the lives of the African Americans who, despite tremendous efforts, are not able to live the lives of free men and earn a reputation and financial standing for themselves in the society. They are faced with many hurdles in their path to elevating their social status and economic position. Fate has been very unfair to them.


The story provides an enlightening insight into the lives of slaves particularly African American ones. The bondage of slavery is so overwhelming that those who have fallen prey to it found it rather difficult to elevate their social and economic status. The downtrodden class remains an outcast unless the masters consider them to be people having emotions and desires, and helps them achieve their dreams.

Works Cited

  1. Jones, E. P., 2006, The Known World: A Novel, Amistad, Connecticut.
  2. Deusner, S. M. “The Known World” Pop Matters. 2003.
  3. “The Known World by Edward P. Jones” ReviewsOf Books.com. 2007.
  4. ” Fantastic Fiction. 2007. Web.
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