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“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones tells a story of slavery, identity, and nature. Although the book follows a multitude of characters, Moses can be considered to be the protagonist of the book. This paper will cover these major themes, the coping mechanism of the character, and my ideas about the book.
Freedom, Slavery, and Identity
The book tells a tale of Moses, the first slave of a black slave-owner named Henry Townsend. While growing up as a slave, Henry bonded with his master William Robbins and his behavior later in life was formed by this bond. This fact explains how he can so easily deal with the ethics of owning slaves after being a slave himself. Henry is intelligent but cruel and lacks empathy. Despite being a free man, he chooses to focus his freedom on enslaving others and sees no issues with slavery. Moses becomes his first slave, but before that, he was a slave of a French prisoner, where he had a wife. This first separation traumatized him and perhaps made him neglectful and violent toward his second wife. This draws a clear line between freedom and slavery. Moses begins as Henry’s friend, but soon Robbins makes Henry stop treating Moses as an equal. Nevertheless, Moses is loyal to Henry even after this change. Moses is used to this kind of life and described by one of the other characters as “world-stupid,” meaning he does not know how to live in the outside world.
And yet, Moses is not devoid of agency. He has a strong connection to nature, both in the story of the book and its literary language. Early on, we see him go to the woods after a tough day to relax, showing how he feels free in the forest. Jones pays close attention to the nature around Moses. We can also see how Moses eats a little bit of the soil after work, connecting him to nature on a physical level. Moses gains his energy from nature, his will to live, and argued that he gains his identity from it.
In contrast, his family life is described as very sparingly. He does not have a strong connection to his wife; he neglects and beats her. On multiple occasions, Moses declines to eat with his family and chooses to spend the night in the woods instead.
Although his view of the world gets disrupted after he becomes involved with Henry’s wife Claudia, his connection to nature does not change. Even after the book’s tragic events, we can see how in his old age, he thinks about his time in the woods; however, now he has a slightly closer relationship with his family.
The Author and I
Edward P. Jones was born on October 5, 1950. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and witnessed much poverty and desperation during his life there. He was raised by a single mother whom Edward loved and dedicated his first two books. He experienced homelessness in the 1970s and often suffered from depression, which can be seen in his stories. His books often concern African Americans struggling through hard times. While they are often depressing, he finds a way to generate positive feelings from some of his characters’ warm-hearted nature. The book covered in this paper, “The Known World,” was published in 2003, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004.
I have not experienced such a turbulent childhood as Jones, but his personal story is sympathetic. I cannot help but admire his achievement and hope that I would reach at least half of what he did. While I cannot directly relate to the author, I found Moses’s feelings toward nature to be reminiscent of my personal experiences. I cannot say that I am connected to nature in the same way he was, but there are times in my life when I find a walk outside of town to be the only thing that can calm me down. The smell of the forest, the way the sun peeks through the trees, and perhaps the feeling of isolation helps me get distracted from my problems. I also really enjoy the rain, and the description of how Moses was getting almost a high from the rainfall is very relatable. There is nothing like the feeling of heavy rain during a hot summer day.
“The Known World” is a rare kind of story that, while telling a relatively traditional tragedy, still finds a way to keep itself fresh and say something new. The attention to authenticity through references to fictional historians and statistics separates this story from the more general slavery stories. Although it might seem that the topic of slavery has been completely covered by literature, this book shows how slavery is not only able to ruin the lives of enslaved people, but also the lives of everyone surrounding slavery. People lose family, friends, and their lives during the book, and slavery affects almost every one of these events. Overall, the book presents an authentic and tragic story of the effects of slavery.
Edward P. Jones had a difficult childhood and saw firsthand the effects of poverty and how people live. This could be seen in the authentic portrayal of characters on hard times. He presents an interesting perspective on how people form their identity and connect to nature to deal with our problems. I wish I could have the same love for anything that Moses did for nature.