Cane | Study Guide

Jean Toomer

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Cane | Symbols



Dusk, also called sundown or sunset, represents possibility, danger, and mystery.

Sometimes this mystery reveals beauty and promise. The poem "Georgia Dusk" uses sunset to create a magical, mystical world where black Southerners reconnect to their African heritage. The narrator in "Karintha" compares Karintha's skin to dusk, using dusk to describe the lovely woman whose life is full of sorrow.

Dusk also brings a sense of danger. The full moon rising "up from the dusk" in "Blood-Burning Moon" reveals hidden brutality. Dusk and twilight often shift scenes in "Kabnis," increasing Kabnis's escalating internal conflict. "Harvest Song" depicts dusk as "a strange fear'd sheath [the harvesters'] blades are dull'd in," connecting dusk to fear and menace—once the sun sets the harvest must stop.


Cane stalks and fields symbolize the beauty and culture of the South. Toomer draws his title from Georgia's many sugarcane fields, which he uses as the backdrop to stories and poems in Part 1. Singers sing songs in the cane fields, and in "Blood-Burning Moon" the black community gathers around Old David Georgia's cane syrup.

Elsewhere in the novel sugarcane returns to symbolize the South's mysterious hold on the characters. In "Calling Jesus," a woman's lost soul finally finds rest "cradled in dream-fluted cane." The narrator in "Harvest Song" craves communion with "reapers of the sweet-stalk'd cane." He associates harvest with death—harvesters gather food in preparation for autumn to fade into winter. But the cane harvest brings consolation to the idea of death; the narrator describes his pain as "sweet." Toomer uses the sweet taste of sugarcane as a literal depiction of the sweetness lingering even in painful emotions.

Music and Spirituals

Music and spirituals stand for wisdom, hope, and heritage. Musical lyrics are present in almost every story and vignette, connecting the individual dramas to the wider community of African Americans. Characters often sing as the sun goes down. The songs linger in the atmosphere, inspiring the characters who hear them.

Poems with "song" in the title like "Cotton Song" or "Song of the Son" refer to the African American tradition—stemming from slavery—of singing through work and sorrow. Lyrics throughout the book include celebratory songs ("Seventh Street"), mournful elegies ("Karintha"), ominous warnings ("Blood-Burning Moon"), and religious spirituals ("Rhobert").

In the Georgia countryside, women like Fern sing to release deep emotion. Workers in "Cotton Song" and "Georgia Dusk" sing to celebrate a day's work. In the streets of Washington music is a lively soundtrack of jazz, blues, and other musical forms providing a backdrop to city life. Music allows African Americans to transplant their culture to the city's nightlife.

The writing itself has a musical quality by design. In addition to integrating song lyrics and poems into his prose, Toomer combines short sentences, phrases, and fragments with longer sentences to keep the writing asymmetrical and lyrical on the page.

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