The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 1 : Liaison. The Warmth of Family. Stormy Weather. | Summary

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Summary

It's July, a season of growth on Henry Townsend's plantation. Henry is a free black man, age 31, who owns 33 slaves and over 50 acres of land in Manchester County, Virginia. The year is 1855, and Henry is dying. Still work on the plantation goes on, and it's late when Henry's black overseer, Moses, quits after a 15-hour work day, wanders into the nearby woods, strips down to his skin, and soaks in the lightly falling rain. He then masturbates and falls asleep for a time before going back to his cabin where his wife and young son are asleep.

Up at the main house, Henry's wife, Caldonia, sits with him as she has done for the past six days and nights. Keeping her company is Fern Elston, Henry and Caldonia's old schoolteacher. As they talk quietly, Henry feels himself leave and enter the tiniest of houses—one that he does not own but rents, and that has only four rooms instead of the thousands he has been promised. His head touches the ceilings. Turning to his wife to complain, Henry is told by God that she is not his wife, but his widow. Moments later Caldonia realizes that her husband is dead.

Henry's father, Augustus Townsend, is 22 years old when he buys himself out of slavery. Leaving his wife, Mildred, and his son behind on William Robbins's plantation, Augustus goes to work as a carpenter. Three years later he has earned enough to free his wife, but Henry will have to wait.

His parents entrust Henry to a slave named Rita, who cares for him well. Many years pass before Augustus is able to purchase his son out of bondage. During those years William Robbins grows fond of Henry, who serves as groom for his prized horse, Sir Guilderham. Robbins looks forward to seeing the young boy on his return trips from town, where he keeps a black mistress—a freed slave named Philomena. Torn by his love for the woman and trapped in a loveless marriage, Robbins suffers "storms" of mental distress after each visit. The sight of Henry awaiting his return—always cheerful and quick to please—somehow comforts Robbins and gives him strength to face Ethel—his "beastly sour" wife. As Robbins grows to cherish Henry more, he raises the price Augustus Townsend must pay to free the boy.

Analysis

Among the key players introduced in this chapter are Moses and Henry Townsend, whose intertwined stories will dominate the novel. Of the chapter's three titles, Liaison refers to Moses's role in the characters' relationship. A liaison provides a link between people or groups that aids cooperation and communication of ideas. As the overseer on the plantation, Moses serves as the physical link between Master Henry and the other slaves. As a liaison of a different sort, he is Henry's link to the health of the plantation itself, eating soil samples "to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field." The plantation is his world, and he knows the earth in a way that Henry cannot. In this way his purpose as a slave is linked to the land on which he toils. This foreshadows a time when Moses will try to escape. Bound to this small world, he will be lost outside its borders and unable find his way to freedom. Moses also symbolically links Henry to his past, serving as a reminder that Henry was once a slave and equal to the men and women he now holds in bondage.

The chapter's second title, The Warmth of Family, concerns the past, when Henry's father—Augustus Townsend—strives to buy freedom for his wife and son. The period that Henry is left behind on the plantation has an effect on his psychological development. During that time Henry is cared for by another slave, Rita. The "warmth of family" is applied tongue-in-cheek to Henry's relationship with his parents. While Augustus works to earn money to free him, Henry is emotionally and spiritually drifting away from his parents. His shrewd move to become William Robbins's groom improves the conditions of his life and profoundly impacts his future. Constantly exposed to Robbins's influences, Henry gradually internalizes a slave master's values and point of view. By the time Augustus buys his son's freedom, Henry covets the power and authority inherent in the ownership of land and slaves. There are hints that the resulting strain in their father-son relationship is linked to the house that Henry and Moses build.

The chapter's third title, Stormy Weather, references the mental disturbances amounting to seizure-like blackouts that Robbins experiences whenever he visits his black mistress and children. These episodes become the foundation for Henry's attachment to Robbins as well as Robbins's increased reluctance to release Henry. Over the years, Robbins comes to see Henry as a source of safety and stability in his life. This relates to the theme of ownership and love.

Several episodes introduce other significant characters in the story, in particular Mildred Townsend, Henry's mother; Alice Night, a slave who may or may not be insane; Caldonia Townsend, Henry's free-born wife; Fern Elston, a free-born black schoolteacher; Dora and Louis, Robbins's children with his black mistress, Philomena; and Elias and Celeste, married slaves living on Henry's plantation.

Chapter 1 also introduces the concept that although Henry believes himself to be free, technically he is not. Since Augustus purchased Henry from Robbins and still holds Henry's papers, he owns his son. This arrangement is the only way Henry can remain in Virginia once Robbins releases him. If Augustus grants Henry legal freedom—a process called manumission—Henry will have to leave Virginia within a year or face reenslavement. Because he remains a slave under the law, Henry's freedom is an illusion. Furthermore, as a slave master, Henry does not reject the social system that held him in bondage; instead he embraces and perpetuates it. He realizes this by way of a metaphorical dream as he lies dying. In this vision he enters a tiny, cramped house that he rents and does not own. He is dismayed that the structure isn't the grand house of 1,000 rooms he was promised. He does not own the house any more than he owns himself. His freedom is borrowed, and his identity—like the tiny house instead of the promised mansion—has been built on a lie.

Finally, slavery as a system of absolute domination of one individual over another is summed up well by Moses. Once Henry buys him, he is aware without doubt that Henry now "[owns] him and any shadow he [makes]."

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