The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 10 : A Plea Before the Honorable Court. Thirsty Ground. Are Mules Really Smarter Than Horses? | Summary

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Summary

Caldonia cannot imagine why her missing slaves "would leave what she and Henry had made," and her concern for them grows. At the same time her feelings for Moses cool, and he sees his chance of freedom and marriage to her slipping away. When Sheriff Skiffington next visits, he has nothing new to report and suggests to Caldonia that the slaves have either escaped the state or are dead somewhere. He then goes to see Mildred, though he has no news of Augustus to share. Finally, he stops at William Robbins's plantation. Robbins says he wants to "set a five-hundred-dollar bounty on the head of that speculator that took Augustus Townsend." Though fearing that Robbins is losing confidence in him, Skiffington agrees.

That evening Caldonia allows Moses to make love to her. Afterward he asks, "When you gonna free me?" but she sidesteps the question. He leaves the house in a quiet rage. Still angry the next day, he takes it out on Celeste, ordering her to work although she is six months pregnant and feeling ill. When Celeste collapses in the field and loses her baby, her husband, Elias, vows to hurt Moses "like no man's been hurt before."

A few days later Moses confronts Caldonia and demands to know "why ain't you done freed me?" He makes a threatening move toward her but goes no further when Loretta puts a knife to his throat. After Moses leaves, Loretta arms Bennett with a pistol and has Clement guard the back door all night.

All the next day, Moses neglects his overseer's duties, stays in his cabin, and refuses food that is brought to his door. That night when he runs away by way of the main road, Loretta observes him through the parlor window but does nothing. During the confusion the next day over Moses's disappearance, Clement and Gloria flee as well. Caldonia sends Bennett into town to inform Sheriff Skiffington about Moses and again, a few days later, to report the flight of Clement and Gloria.

Analysis

Additional consequences of a master-slave relationship play out as readers follow the romance between Caldonia and Moses. Elias and Celeste are drawn into their story, and their suffering as a result reveals the depth of Elias's love and Celeste's humanity. John Skiffington continues his struggle to unravel the mysteries surrounding the slave disappearances.

A Plea Before the Honorable Court alludes to a newspaper story about a white woman in Bristol, Virginia, who is whipped for having sex with her slave. The story worries Caldonia, considering her current affair with Moses. She wonders what excuses the white woman might have presented to the "honorable court" to lessen her punishment. Caldonia is troubled about her own legal status and has been toying with the idea of freeing Moses. The incident referred to by the title Thirsty Ground sways her decision to the contrary and sets Moses on a course that will destroy several lives.

The "thirsty ground" is the earth of the field where pregnant Celeste collapses and loses her baby. The ground drinks up the blood. Captured in the event is the utter heartlessness and horror of slavery. Moses, angry that Caldonia has balked at giving him his freedom, callously sends Celeste to work in the fields, knowing she is six months pregnant and not feeling well. As the overseer, his power exceeds Celeste's, and she has no choice but to comply. The system literally kills her baby and figuratively feeds on that death, soaking up the blood like nourishing water.

The incident destroys Moses's chances with Caldonia and undermines his authority with the other slaves. Over the years he has often targeted Celeste's husband, Elias, for abuse. With Moses's role in the loss of their child, that enmity erupts into hatred. Celeste pleads with Elias for restraint, and only his love for her keeps him from harming Moses. In an extraordinary show of compassion, Celeste reaches out to Moses in spite of her heartbreaking loss. She becomes a model of strong character and deep humanity that is able to transcend the degrading effects of slavery.

Are Mules Really Smarter Than Horses? points to two instances when the comparison becomes a metaphor for slaves and slavery. First, Moses and then Caldonia's slave Bennett state that mules are smarter than horses, though within different contexts. Moses is with Caldonia and tries to explain his deep-seated instinct to work—how he cannot help himself because he has been working since he was three. Moses then says that a horse will work itself to death, whereas a mule knows when to quit and will do so. He seems to be saying that, like a mule, he is a good worker but will not allow himself to be pushed beyond his endurance. While in town reporting lost slaves to Sheriff Skiffington, Bennett struggles to maneuver the mule leading his wagon. He explains to the sheriff that he won't ride a horse because a mule is smarter. Bennett seems to be saying that a horse might be easier to handle, but a smart mule is better able to figure its way out of a fix. This offers a subtle but effective comment on slaves and slavery. Like horses, there are many being pushed past their endurance. However, among them are "mules" that will survive and escape their predicament.

Finally, as John Skiffington struggles to find Augustus and solve the mystery of the missing slaves, his inappropriate attraction to his "daughter" Minerva reaches a disturbing stage. It has been bothering him for some time, and as a man of faith, he has turned to the Bible for peace and guidance. However, it does not seem to offer the solace or answers he seeks. He is trying to live a moral life within an immoral social system that would close its eyes to a free white man forcing himself on a black slave. And technically under the law, Minerva is nothing more than that. In this chapter Skiffington's moral barriers appear to be weakening. His fleeting fantasies are solidifying into an obsession. He is beginning to wonder what punishment God would inflict "if it was just once." Like William Robbins's love for Philomena, Skiffington's fatherly love for Minerva is poisoned by the power of ownership inherent in slavery.

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