The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 2 : The Wedding Present. Dinner First, Then Breakfast. Prayers Before an Offering. | Summary

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Summary

John Skiffington has been Sheriff Gilly Patterson's deputy for two years when he meets Winifred, Patterson's niece. Less than a year later, John and Winifred are married. Attending the wedding is Counsel Skiffington, John's wealthy cousin. The two grew up together on a plantation in North Carolina owned by Counsel's father. John's father was overseer of the farm's 158 slaves. When John's mother died, his father turned his back on slavery, left North Carolina, and took his son with him to Virginia.

As a wedding gift, Counsel and his wife Belle present John and Winifred with a nine-year-old slave girl, Minerva. This is an idea born of spitefulness on the part of Counsel, who dislikes his cousin and knows that he and his bride detest slavery. Unwilling to sell the child or give her away, the newlyweds agree to keep Minerva and raise her like a daughter, not a slave. Two years later, William Robbins and four other major landowners force Sheriff Patterson to retire, hiring John Skiffington to take his place. Robbins is convinced that Patterson has not been doing all he can to keep slaves in the county from running away. In fact one of his slaves, Rita, has recently disappeared. When Skiffington takes over as sheriff, he immediately hires 12 slave patrollers to watch the roads at night. All the patrol members are poor whites, except one man who is Cherokee.

Rita's disappearance is a mystery to everyone except Augustus, Mildred, and Henry. It happens on the day Henry leaves Robbins's plantation for good, his freedom purchased by his father. Henry is about 18 years old. As he and his parents roll away in their wagon, Rita chases after, begging, "Please don't leave me here." Courageously, Augustus hides her in the wagon and the family drives off, knowing the grave danger of helping her to escape. A few days later Augustus smuggles her out of Virginia in a wooden crate bound for a New York merchant. Presumed to be transporting hand-carved walking sticks, the crate arrives in New York, where it is opened by the merchant's wife, Mary O'Donnell Conlon, and her young son, Timothy. As the lid is lifted Rita pleads, "Don't send me back," and extends to the boy a walking stick depicting Adam and Eve and their descendants, ending with George Washington. Solemnly, the boy accepts it as if it is "what he had been waiting for all along," and Rita's freedom is secured.

Analysis

The chapter introduces several more characters whose lives illustrate slavery's effects on the human heart and relationships. The first are John Skiffington and his wife, Winifred. John is a religious man who rejects slavery as morally wrong. Educated in the North by Quakers, Winifred also strongly opposes the institution. However, they live within the system that supports ownership of humans and cannot escape the consequences. In the first part of the chapter, referred to as The Wedding Present, John and his bride are presented with the black slave child, Minerva. Principles will not permit them to sell her or to give her to strangers and an uncertain future. They are trapped. Kindness moves them to keep and raise Minerva as their daughter, while it forces them to adjust their values to accommodate conditions of slavery. The results will inevitably poison their best intentions.

This episode also features the ugliness of slavery, which sees nothing morally wrong in giving a human as a gift. Unlike John and Winifred, Counsel Skiffington and Belle harbor no conflicting feelings on the subject. They occupy the top rung in a society based on slavery's hierarchal system of power. To them presenting Minerva to John and Winifred is little different than giving them a pet. In fact, knowing the newlywed's feelings on slavery Counsel enjoys the distressing dilemma in which he mires them. He is a callous man with an absolute sense of his own superiority that will play out in a future tragedy.

For his part, John Skiffington's moral position is compromised by his duties as county sheriff. While he personally abhors slavery, his profession dictates that he uphold its related laws. Under these laws only slave owners have rights, and Sheriff Skiffington is obligated to protect them. One of his first acts as sheriff is to organize patrollers to ride the roads at night and track down escaping slaves.

John Skiffington's rise to the position of sheriff is a direct result of the slave Rita's disappearance. The chapter's second and third sections—Dinner First, Then Breakfast and Prayers Before an Offering—relate the Rita episode. Section 2 points to Rita's sickness at the side of the road when she fears the Townsends will leave her behind on William Robbins's plantation. So great is her terror that she vomits up her dinner, followed by her breakfast. Prayers Before an Offering refers to the chapter's coverage of Rita's transportation to New York. Mildred and Rita invoke the Lord's blessing on Rita's journey as she is nailed in the box, praying they will meet again "in the bye and bye." Forty hours later Rita makes an offering to Timothy of the token walking stick. This act initiates Rita's freedom, and the subject matter of the carved stick suggests that, like Adam and Eve, she may expect generations of descendants.

It is significant that Henry never betrays his parents, though Rita is the property of Robbins, whom Henry admires. It is the last time Henry will act in accordance with his parents' values by upholding the right of a slave to be free.

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