The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 3 : A Death in the Family. Where God Stands. Ten Thousand Combs. | Summary

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Summary

Caldonia Townsend's maid, Loretta, informs the overseer, Moses, that Henry has died and tells him to spread the news to the other slaves. She cautions him to make sure there is no trouble "that might spoil that man's trip to the grave." Moses does as he is told, but no sorrow is expressed among the slaves. They are mostly concerned with what will happen to them now. Once the slaves have gathered outside the house, Caldonia steps onto the verandah to speak to them. With her are Henry's parents, Augustus and Mildred, Caldonia's twin brother, Calvin, their mother, Maude, and the schoolteacher, Fern Elston. As Caldonia offers words of comfort, she assures the slaves that they will be kept together and not be sold off, dashing all hopes the slaves may have harbored of being set free.

Soon William Robbins arrives with Louis and Dora, his adored children by his black mistress, Philomena. Louis pitches in to help Calvin, Augustus, and some of Henry's slaves to dig the grave. The burial will be the next day. That night Alice slips out as usual to wander the roads, singing and dancing. Three patrollers come upon Alice; however, they recognize her and leave her alone.

The night after Henry is buried, the slave Elias finishes whittling a doll for his six-year-old daughter, Tessie. Looking up at the stars, he reflects on how they were supposed to guide him away long ago from the plantation, to freedom. That was before Celeste consented to be his wife.

Elias first sees Celeste close up two days after Henry purchased him. She has a crippled leg that causes her to limp. Catching him staring at her, Celeste is resentful, believing he is enjoying her struggle to walk. Thereafter, she will have nothing to do with him and seems to despise him. Later Elias attempts to escape the plantation but becomes ill along the way and is caught by William Robbins. As punishment, Henry orders a third of Elias's ear cut off by Oden Peoples, who specializes in the procedure. As Elias recovers from his cruel mutilation, he is befriended by a sweet-tempered, 12-year-old slave boy whom Henry has recently purchased. A short time later, Celeste takes the boy in to look after him. His name is Luke, and he becomes the common ground between Celeste and Elias upon which their relationship forms.

Elias is mystified one morning when he realizes he is in love with Celeste. Now he must find a way to woo her. After some deliberation he carves a wooden comb for her hair. It's "one of the crudest and ugliest instruments in the history of the world," but no one has ever shown Celeste such kindness. When she accidentally breaks the comb, Elias promises to carve one for every hair on her head. The two fall in love and get permission from Henry to marry. Henry grants this happily, knowing it will tie Elias to the farm and keep him from running away again.

Luke lives with the couple until Henry hires the boy out to a white man during harvesting season. The boy is worked too hard and dies in the field. Of all who speak at the boy's gravesite, no one pours out more of his heart than Elias.

Analysis

Chapter 3 mainly concerns reaction to Henry's death. Woven into this exploration of its aftermath are the personal histories of the slaves Elias and Celeste and their relationship. The slave Stamford, a troublemaker, is introduced and the character of Fern Elston is revealed. Both will play more prominent roles as the story unfolds.

The chapter section A Death in the Family concerns the manner in which Henry's death is announced and received, implying that everyone mourns Henry's passing equally. However, Henry's field slaves shed no tears upon hearing of his death. Their thoughts turn to the changes his death may bring—changes over which they will have no control. They could be set free, but just as possibly sold off, with husbands torn from their wives and parents from their children. Nothing is inconceivable. Some recall a story of a white widow who sold her slaves and white stepchildren in order to finance her new life in Paris. No one questions the story's credibility. In a world where the buying and selling of black children occurs, the buying and selling of white children seems equally possible.

Another chapter segment, Where God Stands, points to Caldonia's well-meaning assurances that the slaves will not be sold off but will stay together with her. She tells them "God stands with us," implying, with unintentional dramatic irony, that God stands with, or approves of, slavery. Her statement signals an end to any hope that Henry's death will release his slaves from bondage.

Henry's parents are part of the group mourning his death. Augustus once thought Caldonia had greater moral decency than Henry and had hoped she would free the slaves upon Henry's death. However, proximity to slavery has changed her. She now accepts it and does not propose freeing the slaves. Augustus and Mildred share the slaves' disappointment and mingle with them, offering condolences for their loss of hope. They steadfastly refuse to stay in the house Henry built with slave labor. William Robbins also comes to convey his condolences because "a man he had cared about [is] dead." In her sadness Fern Elston discovers something inside her has shifted with Henry's death. This foreshadows her later transformation when she encounters runaway slave Jebediah Dickinson. Caldonia's mother, Maude, is in attendance to guard her daughter's legacy, knowing that her daughter (even more so, her son, Calvin) does not share her businesslike views on slavery and the worth of human property.

The last segment of the chapter, Ten Thousand Combs, refers to the story of Elias and Celeste, which begins in 1847. The arrival of Luke brings them together, and his gentle spirit reveals the depth and substance of their natures. When Elias opens his heart to Luke, this contact calms his rage at being chained and disfigured for trying to escape. Celeste recognizes the boy's deep loneliness and takes him under her wing. Elias is then drawn to her, and his love further transforms him from a man intent only on escape to one who willingly gives up that dream for marriage. In turn Celeste must let down her guard and trust that at last here is someone who loves her and does not care that she is lame.

The story of Elias's escape, capture, and mutilation shines a stark light on the corrupting influence of slavery. Henry intends to be a benevolent master, with visions of providing good food and decent working conditions for his slaves. However, the institution demands that all involved adhere to its laws and conditions, and if the enslaved fail to cooperate, harsh discipline is called for. Thus Henry's good intentions fail, and he is deeply troubled by his decision to have Elias's ear disfigured as punishment. Yet Henry fears that if he does not act, he will fail the system and it will fail him.

The black preacher Valtims Moffett is present on the plantation while Elias is chained up, waiting for his mutilation. Though religion is at times a positive force in the novel, Moffett represents a harmful brand. In his personal life, Moffett is a greedy, ungodly man. His public façade is that of a humble man of faith, and he travels from plantation to plantation, preaching that submission and obedience is God's will for the slaves. His message is designed to please the slave masters and place their slaves in spiritual shackles. Moffett's presence on the plantation again indicates Henry's experience as a slave was less traumatic than most. Henry allows Moffet to minister to his slaves because he recalls with pleasure the preacher's sermons on Robbins's plantation.

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