The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 5 : That Business Up in Arlington. A Cow Borrows a Life from a Cat. The Known World. | Summary



The chapter opens with That Business Up in Arlington. In 1844 John Skiffington and his wife visit Winifred's 54-year-old cousin, Clara Martin. She is a widow and lives alone except for her longtime slave Ralph. Recent stories about unrest and uprisings among slaves have made Clara nervous. She is particularly concerned about a story relayed by a relative in Arlington: a slave there has been caught putting ground glass into her owner's food. Though Skiffington discerns no change in Ralph's demeanor, Clara is unconvinced. From that day forward, she cooks her own food, nails her bedroom door shut at night, and sleeps with two knives.

In the segment A Cow Borrows a Life from a Cat, Skiffington takes time to settle a dispute over a cow recently acquired by a local farmer. Clarence Wilford bought the cow from Harvey Travis, one of Skiffington's slave patrollers, who was sure the cow was dying. When the animal miraculously revives and begins producing milk, Travis demands her return and threatens violence. Skiffington settles things by allowing Travis to send someone twice a week to collect two free buckets of milk. Still feeling cheated, Travis reluctantly agrees.

The chapter closes with The Known World. The morning after the Skiffingtons return home, William Robbins visits the sheriff at his jail to complain that Harvey Travis has hit Henry, who is now a free man. Skiffington promises to handle the matter. The jail's only prisoner, Jean Broussard, seizes the opportunity to sell Robbins a slave named Moses. This is the same Moses who will be purchased by Henry a year later. Broussard is a native Frenchman, now an American, accused of murdering his business partner. He will be convicted and hanged, and the money for Moses will be sent to his widow and children in France. One man on the jury will confide to his wife that Broussard was convicted because of his foreign accent, which gave him "the stench of a dissembler," or liar.


The critique of slavery continues with John and Winifred's trip to visit cousin Clara Martin, referenced by the title That Business Up in Arlington. The "business" concerns a white woman whose slave cook has been putting ground glass into her owner's food. That and other rumors of slave unrest have Clara so shaken up she stops allowing her slave, Ralph, to prepare her meals. The slavery system seems to be breaking down, and the social structures that keep "property" in its place are deteriorating. However, Clara's fear is unfounded. Nothing in the demeanor of the faithful Ralph suggests he poses a danger. He is kind and gentle with Clara after her husband dies. Clara's paranoia stems from her sexual attraction to Ralph—an attraction she dare not admit to or indulge in. She is frightened by any weakening of the system's artificial barriers, sensing this portends the system's decline.

The critique then shifts focus to the dispute between Harvey Travis and Clarence Wilford in the episode subtitled A Cow Borrows a Life from a Cat. The cow is described as "something Joseph might have dreamed up and warned Pharaoh about." This is an allusion to the biblical story of Joseph, from the book of Genesis. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers but becomes the Pharaoh's advisor. The "dreamed up" cow is one of seven bone-thin bovines from a dream that Joseph interprets to mean seven years of famine will plague Egypt. The miraculous recovery of Travis's former cow is whimsically demonstrated when Wilford's wife feeds a cat with a stream of milk from one of the cow's teats.

Skiffington demonstrates wisdom in settling the quarrel. Though Travis clearly planned to scam Wilford, the sheriff understands the best way to restore peace is to allow him a share of the milk. The fact that all three men so zealously seek justice is at odds with the injustice they habitually inflict on slaves. Travis and Wilford are both patrollers whose job is to capture runaways, and Sheriff Skiffington is required to enforce the laws of slavery. Each man has a clearly defined vision of moral justice—as it applies to free white men like themselves. Each is blind to the moral injustice inherent in a system of human bondage.

The last and most significant part of the chapter spotlights the Frenchman in Sheriff Skiffington's jail, the backstory of Moses, and Skiffington's map "The Known World." The conviction and hanging of Jean Broussard for murder is an example of prejudice based not on race, but on "otherness." His accent hangs him; not his guilt. It emphasizes the insular quality of Manchester County and the South, whose inhabitants distrust the outside "unknown" world. Though Broussard has become an American citizen and slave owner, his accent—his otherness—prevents acceptance into their "known world."

The story of Moses illustrates a further effect of slavery on the human heart. When Moses is being sold in the jailhouse, he begs William Robbins to buy Bessie, the slave woman he is with. Robbins refuses, though Moses continues to tearfully plead, "Me and Bessie together. She all I have in this world." His sincere appeals fall on deaf ears, and Robbins threatens to shoot him if he persists. This episode offers insight into Moses's later abandonment of his wife and child. Never again does he exhibit a pure, heartfelt connection to another human being.

Finally, the imperfect map in Skiffington's jail is not so different from the imperfect "known world" of Manchester County. Both are limited in perspective and ignorant of future events that will reshape them. In the case of Manchester County, those events are the Civil War and the end of slavery. The obsolete map also hints at the fate of Manchester County, which will disappear from any map by the year 1912.

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