The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 8 : Namesakes. Scheherazade. Waiting for the End of the World. | Summary

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Summary

One by one Maude, Calvin, and Fern leave Caldonia's home until, five weeks after Henry's death, she has the house to herself. On the way home Fern is stopped by Jebediah Dickinson, a black man who claims that Ramsey, her gambler husband, owes him 500 dollars. Ramsey is away, and Fern refuses to pay his gambling debts, so Jebediah camps out near her house and waits. After a few days his horse Maribelle dies, and then Oden Peoples arrests him for vagrancy. When Sheriff Skiffington checks Jebediah's free papers, he discovers they have been forged—he still belongs to Reverend Wilbur Mann of Danville, Virginia. Mann soon arrives to retrieve his property and vows to whip Jebediah until he dies of it. Hearing this threat Fern buys Jebediah, intending to free him.

Her plans change when Jebediah runs into Ramsey. He demands his money and, angered by Ramsey's refusal to pay up, discloses that Ramsey has been unfaithful to Fern on his gambling trips. Fern is deeply wounded and resents Jebediah's insensitivity and disrespect. As punishment she keeps him a slave. He soon begins forging passes to step off the plantation, and he never stops insisting that Ramsey owes him money. Finally, he makes a sexual remark to Fern that goes too far, and Fern has him flogged. A while later he steps on a rusty nail and must have his right foot amputated. Feeling remorse, Fern gives him his free papers and offers him a job on the estate. But he has come to see Virginia as a demon state and wants no further part of it. He accepts Fern's gift of a horse and wagon to carry him up North.

During this time Caldonia and Moses continue to meet in the evenings. Moses reports on the day's activities and then tells her stories about other slaves or about Henry. He wheedles a new set of clothes from the house slave Bennett so he can be more presentable when he appears in Caldonia's parlor. Moses begins to hope that she will free him. At the same time his treatment of Priscilla, his wife, deteriorates, and he becomes cruel. He also grows paranoid about Alice, who seems to be spying on him when he goes into the woods "to be with himself," or masturbate. One evening Caldonia breaks down crying and, when Moses moves close to comfort her, she kisses him. At the end of the next week they begin making love.

Analysis

This chapter focuses on Fern's transformative relationship with runaway slave Jebediah and the emerging romance between Caldonia and Moses.

Fern Elston is a free-born black woman who is quite pale and can be mistaken for, or "pass for," white, though she never chooses to. However, she is a slave owner and, while she treats her slaves kindly, she does not recognize their humanity until Jebediah Dickinson comes along. The law says Jebediah is a slave, but he talks and acts like a free man who believes in his right to be so. His intelligence and education fuel his rebellious nature. Being well educated and a teacher, Fern appreciates Jebediah's better qualities while resenting his unwillingness to accept the conditions of slavery. She buys him because she cannot tolerate the cruel punishment promised by Jebediah's former owner. Yet when he defies and insults her, she punishes him as severely as any other slave.

Jebediah's refusal to bend and insistence on speaking his mind leads to a flogging just before he loses his foot. Here, something shifts in Fern's perception, and she sees Jebediah for what he is: a human being who deserves freedom and respect. As a result, her view of slaves and slavery is forever changed, though she will find she fears the idea of living in a world without them. When Jebediah leaves Virginia, his pride and strength of character are still intact. He never allows himself to be defined by the system of slavery.

The title Namesakes points to the years following Jebediah's manumission—the legal freeing of a slave by a slave owner. When Jebediah's daughter is born, he names her Maribelle after the horse that died outside Fern's estate. Likewise, his son Jim is named for the horse that pulled his wagon to Washington, D.C. There is no hint here of gratitude for Fern. Ramsey still refuses to grant slavery even the slightest of nods.

Scheherazade refers to Moses's new role as storyteller for Caldonia. Scheherazade is the storyteller in the collection of folktales One Thousand and One Nights. To escape execution by order of the Persian king, Scheherazade enthralls him for 1,001 nights with an exciting story, like tales of Aladdin. By the time she runs out of stories, the king has fallen in love with her, spares her life, and makes her queen. Similarly, Moses uses storytelling to get closer to Caldonia. He harbors hopes of gaining his freedom and rising to take dead Henry's place. To make his stories more entertaining, he embellishes them with made-up details, and he preys on Caldonia's grief and loneliness to seduce her.

Waiting for the End of the World alludes to that seduction. The rules are being broken; the line between master and slave is being blurred. As William Robbins pointed out to Henry many years ago, these rules provide the rigid structure upon which the system of slavery is built. Caldonia and Moses are both aware of the dangers inherent in their actions. When Moses kisses Caldonia's open hand, he expects his world to end. When Caldonia kisses Moses on the mouth, he is still waiting. When the world doesn't crumble, Moses redoubles his efforts to fully seduce Caldonia.

Like Henry, Moses has been corrupted by the institution that enslaves him. He has no ambition to break free from it but hopes to rise within it to a position of power and authority. He has bought into the idea that slavery is tolerable and acceptable, as long as he is no longer the slave but the slave master. His attitude toward Priscilla and Jamie reflects the callousness slavery has bred in his heart. They mean less to him than "property." They are obstacles to be disposed of. To clear the way for his imagined future, he is willing to send them off to the unknown world and an unknown fate. This hardened man bears little resemblance to the Moses in Sheriff Skiffington's office who could not bear to be separated from the slave Bessie.

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