The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Chapter 9 : States of Decay. A Modest Proposal. Why Georgians Are Smarter. | Summary



Two weeks after kidnapping Augustus, slave trader Darcy, his slave, Stennis, and the people they have abducted reach South Carolina. When a child dies, Stennis dumps her body into the weeds at the side of the road, though Augustus and the others beg to dig a grave for her. One by one, the people are sold off until only Augustus remains, and he pretends to be deaf and mute, confounding Darcy's efforts. Augustus tries coaxing Stennis to let him slip away and invites him to come along, but Stennis refuses, preferring to stick with Darcy, who is his "bread and butter."

During this time John Skiffington returns to the Manchester County jail to find his cousin Counsel sitting on the steps. Aware of Counsel's terrible losses some years back, Skiffington offers him a job as his deputy. Counsel accepts. Two weeks later while Skiffington is out of town, Counsel is informed about Augustus's disappearance by Mildred, Caldonia, and Fern. Though he promises to tell the sheriff, he never passes the message along.

These events coincide with the growing relationship between Caldonia and Moses. The morning after they first make love, Caldonia visits Henry's grave to ask, "Am I forgiven?" Shortly after she and Moses are kept apart by a supper with Fern, Louis, Dora, and Calvin. Conversation among them turns toward talk of abolition, slave uprisings, and the potential for war. Dora refuses to give the threats much credence. Fern confesses she is unfit for a life without slaves.

A few nights later Caldonia has supper in the kitchen with Moses. As a result he is convinced that soon he will be free and the next Mr. Townsend. Believing Caldonia and his present wife cannot exist in the same world, Moses begins planning how best to be rid of Priscilla and their child, Jamie. Alice knows the roads at night better than anyone. Moses promises Alice her freedom if she will run away next Saturday night and take Priscilla and Jamie with her. He promises to join them later. Moses waits until noon on Sunday to report the missing trio, and Caldonia alerts Sheriff Skiffington to their disappearance on Monday.

The sheriff senses something odd about the story. After interviewing Moses, he begins to suspect him of murder, especially when he learns that Moses and Caldonia shared supper "like some man and his wife be eatin" just before Priscilla and the others went missing. Two days later Barnum Kinsey gets drunk and brave enough to confess to Skiffington what he knows about Augustus's disappearance. Skiffington rides out to see Mildred and learns that she informed Counsel about the matter. When he later confronts Counsel, he warns his cousin that he was hired to uphold the law, not act out his prejudices; he has "but one more time to do this." He then deals with Harvey Travis and Oden Peoples, warning them that this kind of thing must not happen again. Finally, he writes to authorities in Richmond, alerting them to the presence of a slave speculator selling free blacks back into slavery.


The story of Augustus picks up with the episode alluded to as States of Decay. There is dark humor in the description of Augustus's deaf and mute playacting, as well as Darcy's frustration when he demands what Augustus will lose next. "Just wastin away with every state we come to. That it?" he asks. Naturally, every state they come to is a slave state. So while Augustus is pretending to be in a state of decay, each state is truly decaying under slavery's corrupting influence. Darcy himself presents a picture of physical deterioration that reflects his spiritual and moral state of decay. He is only 42 years old, though he looks 75, his unkempt beard reaches his knees, and he has "but two teeth in his head."

The contrast between Darcy and Augustus is a disheartening illustration of the depravity of slavery. Darcy makes a living selling human beings, some legally free, into bondage. It's an immoral profession, evil at its heart. Augustus, on the other hand, has worked diligently and honestly all his life, earning freedom for himself and his family. He has a gift for woodworking that he uses well, creating things of lasting beauty. Yet the injustice of slavery puts his life in the hands of a heartless, immoral individual who happens to be white.

The episode denoted by the title Why Georgians Are Smarter continues the saga as Darcy tries to sell Augustus to a man in Georgia. The man has just exited a saloon and is not exactly sober, but he knows when he's being conned and refuses to buy Augustus. The exchange highlights the utter ignorance of Darcy and Stennis, who try to butter up the man by praising all the great presidents that have come from Georgia. Once again, with dark humor, the shamefulness of a system that gives a man like Darcy dominion over a man like Augustus is exposed.

Sandwiched between these episodes are threads of other stories leading toward the novel's climax. Each further illustrates the moral and psychological effects of slavery. One thread is Barnum Kinsey's drunken confession to Sheriff Skiffington about Augustus's disappearance. For that moment he transcends the system to do what is right. This sets in motion Skiffington's sincere attempts to find Augustus. In this way both men exhibit qualities of moral decency. Even so Kinsey is concerned about being labeled a "nigger kisser," and Skiffington gives Harvey Travis and Olden Peoples a mere slap on the wrist for their role in selling Augustus. His dedication to upholding the law is compromised by an unjust system that places free whites above free blacks.

Another thread traces Counsel's return to Manchester County to take on the position of deputy. He brings with him his virulent racism that delays the search for Augustus. His excuse for ignoring Mildred's report that her husband has disappeared is based on race. He tells Sheriff Skiffington, "I thought you hired me to look after white people." Skiffington's severe reprimand stirs deep resentment in Counsel that will drive him to violence in the future.

Caldonia's relationship with Moses ties into all these threads. Deluded into thinking Caldonia will free and marry him, Moses plots to get rid of his wife and son in the episode mockingly referred to as A Modest Proposal. He considers marriage to Priscilla no longer binding or important but an inconvenient obstacle to what he wants. In this way Moses views his marriage much the same way a slave owner would, as a thing easily set aside when more important matters are pending, such as a sales transaction. Priscilla's disappearance, along with Jamie and Alice, leads to an investigation pointing to Moses's possible involvement. Skiffington recalls how, years ago, Moses had tearfully begged William Robbins to keep him and a slave woman, Bessie, together. In contrast Moses sheds no tears now, though he and Priscilla have been married a long time. This comparison underscores the degrading effects of slavery on the human heart.

All these story threads—Counsel's racism, Kinsey's confession, Skiffington's investigations and suspicions, as well as Moses's dreams and betrayal of his wife—will pull together to culminate in a double tragedy at the climax of the novel. The one glimmer of hope lighting the chapter is the surprising transformation of Alice from mentally afflicted to sane. On the night of the escape, when Priscilla seems close to panic, Alice slaps her twice and then speaks to her in a stern, perfectly rational manner. It appears entirely possible that, like Augustus, Alice has been playacting as a means of coping with her enslavement.

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