The Known World | Study Guide

Edward P. Jones

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The Known World | Plot Summary

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The Known World weaves a complex tapestry of stories all relating to the institution of slavery in the antebellum South. Each story illustrates how slavery taints the life of everyone it touches, from slave to slave owner and even those who do not participate but accept slavery as a fact of life. The common thread that ties these stories together is the life and death of Henry Townsend.

The story opens with Henry's death in 1855. Henry is only 31, but he owns over 50 acres of land and 33 slaves in Manchester County, Virginia. The surprising fact is that Henry was once a slave himself, as were his father and mother, Augustus and Mildred Townsend. Over many years of labor as a carpenter, Augustus was able to buy himself, Mildred, and finally Henry out of slavery from their former master, William Robbins.

During Henry's years in bondage to Robbins, he observes the advantages of money, authority, and power. He works hard to make himself indispensable to Robbins. In turn Robbins grows to depend on Henry and to appreciate his worth and potential. When Henry gains his freedom at age 18, Robbins mentors him on how to use his freedom to achieve financial success. He widely publicizes Henry's gift for making the kind of boots and shoes "God intended for feet to have." Soon Henry's work is in demand, and he accumulates enough money to begin buying land and slaves.

Henry purchases his first slave, Moses, when he decides to build a house. Though his parents are appalled that he would participate in the system that once enslaved them all, Henry cannot see he has done anything wrong. Slavery is legal, and he has done nothing a white man would not do. For his part, Robbins carefully instructs Henry on the laws and conventions of being a master, making sure Henry knows which side of the line he is now on. When he catches Henry playfully wrestling with Moses one day, Robbins sternly reminds Henry that Moses is his property and should be treated as such. From that day forward, Henry never forgets who is master and who is slave. As he acquires more "property," he appoints Moses to the position of overseer—a position of trust that will lead Moses to Henry's widow, Caldonia.

Henry meets Caldonia a year or so after the incident with Moses. Robbins arranges for Henry to attend a school for free blacks to better prepare him for the world he wishes to enter. The teacher, Fern Elston, invites Henry to supper with a few former students, including Caldonia. Shortly after Henry begins courting Caldonia, and soon, the two are married. Life is good until Henry falls ill and dies in 1855. Caldonia—who is not yet 30—is grief stricken and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the estate. She turns to Moses, the overseer, for support and comfort, which leads to a brief affair. As a result Moses mistakenly believes Caldonia intends to free and marry him.

Moses already has a wife and child, Priscilla and Jamie. Deciding they pose an obstacle to his imagined happy future, he arranges for them to escape to freedom, with the promise that he will join them later. He enlists the help of Alice Night. She is a slave who was once kicked in the head by a mule. Since the injury she behaves as though mentally disabled, but she knows the county roads better than anyone else. Unfortunately for Moses, Caldonia makes it clear a few days later that she has no intention of granting Moses his freedom, much less of marrying him. Loretta, Caldonia's maid, must eject the infuriated Moses from the house at knifepoint.

Caldonia reports the missing slaves Alice, Priscilla, and Jamie, to the local sheriff, John Skiffington. He suspects that Moses is involved in their disappearance and may even have murdered them. Moses begins to panic. His dream of freedom is gone, he is under suspicion for a crime, and, because of his position as overseer, he has few friends among the other slaves. A few nights later he runs away.

Shortly after Henry's death, Augustus is abducted and sold back into slavery, leaving Mildred alone. Sheriff Skiffington becomes convinced she is harboring Moses. He rides out with his deputy to demand that she "surrender the property." Mildred refuses, and the confrontation goes badly. Both Mildred and Skiffington are shot and killed. The deputy arrests Moses and starts back to town. Along the road he meets up with two patrollers, one of whom offers to hobble Moses (cut his Achilles' tendon). The crippled slave is carried back to the Townsend plantation, screaming in pain. He will live out his days in bondage, his body and spirit broken.

Augustus is shot and killed when he refuses to work for his new master. Alice, Priscilla, and Jamie reach Washington, D.C., safely and begin a new life. The slaves left on Henry's estate, like all the residents of Manchester County touched by slavery, must wait for the Civil War to free them. Then, like slavery, Manchester County will disappear.

The Known World Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Augustus Townsend buys his son, Henry, out of bondage.

Rising Action

2 Henry earns money to buy land and his first slave, Moses.

3 Henry meets and marries Caldonia, a free black woman.

4 After years of prosperity, Henry dies at age 31.

5 Augustus is kidnapped, sold, and dies in bondage.

6 Caldonia has an affair with the estate's overseer, Moses.

7 Moses urges his wife, son, and Alice to run away to freedom.

8 Moses demands his free papers from Caldonia but is refused.

9 His hopes for freedom vanishing, Moses runs away.

10 Sheriff Skiffington tracks Moses to Mildred Townsend's home.


11 Skiffington accidentally shoots and kills Mildred.

Falling Action

12 Skiffington's deputy murders him and blames it on Mildred.

13 Moses is caught, hobbled, and returned to Caldonia.

14 Moses remains a slave—now disabled and broken in spirit.


15 A battle over Mildred's property destroys Manchester County.

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