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The Known World | Symbols


Maps of "The Known World"

Jones provides two representations of "the known world." The first is a yellowed 300-year-old map that hangs in Sheriff Skiffington's jailhouse. Its cramped vision of the world is wildly inaccurate, with North America drawn smaller than it actually is and Florida missing entirely. However, the map represents what was known in the 16th century. The mapmaker could not know how the future would alter his creation. It serves as a comment on the imperfect "known world" of Manchester County—limited in its perspective and ignorant of dramatic events that would reshape it and the larger world by ending slavery. The obsolete map also hints at the fate of Manchester County, which will disappear from any map by 1912.

The second map is a vibrantly colored work of clay, paint, and cloth created by Alice Night that depicts a God's-eye view of Manchester County, with all its roads and landmarks. It is emotionally and spiritually expansive in its effect—a map of freedom. It reveals how Alice is able to successfully find a safe road and escape to the North with Priscilla and Jamie. In her feigned or real madness as a slave, Alice is free to wander the roads of Manchester County unrestrained by even the night patrollers. During her nighttime ramblings, she learns the physical way to freedom. For Alice the known world includes an undiscovered country waiting beyond the borders of Manchester County.

Alice Night's Second Tapestry

The second creation by Alice Night—"the massive miracle on the Western wall"—portrays a God's-eye view of Caldonia's plantation and all the people who have lived and died there. It represents the extent of the known world for the people tied to the Townsend plantation, as well as their roles in that world. Alice's exclusion of her own image indicates that, as the work's creator, she may have more to tell—that knowledge and understanding of the known world is a cumulative, expansive thing.

Like her map of Manchester County, Alice's creation is described in a letter written on April 12, 1861, on the brink of the Civil War. The timing of its discovery by Calvin, brother to slave owner Caldonia, suggests that although this society dependent on slavery cannot envision its end, change is inevitable—and what passes for a fixed truth in their moment of time will change, too.

Tessie's Doll

Tessie is the child of slaves Elias and Celeste. On the day their master, Henry Townsend, dies, Elias finishes carving a doll for Tessie. She holds onto it until she dies at age 97 because her father made it for her as an act of love. On her dying day she asks one of her great-grandchildren to find and bring her the doll.

Upon first receiving the doll, Tessie proudly tells Fern, "My daddy made it for me." Ninety years later she cradles the doll in her arms, repeating the words while she approaches death. In this way the doll becomes a symbol or metaphor for slavery's far-reaching effects. The doll was created in an era of bondage for a little girl who would grow up a slave and be freed by war. Long after the ownership of humans is abolished, that little girl—now a woman—holds onto the doll. It still has meaning for her. However, she cannot love the doll and remember who made it for her without remembering the circumstances in which it was made. The doll will always represent love, but it will be inextricably bound to slavery. While slavery is no more, what the system produced lingers on.

Augustus's Walking Sticks

Augustus Townsend is known for his woodworking craftsmanship. When he buys his freedom, his former master, William Robbins, petitions that Augustus be allowed to stay in the county, based on his expertise as a carpenter. There is art as well as skill in what Augustus produces. This is most notable in his carved walking sticks, two of which are featured in the novel. Together they represent two aspects of freedom—freedom achieved and freedom denied.

On the first walking stick, Augustus carves a biblical theme. Adam from the Bible's book of Genesis appears at the base holding up Eve. She in turn holds up her son Cain who holds up his brother Abel, and so on for 14 more figures, "including his idea of the king and queen of England." Representing the march of time and generations, the figures end with George Washington, father of our country. Though he was a slave owner, Washington freed all his slaves upon his death. This is the walking stick Augustus hands to Rita—initiating her freedom—before placing her in the box of sticks that will carry her to New York. It is the stick she hands to Timothy and his mother when they open the box. Her freedom is confirmed when Timothy solemnly takes the walking stick "as if that was what he had been waiting for all along."

The second walking stick depicts "squirrels chasing each another ... around the stick ... to ... where a perfect acorn was waiting." This is the stick Augustus uses to beat Henry when he learns his son has purchased a slave. Its ring of squirrels forever chasing after something out of reach represents Henry's hopeless pursuit of freedom, power, and authority in a world that accepts slavery as a way of life. Augustus breaks the walking stick over Henry's shoulders, shouting, "Thas how a slave feel! ... Thas just how every slave every day be feelin." He makes no distinction between a freed slave and one still in bondage. Henry will never transcend slavery to gain true freedom while he supports the institution that enslaved him.

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