In this lesson, we’ll be looking at the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones. We’ll explore the fictional Manchester County, Virginia, and its antebellum characters as well as the events they get swept up in.
Plot Summary for The Known World
When Henry Townsend dies in 1855, he is only thirty-one, but he has acquired many acres of land and more than thirty slaves.
A slave himself until the age of eighteen, Henry gains his freedom when his father Augustus – who already has bought himself and his wife Mildred out of slavery – makes his last payment to Henry’s master William Robbins.As a slave, Henry has a good relationship with Robbins and continues to seek Robbins’s help once he is free. Robbins touts Henry’s skill as a shoemaker, and he soon becomes famous for ‘the kind of footwear God intended feet to have.’Crafting and selling shoes provides Henry with money to buy land from Robbins. In addition to offering advice about managing property, Robbins instructs the young man about handling Moses, Henry’s first slave.One day after Henry playfully spars with Moses, Robbins chides Henry, saying, ‘The law expects you to know what is master and what is slave.’ Henry then criticizes Moses and hits his slave so hard he almost falls to the ground.
As the years pass and Henry acquires other slaves, Moses becomes overseer. In this job, Moses gets to know everyone on the plantation well – including Caldonia, Henry’s wife.Henry has met Caldonia Newman at a school where Robbins has arranged for his former slave to attend. As soon as he walks into the school, Caldonia is smitten, looking at nothing but Henry. Soon the two marry.
Caldonia stays with Henry until a brief illness takes his life. Not yet thirty, Caldonia soon begins an affair with Moses. With Henry now dead, Moses thinks Caldonia will free him, but he views his family as an obstacle – believing that ‘his wife and child could not live in the same world with him and Caldonia.’Moses tells them that he wants them to escape to freedom and that he will soon join them. As they are leaving, though, he becomes afraid they might be caught. Knowing his future could be ruined, he follows after them into the woods.Unaware of her lover’s actions, Caldonia reports the slaves missing, and the sheriff grows increasing suspicious of Moses – particularly when he finds the overseer has escaped.
The sheriff and his cousin find Moses. His wife and child have escaped, but he is hiding out in the house of Henry’s mother Mildred.In the confusion that follows, the sheriff and Mildred are shot and killed. The sheriff’s cousin then apprehends Moses, tying him with a rope attached to a horse. Before he reaches town, two slave patrols hobble him.
In excruciating pain, Moses must be carried home. Afterwards, it becomes his habit to lie on a pallet, his arm outstretched, blocking the light from his eyes.
The Overseer Moses
In The Known World, the book is a story about how two worlds coexist: the world of slavery and the world of freedom. The character who moves most easily between both worlds is Moses, who appears at both the beginning and ending of the novel. As overseer, Moses is the middleman between the slaves and their owners, Henry and Caldonia Townsend.As the novel opens, we find Moses ending a long day of plowing. This day is not just any day: It is the day his master Henry has died.
Although he has sent the other slaves back to their cabins, he has remained working the earth. When he finishes, Moses leans over, takes a pinch of the soil and puts it in his mouth. Later he goes into the woods, lies on the ground, masturbates, and drinks rain water. In his actions, Moses shows that even though he is owned by another man, he is at liberty in nature – straddling the world of freedom and of slavery.As the days pass after his master’s death, Moses finds himself thinking more and more about freedom, and he is eager to leave behind the world he has known. He feels certain Caldonia will free him, but only if he rids himself of his wife and child.
He makes the mistake of sending his wife and child away – only to learn that he is suspected of their murder. While he has not taken their lives as the sheriff believes, Moses has severely damaged his own, ending up lamed.
Freed Slaves and Slave Owners
In contrast to Moses, Henry Townsend escapes slavery. After becoming a free man, Henry buys land and slaves.
Nevertheless, he remains very much under the guidance of his former master, William Robbins, who not only owns slaves but also fathers them with his slave Philomena. Even knowing how much Philomena longs to flee Robbins, Henry continues to take his advice about owning slaves.As Henry becomes increasingly devoted to acquiring slaves and property, he alienates his parents. When he goes to their home to inform them he bought a slave, his father Augustus tells Henry to leave, saying, ‘I promised myself when I got this little bit of land that I would never suffer a slave owner to set foot on it.’ As former slaves, Henry’s parents know all too well how corrupt the slave-owning world is, and, unlike their son, they remain apart from slave owners.
When Augustus and Mildred arrive at Henry’s property for his funeral, they stay in a slave cabin rather than in their son’s house.
In Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, a novel about how the world of slavery and the world of freedom coexist that takes place in a fictional county, Henry Townsend is born a slave, but his father Augustus is able to buy his family’s freedom. Henry, however, remains strongly under the influence of his former master Robbins, who even took to producing more slaves with his own slave Philomela.
Henry becomes equally acquisitive, buying land and then slaves.When Henry dies as a young man, his first slave Moses courts Henry’s widow Caldonia, certain she will grant him his freedom. She does not, and events spiral out of control, leaving Moses incapacitated.
Once strong and healthy, he now is reduced to limping through life in the The Known World – the cruelly unnatural world where, Jones shows us the desire for acquisition leads only to corruption, torture, and downfall.