Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cane is a slim miscellany composed of fifteen poems, six brief prose vignettes, seven stories, and a play—all about black life in the 1920’s. The book is divided into three parts, the first and last of which are set in rural Georgia; the narratives of the second section take place in Chicago and in Washington, D.C. Women, particularly in the first part, are depicted as sex objects who, though victimized by men, manage not only to endure but also to prevail, often exercising spiritual and emotional control over the very men who seduce them.
The six prose units of the first part, only three of which are fully developed stories, take place in a segregated South of sugarcane and cotton fields in which women dominate men. The opening sketch is about Karintha, a nubile beauty who excites young and old males. After having an illegitimate child, she throws the newborn into a sawdust pile at the local mill and sets it ablaze. She then becomes a prostitute. The next vignette tells of Becky, a white woman who violates the social codes by having two illegitimate black sons. Never seen, she lives a reclusive life in a one-room cabin and is sustained by secret gifts of food that African Americans and whites bring. Since she is unseen, people can publicly deny her existence, but the sense of communal guilt and responsibility continues until the cabin burns down one day; Becky is presumably consumed by the fire. Raw sexuality also is the focus of “Carma,” a two-page sketch about a strong woman whose unfaithfulness to her husband while he is in a chain gang leads to tragedy when he is released. In “Fern,” Toomer brings together his emerging themes of sexuality, miscegenation, and universal guilt by having the sensitive male narrator (who also tells the other tales and is Toomer’s alter ego) relate the story of Fernie May Rosen, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a white Jewish man (thus twice a social outsider). She has a languid beauty and indifferent sexuality; her “body was tortured with something it could not let out,” and her transient lovers “vow to themselves that some day they would do some fine thing for her.” The religious alienation suggested in “Fern” is central to the next story, “Esther,” which also is about isolation and frustrated sexuality. At age nine, introverted Esther becomes infatuated with King...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The title character of “Karintha” is a woman whose beauty captivates men, making her like “a growing thing ripened too soon.” She has a child, whom she apparently kills, and she becomes a prostitute. Becky is a white woman cast out by the community because she has two black sons. Townspeople build her a cabin and take food to her, but never see her. The boys grow up, cause trouble, and leave, cursing people of both races. When Becky’s chimney collapses, burying her, someone throws a Bible onto the rubble.
The title character of “Carma” has affairs when her husband is away; he finds out and accuses her. She takes a gun into the cane field. Hearing a shot, her husband gathers men and finds her. The men carry her home and search for a wound, waking her. Realizing that he is deceived by his wife again, her husband becomes irrational and cuts one of the searchers. He is sent to work on the chain gang.
“Fern” tells of a young woman whose eyes attract men. They want to do great things for her, but she tires of them. A northerner visiting relatives in Georgia meets Fern. During a walk, he holds her, but she breaks away, sings a pained song, then faints. He can think of nothing to do for her, and he goes back north.
“Esther” follows its title character for eighteen years. When she is nine, she sees King Barlo appear to go into a trance and talk about an African’s coming to the United States to redeem people. Years after Barlo leaves town, Esther dreams of having a child who is rescued from a fire. At first, she dreams the child is conceived without the involvement of sex; when Esther imagines normal conception, the child becomes ugly like Barlo. Barlo returns when Esther is twenty-seven years of age; she visits him, but he repulses her, making her feel empty.
Louisa, in “Blood-Burning Moon,” works for the family of her white admirer, Bob Stone, who wishes she were his slave. Tom Burwell, a black laborer, also loves her. One night, Stone finds Burwell talking with Louisa and challenges him. When Stone draws a knife, Burwell kills him. White townspeople burn Burwell in an old factory under a full, red moon.
In “Reapers,” the narrator watches workers sharpen scythes and sees a horse-pulled mower cut a rat, then continue mowing. “November Cotton Flower” describes misery caused by drought and boll weevils; the untimely beauty of a cotton flower blooming in November...
(The entire section is 999 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The first part of Cane consists of six prose units (only three are fully developed stories) and ten poems that separate them. All are about a segregated South of sugar cane and cotton fields, and women are the main characters in all the narratives. The first, a lyrical two-page sketch, tells of Karintha, who “ripened too soon,” and whose languid beauty lures both young and old men despite her passiveness. After giving birth to an illegitimate baby, she abandons it in a sawdust pile at the local mill, sets the mill ablaze, and turns to a life of prostitution. The sadness and futility of two generations of wasted lives are the dominant note here, as in the rest of the narratives.
In the next vignette, Becky is a white woman who violates the social codes by bearing two black sons. Maintained by secret gifts from both races—signs of communal guilt and responsibility—she is a recluse, so the community can publicly deny her existence. When her small cabin burns down one day, she (like Karintha’s baby and, in a later story, Tom Burwell) is consumed by fire.
The themes of sexuality, miscegenation, and universal guilt are again merged in “Fern,” the story of Fernie Mae Rosen, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and white Jewish man. A beautiful woman of indifferent sexuality whose “body was tortured with something it could not let out,” she is abandoned by her lovers, who nevertheless remain forever under her spell, “vowing to themselves that some day they would do some fine thing for her.”
The religious alienation suggested in “Fern” is the thematic core of “Esther,” which also dramatizes isolation and frustrated sexuality. When she is nine, introverted Esther becomes infatuated with an itinerant preacher and charlatan, King Barlo. Fourteen years later, when he returns to town, she leaves her parents’ home at midnight to search for him. She finds him in a boardinghouse, drunk and with a woman who teases Esther for having a light complexion. “Jeers and hoots pelter bluntly upon her back” as she retreats, bereft of a dream that had sustained her for so long.
Following this story is the poem “Conversion,” in which an African deity merges with a “white-faced sardonic god.” King Barlo represents this corrupting mix of faiths from two worlds, just as Esther and Fern suffer from their biracial fusion. Dusk, a recurring descriptive motif in this first section, is a related thematic metaphor for the book as a whole.
“Blood-Burning Moon” is the last and most fully developed story in this section. Tom Burwell, a black laborer in the cane fields, becomes the lover of Louisa, who also is the lover of young Bob Stone, for whose family she works. “Strong as he was with hands upon the ax or plow,” Burwell is a gentle introvert and cannot express his feelings for Louisa. Stone, ironically, is a white reflection of Burwell in actions and personality.
Their rivalry reaches a climax when Stone goes to the canebrake, where he normally meets Louisa, to confront her with Burwell. A struggle ensues, and Burwell cuts Stone’s throat. In retaliation, a white lynch mob, “like ants upon a forage,” traps Burwell, takes him to an abandoned cotton factory, and ties him to a stake. While the frightened black people sneak home and blow out their kerosene lamps, the mob sets Burwell afire. Louisa, in her house, senses his fate; when she looks at the full moon, she sees it as “an evil thing . . . an omen which she must sing to.” Thus the first section of the novel ends as it begins, with the immolation of an African American.
Whereas the first unit of Cane portrays rural black people in a South still tied to antebellum mores, the second section shows them trying to cope in the North. It includes seven prose pieces (four of which are developed stories) and five poems. Two impressionistic and symbolic vignettes, “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” introduce the theme of a white society confining and stifling black people. In a letter, Toomer described the former story as “The song of a crude new life . . . a new people.” The latter presents urban houses as a destructive metaphor, literally burying “banty-bowed, shaky, ricket-legged” Rhobert, whose northern odyssey in search of opportunity for the family he left behind ends in a lonely death.
“Avey” is the first fully developed narrative in this section. Set in Washington, D.C., it echoes tales of the first part, for it, too, is about a black woman as a...
(The entire section is 1859 words.)