Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Esther” is heavily freighted with symbols, the first of which is the main character’s name. The Esther of the Bible presented herself to a Persian king at his court and was selected to be his new queen. The Esther of Toomer’s story also presents herself to a king but is rejected, or perhaps more accurately, does not have the courage to understand and act on her deepest desires and is thereby rejected as not being queenly enough.

There are also echoes of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) in the presentation of Esther at the ages of nine and twenty-seven. Dante saw Beatrice, the inspiration for his great poem, when she was nine, again when she was eighteen, and once again after her death, in a vision, when she would have been twenty-seven. As all these numbers are multiples of the Trinity, religious significance is added to the fact of Beatrice’s beauty by their use. Esther Crane is also seen at nine, but she is merely a witness to a person who is having a vision. She visits Barlo when she is twenty-seven, when Dante’s Beatrice was dead; thus Toomer reinforces the fact that Esther is emotionally and sexually dead, a point he makes by extending the section dealing with Esther’s adolescence until she is twenty-two, almost an old maid by rural black standards.

Perhaps even more powerful than the other symbols in the story, including the fire that Esther imagines to represent Barlo’s sexuality and blackness, is Toomer’s use of images that are not symbolic but which are meant to confront the reader directly with their own emotional impact. Just before Esther goes to visit Barlo, Toomer states, “Her mind is a pink meshbag filled with baby toes,” an image that is tender and horrific at once, exactly like the mental state of Esther herself.

Esther Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Benson, Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Byrd, Rudolph P. “Jean Toomer and the Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Was He There with Them?” In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin. New York: Garland, 1989.

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Ford, Karen Jackson. Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Hajek, Friederike. “The Change of Literary Authority in the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollos and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kerman, Cynthia. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988.

Scruggs, Charles, and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Toomer’s Cane as Narrative Sequence.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.