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Cane is deeply concerned with racial conflicts and gender roles. The deep violence implied in race relations is especially apparent in the rural South of the first section, but also in the disillusioned, post-WWI urban North of the second section. This constant threat endangers the relationships between the sexes, particularly when these cross what Du Bois called "the color line". The first section is more concerned with female portraits and the ways in which males project their fantasies on women. Yet, the last story of the first section "Blood-Burning Moon" introduces an element of interaction between the sexes that characterises most of the second section.
In general, the males in Cane find it difficult to conform to the roles that the larger community is imposing on them. Their insecurity is increased by the violence of race relations. For example, the story that closes the book and that is sometimes considered a third, stand-alone section, "Kabnis", focuses on a mulatto teacher in Georgia. As a mixed-race man, he doesn't fit in the social prescriptions and expectations. He is a teacher, a role that is usually reserved for whites, while African Americans are expected to have more menial jobs. Yet, when he is fired for breaching his school's strict ban on alcohol, he has to accept one such work at his friend Halsey's repair shop. Kabnis realises how social expectations about him have damaged his carreer and his aspirations ("Great God Almighty, a soul like mine cant pin itself onto a wagon wheel an satisfy itself in spinnin round.").
Other males in the book feel the pressure to conform to the social roles expected from them, making them insecure and violent. Tom Burwell and Bob Stone in "Blood-burning Moon" are in love with the same black woman, Louisa. Tom, who is black, is described as a trouble maker and the situation is a particularly delicate one as Bob Stone is a white man, who finds it difficult to accept his own love for a black woman.
The violence and persistent tensions of race-relations make the male characters in Cane largely unable to conform to social expectations or find a sense of purpose in their lives.
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