Edward P. Jones’ historical novel The Known World tackles themes about what constitutes our physical and metaphysical knowledge of the world. Is the known world an objective place, essentially “what you see is what you get,” or are there hidden elements that become visible only when the past, present, and future collide? Jones explores this idea in Calvin Townsend’s letter to his sister Caldonia in the novel’s denouement. Calvin describes two paintings by one of their family’s former slaves. The first painting is a realistic landscape of Townsend County (Calvin and Caledonia’s childhood home) and the second painting contains the Townsend’s slave quarters with images of living slaves as well as slaves who passed away. This God's eye view painting leaves Calvin with the impression that the artist was “soft in the head.” (385)
It seems that the world Calvin charts in his letter is the world as he sees it, the more realistic (and less painful) first landscape painting. The second painting, which melds past and present into one singular moment, provides an accurate history of who inhabited his family’s slave quarters. Calvin charts the first world in an attempt to understand God’s plan, but he ultimately concludes that understanding the known world is a futile quest. Calvin seems to believe that only God can grasp the true objective nature of the world He created.