What is the role of the narrator in Jean Toomer's Cane?

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Jean Toomer's Cane is not a simplistic narrative by any means. Numerous voices weave in and out of the body of the text. In some cases, this type of narrative voice is referred to as a spiral narrative. A spiral narrative uses the voices of many to discuss the main theme within a text. Each of the voices present in the text adds another dimension or deeper truth to the overall subject matter and/or theme presented. Given that Toomer's text contains twenty-nine different poems, vignettes, and stories (as well as a play), it would make sense that the text also contains different narrative voices.

Given that the text exists as a part of the Harlem Renaissance, it would only make sense that it contains as many voices as possible. Within the story, more voices (which may have been previously muted) are thus able to speak and tell their stories. With each new voice comes a new experience and perspective. Therefore, the role of the narrator in Toomer's text is to present the most three-dimensional voices possible. Each narrator adds to the overall message of the text while adding their own individual take on what has happened to them. The text is not only about the shared experiences of the narrators; it is also about the shared empathy and sympathy of experiencing such trials and tribulations as a people.

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One of the most controversial aspects of Cane is its structure. While those who praised the book as innovative often singled out its complex, circular quality, others found the book disorganized or disjointed. The narrator, whom many assumed was the author, is one of the most challenging aspects.

The easiest assumption is to equate the narrator with the author. However, different sections of the book have their own narrators, so the question of how the various voices relate to each other arises. Is the central narrator distinct from the character Kabnis? And if so, in what ways?

The very instability of the narrator suggests that this fluctuating voice can guide the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience of the worlds created in the text. Rather than directly reflecting the author himself, therefore, the shifting narrative voice suggests the inadequacy of authority.

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