(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.)