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(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 Barlo, an itinerant preacher and charlatan. When he returns to town fourteen years later, she flees her parents’ home at midnight to search for him and finds him drunk in a boardinghouse room with a woman who teases Esther for having a light complexion. Esther retreats, bereft of a dream that had sustained her for so long. “Blood-Burning Moon,” the last and most fully developed story of the first part, is about Louisa and her two lovers, a white man for whose family she works and Tom Burwell, a black laborer in the cane fields. A confrontation between the suitors leads Burwell to cut his white rival’s throat; in retaliation, a mob of whites takes Burwell to an antebellum cotton factory, where he is tied to a stake and set afire. Thus, the first section of Cane ends as it began, with the immolation of a black person.

Whereas the initial section portrays rural African Americans in a society mired in the past, the second part, located in the urban North, shows them confronting the present and looking ahead to the future. “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” the opening vignettes—impressionistic, even symbolic—introduce a primary theme of white society bearing down, confining, and stifling African Americans. “Avey,” the third piece, which is longer and more fully developed, is set in Washington, D.C., and recalls the stories of the first section; though Avey becomes a prostitute, she also has been graduated from school and has been a teacher. The narrator, however, fails in his attempt to rekindle a boyhood passion for her, because she is remote and indifferent to emotional...

(The entire section is 3,539 words.)