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.)