Cane Additional Summary

Jean Toomer


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The first part of Cane consists of six prose units (only three are fully developed stories) and ten poems that separate them. All are about a segregated South of sugar cane and cotton fields, and women are the main characters in all the narratives. The first, a lyrical two-page sketch, tells of Karintha, who “ripened too soon,” and whose languid beauty lures both young and old men despite her passiveness. After giving birth to an illegitimate baby, she abandons it in a sawdust pile at the local mill, sets the mill ablaze, and turns to a life of prostitution. The sadness and futility of two generations of wasted lives are the dominant note here, as in the rest of the narratives.

In the next vignette, Becky is a white woman who violates the social codes by bearing two black sons. Maintained by secret gifts from both races—signs of communal guilt and responsibility—she is a recluse, so the community can publicly deny her existence. When her small cabin burns down one day, she (like Karintha’s baby and, in a later story, Tom Burwell) is consumed by fire.

The themes of sexuality, miscegenation, and universal guilt are again merged in “Fern,” the story of Fernie Mae Rosen, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and white Jewish man. A beautiful woman of indifferent sexuality whose “body was tortured with something it could not let out,” she is abandoned by her lovers, who nevertheless remain forever under her spell, “vowing to themselves that some day they would do some fine thing for her.”

The religious alienation suggested in “Fern” is the thematic core of “Esther,” which also dramatizes isolation and frustrated sexuality. When she is nine, introverted Esther becomes infatuated with an itinerant preacher and charlatan, King Barlo. Fourteen years later, when he returns to town, she leaves her parents’ home at midnight to search for him. She finds him in a boardinghouse, drunk and with a woman who teases Esther for having a light complexion. “Jeers and hoots pelter bluntly upon her back” as she retreats, bereft of a dream that had sustained her for so long.

Following this story is the poem “Conversion,” in which an African deity merges with a “white-faced sardonic god.” King Barlo represents this corrupting mix of faiths from two worlds, just as Esther and Fern suffer from their biracial fusion. Dusk, a recurring descriptive motif in this first section, is a related thematic metaphor for the book as a whole.

“Blood-Burning Moon” is the last and most fully developed story in this section. Tom Burwell, a black laborer in the cane fields, becomes the lover of Louisa, who also is the lover of young Bob Stone, for whose family she works. “Strong as he was with hands upon the ax or plow,” Burwell is a gentle introvert and cannot express his feelings for Louisa. Stone, ironically, is a white reflection of Burwell in actions and personality.

Their rivalry reaches a climax when Stone goes to the canebrake, where he normally meets Louisa, to confront her with Burwell. A struggle ensues, and Burwell cuts Stone’s throat. In retaliation, a white lynch mob, “like ants upon a forage,” traps Burwell, takes him to an abandoned cotton factory, and ties him to a stake. While the frightened black people sneak home and blow out their kerosene lamps, the mob sets Burwell afire. Louisa, in her house, senses his fate; when she looks at the full moon, she sees it as “an evil thing . . . an omen which she must sing to.” Thus the first section of the novel ends as it begins, with the immolation of an African American.

Whereas the first unit of Cane portrays rural black people in a South still tied to antebellum mores, the second section shows them trying to cope in the North. It includes seven prose pieces (four of which are developed stories) and five poems. Two impressionistic and symbolic vignettes, “Seventh Street” and “Rhobert,” introduce the theme of a white society confining and stifling black people. In a letter, Toomer described the former story as “The song of a crude new life . . . a new people.” The latter presents urban houses as a destructive metaphor, literally burying “banty-bowed, shaky, ricket-legged” Rhobert, whose northern odyssey in search of opportunity for the family he left behind ends in a lonely death.

“Avey” is the first fully developed narrative in this section. Set in Washington, D.C., it echoes tales of the first part, for it, too, is about a black woman as a...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)


(Novels for Students)

First Section
Cane is not organized like most novels are. It is an impressionistic piece, with many character...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)