Jean Toomer Short Fiction Analysis
Divided into three parts, Jean Toomer’s Cane consists of short stories, sketches, poems, and a novella. The first section focuses on women; the second on relationships between men and women; and the third on one man. Although capable of being read discretely, these works achieve their full power when read together, coalescing to create a novel, unified by theme and symbol.
Like all Toomer’s work, Cane describes characters who have within a buried life, a dream that seeks expression and fulfillment; Cane is a record of the destruction of those dreams. Sometimes the dreams explode, the fire within manifesting itself violently; more often, however, the world implodes within the dreamer’s mind. These failures have external causes—the inadequacy or refusal of the society to allow expression, the restrictions by what Toomer calls the herd—and internal ones—the fears and divisions within the dreamer himself, as he struggles unsuccessfully to unite will and mind, passion and intellect, what Toomer in the later story, “York Beach,” calls the wish for brilliant experience and the wish for difficult experience.
The one limitation on the otherwise thoroughgoing romanticism of this vision is Toomer’s rigorous separation of humankind into those who dream, who are worth bothering about, and those who do not. While the struggle of Toomer’s characters is for unity, it is to unify themselves or to find union with one other dreamer, never to merge with man in general. Like Kabnis, many find their true identity in recognizing their differences, uniqueness, and superiority. At the end of “York Beach,” the protagonist tells his listeners that the best government would be an empire ruled by one who recognized his own greatness.
Toomer’s dreamers find themselves in the first and third sections of Cane in a southern society which, although poor in compassion and understanding, is rich in supportive imagery. In the second part, set in the North, that imagery is also absent, so the return of the protagonist to the South in part 3 is logical, since the North has not provided a nurturing setting. Although the return may be a plunge back into hell, it is also a journey to an underground where Kabnis attains the vision that sets him free.
The imagery is unified by a common theme: ascent. Kabnis says, “But its the soul of me that needs the risin,” and all the imagery portrays the buried life smoldering within, fighting upward, seeking release. The dominant image of the book, the one that supplies the title, is the rising sap of the sugarcane. Cane whispers enigmatic messages to the characters, and it is to cane fields that people seeking escape and release flee. Sap rises, too, in pines, which also whisper and sing; and at the mill of part 1, wood burns, its smoke rising. The moon in “Blood-Burning Moon” is said to “sink upward,” an oxymoronic yoking that implies the difficulty of the risinin this book.
A second pattern of imagery is that of flowing blood or water, although generally in the pessimistic Cane, water is not abundant. In “November Cotton Flower,” dead birds are found in the wells, and when water is present, the characters, threatened by the life it represents, often fear it. Rhobert, in a sketch of that name, wears a diver’s helmet to protect him from water, life which is being drawn off. Dreams denied, blood flows more freely than water.
“Esther,” the most successful story in Cane, comes early and embodies many of the book’s major themes. It opens with a series of four sentences describing Esther as a girl of nine. In each, the first clause compliments her beauty, the second takes the praise away; the first clauses of each are progressively less strong. Esther represents the destruction of potential by a combination of inner and outer forces. On the outside there is her father, “the richest colored man in town,” who reduces Esther to a drab and obsequious life behind a counter in his dry goods store. “Her hair thins. It looks like the dull silk on puny corn ears.” Then there is King Barlo, a black giant, who has a vision in the corner of town known as the Spittoon. There, while townspeople gather to watch (and black and white preachers find momentary unity in working out ways to rid themselves of one who threatens their power), Barlo sees a strong black man arise. While the man’s head is in the clouds, however, “little white-ant biddies come and tie his feet to chains.” The herd in Barlo’s vision, as in Toomer’s, may destroy the dreamer.
Many, however, are affected by what Barlo has seen, none more so than Esther, who decides that she loves him. The fire begins to burn within. As she stands dreaming in her store, the sun on the windows across the street reflect her inner fire, and, wanting to make it real, Esther calls the fire department. For the next eighteen years, Esther, the saddest of all Toomer’s women, lives only on dreams, inventing a baby, conceived, she thinks, immaculately. Sometimes, like many of his characters, sensing that life may be too much for her, knowing that “emptiness is a thing that grows by being moved,” she tries not to dream, sets her mind against dreaming, but the dreams continue.
At the end of the story, Esther, then twenty-seven, decides to visit Barlo, who has returned to town. She finds the object of her dream in a room full of prostitutes; what rises is only the fumes of liquor. “Conception with a drunken man must be a mighty sin,” she thinks, and, when she attempts to return to reality, she, like many Toomer characters, finds that the world has overwhelmed her. Crushed from without, she has neither life nor dreams. “There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared.”
So, too, in “Blood-Burning Moon,” Toomer’s most widely anthologized short story and also from the woman-centered first section, is the...
(The entire section is 2482 words.)