Jean Toomer

Start Free Trial

Jean Toomer Short Fiction Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 2482 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.”

“Blood-Burning Moon”

So, too, in “Blood-Burning Moon,” Toomer’s most widely anthologized short story and also from the woman-centered first section, is the main character destroyed emotionally. Here, however, the destructive force is primarily internal. Among the most conventional of Toomer’s stories, “Blood-Burning Moon” has both a carefully delineated plot and a familiar one at that: a love triangle. What is inventional is the way Toomer manages the reader’s feelings about the woman whom two men love. Both men are stereotypes. Bob Stone is white and repulsively so. Himself divided and content to be, he makes his mind consciously white and approaches Louisa “as a master should.” The black, Tom Burwell, is a stereotype too: Having dreams, he expresses his love sincerely, but inarticulately; denied or threatened, he expresses himself violently.

The first two sections open with rhythmic sentences beginning with the word “up”; Louisa sings songs against the omen the rising moon portends, seeking charms and spells, but refusing the simple act of choosing between the two men. Because Louisa does not choose, the story comes to its inevitable violent climax and the death of both men. There is more, however: When Louisa is last seen she too has been destroyed, mentally, if not physically. She sings again to the full moon as an omen, hoping that people will join her, hoping that Tom Burwell will come; but her choice is too late. Burwell is dead, and the lateness of her decision marks the end of her dreams. Like Esther, she is separated from even appropriate mental contact with the world that is.

Cane, Section 2

Barlo’s vision (in “Esther”), then, is accurate but incomplete as a description of what happens to Toomer’s protagonists. While it is true that the herd will often destroy the dreamer, it is just as likely that the dreamer, from inaction, fear, and division, will destroy himself. The four stories of section 2 all focus on pairs of dreamers who can isolate themselves from the rest of society but who cannot get their dreams to merge. In “Avey” it is the man who, focused on his own dreams, refuses to listen to and accept the value of Avey’s. In “Bona and Paul,” Paul, a black, takes Bona away from the dance, not, as everyone assumes, to make love to her, but to know her; but knowing a human is denied him because Bona assumes she already knows him, “a priori,” as he has said. Knowing he is black, she “knows” that he will be passionate. When he is interested in knowledge before passion, she discovers that to know a priori is not to know at all and flees him, denying his dream of knowing her.

In “Theater” the divided main character, sitting half in light, half in shadow, watches another dreamer, the dancer on stage, Dorris. She is dreaming of him, but, although “mind pulls him upward into dream,” suspicion is stronger than desire, and by the end of the story John has moved wholly into shadow. When Dorris looks at him, “She finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream.” Likewise, in “Box Seat” Muriel is torn between the dreamer Dan, who stands with one hand lying on the wall, feeling from below the house the deep underground rumbling of the subway, literal buried life, and Mrs. Pribby, the landlady, rattling her newspaper, its thin noise contrasting with the powerful below-ground sound. Muriel chooses respectability. At the theater, to which Dan has followed her, she is repelled by a dwarf who offers her a rose; Dan rises to his feet to proclaim that Jesus was once a leper. This last, insistent image, suggesting the maimed sources of beauty that Muriel is too timid to accept, also indicates the overexplicit inflation of claims that damages some of Toomer’s fiction. Although in Cane most of the stories are under control, some seem rather too sketchy; “Box Seat,” however, foreshadows the fault that mars all of Toomer’s later fiction: the sacrifice of dramatic ideas in favor of, often pallid, philosophical ones.


The last and longest story in Cane integrates the themes, making explicit the nature of the destructive forces. The story is “Kabnis,” a novella, and the force is sin, a word contained backward in Kabnis’s name. It is the story of a black man out of place in the rural South, threatened not so much by whites as by his own people, by his environment, and by his sense of himself.

As the story opens, Kabnis is trying to sleep, but he is not allowed this source of dream; instead, chickens and rats, nature itself, keep him awake. He wants to curse it, wants it to be consistent in its ugliness, but he senses too the beauty of nature, and, because that prevents him from hating it entirely, he feels that even beauty is a curse. Intimidated by nature, Kabnis is also attacked by society, by the local black church, of which the shouting acclamations of faith torture Kabnis, and by the black school superintendent who fires him for drinking. As in “Box Seat,” the protagonist is thus caught between expressions of life, which are yet too strong for him, and its repression, which traps him. So positioned, Kabnis, like Rhobert, is a man drowning, trying vainly to avoid the source of life. From this low point, for the only time in the book, Toomer describes the way up, and Kabnis gains enough strength to throw off his oppression.

He has three friends: Halsey, an educated black who has been playing Uncle Tom; Layman, a preacher, whose low voice suggests a canebrake; and Lewis, a Doppelgänger who suggests a version of what a stronger Kabnis might have become and who drops out of the story when Kabnis does indeed become stronger. Once fired, Kabnis takes up residence with Halsey, a Vulcan-like blacksmith who gives him work repairing implements, work for which Kabnis is ill-suited. In his basement, however, Halsey has his own buried life, an old man, Father John, and in the climactic scene, the three men descend into the underground for a dark night of the soul, for the Walpurgisnacht on which Kabnis confronts his own demons. Prefiguring the descents in such black fiction as Richard Wright’s “Man Who Lived Underground” and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), this is likewise a descent during which the values of the world above, met on unfamiliar terrain, are rethought. It is a night of debauchery, but also the night when the destructive illusions and fears of the men are exposed.

Father John represents those fears; when he speaks, his message is sin; but Kabnis knows, and for the first time can say, that because of sin the old man has never seen the beauty of the world. Kabnis has, and as he says, “No eyes that have seen beauty ever lose their sight.” Kabnis then proclaims a new role for himself: If he is not a blacksmith, he may be, having known beauty, a wordsmith. “I’ve been shapin words after a design that branded here. Know whats here? M soul.” If sin is what is done against the soul and if the soul of Kabnis is what needs the rising, then, as Kabnis says, the world has conspired against him. Now, however, Kabnis acknowledges and confronts that conspiracy, no longer fearing it or Father John. Exhausted by his effort, Kabnis sinks back, but Halsey’s sister, Carrie K, does indeed carry K. She lifts him up, and together they ascend the stairs into the daylight, as the risen sun sings a “birth-song” down the streets of the town.

The end is not unequivocally optimistic: It is too small and too tentative a note in this large catalog of the defeated and destroyed. Cane does, however, suggest finally that as destructive as dreams may be, once one has seen beauty, if he can free himself from repression, from sin, he may re-create himself. “Kabnis is me,” wrote Toomer to Waldo Frank, and he had more in mind than just his use of his experiences. For what Toomer has done in Cane is to chart the varieties of sin that society has done to people and, more important, since individuals are always more interesting than society to Toomer, that people have done to themselves. Wholeness is the aim, a wholeness that breaks down barriers between mind and will, man and woman, object and subject, and that allows the potential of dreams to be fulfilled. That the wholeness is so difficult to achieve is the substance of Toomer’s short fiction; that Toomer achieves it, both for a character in “Kabnis” and more permanently in his only successful work, a book uniting fiction and poetry, songs and narration, images of fire and water, of descent and ascent, is his testimony that wholeness can be achieved by those who dream of it.


Jean Toomer American Literature Analysis


Jean Toomer Poetry: American Poets Analysis