The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The novel portrays slave owners such as Robbins and Townsend as conflicted and morally compromised characters, but it is the white sheriff, John Skiffington, who is perhaps the most complex character within the prevailing power structure. The sheriff is a decent man who declines to own slaves. When he and his wife are given a little black girl as a wedding present, they raise her instead as their daughter. Influenced by the prevailing attitudes of Manchester County, however, their unthinking, proprietary attitude toward the girl eventually alienates her. Similarly, the well-meaning Skiffington’s duties as sherriff of the county lead him into a horrific situation in which he ruthlessly murders a freed slave. Skiffington’s situation is represented by an old map that hangs on the wall of his jailhouse with the title “The Known World.” This outdated map, like the social consensus of the country Skiffington serves, is incomplete and mistaken, providing only limited knowledge of the actual world.

Possibly the most significant character in this novel, however, is not a slaveholder but Moses, Henry’s first and favored slave, whose ruthless ambition drains him of his initial generosity and humanity. Trying as Henry did to rise in the world, Moses instead is permanently maimed by a deputy, living out his days demoralized and dependent on the goodness of the similarly crippled Celeste. A fellow slave, Celeste retains a caring nature despite everything; she and her kindhearted husband, Elias Freeman, weather the bad times on the Townsend farm and, after the Civil War, found a family line that thrives and prospers. Another inspiring character is the raffish slave Stamford Crow Blueberry, whose spiritual conversion during a rainstorm leads to his founding of a home for orphans after the war. Alice Night is an even more significant character: a slave who, while appearing demented, emerges as a canny and visionary artist, using her eccentric wanderings to find a route of escape. Safe up North, Alice creates a tapestry she titles “The Known World,” a God’s-eye view of her former home in the South that replicates the novel itself, a novel whose godlike viewpoint brings a timeless and transcendent sense of perspective to its specific historical setting.