Largely set in the mythical Manchester County, Virginia, in the years before the American Civil War, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World moves back in time and ultimately forward, into a changed United States. Some stories also take readers north to Washington, D.C., and New York, but then return to the Deep South and the Southwest. The lives and stories of numerous characters, both black and white, are intertwined in significant ways. The major stories center on characters associated with the black slaveholder Henry Townsend.
One of the major achievements of this novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2004 and the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2005, is its skillful interweaving of narratives on slavery and its consequences. These narratives, some anecdotal, others extended, are all encompassed within a thoughtful, meditative perspective that assimilates authentic historical detail, psychological realism, mystical or magical incidents, and a viewpoint that speaks beyond the specific historical situation to contemporary issues and to the human condition in general.
The theme of slavery is developed with considerable nuance and complexity. Jones’s many stories—involving black slaves, white slaves, poor whites, wealthy white landowners, light-skinned blacks, and even European immigrants—all explore issues of freedom and slavery in ways that include but also move beyond race. The corruptions of power are color blind, but Jones’s inclusion of black slaveholders of black slaves further complicates the novel.
Jones explores the paradox at the heart of Manchester County through stories that show how the social codes of the time had been far from fixed; the simplistic opposition of black and white is subverted by relationships that cross the boundaries of racial segregation, especially family relationships. Parent-child relationships and husband-wife relationships develop in a way that do not observe the formal racial codes of the time. Within the confines of the relationship between a black owner and a black slave, other deeper bonds of affection also develop, demonstrating the arbitrary and unsustainable operation...
(The entire section is 897 words.)