Themes and Meanings
One of the novel’s major themes is indicated by its two images of “the known world.” Skiffington’s map is a limited representation based only on one particular historical moment; Alice Night’s tapestry, on the other hand, spans past, present, and future in a way that encompasses knowledge beyond one moment in time. This perspective suggests that, in the fullness of time, more will be known than one present moment could possibly reveal. The tapestry’s perspective informs the entire novel, so readers are always aware of the limitations of what passed for unquestioned verities at the time. These limitations are heightened by the novel’s setting on the brink of the Civil War, emphasizing that in a very short while the society it depicts will cease to exist. The narrative deploys an important level of dramatic irony in its depiction of this society, which, while unable to envision the end of the slavery on which its economy is predicated, is nevertheless headed for just that crisis.
Slavery itself consitutes another important theme of The Known World. In this regard, the issue is a matter not only of color but also of power, its corruptions and contradictions. While most of the victims of slavery in the novel are black, Jones includes some minor stories involving white slaves, as well as major stories of black slave owners, to bring this point home. By centering his novel on a black man who owns black slaves in the antebellum South, Jones also reflects on the devil’s pact involved when a previously oppressed power holder takes advantage of an opportunity to succeed in the very system that continues to subjugate the vast majority of his own people.