Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In the sketches and stories that make up his collection Cane (1923), Jean Toomer often returns to the idea that African Americans who live in cities have lost an important part of themselves. A connection with the soil is, in an essential way, a connection with the soul. John, the “dictie” black man, is an example of this. Urbane and educated, he is also emotionless and controlled. When he begins to feel excited by the music and the dancers, he wills himself to ignore or suppress his excitement. He has developed the ability to control his feelings through his intellect, and Toomer shows that this trait, although it may be useful for urban life, is ultimately sterile and self-defeating. What excites John about Dorris is her spontaneity, her willingness to surrender control (or her inability to control herself). Her singing makes him think of “canebrake loves and mangrove feastings”—of earthy, rural pleasures that John’s inner self craves. Every time that he rejects spontaneous pleasure because it “wouldn’t work,” he denies himself an opportunity to be a whole person.

Although Dorris is beautiful and can help John reconnect with his own soul, he talks himself out of wanting her. Because of the difference in their social classes, he will not approach her. Instead, he will touch her only in his mind, passing up what the reader realizes may be an important chance for his own happiness.

Dorris understands social class in...

(The entire section is 429 words.)