Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Known World

Go To

The Known World is a 2003 novel by Edward P. Jones.

It is set in the fictional county of Manchester in Virginia. The exact date of events is not stated but references to other events suggests the 1850s, and in any case the date is before the Civil War. The book opens with the death of Henry Townsend, a plantation owner and a slave-owner...who is himself a black man and a freed slave. The narrative skips backwards and forwards in time, following many characters: Henry's parents Augusta and Mildred, who freed themselves by working for wages when not working for their master; John Skiffington, the county sheriff whose Northern-born wife disapproves of slavery; Moses, Henry's first slave and his overseer, and many others. The running theme is how the practice of slavery corrupts everyone associated with it, how it makes it impossible for people to stick to a moral code, and how there is no justice when the law does not protect all its citizens.



  • Anachronic Order: Throughout the novel, due to the many flashbacks and flash-forwards. The story begins with the death of Henry Townsend, but there are many flashbacks to Henry's parents and Henry's life, and flash-forwards that go decades and in fact over 100 years into the future.
  • Bigger on the Inside: A surreal, dreamlike scene has Counsel Skiffington staying with a family in Louisiana. He wakes up after sleeping in the barn, sees the farmhouse, and notes that while the farmhouse had looked like 75x50 feet on the inside when he was having dinner with the family, from the outside it's no more than 15x20 feet.
  • Book Ends: The book opens with Moses wandering off into the forest to masturbate. The book ends with Moses back on the Townsend plantation, after he has been caught and hobbled by having his Achilles tendon cut.
  • Advertisement:
  • Category Traitor: Augustus Townsend, freed slave, is horrified to be told that his son Henry, himself a freed slave, has begun buying slaves. Augustus says he vowed never to have a slave owner in his home, and throws Henry out of the house.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Moses has a habit of going off to a clearing to masturbate. After Alice catches him at hit he takes a grudge against her and considers killing her.
  • Dies Wide Open: Mildred Townsend, after she is shot by John Skiffington for harboring Moses the runaway slave. Counsel Skiffington, who has to step over her as he goes inside the cabin to look for Moses, is unsettled by this.
  • Ear Ache: A common punishment for runaway slaves is to slice off ears. Caldonia Townsend, when she was a slave, knew a fellow slave who had his whole ear cut off. After Elias runs away, she begs Henry to spare him this punishment. Henry has more or less passed the Moral Event Horizon by this point, but he bows to Caldonia enough that only a third of Elias's ear gets cut off.
  • Flash Forward: Many times throughout the book. Stamford, a slave who likes to chase young women, goes out in a storm, contemplating suicide. The book then flashes forward some thirty years, to after the war, when Stamford is a pillar of the black community who has founded an orphanage for black children. When Darcy the kidnapper of free blacks is arrested, he has a little girl named Mandy in his wagon; the narration notes that years later Mandy will become the first black woman to get a Ph.D. from Yale.
  • The Gambling Addict: Fern Elston's husband Ramsay is addicted to gambling and will from time to time disappear and go on gambling sprees where he loses huge amounts of money. Eventually, he disappears and never returns.
  • Human Mail: Augustus helps a slave, Rita, to freedom, by putting her in a box and mailing her to New York. It works.
  • Karma Houdini: Most of the more villainous characters never receive any sort of punishment. Harvey Travis, an evil man who kidnaps August Townsend and sells him back into slavery, never has anything bad ever happen to him. Counsel Skiffington gets away with murdering his cousin John. Maude Newman murdered her husband by arsenic poisoning when her husband had decided to free all their slaves; she gets away with it.
  • Narrative Filigree: The book is filled with random asides and miscellaneous anecdotes about minor characters. After detailing how Moses was sold by a man named Jean Broussard who was facing trial for murder, the narrative talks about how the records of his trial were lost when the courthouse burned in 1912.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Alice was once kicked in the head by a mule, or so people think, and has a habit of wandering about aimlessly and singing random ditties. People think she has suffered brain damage, but the end of the book suggests that she is putting on an act. She quite calmly and rationally slaps Priscilla across the face, as the three of them are making ready to run away to freedom. At the end of the book in 1861, Calvin Newman is surprised to find that Alice not only owns a hotel in Washington, DC, but has made a sophisticated mural showing life in Manchester County.
  • Pass Fail: Fern Elston is light-skinned enough that she could have passed for white, but she refuses to, partly because she doesn't like white people and partly because she is married to a free black man. She has siblings and cousins who are passing for white, and living in Richmond, but Fern no longer thinks of them as her family.
  • Secret Other Family: William Robbins, plantation owner and the richest man in the county who once owned Augustus and Henry, has a wife and a family—and a second family with freed slave Philomena, whom he keeps in town. It's actually not that secret, but rather something that no one talks about.
  • Shameful Strip: Just one aspect of the moral degradation that is slavery is shown when Moses and Bessie, who are being sold, are both forced to strip naked so that their potential buyer may inspect them.
  • Sibling Triangle: Valtims Moffet cheats on his wife with her sister. When his wife finds out, she beats her sister half to death.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: The Central Theme of the book, as the story deals with slavery as an institution that befouls everything it touches, leading to rape, murder, and moral degradation of all kinds.
  • Title Drop: One chapter mentions that Sheriff John Skiffington has an antique map up in the jail, a copy of what is supposed to be the first world map to show the Americas. The map has a heading that says "The Known World."