The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Summary & Characters

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  • 0:00 Plot Summary for ''The…
  • 2:37 The Overseer Moses
  • 3:55 Freed Slaves and Slave Owners
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Abigail Walker

Abigail has taught writing and literature at various universities. She has an M.A. In literature from American University and an M.F.A. in English from The University of Iowa.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, 'The Known World' by Edward P. Jones. We'll explore the fictional Manchester County, Virginia, and its antebellum characters as well as the events they get swept up in.

Plot Summary for The Known World

When Henry Townsend dies in 1855, he is only thirty-one, but he has acquired many acres of land and more than thirty slaves. A slave himself until the age of eighteen, Henry gains his freedom when his father Augustus - who already has bought himself and his wife Mildred out of slavery - makes his last payment to Henry's master William Robbins.

As a slave, Henry has a good relationship with Robbins and continues to seek Robbins's help once he is free. Robbins touts Henry's skill as a shoemaker, and he soon becomes famous for 'the kind of footwear God intended feet to have.'

Crafting and selling shoes provides Henry with money to buy land from Robbins. In addition to offering advice about managing property, Robbins instructs the young man about handling Moses, Henry's first slave.

One day after Henry playfully spars with Moses, Robbins chides Henry, saying, 'The law expects you to know what is master and what is slave.' Henry then criticizes Moses and hits his slave so hard he almost falls to the ground. As the years pass and Henry acquires other slaves, Moses becomes overseer. In this job, Moses gets to know everyone on the plantation well - including Caldonia, Henry's wife.

Henry has met Caldonia Newman at a school where Robbins has arranged for his former slave to attend. As soon as he walks into the school, Caldonia is smitten, looking at nothing but Henry. Soon the two marry. Caldonia stays with Henry until a brief illness takes his life. Not yet thirty, Caldonia soon begins an affair with Moses. With Henry now dead, Moses thinks Caldonia will free him, but he views his family as an obstacle - believing that 'his wife and child could not live in the same world with him and Caldonia.'

Moses tells them that he wants them to escape to freedom and that he will soon join them. As they are leaving, though, he becomes afraid they might be caught. Knowing his future could be ruined, he follows after them into the woods.

Unaware of her lover's actions, Caldonia reports the slaves missing, and the sheriff grows increasing suspicious of Moses - particularly when he finds the overseer has escaped. The sheriff and his cousin find Moses. His wife and child have escaped, but he is hiding out in the house of Henry's mother Mildred.

In the confusion that follows, the sheriff and Mildred are shot and killed. The sheriff's cousin then apprehends Moses, tying him with a rope attached to a horse. Before he reaches town, two slave patrols hobble him. In excruciating pain, Moses must be carried home. Afterwards, it becomes his habit to lie on a pallet, his arm outstretched, blocking the light from his eyes.

The Overseer Moses

In The Known World, the book is a story about how two worlds coexist: the world of slavery and the world of freedom. The character who moves most easily between both worlds is Moses, who appears at both the beginning and ending of the novel. As overseer, Moses is the middleman between the slaves and their owners, Henry and Caldonia Townsend.

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