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The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Summary and Analysis

Michel Martin del Campo, Abigail Walker
  • Author
    Michel Martin del Campo

    Michel has taught college composition and literature for over16 years. He has a BA from DePauw University and a Master's degree from Texas A&M International University. He has worked as an educator, speechywriter, ghostwriter, and freelancer.

  • 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.

Study The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Read about the author, review the character list, explore the summary and analysis, and examine the genre and themes. Updated: 05/31/2022

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a 2003 historical novel. The novel tells the story of the lives of the people in fictional Manchester County in the 19th century south. The novel intertwines various narratives to create a portrait of the south where slavery and race are explored as the story moves across various years.

Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones is the author of two novels and one short story collection. After attending the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Virginia, he taught and worked as a proofreader. In 1993, he published his first book, a collection of short stories called Lost in the City. In 2002, he began writing anew after losing his proofreading job and published The Known World in 2003 to critical acclaim. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. A BBC poll named the novel the second-best of the 21st century.

Jones followed The Known World in 2006 with another novel, All Aunt Hagar's Children.

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.

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The Known World Character List

The Known World character list would contain dozens of major and minor characters, but the most important characters are listed here:

  • Henry Townsend: Henry is the catalyst for the story's events. He is a free Black man who was formerly enslaved and goes on to run a plantation and own enslaved Black people himself. He dies early in the novel, but his death has repercussions across Manchester County.
  • Caldonia: A free Black woman, Caldonia marries Henry after a short courtship, but Henry dies and leaves her in charge of the plantation, which is a job she is woefully unprepared to do.
  • Augustus: Henry's father, August, worked and earned freedom for himself and his family. However, years later, he is captured and dies after refusing to be enslaved again.
  • Mildred: Augustus's wife and Henry's mother, Mildred dies near the end of the novel after being accidentally shot.
  • William Robbins: Robbins is the slave owner who owned Augustus and his family; he takes a special interest in Henry and educates him in the ways of business.
  • Moses: Henry's first enslaved Black person, Moses becomes the overseer. Moses eventually has an affair with Caldonia, which leads to his eventual escape and hobbling.
  • Philomena: William Robbins's mistress, Philomena, is a free Black woman who was formerly a slave. She is the mother of two of his children.

The Known World Summary

The novel revolves around the life and death of Henry Townsend and the repercussions his actions have on the citizens of fictional Manchester County, Virginia. The narrative opens with Henry's death at the age of thirty-one. Despite owning fifty acres of land and thirty-three enslaved Black people, Henry was once a enslaved himself. His father, Augustus, used to belong to a man named William Robbins, but through many years of hard work, Augustus bought freedom for himself, his wife, and his son.

While he is enslaved by Williams, however, Henry learns about business. Williams spreads the word about Henry's talent for making shoes, and Henry soon uses his new wealth to begin buying land and enslaved Black people. When Henry buys his first enslaved Black man, Moses, Henry's parents are disgusted with their son, but Henry sees nothing wrong with what he is doing. When Williams catches Henry and Moses roughhousing, though, Williams admonishes Henry and reminds him that an enslaved person is property and should be treated as such.

A year later, Henry meets Caldonia at a school for free Black people. After a brief courtship, the two marry. However, in 1855, Henry falls ill. He soon worsens and dies, leaving Caldonia a widow at younger than thirty years old. Unlike Henry, Caldonia is not equipped to run the plantation and is quickly overwhelmed. She seeks comfort with Moses and the two have an affair. Moses mistakenly believes the affair will lead to his freedom and that Caldonia wants to marry him. As a result, Moses sends his wife and daughter away to escape so he can have a future with Caldonia. However, Moses soon learns Caldonia does not want to marry him, and an enraged Moses is quickly kicked off the property by force.

Caldonia finds out Moses' wife and child are missing and calls John Skiffington, the sheriff. Skiffington mistakenly suspects Moses killed his family. Moses fears for his life since he has no allies among the enslaved, and he runs away a few nights later.

Augustus, Henry's father, is abducted after Henry's death and sold back into slavery and leaves his wife, Mildred, without anyone. Skiffington believes Mildred is hiding Moses and confronts her about his theory, but she denies it. The encounter goes badly and both Mildred and Skiffington are killed. Skiffington's deputy finds Moses and arrests him. On the way back to Caldonia, the deputy comes across some patrollers who offer to hobble Moses, meaning to cut his Achilles tendon so he can never escape again. Moses returns to the plantation a broken man.

Augustus refuses to work for the new slave owner and is killed for his actions. Moses' wife and child arrive in Washington, D.C., and start a new life. Manchester County, though, is not the same and the enslaved people on the plantation can do nothing more until the Civil War a few years later.

Analysis of the The Known World Book

In the book, "the known world" is a phrase from a map Sheriff Skiffington has on his wall. The map is supposedly hundreds of years old and shows the Americas wildly out of proportion, a metaphor for the twisted perceptions of many of the characters.

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the genre of The Known World?

The Known World is historical fiction. It is based in a real time and place, Virginia, though the county and characters are fictional.

What is the theme of the story The Known World?

Slavery comes in many forms and is about more than just racism and skin color. Slavery is about power and power structures and contaminates everything it touches.

What is the meaning of "the known world"?

The phrase "the known world" comes from an old map of the world. It shows the Americas in a highly distorted fashion, a metaphor for the twisted perception many of the characters in the novel have of the way things like love are supposed to work.

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