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The Peculiar Institution
by rejoyce on September 3, 2007Edward P. Jones' novel The Known World complicates the reader's knowledge of the "peculiar institution" of slavery by focusing in part upon the relationship between black slaveowners and their slaves, and reveals how contingent was the freedom even of freed slaves. The novel has an epic amplitude, sweep, and ambition, and is arguably more various in its characterization, particularly in its representation of black male characters, than Toni Morrison's celebrated Beloved, which depicted the interior lives of her three principal female characters, but also seemed to seek gender detente for the criticisms lodged against Alice Walker's The Color Purple by depicting her male characters like Paul D as moral angels (Ralph Ellison once commented that white American novelists depict African Americans in their books as clowns, beasts or angels). Jones' novel has echoes of Faulkner and Garcia Marquez--Faulkner's imagining of a world in Yoknapatawpha County, Gabo's magic realism--but his prose is plainer, less ornate, less fabulist than either. Read the novel for the moral complexity it brings to our understanding of slavery, but one warning: the multitude of characters is often confusing, and the author doesn't help matters by largely omitting distinguishing physical markers by which the reader might have identified them.
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