At nine years old, Esther has curly hair and a serious face, but her cheeks are flat and dead. As she walks down the street she is uninterested in both white and black men until she hears her father mention King Barlo. Barlo is in the middle of the street, completely unaware of everyone even though people are spitting tobacco juice near him. Everyone waits to hear what he has to say in his religious trance.
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At nine years old, Esther has curly hair and a serious face, but her cheeks are flat and dead. As she walks down the street she is uninterested in both white and black men until she hears her father mention King Barlo. Barlo is in the middle of the street, completely unaware of everyone even though people are spitting tobacco juice near him.
Everyone waits to hear what he has to say in his religious trance. Time passes and he finally says out loud that Jesus has been telling him things and that he was told to get on his knees. God said a big and powerful black man would arise and his head was in the clouds, but then chains were put on his feet and he was led to the coast and across the sea and he was not free.
Women cry as Barlo pauses. White folks are merely curious, but preachers wonder what to do about this prophet. As he tells the townspeople to open their eyes and ears to God, a few things happen.
It seems like a loud voice is heard; angels and demons parade in the street; and King Barlo rides out of town on a bull. At that time a Negress draws a portrait of a black Madonna on the courthouse wall. King Barlo leaves town. At sixteen years old, Esther dreams of fire and flames. She tries not to do this because she feels like she is a sinner. Another dream comes and she holds a black, woolly, singed baby, but its breath is sweet and she loves it. At twenty-two, Esther works behind the counter of the family grocery store.
She does not seem to care that she is nearly white and her father is rich. She does not care much about men but cannot stop thinking about the glorious Barlo. She decides she loves him, and since her life seems to be slipping by she also decides to tell him. However, she does not see him for five years. Her face pales. She hears that King Barlo is back in town, having made a lot of money on cotton during the war. Esther is excited and goes to her door where she can see and hear him with a circle of men.
Filled with purpose to possess him, she feels fire in her veins and her dead dreams are carried away. Late that night, Esther travels out into the cool silence. The air is heavy with tobacco smoke and she feels dizzy. She stammers that she is there for him. She looks straight into his eyes as he figures this out.
People near him laugh coarsely. Esther suddenly sees Barlo as hideous. His drunkenness repulses her and she leaves. Outside, everything has vanished. The poet writes of the African Guardian of Souls who, drunk with rum and eating a cassava, has to give in to the new words of the wily white-faced god and now hears amen and hosanna. Dusk arrives, covering the Negro shanties with gold. The full moon through the door is an omen, and the women sing songs against its spell.
Bob Stone, the white son, loves her; Tom Burwell, a black fieldworker, also loves her. Both men jumble together in her mind when she looks at the moon, and she feels strange. She sings, but the rhythm is restless. In this factory town everything smells, feels, and tastes like cane. Old David Georgia stirs the syrup and tells tales of white folks. Someone mentions Louisa and Tom Burwell, who sits listening, becoming angry. He announces that Louisa is his girl, and when someone laughs he fights them.
Tom leaves and immediately feels the chill in the air. He shivers and shudders when he sees the moon. He finds Louisa in front of her house and proclaims his love for her. He tells her Bob Stone likes her too, and that he would cut Bob if he needed to.
Tom takes her hand and they sit there under the moon. An old woman hangs a lamp and lowers a bucket into the well. Bob Stone walks out onto his veranda; while his cheeks are purple, his mind is definitively white. He imagines Louisa in the days of slavery and how as master he could have just had her. Now, though, he has to sneak around. It makes him angry that his family has lost control; he is also angry that they would not understand how he feels about Louisa.
He decides he will go to her. He thinks of Tom and becomes even more frustrated. He cannot actually be a rival with a black man, Bob decides. Louisa is worth fighting for. Why not, just gal? As Bob approaches he smells boiling cane and sees men gathered around the glow of a stove. They are talking about Tom and Bob, which fills him with incredible anger. He rushes to town, crashing into the cane and tasting it along with blood.
When he thinks of Louisa and Tom, the veins in his head pulse. He comes out of the cane onto the road but struggles; he is blind and crazed.
Animals nearby crow and howl. People, though, are hushed. Bob finds Louisa and Tom. Bob lunges at Tom and forces him to fight. Blood rushes from his throat as he tries in vain to stop it.
People nearby hide in their homes and blow out the lights. Bob staggers into town and white men gather around him.
The white men rush like ants, gathering guns, kerosene, rope, and torches. Two cars with searchlights accompany them. They move down the road to the factory town, their silence seemingly flattening all Negros before them. Tom knows they are coming and tries to run, but they capture him.
They bind his wrists and drag him to the factory where there are already stakes and wood. Louisa tries to get to him but she is pushed back. The men pour kerosene on the floorboards and bind Tom to the stake. His eyes are stony. The men throw torches on the pile and the flames and smoke billow. The smell of burning flesh fills the air.
The mob yells gleefully, like the yelling of a hundred mobs. Its echo floats through the town. The full moon is an evil omen, and Louisa knows she must sing to it. She wonders if Tom will come. The remaining works in Part 1 contain two poems and two prose pieces. The collage structure continues unabated, though there are repeated motifs and images: pine, sawmills and sawdust, dusk, cane, smoke, cotton, faces, burning, silence, and eyes.
Though Toomer suggests in passages regarding the land a reverence for its beauty and the profound and moving struggles of African Americans, he interweaves these with allusions, some implicit and some more explicit, to its bloody, oppressive past. The landscape has hidden history, plants metaphorically nourished by blood at the roots, and scars hidden under both clothes and time.
The history of African Americans, Toomer reminds readers, is the history of Africans brought over to America against their will to labor as slaves on Southern farms and plantations. Everything about their culture, history, and sometimes even skin color, is a result of this forced diaspora. The two poems in this section address also address this history. Land, religion, and the body, then, all bear the marks of the Middle Passage and slavery. Both men are skeptical of the orthodox racial identities, but both men eventually perform as they ought to.
Though race can be performed, it cannot be ignored. In both pieces dusk is the time of day where racial difference collapses or collides.
Esther travels to see him after sundown when all is dark. Bob ventures into the gloom and the dust from the white mob covers the town already thickened by smoke and the smell of cane. Esther dreams of union with Barlo, which, as critic Catherine L.
It is a moment of intuitive apprehension rather than logical distinction. Cane study guide contains a biography of Jean Toomer, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
Up from the skeleton stone walls, up from the rotting floor boards and the solid hand-hewn beams of oak of the pre-war cotton factory, dusk came. Up from the dusk the full moon came. Glowing like a fired pine-knot, it illumined the great door and soft showered the Negro shanties aligned along the single street of factory town. The full moon in the great door was an omen. Negro women improvised songs against its spell.
Cane Summary and Analysis of “Esther” to “Blood-Burning Moon”
Jean Toomer The book is divided into three parts: the first two contain short stories and poetry, while the third part consists of a loosely-structured play that is sometimes considered a short story. All the stories in this first section take place in the rural South, usually with an African-American woman as the focus. For the most part, they take place at dusk and outdoors, often in the cane fields. It tells the story of the conflict between Bob Stone, a white man, and Tom Burwell, an African American, who are rivals for the affection of Louisa, a light-skinned African-American woman. After Bob challenges Tom to a knife fight in front of Louisa, Tom slashes the throat of the white man.