Friday, February 27, 2009
Monday, February 23, 2009
Even Dorris is not set in 'action.' She fights internally whether "he can love. Hell, he cant love" (54). She is not sure what to do, whether she should give him all she has because he may not be able to love her back like she wants him to. In the end the dominant binary ends up being John's stillness and inaction. He shows his lack of emotion and love for Dorris through his silence.
The appearances of the beautiful Dorris, also, at first are more privileged than her actual characteristics: “Above the staleness, one dancer throws herself into it. Dorris… Her own glowing is too rich a thing…” (53). Dorris dances, Dorris dances, Dorris dances. Her physicality is apparently a very strong actor in the scene.
By all appearances these are two solid characters. To the viewers of this setting in the Howard Theater, appearances are given privilege over reality. But to the reader just the opposite is the case. For underneath these appearances, reality is the greater actor in the story.
It is clear that “John’s body is separate from the thoughts that pack his mind” (52). Because of this, he is able to realize that the same is true of Dorris. He observes her subtle indications, “The leading lady fits loosely in the front. Lack-life, monotonous” (53), and sees that “Her suspicion would be greater than her passion.” Behind Dorris’ apparent physical passion, the real thoughts in her mind reveal what really is going on: “[I] can’t win him to respect [me]…” (55). Her physical passion is just a face.
The weight of this reality holds the greater privilege over appearance in this classic binary. An old proverb (that I'm sure exists) comes to mind: "The heart of a man is the man."
However, it is John’s stillness that ends up being the dominant binary in this story. Although the movements of Dorris’ dancing draw John’s glare and attention, he is not moved enough to act on his inner lust for her. Instead, he sits motionless and dreams about what it might be like to have Dorris for himself. Toomer writes that Dorris “searches for her dance in it [John’s face]. She finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream’ (Theatre, pp. 56). John does not need the action of being intimate with Dorris, because she has let him do it inside of his head. Through his inactivity, he is still able to be with Dorris in his dream.
This is an interesting take on the binary of activity vs. inactivity. In a lot of media, it is the one who wishes and dreams that is left unfulfilled. The person that acts, in contrast, is usually seen as a hero.
There is no doubt that the black/white binary is symbolic of racial difference in “Theater”. The story is set in a predominately African-American part of Washington D.C. in the early 20th century. All of Toomer’s characters in the story are black, defined against the metaphorical white walls that surround them. Toomer writes that the black people “dance and shout above the tick and trill of white-walled buildings.” This is an important distinction for Toomer: the passion and energy of the African-Americans in the theater suggests an important aspect of his self-definition against another race. He continues to use this interpretation of the binary in a sarcastic manner as he writes of John’s view of the “full-lipped, distant beauties” on stage. John reflects on how white is considered beautiful by the audience and how fake this definition of beauty is. Although white is usually considered dominant in a white/black binary, John’s definition mocks this white over black dichotomy.
Another interpretation of this black/white binary deals with love in the story. When the characters are shrouded in the blackness of the shadows, reason triumphs over love. On the contrary, the white light that illuminates John serves as a metaphor for feelings of love and passion. As the white light rises in the theater, so do John’s feelings of attraction and sexuality. Similarly, when Dorris is masked by the darkness of the stage, she does not realize her infatuation for John. When the spotlight shines on her, however, her feelings of lust overcome her. This white light implies a challenge to the rational thought of the characters in the story.
Among the different binaries in Toomer’s story, the black over white dichotomy is one of the clearest and most important. Toomer challenges the traditional view of white’s dominance over black – for him, blackness signifies beauty and rationality; whiteness is a representation of oppression and foolish lust.
As the story progresses, so does the readers understanding of John’s (the protagonist) persona. The story first introduces John “seated at the center of the theater, just before [dance] rehearsals” (52). Based off this brief introduction of John and his position in the cabaret, one can presume that he enjoys gazing upon beautiful woman. Throughout the story, the female role seems to conform to the idea of an enticer. Because all the females in the story are dancers, it can be assumed that they use their bodies to entice men into certain things: giving money, sexual fantasies. This specific binary seems to be rather concrete in its role in the story.
In the story there are specific roles that each particular gender seems to cohere to. These specific gender roles seem like they can be understood as common gender stereotypes among certain cultures. As a product of these common stereotypes of men as a gazer, and the woman as an enticer, spawns the reversal of another set of particular gender stereotypes. A common stereotype for a male is that they more actively pursue a potential mate. This isn’t saying that women don’t possess this sex drive, but it is more commonly associated with men. The second binary in this story is that of motion/stationary. This particular binary disrupts the preconceived notions we had about the commonalities of gender stereotypes.
Understood from the aforementioned stereotypes, is that men are more commonly the aggressor when it comes to sex. Throughout the story “Theater, Jean Toomer develops a male character who has these sexual urges, but is reluctant to act upon them. This lack of action causes a reversal in the understood stereotypes of males and females. Throughout the story John never leaves his stationary position in the cabaret; while Dorris is constantly dancing to convey her desire for him sexually. Because of this reversal of actions the male becomes the stationary (less aggressive) gender, while the female assumes the motion (more aggressive) role.
As a result of the influence of another binary, a once seemingly concrete binary becomes disrupted. With an abundance of binaries present in the story, it is inevitable that they will begin to influence another.
Jean Toomer explores the dichotomy between the audience and the performer in “Theater.” Toomer introduces the concept quite literally: John is seated in the seats, watching the rehearsal, and the girls dance upon the stage. In keeping with the paradigmatic “master/slave” binary, the reader can examine the power structure within the audience/performer juxtaposition. In most situations, it would seem that the performer has the hierarchical precedence, the ability to act while the performer can only react. Toomer, however, posits that, as post-structuralists would argue with nearly all binaries, the binary relation between the two is not as clearly favorable towards the performer as one might first expect. Within a binary, one facet cannot exist without the existence of the other. In the master/slave binary, for example, if the master has no slave to control, then his power is weakened. Likewise, since the slave gives the master his identity, the hierarchy is subverted, and power can be redistributed to the supposedly weaker party.
While John is the reactive observer, he has power in his ability to criticize from a relatively safe position. He refers to the chorus girls as “dancing ponies,” connoting that they are objectified—animals to be trained. Toomer also twists the relation between audience and performer in that here, Dorris is aware of her audience. The interaction becomes personal, and John’s reactions influence Dorris’ actions and vice versa. Just as John judges Dorris, observing her physical appearance (“Her lips are curiously full, and very red…”), Dorris, in turn, critiques John: “Hell, he can’t love…his lips are too skinny.”
The seemingly divisive schism between the two characters is inverted and reverted to the point that Toomer seems to be showing that the binary is not as stable as once assumed. While John sitting in the audience implies passivity, he actively judges Dorris. Dorris, who is the dancing performer, is an audience member of John’s internal debate between mind and body, and she reacts, weeping, to his inaction. Dorris dances of her own free will in reality, and dances like a “dancing pony” in John’s daydream, losing the power of performer. The performer has no purpose if no audience sits to watch, just as the audience has nothing to witness if there is no performer. Toomer seems to be exploring the idea that it is the presence of both of these facets of the binary that gives the other meaning, and that their roles are not as concrete as one might originally assume.
Another catch on the binary of control v. controlled is at the end. Dorris wants to impress John, I believe partially because she believes John is her key to making it to the next level (Broadway). In the end, I believe the image of John still sitting in the shadows means that John is not really in control either. So again the appearance of control v. controlled falls through, as John (the control) is under the control of other forces of control (race, social status, etc.).
Sunday, February 22, 2009
In context, this piece gives privilege and importance to the need for emotions to not get clouded by the mind and intellect. John the ‘dictie’ and educated man can be seen struggling with his emotions and how freeing they are to his spirit inside. John fights to keep himself under control and works to allow his mind which has been expanded due to his education, to take the reins. There is a conflict between emotional purity along with raw feelings with intellectual corruption. Another way that purity and corruption can be seen here is in Dorris’ feelings towards John. Dorris’ feelings are pure and show such energy in contrast to John’s restraint. The purity seen in her thoughts, not clouded by ulterior motives, can also be contrasted to John’s corruption of lust for her. Dorris also struggles with her acceptance of John, purity and corruption a strong binary for her when one looks at her dancing versus her thinking.
This piece seems to favor purity over corruption due to its focus on raw emotions and feelings instead of having a base in logic and rationality of intellect. Theater takes the binary of purity and corruption and focuses them in the two main characters. The privilege of purity over corruption can be seen easily and in this time of social upheaval and change for African-Americans, purity was needed. Emotion’s purity filled the theater and the mind’s corruption fought against it in one man’s mind. Though the intellect won out in the end for John, Dorris looked to the purity of his dream until it was too late. Though she couldn’t have him, her purity and energy helped her obtain at least some small part of his inner self against the corruption of his mind and intellect.
There are several moments of borderline intimacy, as John begins to become enraptured by Dorris’ efforts. His face turns autumn, and his body becomes soft and warm. This outward appearance, however, is a cover for the harsh reality of the cold nature the man possesses. Dorris’ dance is solely for the capture of John’s heart, and after a few brief moments of possible hope, she only “finds it a dead thing in the shadow which is his dream” (Toomer 56). He is a living lie, a brother of a director who has no real power, a race-challenged man, who is a living paradox between appearance and reality.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
To me, a classic is a timeless book, which I can read at any moment and feel the same spark as the first time I ever read it. Granted, there are many books written by the old masters (Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Thoreau), that I do not enjoy upon a second reading, yet these still retain their “classic” status. Based on a historic value, these authors must be “classic,” as their writing signifies a hallmark of literature in terms of literary tropes, content, and manipulation of form. The problem with this is the counter-question: does a “classic” only refer to an old book, written by someone long passed? Can there be no new classic books? There must be, as several of the “new” authors on the list above are heralded as revolutionary, and have garnered many awards. Besides, how is an author to gain the notoriety and elevated status as the Shakespeare’s of yesteryear, without being compared to them? For a class that revolves around various degrees of prominent literature, the reading list should consist of several different authors and genres, so as to get a broad spectrum of what the term “classic” really means.
In the January 29th, 2009 edition of Wabash College's Bachelor, columnist Royce Gregerson takes a critical look at the college's literary corpus and raises the question, "where did all the great books go?" The point behind his rant is that "it's time to skip the academic jargon and high-strung language without semblance of point, message, or direction." While this statement is agreeable, it is when Gregerson supports his argument with statements such as "who even knows who Susan Gubar, Derek Walcott, Nabokov, Szymborska, and Murakami are? Who could possibly say that these represent some of the greatest books ever written?" Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature. Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita is #4 on the list of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the 20th century. The authors Gregerson criticizes seem to be praised in the literary world. While Gregerson mentions other great authors (Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Thoreau), it seems that Gregerson considers a great book to be written by a long deceased white male. This is not consistent with the liberal arts, and certainly not what makes a great book. Personally, the books I have found to be great were not written by deceased authors. My favorite book, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, presents an author exactly the opposite of Gregerson's standard. And it would be hard for Gregerson to deny The Color Purple as a "great" novel; it received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award.
The question really is not where did the great books go, but what makes a great book? In the student's perspective, the great books seem to be a predetermined list that repeatedly appears on course syllabi. However, it is important to note that there was a time when no one had read these books, and the first readers that determined the success of the novel. It is the reader that has the ability to bring life to the page; the reader decides what the author said and how well it was said. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay "Success", "tis the good reader that makes the good book."
Monday, February 9, 2009
Although I am no doubt inclined to side with the students and faculty (regardless of their status in the hierarchy of tenure) who are actually involved in the course, I cannot responsibly judge the value of the corpus that Gregerson describes. In all honesty, I am among those who have never heard of such modern authors as Gubar, Nabokov, and Murakami. I do not dare to comment on the literary merit of these authors; by doing so, I risk developing my own, self-professed ignorance into arrogance and pompousness.
However, I feel it necessary to comment on the way in which Gregerson develops his argument. His opinion is legitimate and he is certainly entitled to it. Unfortunately, he employs irrelevant and erroneous arguments about religion and instructor ability to a topic that has little to do with either of these. Instead, he should have focused on what constitutes great literature. Although undoubtedly important, a work’s popularity and longevity are not the sole bases upon which literature is canonized. Gregerson fails to acknowledge the importance of universal themes and characters that inspire generations of readers. Further, greatness is a product of personal opinion and connection with a piece of literature. Had Gregerson more fully developed a legitimate argument about great literature, he may not have received the poison pen backlash from his peers.
The first question should be assessed through blind eyes. Never in the equation should enter race, gender, or any other social construct. The debate of great literature, I believe, should have nothing to do with authorship. In the best sense of things, the fact that the majority of canonized works are written by white males should be a mere coincidence (although whether or not this is the case is legitimately debatable).
A piece of literature is canon-quality if it, well, is canon-quality, and if it reserves this mark over the test of time. If over time its applause fades and its quality turns debatable, its qualification for canonization should obviously be put in dire limbo. The test of time and hot debate among literary elite, a group in which I would include many Ph. D. professors at Wabash, ensures the integrity of the great works canon and keeps it from becoming painfully stagnant in changing times.
It’s a different conversation that surrounds the debate of what canonized works should be included in the senior Colloquium curriculum. This discussion should also have nothing to do with authorship, but rather with which canonized works are most worth the worn-out senior’s careful reading through and studying. By the time the spring semester of their senior year comes around, many students might agree that they have close-read enough random books and put up with enough random discussion through their previous seven semesters, that if their senior seminar proves no different, they, like the author of this Bachelor article, would not be very excited about it at all. However, it shows a remarkable lack of insight to think that this is all senior seminar amounts to and reflects a pretentious ignorance that is, in fact, enraging to many Colloquium professors.
I, too, might not like the thought of professors picking out for me the books that they think I should read, especially in my senior Great Works Colloquium, unless I have first learned the value in surrendering my childish arrogance. If I consistently believe that I have somehow attained the rare ability to pick through the annals of time and genres of all sorts and know the essence of a great work when I see one, and have the enlightened insight to know which of these texts are most worthy of my honored position as a pompous second-semester senior, something along my education track has gone terribly wrong.
Hopefully by the end of my college career I will have come to appreciate more fully the knowledge and insight of my Ph. D. professors. This is, at least, the hope.
The columnist’s arguments seems even more flawed because his view is antithetical to the liberal arts education, which, in my mind, demands that the student observe, entertain, and respect the varying, different, and diverse opinions and texts of the world. And all of this is done so the student can grow and expand as a person and as an academic. Therefore it seems ridiculous that the columnist matches the literary cannon versus a class curriculum to determine if what is being studied is worth his time. It is very conceded to believe that contemporary works are not worth anyone’s time, and I think any person is doing themselves a disservice if they ardently follow the literary canon today. Canon is helpful in the fact that they provide us with classical texts that are enriching, but I don’t think we should obsessively consult them to make sure we know everything about the past. If we do that, then we fail to see what is right in front us. Canons suggest what we should take from the past, but the contemporary works shows us what we need to know today.
As a result of the questionable things said about what makes a great book, several responses have been made in a contradictory fashion. The main arguments made by these opposing positions are comparable with my own. In the initial argument by Mr. Gregerson he speaks about how a great book needs to be written by a great writer. An opposing professor from Mr. Gregerson’s institution responded to this claim by stating, “there is no reason to assume that people stopped writing worthwhile books in the 1850’s” (Professor Tucker). Reiterating the words of Professor Tucker was a fellow peer of Mr. Gregerson. He also supported the notion that books written in what we understand as modern society can eventually lead to great books. If great books must hold a cultural significance, then books developed now days shall be insightful to the generations and centuries to come. Mr. Gregerson’s frustration with what some academics consider great books doesn’t coincide with his own personal understanding of what a great book is. Based on the information presented, the author was more focused on attempting to prove a point, than to present worthwhile knowledge.
However, one thing that can be positively contributed to Mr. Gregerson’s article is the controversy it stirred up. As avid reader of books, I believe that I was neglecting to understand myself what it takes to consider a book great. As a world I believe that we take what is predetermined by academics to be truth. Which I feel is important in order to grasp a firm understanding of literature. However, as I began to understand what I feel constitutes a great book. I often myself coinciding with the academics have previously suggested. Although I do not feel that I have came up with a concrete enough understanding of what constitutes a great book; but with the influence of the class colliquim (A class at my institution that directs all it’s focus on variety great novels from past to modern societies) I intend on coming out with my personal beliefs. If you can praise a negative article, then that’s what I intend on doing; even though I disagree with a lot of what Mr. Gregerson has stated, he still stirred up my curiosity to begin to establish what I deem as a “Great Book”.
If one would read the entire article, there would be a few more things the reader would understand about the rest of article. In the beginning of the article, Mr. Gregerson discusses how many great Christian works, namely St. Augustine's Confessions, have been neglected and left off the Colloquium reading list. In fact, this book, considered by many as a great book, is not on the reading list. Royce goes on to discuss how it seems like a problem that Wabash is leaving more and more Christianity-related works out of the courses here at Wabash. Now, most of the people are probably thinking that I'm going to start to rant about how Christianity is a superior religion and how all people who write on Christian topics are better writers and their works are "great books." I'm not going to, but I'm simply going to say that Western Culture, which has been fueled by the Christian tradition for over 2,000 years, has produced some quality literature.
Royce states that Wabash is removing the Christian tradition from the public square. But, some may say this is necessary for "advancement." But the greatest problem that I see from all of this is that Wabash may be injuring our education by this change. The push to put works from non-Dead White Male authors in the classroom may go too far at some point. the dead white male(dwm) literature isn't "opressing" anyone, nor is it a sign of "elitism," it is merely literature that has been found and tested as "great." Not that other authors aren't seen as great, but just because they aren't dwm's doesn't mean that they should be read in class over something that is written by a dwm. It is not "advancing" our culture at all to include lack-luster works just because they may help 'diversify' the student. I don't believe the works listed in Gregerson's article are lack-luster, but I am saying that if books written by ethnic or female authors are the only books on the Colloquium reading list, a great unjustice would have been done to the authors that happen to be dead white males.
The author of the article in the Bachelor has embodied the probable opinion of many students who look at the reading list for senior colloquium. For example: “I don’t know who these authors are!” or “Why should I read these guys’ work? I’ll never be able to impress people by quoting someone they’ve never heard of!” To say that a piece of art is not great because you were unaware of its existence it is like saying that couscous is not a food because you have not eaten it and it doesn't sound "American." In other words, widespread public ignorance of certain novels does not indicate that those novels are unworthy of recognition and reverence. Yes, generally critics and academics do notice and spread awareness of works that are outstanding in literary quality, but just because I have not heard of Baudelaire, like the young man who wrote the article, does not mean that Baudelaire’s work has failed as art. Maybe I have failed as someone who calls himself a lover of literature.
It seems obvious that someone like myself or the author of the article in the Bachelor does not determine the canon, although we have both grown up hearing of the “greats” of the Western canon (James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, etc.). If I do not determine the canon, who does? Who are the group of people who claim to have the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? How can one objectively judge a piece of work as universally exceptional when reading is such a subjective experience? It is an interesting conundrum, being forced to judge a work of art. The world is so filled with contrasting cultures, peoples, and ideas that to say that only a handful of “dead, white males” are qualified to represent the limitless experiences that life presents is naïve. In determining the western canon, especially in a time when technology has reduced the earth to the size of a laptop with a Wi-Fi connection, I suppose the best option would be to select works that best represent all the possibilities and viewpoints the world has to offer. Had a white male written Jean Toomer’s Cane, would the impact be the same? Could a white male have created art so engrained with the psyche of a minority, so heartfelt and inventive? I doubt it. If I limit myself to reading works only by people that reflect the majority of white males, then I not only perpetuate oppression, I also deny myself the opportunity to broaden my knowledge. I wouldn't have read anything by Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, authors whose works influenced the way I view the world. I would argue that, logically, a knowledge of monotony (only reading works by dead white males) necessitates an ignorance of diversity.
I believe that the Colloquium course being referred to in the article is a fantastic example of what our College exemplifies. Having a course on great works of literature, and focusing primarily on dead white European males is a disservice to the Liberal Arts education. It goes against everything that our College stands for. By reading a diverse crop of literature, we as students are able to learn more about the world through the lens of different races, cultures, and genders. However, the biggest criticism I have with the article, (the same criticism can be applied to the Canons), is who possesses the power to choose the works of literature worth teaching to students, and those which should not be taught?
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Monday, February 2, 2009
From the first line, the audience is given a sense of the natural splendor that Karintha embodies. Toomer makes it clear that his subject is African-American, likening her skin to the peaceful tranquility of the eastern horizon during sunset. He probes the audience to see her evident beauty: “O cant you see it, o cant you see it…” These first four lines of poetry provide a sort of refrain that is repeated twice more in the story. However, each time the refrain is repeated, it carries a significantly different meaning to those men, young and old, who worship Karintha, as well as the audience viewing Karintha’s story from an outside perspective.
The first section of prose opens the narrative description. Toomer tells us that Karintha is a young girl that possesses a type of unimaginable beauty: “even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.” Again, the idea of a sunset, one of nature’s most glorious phenomena, serves to remind the audience of the smooth, lyrical beauty that accompanies the young girl. She is described as “vivid color,” full of life and ageless brilliance. Both old and young men recognize her beauty, but regard it in an almost animalistic sense. The old men pray for youth while the young men lust over the girl who is too young “to mate with them.” The word mate even suggests this shallow ardor. They spoil her with money and promises of shallow happiness.
After another refrain, Toomer relates the story of Karintha as an adult woman. She now recognizes her physical beauty and uses it as a powerful tool over the lustful men that surround her. She realizes that the men want her for her physical beauty and “she has contempt for them.” Still, as the words “at dusk” remind us, she retains her ageless beauty and power over men. Unknowingly, the men have spoiled Karintha as a woman: she retains her external beauty, but, as foreshadowed by the first section of prose, “the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon.” As the final section of prose comes to a close, Toomer once more repeats the refrain that we now understand to be somewhat misleading. The last line of the story is an important one. “Goes down…” says the narrator, leaving the audience wondering if all the attention and praise given to Karintha leads to her unhappiness and ultimate downfall.
In stanza two John brings up how “cane-lipped scented mouth” might refer to the title of the book but I think that it could mean the sugar cane moon shine that is popularly made in the south and this would also explain line 8 “Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds”. This could mean that the people there are under the influence of alcohol and with the party like atmosphere they are singing and dancing and having a good ‘ol time. This also has some relevance to the 6th stanza. The men are singing and the “pine trees are like guitars” amplifying the sound of their voices. In line 23 “Their voices rise.. the chorus of the cane” the cane in this line could also allude to the sugar cane moon shine that “scented mouths” in line 7 and its is actually that moon shine singing and taking over the men.
When reading Reapers, it is hard to pull yourself from the intense imagery of “[reapers] sharpening his scythe”, or “black horse [driving] a mower through the weeds” (2, 5). However, in order to understand the path, motion, and future of the poem we, as a reader must understand the importance of form.
In this poem Jean Toomer uses a single octave, developed with a couplet rhyme (aabbccdd) to form a sonnet. Although these specific features of the poem are important, I tend to focus around the two periods placed throughout the poem. In the poem each period concludes four lines, or two sets of couplets. When understanding this poem it is noticeable the shift in how labor is completed: these shifts are transitioned by the use of a period. These first two lines of the poem focus around the actual “reaper” (human) as the source of labor: “Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones / Are sharpening scythes /… / And start their silent swinging, one by one” (1-4). After the fourth line of the poem concludes with a period, the next line picks up with an innovation of physical labor: a mower. The last four lines develop the use of a mower as an alternative way to cut weeds: “Black horses drive a mower through the weeds” (5). Among these four lines, there is a gruesome encounter between a mower and a field rat. The last line of the poem concludes with a period, thus symbolizing an innovation in physical labor. However, unlike the first four lines of the poem, you (the reader) are left in anticipation of what comes next.
Jean Toomer’s use of poetic structure as a way to tell, without directly saying, an innovation in how manual labor was completed. Although the poem ends with a period, that doesn’t mean that the reader does.
The next section deals with Karintha's sexualization, where this girl follows her parents example and has sex early on. It was stated that, "... to follow them was the way of God" (Toomer, 4). Karintha is now capable of sex and uses it. The young men return in this section, waiting and counting time for her. Again, her dusky beauty is repeated and soon enough, Karintha is now a young woman. She is still beautiful but still sexual, indulging the old men's wants but on her terms. The men do many things for her and still count time, but Karintha's the one in control. She will not be just a woman to have sex with and so defies her place with the birth of a stillborn child, birthed away from society and amongst the wilderness of the forest. Karintha returns later, her child's soul taken on the smoke up to heaven from the sawdust pile nearby once those in the know knew what she had done. Karintha's soul had grown up too quickly, the men left in the dark regarding this fact. Karintha at age twenty is a woman, still of dusky beauty, but at the end, the dusk of the eastern horizon. This horizon is dark with the sun gone down, Karintha going down also perhaps to Hell, but with a vague uncertain end.
The blades are always sharp, or within reach of being sharp, as the reapers keep their hones within hip pockets. This suggests that mankind is ready to destroy at any moment, silently and swiftly. Furthermore, man does not care who or what gets in his way, as the field rat meets his end via blade. To further illustrate the rat’s lack of importance to man, we do not actually see its’ death (save for the squealing), just the aftermath from it. Either its’ death is too pitiful, or more likely, Toomer is stressing the importance of the unimportant. . Oddly, the reapers cause a cycle, as they end a harvest that will happen again within a year’s time. The rat, however, is caught in a foil, as its death is the end with no possible hope of being resurrected.
Toomer’s “Karintha” establishes many “dark” images to capture the essence of the woman that cannot really be grasped in the first place. Old men and young men objectify her; old men wish to be younger so they can be with her, and young “count down the clock” until they can “mate” with her. By objectifying Karintha, the men of the South have made her existence as a human being superficial. Karintha is literally just an image, a phantom because they never see her as a person. In this way, the images that Toomer uses to associate with Karintha are important because the hint at a person that is there, but is not really there. Hence the images of “a black bird that flashes in the light” and “Her running was a whir. It has the sound of red dust,” (Toomer p.3).
The most important image that Toomer uses to describe Karintha is that of the setting sun. The setting sun image is the only prevalent image through out the short piece, and the story emphasizes the image with a poem. The image, “Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon” is the primary “dusk” image used to describe Karintha, and it is important because it points to the east rather than the west during a sunset. This image suggests that darkness is Karintha's prime characteristic. Not only does the image contrast light and dark, but it contrasts life and death because the phases of the sun are a common metaphor for the progression of life. The setting sun usually means death. This is the case when Toomer says that Karintha “carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down” when she has become a woman. It is the only image that describes Karintha when she is twenty. This image changes from the lively images of Karintha when she was twelve and “was a bit of vivid color.” The tone shift, indicated by the image—“carries beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down”--is foreboding for Karintha.
The last image that Toomer leaves us is the image of the sun setting--“goes down”--which to me meant the death of Karintha, either literally or as a woman. This makes the story come full circle because Toomer is using culturally-specific images to demonstrate how a society, particularly the patriarchy of the South, created a woman that could only be their object. Thus, the men de-humanized her as a person and as a woman. As Toomer put it quite elegantly: “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon,” (Toomer p.4). Men created Karintha, and in a way, they killed her.
Jean Toomer’s “Reapers,” despite its terse length, shadows the reader under an ominous atmosphere by utilizing careful diction, sinister-sounding alliteration, and an universally foreboding theme. As part of a the novel CANE, it is interesting to consider where Toomer places “Reapers.” Immediately following “Karintha,” an examination of one woman’s beauty, the contrast of the thematic material between radiant “Karintha” and the oppressing “Reapers” is stark. Starting with the title, Toomer deftly utilizes the interplay between the connotation and denotation of the word “reaper” to create a sense of tension and fear in the reader’s mind. While the dictionary definition innocuously refers to a reaper as “one who harvests a crop,” the connotation in American culture is related to that of Death incarnate. By utilizing words and themes that connote death (“black reapers,” “black horses,” “shade), Toomer seems to be exploring the uneasiness commonly associated with darkness and possibly how that fear informs the unfair treatment of people with darker skin. The poem, therefore, can be read with either the denotation or connotation of “black reapers” in mind—or both. Either way, it is a mesmerizing examination of life and death.
“Reapers” could be about the everyday labor involved in thrashing out weeds, but the way in which the poem is presented supports the interpretation of the unceasing approach of an indifferent Death. The alliteration, the persistent use of the “s” sound, informs the poet’s intent. The consonants use in phrases such as “sound of steel on stone,” the “sharpening scythes,” and “silent swinging” seems to audibly echo the sounds of metal on stone and of a scythe swinging through weeds and tall grass, supplementing the already-intimidating description of the “black reapers.” Toomer paints the shadowy, black figures as indifferent--even mechanical: “a field rat…squealing bleeds” as “the blade continue[s] cutting weeds and shade.” The black reapers, using their black horses, do not seem to notice or do not care. Toomer’s word choice lends the poem a menacing air (“scythes,” “reapers,” and “blades”). Particularly of note is the curious use of “shade” as the last word. How can one cut “shade”? It seems that “shade” is another reference to darkness, possibly alluding to the Hades of Greek mythology, also referred to as “the Shades.” Adding to the intimidating nature of the figures, the poem does not signify that they will ever stop. The blood-stained blade “continue[s] cutting weeds and shade.” Toomer has here crafted a fascinating exploration of humankind’s apprehension towards Death, and, like death itself, we do not know much about these black reapers other than they are mysterious, indifferent, and unceasing.
Each individual story begins with the word "Black". In the first half of the poem we are introduced to slaves that are sharpening their scythes themselves, as that is the acceptable thing to do. After they finish sharpening them, they "place the hones/ In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done". This is just an acceptable act, in which they will carry their hones around while performing manual labor. The word that stood out to me in this first half of the poem that would contrast the second portion of the poem, is "start their silent swinging". This notion of silence and peace in manual labor is differs from the second portion of the poem.
The second portion of the poem, which I believe is a metaphor for industrial agriculture is less peaceful. Black horses have replaced black reapers. "A field rat, startled, squealing bleeds." This sentence alone breaks the silence of the reaping. It depicts industrial agriculture as having disregard for life or whoever it walks on. The main goal of industrial agriculture was to increase the production of the product, sometimes with disregard to morals or ethics. Overall I believe that the structure of the poem is very important, and although grouped together in 8 lines, "Reapers" provides readers with two different methods of agriculture.