Monday, February 2, 2009

How Images Create a Woman in Jean Toomer's "Karintha"

In Jean Toomer’s Cane, the most provocative elements are Toomer’s images of the South. Smoky, grimy, dusty, and cloudy, Toomer’s South is a paradox in that the image of the South and its people are clear and unclear simultaneously. Therefore, Toomer uses these “dirty” images to enhance the ambiguity of the culture and people of the South as foreign and separate from the North. This is best exemplified with Toomer’s approach to women, and in particular, the woman Karintha.

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.

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