Monday, February 2, 2009

Too Beautiful...

Jean Toomer’s “Karintha” is a unique piece of literature; he blends poetry and prose into a single story. By using this unconventional form, Toomer is able to relate Karintha’s ethereal beauty to an audience that has never witnessed such a person. The piece flows like a song – even the narrative prose sections of “Karintha” flow with a lyrical beauty that lends a poetic perspective to the story.

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.

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