46 pages 1 hour read

Edward P. Jones

The Known World

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2003

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World, published in 2003 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2004), tells the interconnected stories of the people living at the antebellum Virginia plantation of Henry Townsend, a black slaveowner. The novel begins on the night of Henry’s death in 1855, but the story is not linear. The narrative seamlessly moves both backward in time to provide context for characters and forward in time to reveal characters’ destinies, sometimes extending far into the future to tell the stories of their descendants long after Emancipation. This free movement through time allows the novel to explore the complexity and legacy of slavery as it grips various characters, both slaves and slaveowners.

Henry Townsend owns 33 slaves in fictional Manchester County, Virginia. Henry was born into slavery. His father, Augustus Townsend, was able to buy his own freedom and later his wife’s freedom; Augustus eventually purchases Henry’s freedom as well, but only after Henry has lived on William Robbins’s plantation for most of his childhood. Henry grows to admire William, working as his groom and shoemaker, and William trusts Henry. William has a white family with his wife and a black family with his mistress. He worries about his black son, Louis, and his black daughter, Dora, but he hopes that Henry will be able to look out for them in a way that he cannot. 

Henry’s relationship with his parents becomes strained after he reveals that he has saved enough money to purchase his first slave, Moses. Henry’s parents cannot understand how their son could choose to be a slaveowner, and Augustus bans Henry from ever visiting their home. When Augustus visits Henry, he refuses to stay under Henry’s roof, choosing instead to sleep in a slave cabin. Henry turns to William for guidance throughout his life, instead of Augustus. And William is happy to guide Henry, especially in matters of being a slave master.

In the present time of the narrative, Henry’s wife, Caldonia, is devastated by Henry’s death. She leans on a support network of family and friends that includes her former teacher, Fern Elston; her mother; and Calvin, her twin brother. Calvin is upset when he realizes that Caldonia will not free her slaves following Henry’s death. Caldonia’s mother, Maude, disagrees; she is adamant that Caldonia protect her “legacy,” suggesting that Caldonia buy insurance for her slaves. Caldonia rejects this idea until her slaves begin running away.

Henry’s overseer, Moses, is present in the novel’s opening and closing scenes. When Henry first purchased Moses, their relationship was more like one between peers than that of a master and slave, but this dynamic changed after William instructed Henry to act more like a master. After Henry’s death, Moses grows close to Caldonia, visiting her nightly to bring her news of the plantation. Their conversations become longer and eventually Moses and Caldonia begin to have sex. Moses hopes to become Caldonia’s next husband, so he encourages his wife, Priscilla, and son, Jamie, to escape with another slave, Alice, saying that he will join them later. But when Moses realizes that his dream of being master of the plantation will never materialize, he too runs away, only to be captured and crippled by the slave patrollers, who return him to the plantation.

The novel ends with a letter Calvin writes to Caldonia in 1861. He tells his sister that he is now living in Washington, DC with many former slaves who ran away and are now living free. He has met Alice and Priscilla again, and they are nothing like their former selves. He is humbled to be in their presence and hopes they will not kick him out of the hotel he is staying at, which they own. Alice is now an artist who has created two powerful tapestries, one depicting the entire county of Manchester and the other detailing the entire plantation and everyone who lived on it, both living and dead. “Each person’s face,” Calvin writes, “including yours, is raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God” (385).