In our discussion of the seventh chapter of The Known World on Thursday, Patrick neatly summed up the work that the chapter might be doing in presenting such strange events: “Slavery is f***ing nuts.” That quote stuck with me, as did the chapter, and I have been attempting to tease apart the insanity of the chapter in relation to the insanity of slavery. Ultimately, I’ve inferred that the craziness must have some relation to the novel’s treatment of God.
The Known World‘s perspective on God seems to be that he is unknowable and confusing; some characters, such as Moses, are frustrated by this prospect, whereas others, such as Elias, readily accept it. The text even makes reference to God’s sanity, or lack thereof: “Elias had never believed in a sane God” (p. 9). Such discussions of God are prevalent in chapter seven as well; when Counsel repeatedly falls ill and recovers, he implores God to make up his mind about whether Counsel will live or die (p. 228), and at the end of the chapter, Counsel demands to know what God wants of him (p. 243). To these characters, God does not make sense. His actions may have reasons, but those reasons are impossible to understand.
So, how does this crazy God connect to the magic realism in chapter seven? When Counsel is taken in by the family with the house that is bigger on the inside, their behavior is strange and nonsensical to him, but that does not necessarily mean that such behavior does not carry its own internal logic for the family itself. The family seems quite comfortable with their lives, and in fact, Counsel is strange and discomforting to the boy in particular.
I must be careful here, because I have no intention of making any kind of apologist argument about how slavery might not make sense to us, but it did in the Antebellum South. Instead, my point is that chapter seven seems to be about systems in which an entity in a position of power (e.g. God, the family) creates and maintains that power through an internal logic that is bizarre and confusing to the characters and the audience. These systems therefore serve as analogs for slavery, and The Known World includes them to talk about not only what slavery was like, but how it maintained itself for so long.
These thoughts are admittedly still not complete, and a closer reading of other passages in the novel may reveal more about precisely what Jones was attempting to say about how slavery was able to last for so long.