The Known World earned Edward P. Jones a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for shedding light on one of the darkest corners of American history: black slave-owners. The novel is set in Virginia before the Civil War and spans several decades in the life Henry Townsend, a freed slave who comes a master himself to more than 30 slaves working on the 50 acres of farmland he owns. Once Townsend is no longer in bondage himself, he assumes the manner of the only role model he knows: his own white master.
The narrative is framed in non-linear fashion with flashbacks to events which have significant bearing on the present day progression. These flashbacks also have the effect of registering on the reader’s consciousness the idea that the plight of blacks was not one in which one day they were slaves and the next they were free. The larger concept of what it really means for one human being to own another take context and resonance that goes well beyond the simple master/slave dichotomy. As part of this examination of the various forms of ownership and treating people as property, The Known World also focuses intensely on sexual and romantic relationships and how they apply to the thematic concerns.
Underlying the novel’s focus on black ownership of other slaves is what happens to slaves when their master dies. Once Henry Townsend dies, the order and rule of society falls apart as slaves make a run for freedom, freed slaves are put back into bondage and the white society that lives around the property no longer have restrictions placed upon their violence. Thus the story come around to lending the full dimension of meaning to its title. The Known World of Townsend’s unique slaves degenerates into an entity commingling freedom and disorder.