82 pages 2 hours read

Jean Toomer


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1923

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Summary and Study Guide


Cane, Jean Toomer’s most famous book, was first published in 1923. The original publication of the novel was a foundational moment in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement. Cane’s reissue (after being out of print for many years) in 1967 came out during the Second Renaissance of African American literature. This guide cites the 2019 Penguin Books edition. This guide also briefly mentions lynching and other racial violence as they appear in the novel.

Plot Summary

Cane is an ode to the Southern United States of the early 20th century. Typically referred to as a novel, this hybrid book is a series of 29 loosely related chapters that range from poetry to song to prose. There is no overarching narrative and little character consistency from chapter to chapter; rather, Cane coheres around common themes of nature, the South, desire, and race.

Chapter 1, “Karintha,” is a short story about a young Georgia girl whose beauty draws the inappropriate sexual interest of men in town from a very young age. Blinded by their desire, they overlook Karintha’s flaws. Karintha soon becomes pregnant. Not yet mature enough for the sexual experiences she is exposed to, she abandons the newborn baby in the forest to die.

Chapter 2, “Reapers,” is a poem about agricultural laborers reaping their crops. As they work with sharp scythes, they accidentally cut a field rat. Committed to the rhythm of the workday, they carry on, hardly noticing. The following chapter, Chapter 3: “November Cotton Flower,” is also a poem. It describes the springing up of an unseasonal cotton flower in autumn. Because of the flower’s unusual moment of appearance, people in town regard it as mystical.

Chapter 4, “Becky,” is a short story about a white woman outcast from town because she has two Black sons. Afraid of social stigma but wanting to help, her neighbors secretly build her a new home on a narrow strip of land by the railroad tracks. For years, nobody sees her, but they glimpse her sons outside. The boys grow up to be aggressive and eventually leave town. Folks presume that Becky is dead, but it is only when the narrator sees Becky’s cabin collapse that he knows for sure that she is no longer alive.

Another poem, Chapter 5, “Face,” describes an older woman’s face in terms that relate her to other natural elements like stars, wood, and grapes. She is sorrowful and worn down by her past. The following chapter, “Cotton Song,” is written in the style of work songs sung by African American agricultural laborers both during slavery and after. Singers call upon each other to “come, brother, roll, roll!” (11), encouraging the work along and invoking God.

Chapter 7, “Carma,” is a short story about a woman whose husband is gone for long periods for contracting work. Carma is unfaithful while he is away; when he confronts her, she runs off into the canebrake. After a gunshot and hours of searching, she is presumed dead. When they find her alive, the husband becomes enraged at her trickery. He flies into violence, which lands him in the chain gang.

“Song of the Son” is a song about nature, the setting sun, and the rightful return of “the son” to the land and soil. Like many other moments in Cane, this chapter evokes a history of slavery. Chapter 9, “Georgia Dusk,” is a poem set during sunset. It describes the end of the agricultural workday for people in the South and the anticipation of a night of collective singing and eating.

Chapter 10, “Fern,” is a short story about the eponymous protagonist who is desired by men in town but desires nothing herself. All the men, including the narrator, seek ways to please her. When the narrator finally succeeds in spending time with her, she ends up in inexplicable distress. The narrator heads back to the North and wonders what the reader might be able to do for Fern that he could not.

Chapter 11, “Nullo,” is a short poem in free verse about pine needles falling in the forest and having little effect on the animals and land around them. Another poem, Chapter 12 (“Evening Song”), is written from the perspective of the narrator, who observes his lover, Cloine, gradually falling asleep with him. The poem draws in imagery of the moon and the water.

Chapter 13, “Esther,” follows the aging of an upper-class, light-skinned Black woman in a Georgia town. She is not particularly desirable and is regarded as strange. When she witnesses King Barlo publicly prophesying through a vision he received from God, she develops a romantic obsession with him. However, when Barlo returns years later, her confession of interest leads to embarrassment, as he is confused and not as lovely as she remembered him to be.

Chapter 14, “Conversion,” is another short poem. Based on the final scene of “Esther,” this poem recasts King Barlo and Esther as ambiguously African deities. Chapter 15, “Portrait in Georgia,” describes a woman’s body using metaphors that relate directly to the anti-Black racial violence especially prevalent in the early 20th-century South.

In Chapter 15, “Blood-Burning Moon,” Louisa (a Black woman) secretly carries on a romantic relationship with both Bob Stone (a white man) and Tom Burwell (a Black man). When the men find out about each other, they get into a fight that leaves Bob dead. In response, a white mob kidnaps Tom and burns him to death.

Chapter 17, “Seventh Street,” is a chaotic assemblage of prose that describes the Prohibition Era, the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, and nightlife. This chapter is the peak of Toomer’s literary experimentation in Cane; it has no clear narrative and leans into absurdity. Chapter 18, “Rhobert,” is similarly absurd, describing a man named “Rhobert” who wears a house on his head, has bowed legs, and is steadily sinking. Rhobert’s life is painful and ordinary, but the speaker implores the audience to remember Rhobert as great once he is dead.

Chapter 19, “Avey,” is a more conventional short story set in Washington DC about a young, desirable woman named Avey. The narrator is hopeful when he gains several opportunities to get close to her. However, as he insists on romantic intimacy, she repeatedly treats him only as a friend. They part ways only to encounter each other years later one night. As they sit in the grass together, Avey falls into a deep sleep while the narrator talks on and on.

Chapter 20, “Beehive,” is a poem about a male drone bee that yearns to leave the hive and fly to distant places like other bees. This poem is set at night under bright moonlight. Another poem, Chapter 21 (“Storm Ending”), describes a thunderstorm that is both powerful and beautiful.

Chapter 22, “Theater,” returns to the short story format, with John—the wealthy theater manager’s brother—observing the dancing women during rehearsals. From afar, he makes a connection with a dancer named Dorris; she is likewise interested in him, despite the possibility that their class difference might pose a challenge. When they finally dance together, John is so lost in his daydream of a future life with Dorris that his face appears disinterested, which saddens Dorris and leads her to run away.

Chapter 23, “Her Lips are Copper Wire,” is a poem where the speaker addresses his lover. His romantic connection with her is described using metaphors of electricity. Chapter 24, “Calling Jesus,” is a short story about a woman whose soul is like a small dog that follows her, close behind but always separated.

Chapter 25, “Box Seat,” is a short story in which Muriel and Dan cannot be together because of public disapproval, presumably because of their class difference. When Dan pays Muriel a surprise visit, she resists his insistence that they be together. Later, he follows her to a show at the Lincoln Theatre, where the stage performer spotlights them. In his hot-headed discomfort, Dan fights with the man sitting next to him and then promptly leaves.

Chapter 26, “Prayer,” is a poem where the speaker addresses the “Spirits” of which his soul is just a small part. In the poem’s language itself, the speaker confuses his mind, body, and spirit, even as he laments their separation. Chapter 27, “Harvest Song,” is a song written from the perspective of an agricultural laborer at harvest time. The laborer is hungry and tired; he looks across the land to harvesters on other fields who might share his experience.

Chapter 28, “Bona and Paul,” is a short story about the troubled relationship between a young white woman and a young Black man. They have difficulty seeing eye to eye, and as they go out together, they must also contend with others’ discriminatory perceptions of them. 

Chapter 29, “Kabnis,” is a short story adaptation of a play. It follows Kabnis, a Black Northerner who has come to Georgia to be a schoolteacher. Kabnis hates the South and soon loses his job for drinking on school grounds. He and his local friends discuss the town, the school, and racial violence. One night at a small party in his friend Halsey’s basement, Kabnis swears he hears Halsey’s blind, deaf, and usually silent father speak. The following day, this suspicion is confirmed when the father murmurs about the sin due to white people “ma[king] th[e] Bible lie” (157).