Jean Toomer is one of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. His major contribution to literature is Cane, a novel comprised of poetry and prose. Cane ’s structure is of three parts. The first third of the book is devoted to the black experience in the Southern farmland. The characters inhabiting this portion of the book are faced with an inability to succeed. The second part of Cane is more urban oriented and concerned with Northern life. The writing style throughout is much the same as the initial section with poetry interspersed with stories. The concluding third of the novel is a prose piece entitled “Kabnis” and can be regarded as a synthesis of the earlier sections. Cane is therefore designed as a circle. Aesthetically, it goes from simple forms to complex ones and then back to simple forms. Regionally, it goes from the South up into the North, and back into the South again.
The emphasis of Cane is on characters as well as on setting. The sections entitled “Karintha,” “Becky,” “Carma,” “Fern,” “Esther,” “Rhobert,” “Avey,” and “Bona and Paul” illustrate psychological realism and truths about human nature. The reader is drawn into the characters’ lives, and learns by sharing their everyday trials and feelings. Their characterizations become indistinguishably merged with the landscape that surrounds them.
Characteristically, beauty functions as a deceptive tool in Cane. Flowers, women, and the word, all of which generally represent beauty, are reduced to emblems lacking dimension in Toomer’s text. Meaning is flawed and violated. The reader is intentionally deceived by the forms of beauty and left with absence instead of significance. By means of linking beautiful images with violent, explosive, and disturbing thematic openings, Toomer confuses his readers’ sense of meaning. In Cane, Toomer moves the reader with deeply beautiful and intricate language by exploring many different kinds of beauty, such as the abstract qualities of aestheticism, the intimacy of nature’s beauty and the immediacy of human beauty. However, though Toomer begins many of his pictures with seemingly beautiful imagery or qualifies a female character in his writing by her beauty, the breakdown of the aesthetic within his work is widespread. Although beauty seems to be in proportion with reality it is rather distorted. It gives way to nightmarish images and relationships.
The flower is the first deceptive representation of the beautiful. As Toomer’s story “Karintha” establishes, the November cotton flower should not be assumed to hold the beautiful, pastoral qualities one may relate to a flower. Instead, Karintha’s “lovely innocence” is compared to this very same flower by Toomer in the context of falsehood. The story reads: “Even the preacher, who caught her at mischief, told himself that she was as innocently lovely as a November cotton flower” (1). The following sentence alerts the reader to this contradiction, stating, “Already, rumors were out about her” (1). Toomer continues by describing the lovemaking Karintha has seen and which she actively replicates at a very young age. By association, it becomes therefore clear that the November cotton flower is deceptive in its beauty and is far from the “lovely innocence” one may assume.
The arresting union of beauty and decay in the unexpected form of flower is experienced in the poem entitled “November Cotton Flower”. In this poem, Toomer writes of the blooming of the flower during a time of death. The poem reads, “dead birds were found/ In wells a hundred feet below the ground –/ Such was the season when the flower bloomed” (4). Linked by a hyphen to the verses preceding the arrival of the flower, the flower must be understood as a direct result of the death in the surrounding environment. Though it appears that the flower is overcoming a time of death and ugliness through its birth, the flower’s creation due to the dry, dying soil also emphasizes the death and pain inherent in the flower. The text proclaims, “Drouht fighting soil had caused the soil to take/ all water from the streams; dead birds were found/ In wells a hundred feet below the ground” (4). Toomer indirectly poses the question as to what is different about this flower that allows it, unlike the birds, to live and thrive. Is it stronger, more resilient, than either the streams or the birds? Or is the flower’s inherent poison greater than even the death strangling this land can choke?
As a response, the flower becomes quickly involved in superstition and disquiet: “Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed/ Significance. Superstition saw/ Something it had never seen before”, the following lines concede (4). The flower is at once consumed by superstition and prejudice because of its rebellion against the context in which it blooms. The old people are startled by this omen of false spring that they know can only be a sign of greater misfortune for them all. The nature in which the town’s people accept this blooming death illustrates their ignorance toward beauty’s deception. They perceive it in the human dimensions of “[b]rown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,/ Beauty so sudden for that time of year” (4). The flower does not represent beauty’s strength, magic, and resilience but rather deceits in this matter. Given the contextual circumstances, the blooming flower of death and lost innocence is one example of how the aesthetic is often reduced in Toomer’s Cane.
Flowers in the short poem, “Storm Ending”, provide a different twist on Toomer’s manipulation of beauty. “[B]lossoms” and “[f]ull-lipped flowers” are coupled with thunder as the poem invites to examine the power inherent in beauty (49). A scene that may seem dangerous or explosive like a thunderstorm is here represented in beautiful verse. The violence of booming thunder cuts across the sky in the form of excessive noise and streaks of lightening. The storm is described through the imagery of flowers by Toomer as he states, “Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,/ Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,/ Rumbling in the wind” (49). Overall, the poem evokes a feeling of glory and wonder. Hitting the reader with a sensual, exuberant quality, the text suggests that beauty is power. The reach of the beauty is symbolized in flowers “stretching clappers to strike our ears…” (49).
Yet there is an explicit violence which runs through “Storm Ending”. First of all, there is the violent noise that attacks the ear, but this action could as simply be an enactment of beauty as power. Midway through the poem, however, the violence strikes more in the very human characteristics the flowers take on. The violated nature of the flowers, ripped open and left to bleed is impressing. “Full lipped flowers/ Bitten by the sun/ Bleeding rain”, the poem says (49). The image portrayed is that of a face, full-lipped and bitten. The lips of the flowering thunder are bitten until they bleed, their skin torn until they bleed onto the earth as rain. Even though the rain is compared to “golden honey”, the grotesque is apparent as it becomes clear what makes the rain golden. Both honey and blood are thick and slow to drip, contrasting with the ordinary image of water as rain. The result of the thick, bleeding rain is compounded by the notion of the “sweet earth flying from the thunder” (49). The earth is sweetened by blood as thick and sticky as honey because of the violence invoked from the end of this raging storm.
Once the poem is reflected on in this manner, the image of the flower as beauty is lost or at least questioned. If beauty, what kind of beauty bleeds? The conjunction of these two images is disturbing and causes one to wonder, what will become of the bleeding flower once the storm is over? The mood of temporality is overwhelming. The flower of thunder is bitten by the sun, pointing to the entrance of the sun across the sky and the subsequent and final conclusion of the storm. Therefore, the flower as thunder represents the death of the storm and the futility of the power that had seemed to enable the flower. The flowers of thunder are “hollow” as Toomer describes for this reason (49). They represent the futility of power and noise. The flowers are empty, reduced to a state where they have been bitten and bleed, seeping onto those below but holding no power or strength of their own to push away the sun.
The concentration by Paul on roses at the end of the short story, “Bona and Paul”, is another attempt to illustrate the significance, the deeper meaning, behind the beauty of flowers. The manner in which Paul’s search for this meaning fails exhibits Toomer’s use of beauty as a shallow emblem. Paul swings hopelessly back and forth on his feelings for Bona. He feels he needs some sort of sign or pivotal moment to make his need for her true. The moment is related by Toomer as he states,
The chill air is a shock to Paul. A strange thing happens. He sees the Gardens purple, as if he were way off. And a spot is in the purple. The spot comes furiously toward him (78).
Paul comprehends no reason to get to know Bona and allows her to pass him by before the moment of apparent significance hits him.
The moment he sees the purple glow of the gardens, Paul is affected enough by the moment to leave Bona’s side and return to the doorman. He feels the need to explain that they are not a couple hurrying off to have sex, that he is, from that moment onward, going to try to know Bona as a person, a fully dimensional human being. Paul proclaims to the door-man,
[t]hat something beautiful is going to happen. [...] I came into [...] life in the Gardens with one whom I did not know. [...] I am going out and gather petals. [...] I am going out and know her whom I brought here with me to these Gardens which are purple like a bed of roses would be at dusk (78).