Thursday, October 26th, 2017...2:06 pmCharlotte Hayden

Semi-Autobiographical Fiction: Confliction in Cane

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Cane explores African-American crises of identity in the 1920s – in terms of genre, it is probably semi-autobiographical fiction. The novel features multiple themes: the conflation of sexual desire with racial violence, the projecting of male desire onto the desired female, and the confliction characters feel at modernity and the prospect of leaving the racially hostile south, where their ancestors’ roots remain. These themes explore how the modern African-American will define him/herself: in the south’s backward terms, or in those of expanding America that, if not accepts, then tolerates, a melting pot of cultures?

Cane’s dedication, “To my grandmother…,” frames the novel as ancestrally focused. This dedication shapes my interpretation of the novel’s characters, reminding me to consider them against the enslavement Toomer’s grandmother probably endured. Confliction is the novel’s repeating theme. In “Box Seat,” Dan ruminates over his desire for Muriel. When the reader finally hears from Muriel, Dan reflects on her body instead of listening to her statements: she says, “I’ve tried to make people, every one I come in contact with, happy –“ “Dan looks at her, directly. Her animalism…” (81). I can imagine Dan’s eyes glazing over as he chooses to scrutinize her “animalis[tic]” figure instead of listening. Humorously, the statement Dan neglects to listen to actually exposes the very dynamic Dan inflicts on Muriel: her “obligation” to please. This pattern of the woman being silenced by the man’s overriding desire also appears in “Theater,” with Dorris the dancer, and illustrates the theme of confliction in the novel.


  • I found that Cane’s pseudo autobiographical aspect quite interesting as well. The dedication also stood out to me, and makes me wonder if this was based on actual events or not. However, the evidence that this is semi autobiographical does not seem entirely convincing in that we lack evidence to back that claim. Your point on confrontation was especially convincing however, and that theme seems to hold true for the books genre as well. Perhaps Cane is a melodrama posed as a creative commentary on the south?

  •   Professor Seiler
    November 7th, 2017 at 1:41 am

    Charlotte–If you’re curious to pursue this great idea about semi-autobiographical fiction, I encourage you to read the third arc of _Cane_, “Kabnis,” which is manifestly rooted in JT’s life experience.

    Might you add, too, more options to the theme of how African Americans might define themselves–especially an option for *self*-definition?

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