In Jean Toomer’s novel, Cane, female sexuality plays an integral role in the development of virtually all of the female characters. His concentration on these female characters and their relationship to sexuality evoke a variety of critical interpretations, not only of the text, but of the author himself. It is evident that Toomer is preoccupied with women and sex throughout Cane; however this concentration upon women’s sexuality symbolizes a larger metaphorical statement on the social and economic status of African-Americans during the post-reconstruction era in the United States. It can be argued that Toomer’s representation of females is one dimensionally focused on sex and sexuality, yet there is undeniably some greater project at hand churning beneath the surface of these representations. Toomer is utilizing the sexuality, conduct, and societal perceptions of these women in order to weave together a complex web of relationships between these characters and their sexuality and the way in which society views these relationships. Within this web, one discovers that class, as well as race and gender roles, duly affects the way in which these characters’ relationship to sex and men are formed, as well as the way that society reacts to them.
In the account of “Karintha”, the first story of Cane, Toomer introduces Karintha into the text by way of her sexuality. However, her sexuality is not one that Karintha seems to possess or control. Toomer opens the beginning paragraph with, “Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child” (3). Karintha is forced to contend with the sexual prowling of men, young and old, at an age when one is only beginning to reach the onset of adolescence and sexual growth. Needless to say, sexuality was prematurely introduced to her through no bidding of her own; thereby producing a victimizing affect upon her. Toomer, as well, sees the negative consequences of a forced, premature sexuality on such a young girl, “This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her”. With the attention Toomer pays to the negative force of pre-mature sexuality on Karintha, his intentions become clear. He is not painting Karintha as a hyper-sexualized, wild youth whose rural African-American upbringing raised her with an insatiable appetite for sex and sexual attention; instead he is portraying her as a young girl, whose beauty and uninhibited nature along with her rural class standing, make her a prime target for unwanted sexual attention and rumoring speculation on her sexual behavior from the local townspeople.
The notion that Karintha did not have complete control over her sexuality that the men placed upon her so young her becomes evident as she grows in age. By the time she is twelve “rumors were about her”, telling of her sexual experimentation with boys. With the advent of these rumors men “could no longer ride her hobby horse on her knees. But the young men counted faster” (4). The rumors that others told about her also proclaimed to others the beginning of her sexual maturity. Old men soon realized that riding her on their knees could now be misconstrued as perverse and young men counted the days until they could have their chance with her. Her sexual maturation and “readiness” was thus spurred by the perception of others, not by her own body or will. As Karintha grows into womanhood, old men remind her of the times they rode her “hobby-horse” on their knees. In reaction Toomer writes, “She has contempt for them” (4). This is the first insight the reader gets into the way in which Karintha has internalized the actions of these men during her youth. It is truly the only concrete evidence that Toomer gives of the victimizing effects of her pre-mature sexualization. He does mention that she has been married several times inferring that her relationships with men manifested themselves negatively, with the relationships to the men in her youth being a contributing factor; yet all of this is merely implied.
Furthering the concept that the advent of Karintha’s sexuality happened to her with little control of her own is the way in which the young men “thought that all they had to do was to count the time” before they would be able to “mate” with her (4). Her sexuality was perceived by men to be controlled not by Karintha, but by their own desires. All they had to do was wait their turn. What is interesting to note is that there is a lack of any positive male influence or protector made visible within her story. It is mentioned briefly that she has parents, but her father figure is never singled out as source of protection that would keep the men at bay. Perhaps, Toomer is commenting on the relative powerlessness of a black woman of low class standing without a powerful, male figure in their lives to protect them. Women are often defined by their relationships to men; either a young maiden, a married woman, a mother, a spinster, or a whore. And since power often times means money (as seen in the case of Esther’s father), if there had been a father figure in her life, the amount of power he could exert in order to foster respect for his daughter would have been of a non-threatening quantity. Karintha could bring no money into a marriage and the social standing of her father could not provide any real consequences to someone who mistreated his daughter, unless he broke the law by physically exerting power. Even then, the law would not be on his side, as lynching was a common practice in the Deep South in order to keep the black man and subsequently the black woman oppressed and powerless.
Although Karintha lacks the powerful male in her life, the traditional role of motherhood saves her from perpetual sexualization. Toomer uses her role as a mother to comment on the way in which gender roles help to construct societies view of a woman’s relationship to sex. When Toomer writes, “Young men go away to college. They all want to bring her money. These are the young men who thought all they had to do was to count time. But Karintha is a woman, and she had a child”(4), he is portraying the way which sexual attitudes towards Karintha changed when she had her baby. Instead of counting the time, men were out trying to win her with money and the promise of a future. They wanted to make a ‘respectable’ woman out of her, or even if their intentions were still just to “mate” they thought that now since she was a woman with a child it would take much more than counting the time to get their chance. However, Toomer gives the impression that, in the end, Karintha does not subject herself to the sexual and gender roles that had been placed upon her throughout her life. He writes, “Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing ripened too soon. They will bring their money; they will die not having found it out” (4). The fact that the men die without finding her soul out implies that she did not let them into her life, and if she did it was at a distance that she could control. She married several times, but there is no inference that she stayed married. Her soul remained her own, unattainable to the men who sought it.
The story of “Esther”, in contrast to that of “Karintha”, portrays the inaccessibility of Esther’s sexuality to others. As aforementioned, Karintha’s sexuality was made available to the perception and interpretation of others because of her beauty, her wild, untamed nature, her lack of a powerful male figure in her life, and her class standing. Esther, on the other hand, would have been pretty “if her face were not prematurely serious”(22). She looked like a “little white child, starched, frilled…”, unlike the beautiful Karintha who “was like a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live”(22,3). Esther was also the daughter of a rich, black man. In fact he was the richest black man in their town. Esther’s relationship to her sexuality is a complicated as her social standing as a mulattress from a wealthy family. She seems to own her sexuality more than Karintha was able to, as her sexual development is essentially left alone by others. However, the rules of society and the patriarchal values instilled in her do interfere with her relationship to her own sexuality. Compared to the story of Karintha, one might even say that Esther is asexual; however this is not truly the case. Her sexuality is simply allowed to mature at its own rate without much hurried interference from men. At nine, she is first introduced to King Barlo, but it is not until the age of sixteen that her adolescent desires and sexuality begins to bud at the surface.
When Esther turns sixteen, her dreams become invaded by imagery that has a strong erotic interpretation. She dreams of fire ravaging a local shop and of baby being pulled from the building. She is alone to take the baby; however this baby evokes an image of King Barlo, “Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby-ugly as sin. Once held to her breast, miraculous thing: its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble. She love it frantically” (24). The tobacco-juice is reminiscent of the first time she witnessed King Barlo go into a religious trance when she was nine, and the white men did no notice him and kept on spitting their tobacco juice onto his face. (22) The imagery of the baby suckling on her nipple is very erotic and whips her into a state of joyous ecstasy. With these dreams Esther is inducted into the world of sexual longing; yet she is left alone to explore her new found sexuality.
When Esther matures to the age of 22, Toomer writes how she thinks about men while working behind the counter of her father’s store, “I don’t appeal to them. I wonder why” (24). Her near whiteness and higher class standing make her unattainable and almost sterile to the men around her. When she thinks back to a boy she dated in school, she remembers how it had ended “when he as much as told her that for sweetness he preferred a lollipop” (25). She then remembers a salesman that asked her too the movies and she refused , “of course. And he never came back, having found out who she was” (25). Although a black woman coming from money may seem like a liberating source of power because it kept Esther from the unwanted sexual advances from men and from having to marry, it in fact acts as a prison cell in its own right. As a woman of high social standing, Esther is supposed to act a certain way, such as refusing dates from traveling salesmen their first night in town. She is far out of reach from the common man, which is why the salesman did not come back when he found out who she was. A woman from such a family would be expected to marry someone of a similar social standing. Although she comes from money, it is not her own. It is her father’s and because she is not married she is under his control. Although the lack of a powerful male figure in Karintha’s life made her vulnerable to men, the presence of one in Esther’s life cut them out almost completely. Her identity was so wrapped up in who her father was that as she walked down the street the townsfolk would call her “Jim Crane’s gal”, not Esther. (26) The presence of her father in her life, whether it was his money, reputation, store, or the “whiteness” which she inherited, affects her sexuality and other’s perception of it in such a way as to suppress it like a volcano that has not erupted for thousands of years.
Barlo becomes the boiling point for her sexual dormancy. He thrills her in a way that has been shielded from her throughout her life. She describes him as, “Black. Magnetically so. Best cotton picker in the country, in the state…Vagrant preacher. Lover of all women for miles and miles around” (25). He represents everything she is not, and everything her father is not. He represents the sexual freedom that she has not been able to experience due to her class standings and patriarchal values. However, when she does attempt to confront him with her feelings, she is instantly repulsed, “Barlo seems hideous” to her (27). She immediately comes up with an excuse to leave, that having sex with a drunken man would be a sin. It is unclear whether her high-class sensibilities were affronted by the seedy surroundings of Barlo’s hangout, or whether his companions condescending giggles prompted her disgust of Barlo and her hurried exist. Perhaps, she cowered under the pressure of committing herself to a passion so foreign to herself. She was affronted with the perceived ridiculousness of her actions by the reaction of others in the room. A woman like her was simply not apart of the lifestyle of King Barlo. Regardless of the reasons behind her disgust and subsequent departure, it was her decision all the same. She confronted her inner sexual wants and turned them away on her own volition. Her sexual desire, once awakened, was quickly tucked away to where it was before, where it was comfortable.
Both Karintha and Esther represent opposing ends of the social and class hierarchy spectrum. Others’ perceptions of these characters’ sexuality seem to fall in a similar opposition to eachother. However, Esther and Karintha are linked in the way society has shaped their own perception to and alienation of their own sexuality. As women, they are subjugated by gender roles, and as members of society are subjected to the standards that class and race hold for each individual. Both these characters exhibit behavior not entirely typical, and not entirely atypical of their situations and of their sex. In the end, Toomer leaves them to their own devices, with an ambiguously complicated, but independent relationship to their sexuality.