Thursday, January 24, 2008

Toomer's "Karintha" & Southern Feminism

Compared to "Fern" and "Georgia Dusk," Jean Toomer's extended poem, "Karintha," may appear to resist an analyst's attempts to connect the poem with its author's biography. However, consideration for the poem's historical context and a feminist reading compliments this particular example of Harlem Renaissance poetry.

Like Thomas Mann, Toomer's mixed heritage is an obvious subject for an analysis of his work, but racial tensions appear to be absent in "Karintha"; only African American culture is represented. Karintha herself has skin "like dusk, when the sun goes down." Of Karintha's many admirers, no indication of race is given. However, given the controversy that would likely arise among residents of the South concerning interracial marriage, it can perhaps be safely assumed that Karintha's admirers are blacks as well.

Moving on, "Karintha" appears to avoid interracial themes by virtue of its heterogeny. Instead, the poem depicts one black Southern woman's attempts at self-expression, and her subsequent conformity to social and moral attitudes in the African American community. Karintha is compared to "a growing thing ripened too soon." She is an object of affection for men, old and young. Toomer writes, "The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them." Even the dusk to which Karintha is constantly compared alludes to the movements of the sun and moon, which symbolized the passing of time to the ancient Greeks. Therefore, "Karintha" is, more than anything, a coming of age story for a women who has lost her innocence and subsists by sexually satisfying the men around her while remaining herself unsatisfied. Hence the meaning in the ending lines, "Karintha is a woman. 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 out..."

What we find in "Karintha" is Toomer's compassion account of the gender issues and social barriers that prevented the Twentieth-century black woman from fully participating in Southern society. In the first half of the poem, Karintha is compared to a free spirit, "even the preacher, who caught her at mischief, told himself that she was as innocently lovely as a November cotton flower." However, by the poem's end Karintha has been forced to participate in her society's expectation of her largely static and reproductive role, and her life amounts to a vicarious existence through the men who court her; this is why Toomer surrounds Karintha with metaphors to demonstrate the passage of time, to highlight her tragic plight. In this way Toomer anticipates the values of Second-Wave feminists, who were concerned with the unequal social treatment of women. This is why I thought "Karintha" was particularly profound.

References:
A Jean Toomer Biography by Scott Williams
http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/toomer/toomerbio.html#Toomer's%20father1
Harlem Renaissance Women
http://womenshistory.about.com/od/harlemrenaissance/a/dreaming_color_2.htm

1 comment:

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