Cane: Is Toomer an Atheist?

One of my biggest questions in reading Cane, especially in the last section “Kabnis”, is what stance on religion Toomer is trying to convey. As we have discussed, there are obviously a considerable number of conflicting ideas within the prose, this being one of them; however, I would like to pose the question of whether Toomer gives any evidence that would provide the reader with a suggestion of his religious beliefs. To help us analyze this topic, I have included two passages: one that shows Ralph Kabnis dismissing the idea of God and another depicting him seemingly holding onto religion with a desperate longing…

God, he does not exist, but nevertheless He is ugly. Hence, what comes from him is ugly. Lynchers and business men, and that cockroach Hanby, especially.” (114)

“God is a profligate red-nosed man about town. Bastardy; me. A bastard son has a right to curse his maker. God” (113)


Zach Torp


10 thoughts on “Cane: Is Toomer an Atheist?

  1. Great observation Zach.

    I don’t think that Toomer has no notions that God exists. To me, it seems like he knows of his existence, but really tries to ignore that fact and talk badly about Him. Toomer may not be religious, but I do think he knows God exists, even though he may not want Him to.

  2. Great job Zach! I don’t think Toomer is an atheist. I think he just tries to twist words around to make his readers feel really confused and uncomfortable. You pointed out one conflicting statement in the book, ““God, he does not exist, but nevertheless He is ugly. Hence, what comes from him is ugly. Lynchers and business men, and that cockroach Hanby, especially.” If God doesn’t exist, how can he be ugly? Religion is a soft subject and Kabnis is really struggling to find his true self, so he obviously rejects God because spirituality hasn’t helped him yet as far as he is concerned. I got the impression that in order for Kabnis to accept God, everything had to naturally fall in place and that’s not the way life is.

    Erika K.

    • I will piggyback on Erika’s post and assert that Toomer believes God exists (we see this through his attribution of qualties to God), but is certainly not happy with the way He operates within his (Toomer’s) life. Toomer also seems to view those with power as playing God on earth (lynchers and businessmen), or that those with power on earth are all that really matter, or that God is choosing to reveal himself through malicious people for whatever reason.

      Andrew Doughty

  3. I think that Toomer believes in God, simply because in the beginning section of Kabnis, Kabnis falls down and prays to god. I think people can believe in god yet still be unhappy with their lives, or not approve of everything a church does. Maybe the church he attended in Georgia just wasn’t his type of church. There are many that don’t have people shouting. Maybe Toomer is just trying to challenge his readers and ask them if they really do believe in god, or just say they do, or think they should.

    Savanna Beach

  4. This is a very interesting observation. It appears that Toomer may have grown up with some knowledge of God and was later hardened by the difficulties and ugliness of life. He places the blame on God rather than the sin of society, thus his view of God is the same as another may view the wretchedness and dysfunction of society. He seems, as Erika noted, to only accept God if he operates in a manner which he deems appropriate.

    ~Christina Wilson

  5. All of these replies have really helped me in understanding this section! I also do not believe that Toomer is an atheist; however, I would argue that this section is written from an agnostic’s perspective. Because of the many issues with God Kabnis describes, it seems as though he does not identify with Christianity. Also, agnosticism is a very a common theme in the young and “rebellious”, so it may be that Toomer is simply describing the semi-normal path of a youth coming of age.


  6. Great thoughts, all! I’ll never tire of making this point, but I wonder if we could situate his religious belief within modernism. He may believe in some overarching spiritual power, but seems to employ the same sentiments as other existentialist modernists: a sense of divine betrayal, of being “thrown” randomly and without meaning into a cruel and punishing world.

    • I think that the sense of betrayal remarked upon is evident throughout Cane. For example, the bible tossed willy nilly onto the collapsed house, a too late offering to God, left to remain and flutter uselessly until it decays just like the woman by the railroad track, or alternatively the man who found God yet remains a vulgar man, encircling himself with prostitutes at night while acting as prophet in the day.

      These both reflect a sense, common in the time, that the miseries of the world were the result of either a non existent or at least a uncaring and capricious god. Why not turn away, they seem to ask? If god does not care for us, why should we care for him?


      • I think this is the same thing that came up in class Wednesday with Yonnondio. Obviously Olsen didn’t include religion because she was a communist, but what good would religion have done for the Holbrook’s? They were starving to death and in a circle of an abusive relationship. Believing in God isn’t going to make you not feel hungry at the end of the day. I think Toomer and Olsen both were trying to say that religion isn’t always the answer to your problems, because believing in it isn’t always the solution.
        -Savanna B

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