The bulk of Zora Neale Hurston’s (1891 –1960) short fiction is set in her native Florida, as are most of her novels. Even when the setting is not Florida, however, the stories are informed by the life, habits, beliefs, and idioms of the people whom Hurston knew so well, the inhabitants of Eatonville primarily. One criticism often leveled at Hurston was that she frequently masqueraded folklore as fiction, or, in other cases, imposed folklore on the fictive narrative. Whatever the merits of such criticism may be, Hurston’s short stories abound with an energy and zest for life that Hurston considered instructive for her readers.
John Redding Goes to Sea
Hurston’s first published short story is entitled “John Redding Goes to Sea.” It was published in the May, 1921, issue of the Stylus, the literary magazine of Howard University, and was reprinted in the January, 1926, issue of Opportunity. Although the story is obviously the work of a novice writer, with its highly contrived plot, excessive sentimentality, and shallow characterizations, its strengths are many, strengths upon which Hurston would continue to draw and develop throughout her career.
The plot is a simple one: Young John Redding, the titular character, wants to leave his hometown to see and explore parts and things unknown. Several circumstances conspire, however, to keep him from realizing his dream. First, John’s mother, the pitifully possessive, obsessive, and superstitious Matty Redding, is determined not to let John pursue his ambitions; in fact, she pleads illness and threatens to disown him if he leaves. Second, John’s marriage to Stella Kanty seems to tie him permanently to his surroundings, as his new wife joins forces with his mother to discourage John’s desire to travel. Further, his mother’s tantrums keep John from even joining the Navy when that opportunity comes his way. Later, when John is killed in a tempest while working with a crew to build a bridge on the St. John’s River, his father forbids his body to be retrieved from the river as it floats toward the ocean. At last, John will get his wish to travel and see the world, although in death.
If the plot seems overdone and the sentimentality overwhelming, “John Redding Goes to Sea” does provide the reader with the first of many glimpses of life among black Floridians—their habits, superstitions, strengths, and shortcomings. For example, one of the more telling aspects of the story is that Matty believes that her son was cursed with “travel dust” at his birth; thus, John’s desire to travel is Matty’s punishment for having married his father away from a rival suitor. Hurston suspends judgment on Matty’s beliefs; rather, she shows that these and other beliefs are integral parts of the life of the folk.
Another strength that is easily discernible in Hurston’s first short story is her detailed rendering of setting. Hurston has a keen eye for detail, and nowhere is this more evident than in her descriptions of the lushness of Florida. This adeptness is especially present in “John Redding Goes to Sea” and in most of Hurston’s other work as well.
By far the most important aspect of “John Redding Goes to Sea” is its theme that people must be free to develop and pursue their own dreams, which is a recurring theme in the Hurston canon. John Redding is deprived of self-expression and self-determination because the wishes and interpretations of others are imposed upon him. Hurston clearly has no sympathy with those who would deprive another of freedom and independence; indeed, she would adamantly oppose all such restrictive efforts throughout her career as a writer and folklorist.
Another early short story that treats a variation of this theme is “Spunk,” published in the June, 1925, issue of Opportunity. The central character, Spunk Banks, has the spunk to live his life as he chooses, which includes taking another man’s wife and parading openly around town with her. Although Hurston passes no moral judgment on Banks, she makes it clear that she appreciates and admires his brassiness and his will to live his life according to his own terms.
When the story opens, Spunk Banks and Lena Kanty are openly flaunting their affair in front of the Eatonville townspeople, including Lena’s husband, Joe Kanty. The other town residents make fun of Joe’s weakness, his refusal to confront Spunk Banks. Later, when Joe desperately attacks Spunk with a razor, Spunk shoots and kills him. Spunk is tried and acquitted but is killed in a work-related accident, cut to death by a circle saw.
Again, superstition plays an important role here, for Spunk claims that he has been haunted by Joe Kanty’s ghost. In fact, Spunk is convinced that Joe’s ghost pushed him into the circle saw, and at least one other townsman agrees. As is customary in Hurston’s stories, however, she makes no judgment of the rightness or wrongness of such beliefs but points out that these beliefs are very much a part of the cultural milieu of Eatonville.
Another early Eatonville story is “Sweat,” published in 1926 in the only issue of the ill-fated literary magazine Fire!, founded by Hurston, Hughes, andWallace Thurman. “Sweat” shows Hurston’s power as a fiction writer and as a master of the short-story form. Again, the story line is a simple one. Delia Jones is a hardworking, temperate Christian woman being tormented by her arrogant, mean-spirited, and cruel husband of fifteen years, Sykes Jones, who has become tired of her and desires a new wife. Rather than simply leaving her, though, he wants to drive her away by making her life miserable. At stake is the house for which Delia’s “sweat” has paid: Sykes wants it for his new mistress, but Delia refuses to leave the fruit of her labor.
Sykes uses both physical and mental cruelty to antagonize Delia, the most farreaching of which is Delia’s intense fear of snakes. When Delia’s fear of the caged rattlesnake that Sykes places outside her back door subsides, Sykes places the rattlesnake in the dirty clothes hamper, hoping that it will bite and kill Delia. In an ironic twist, however, Delia escapes, and the rattlesnake bites Sykes as he fumbles for a match in the dark house. Delia listens and watches as Sykes dies a painful, agonizing death.
Although “Sweat” makes use of the same superstitious beliefs as Hurston’s other stories, a more complex characterization and an elaborate system of symbols are central to the story’s development. In Delia, for example, readers are presented with an essentially good Christian woman who is capable of great compassion and long suffering and who discovers the capacity to hate as intensely as she loves; in Sykes, readers are shown unadulterated evil reduced to one at once pitiful and horrible in his suffering. In addition, the Christian symbolism, including the snake and the beast of burden, adds considerable interest and texture to the story. It is this texture that makes “Sweat” Hurston’s most rewarding work of short fiction, for it shows her at her best as literary artist and cultural articulator.
The Gilded Six-Bits
Although Hurston turned to the longer narrative as the preferred genre during the 1930’s, she continued writing short stories throughout the remainder of her career. One such story is “The Gilded Six-Bits,” published in 1933, which also examines relationships between men and women. In this story, the marriage bed of a happy couple, Joe and Missie May Banks, is defiled by a city slicker, Otis D. Slemmons. Missie May has been attracted by Slemmons’s gold money, which she desires to get for her husband. The gold pieces, however, turn out to be goldplated. Hurston’s message is nearly cliché—“all that glitters is not gold”—but she goes a step further to establish the idea that true love transcends all things. Joe and Missie May are reconciled at the end of the story.
Hurston’s last stories are fables that seem to have only comic value but do, however, advance serious thoughts, such as the ridiculousness of the idea of race purity in “Cock Robin, Beale Street” or the equal ridiculousness of the idea that the North was better for blacks, in “Story in Harlem Slang.” Although these stories are not artistic achievements, they do provide interesting aspects of the Hurston canon.
In many ways, Hurston’s short stories are apprentice works to her novels. In these stories, she introduced most of the themes, character types, settings, techniques, and concerns upon which she later elaborated during her most productive and artistic period, the 1930’s. This observation, however, does not suggest that her short stories are inferior works. On the contrary, much of the best of Hurston can be found in these early stories.
Plays: Color Struck, pb. 1926; The First One, pb. 1927; Mule Bone, pb. 1931 (with Langston Hughes); Polk County, pb. 1944, pr. 2002.
Novels: Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934; Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937; Moses, Man of the Mountain, 1939; Seraph on the Suwanee, 1948.
Miscellaneous: I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, 1979.
Nonfiction: Mules and Men, 1935; Tell My Horse, 1938; Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942; The Sanctified Church, 1981; Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, 1995; Go Gator and Muddy theWater: Writings, 1999 (Pamela Bordelon, editor); Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Foktales from the Gulf States, 2001; Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, 2002 (Carla Kaplan, editor).
Short fiction: Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston, 1985; The Complete Stories, 1995.
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Categories: Short Story
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