Analysis of Zora Neale Hurston ‘Spunk’short stories

Zora Neale Hurston, a folklorist writer closely connected with the Harlem Renaissance, was born in 1891 in the small Alabaman town of Notasulga. In particular, the African American culture of the rural South, where she resided, was something she embraced. Her early years were adversely affected by the death of her mother in 1904; at age 16, she joined a theatrical company, which ultimately brought her to New York City. She attended Howard University from 1921 to 1924 before winning a scholarship to Barnard College the following year to pursue anthropology.There she worked with Hughes to write a play that was never completed titled Mule Bone, to mean: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts later published in 1991.She wrote several novels namely: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) which later received overwhelming criticism. Mules and Men in (1935), which was a folklore work on the African American people in Florida. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Tell My Horse (1938), which were all a mixture of folklore and anthropology based writings on her inquiries about voodoo in Haiti. Moses, Man of the Mountain, followed in (1939).

She for a long time worked in the faculty of North Carolina College in Durham, and as a staff of the great Library of Congress. Her last book is known as Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). However, by the time of her death (January 28, 1960) due to health complications, she suffered financial constraints, but this did not stop her legacy. Several other collections are attributed to her such as; Mule Bone, Spunk: The Selected Stories (1985), The Complete Stories (1995), and Every Tongue Got to Confess (2001).

This paper seeks to illustrate Zora Hurston achievements and how managed to bring vibrancy in the black community by elevating their sense of satisfaction and wholeness.

Literary works, themes, and characters.

Spunk is one of Zora’s adaptive stories that combine the three works; sweat, the story in Harlem slang and the gilded six-bits. It is narrated by Blues Speak woman and Guitar man, the work won the second place in a fictional writing context.

‘The Sweat Story’

‘Sweat’ a short story about female empowerment; it features, in a nutshell, a woman struggling to overcome her abusive husband. The story was written in the 1920s, and set in central Florida, just near Orlando. As in other of Hurston's works, there is the interaction of several themes of literary writing that amalgamate to one excellent piece of work. The use of symbolism is very paramount in the way she communicates her ideas. To understand her message one has to primarily understand utilization and meaning of these symbols to put the entire story into context. For instance, the use of clothing depicting the hardship encountered by Delia (a character in this works) is very strategic.

Firstly, as mentioned previously, this story was written during the early 1920s, a period synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. Zora, a renowned African American Renaissance writer, knew the best way to present the struggles endured by the then racial and anti-feminist trends to capture her audience, and so she sorts to write this story to depict the situation on the ground. Harlem Renaissance was a period of liberation and awakening of the African American person to the values of true human dignity and equality from the harsh discriminatory ideologies then, especially in the American South. So for Zora to depict Delia wearing rags and torn clothes was indicative of the themes of injustice; the diminished position and the small and arduous work proportions women were subjected too then. She portrays Delia as completely discouraged to a level of disregarding her work and ultimately her life.

Another of Zora's themes incorporated into the story is the power theme and authoritarian tone (Hurston 24). She uses a cocktail of these two themes to bring out the actual life lived during her times. Zora was an ethnographer and a folklore writer hence the use of tone was apparent to depict the status quo in the community. She indicates how Delia husband uses harsh words, more synonymous to an imperial language to enforce the command, to introduce power and inferiority. Harlem Renaissance was a period when these two realities were apparent, the black minorities had little or less authority and place in the society, and therefore they were addressed in tones of contempt and prejudice. A more precise symbol that Zora uses to exemplify both the evil in the society then, the malevolence and the theme of power is the snake. She introduces a creature that is conventionally feared and associated with a lot of negativity to illustrate how evil and wicked a person and community can be. She depicts Delia, who feared snakes to being constantly threatened by her husband (who had another mistress) to leave him and their home. A snake is a real symbol of betrayal and to have introduced it in the story was like hitting two birds with the same stone. Her use of chinaberry tree (an environment based symbol) was also quite impressive, Zora knew how well to relate natural phenomenon's to illustrate her message. As mentioned previously, the uses of imagery like snakes and the sea which are evident in her other works; TEWWG, Seraph(Akins34) and yet again here she uses a poisonous tree known as chinaberry. They are both used to contextually depict how the environment was polluted with negative ideologies against the people of color.

She desired that the 'sweat story' be appreciated as a women empowerment story, and just as the story ends, Delia's husband fails in his efforts to harm her. So just as Zora desired to communicate; women can never be overpowered by the social, political forces in the society waged against them.

‘The Harlem Slang’

This is another of Zora's short stories narrated by blues speaks woman. It is a story written in the 1930s in the deep south Orlando in the state of Florida. It depicts two men who use the Harlem slang to bring about life in the Harlem's Lenox Avenue. They challenge each other's ego in how they use their word twist to gain their livelihood. Jelly (a character in the story) uses his slang cunningness to lure ladies into buying him food. But when Sweet back (his character counterpart) arrives in Harlem Avenue to stake a place for himself, the two start competing for attention. The situation gets worse when the two egoistic men spot one single lady and both wanting to take advantage of her and have her take one of them for dinner, start a rivalry. How she depicts the two men competing for this strange woman in awe-inspiring, she seeks to demonstrate that women still got empowerment. If they wield power to drive these two men to do crazy Harlem stunts, then they must be a force to reckon with if only they took the challenge.

Zora, as illustrated previously, uses her symbolism to depict how the two bring alive the local dialect. As an anthropologist, she seeks to use the local primitive language to bring to reality how the use of Harlem slang revolutionalized the Harlem society (Clarke 54). Zora introduces the dialect to depict a real Harlem street and the use of the language brings the reader into context and reality of the life then. During the Harlem Renaissance, the Black minority who were emerging from the chains of illiteracy were beginning to seek better-dignified lives for themselves. This came with the need to study and up their style by use of proper English language, however, for most, the use of broken English (mixed with little of indigenous language) was commonly spoken, and this was the context Zora chose to set her story.

The major theme of the story is; better to be oneself than to pretend to be anyone else. This idea is greatly synonymous as a counter-ideology to the racial trends in Harlem then. Due to the permanent subordination, discrimination and suppression of the African American then, to find ground, some of them had resulted to doing hard labour for free or pleasing the white people of color to win favours. The status quo by then had no room for the African American, and most of them lived lives that were not authentically their own. So for Zora to use this theme, it was very pragmatic about the situation then. She saw the use of fundamental practical aspects of the African American such as; the Harlem language as the only practical way to communicate her message. The use of this language which later became a significant contribution to her works criticism was very symbolic. It depicted the African American, simple, hungry and resulted to desperate measures to attaining his goals;in essence, Zora illustrated how the situation was then during the Harlem Renaissance period.

Zora also uses a moral tone in how she connects the story to the real world. She introduces Mandolin (a character in the story) as one who seeks to leave her family and indulge in the pleasure of his flesh. Zora was religious in her life and must have tried to connect her spirituality to the desperation that the Harlem black community was engulfed in. Due to the Harlem Renaissance, the black community was rising to the urban enthusiasm. Black music was being promoted, and liberation from all sorts of ideologies was also a key idea then. That meant that the change in lifestyles meant a change in morals and so there was bound to be lots of moral impunity the fact that Mandolin represented.

In addition to the use of moral tone, she also attaches the superficial necessity to mundane objects (Laníková 12). Zora had studied much about voodoo and to her attachment to any superficial object symbolized some sense of superstition that those ordinary objects could procure one's happiness and success. Therefore it is worth noting that Zora ardent use of both the religious tone and the language are both attempts to bring up the vibrancy of the Black people.

‘The Gilded Six-Bits’

This is a 1930 story whose setting is in a typical Negro community possibly in Eatonville; this is made know at the very end chapter of the story. Eatonville which is a little town with; a fertilizer factory where lots of the black people worked, there's also the main store, an ice cream parlor. The story features a loving couple, Missie May and Joe who are not troubled by their poor status and end up living a fulfilling life. But when a rich guy comes into their lives, he rocks the peaceful boat and causes Missie to have doubts on her current fulfilling life with Joe.

The narrator of this story can be said to be omniscient, he depicts the ability to know the very thoughts in the mind of the characters and reveals them to the reader. He gains information by observing the lives of this couple and incorporates what he knows about them and provides the reader with the reasons as to why the characters act the way they do in different circumstances.

In this story, Zora uses the light-hearted tone. She preliminary depicts a happy couple that is well at the core of their marriage regardless the circumstances they are in; she further depicts them as a humble couple that doesn't have the roof ambitions. She shows how true love can be lived in a typical Negro community even amidst the political and social constraints the black people faced then. As mentioned previously, the Harlem Renaissance period was a time where the black minorities had fewer privileges and were wallowed in poverty. However, as a twist in her works which is quite common in her other works, she introduces a different tone of darkness and betrayal. This she successfully demonstrates by adding a wealthy man known as Slemmons into the lives of Missie and Joe, a factor that causes the happy couple to tumble and Missie ends up being unfaithful to Joe. Though eventually, Joes forgives her, Zora successfully illustrates again as she does in the Harlem slang, that wealth can be a temptation for people especially if they are extremely desperate as was the situation then.

Moreover, Zora uses symbolism in this works also and the most notable one is the one that bears the title of the story; Gilded six-bits. She depicts this Gilded six-bits (which is equivalent to about 75 cents) to refer to the coin that Slemmons gives to Missie, which leads to a series of monies traffic between them that culminates to the destruction of a faithful relationship. Six-bits is a sign of deception, that money which Missie and Joe perceive as a means to happiness can also be mistakenly a means to destruction. She communicates a message to the Negro community that the success they crave for when they see the white folks lucky because they are wealthy can be misleading. She seeks to communicate an awakening to the black women that just as their sexuality is a power as illustrated in the Harlem slang story; it can also be their destruction.

Her writing style in this story is both straightforward and colloquial. She emphasizes on the immediate situation prevalent in the Negro community during her time by using Imagery and symbolism that they can identify with and matches it with circumstances in their lives that they can relate. She, as usual, uses the Harlem slang language in this story as she does in her other stories to identify with the Negro community. She is direct and concise and uses the practical means and symbols to communicate her message. However, though Missie becomes unfaithful to Joe, Zora can turn the tables and illustrates her being forgiven by Joe when she receives candy from him (as a symbol of their love and affection to each other).


After analyzing the three stories, it is evident that Zora's intention is to emphasize the freedom of the black community, the vibrancy of their race and culture. She more insistently seeks to create awareness on the issues of women liberation to which her life poses as an example and liberation of the Black community. Her use of imagery, symbols and different tones and writing styles is indicative of a practical mind approaching local practical issues with practical tools.

Works cited

Akins, Adrienne. “Just Like Mister Jim: Class Transformation from Cracker to Aristocrat in Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee”.Mississippi Quarterly, no. 63.1, 2010, pp. 31-43.

Clarke, Deborah. “The Porch Couldn't Talk for Looking: Voice and Vision in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Zora Neale Hurston. Ed. Bloom, Harold. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2007.

Laníková, Lucie. Zora Neale Hurston Rediscovered. Diss. Masarykovauniverzita, Pedagogickáfakulta, 2007.

Hurston,Zora N. “Sweat: Novels and stories”. New York: Literary Classics, 1995.

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