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Seraph on the Suwanee (Zora Neale Hurston)

March 28, 2010

Honestly, I haven’t read Hurston for over ten years…and even then, it was Their Eyes Were Watching God that I read (not that I actually remember anything of that novel, unfortunately…perhaps after I finish my exams I’ll give it another go). I must admit that it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I suppose I’ve gotten too used to movies and TV and the way they kill off, traumatize, and generally destroy their characters at the drop of a hat. I spent half the novel worried that something was going to happen to Arvay and/or Jim (something horrible and criminal), and can only admit my extreme relief upon reaching page 352 and finding that they made it out alive. And, what’s more, happy! Okay, okay, enough of my emotional reactions to this novel. I was really intrigued by the way Arvay’s prejudices and preconceptions were confronted for the entire novel. At first, her unusual notions seemed to be simply naive reactions to her own happiness. However, as the novel progresses and Arvay is forced to deal with people from all different walks of life and cultural and racial backgrounds, her stubborn ignorance becomes obvious (and aggravating) to the reader. Because we have no choice but to experience Arvay’s thoughts and emotions, we have no choice but to at least tolerate (if not accept or understand) where she comes from and try to consider what it means to be so used to your own way of thinking that you can’t see the flaws of the thing.

While that’s interesting, and I certainly think Arvay is a sympathetic enough character to allow most readers to be on her side (even if she frustrates them to no end), there was another aspect of the novel that was…troubling: Jim’s treatment of Arvay (this could be broadened to a more general discussion of male/female relations, but I’ll stick to Jim and Arvay). From the beginning, he seems to know more about her than she does about herself, as evidenced by his little stunt with the turpentine in her eye. This is okay, even if it does rub me the wrong way just a little bit, but where it started getting flat out weird for me was on the day of their marriage. When Jim rapes Arvay, she comes back for more and realizes her love for him. Years later, Angelina’s beau tells her that she’d better be careful or he’ll rape her, and she tells him that she’s going to help him rape her. But that’s not Arvay and Jim. There are many smaller instances — moments where he patiently (and patronizingly) tolerates her ignorance and intolerance — but the next major instance occurs shortly before he leaves her when he makes her strip and stand before him, naked, scrutinizing her (and humiliating her) and never giving any explanation or justification for his cruelty. I don’t really know what to make of all these little problematic moments sprinkled throughout the text, but I know that there’s something going on with gender and relationships that’s problematic. For now, that’s about as far as I can puzzle out about it.

Finally, Hurston’s sending some strong messages about religion. It’s not my favorite topic to discuss, so I’ll keep it short, but basically Arvay’s clinging to her Bible (and her gross misinterpretations of its contents) is shown in an almost entirely negative light. Jim comments on this several times, and Carl Middleton (her brother-in-law) illustrates the same principle. I’m not sure whether the overall message is a kind of religion-is-bad sentiment, if it’s more focused around religious hypocrisy, or if it’s more about the inadequacy of religion in some respects. It’s strange. It’s interesting. That’s all.

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