14 February 2011

Seraph on the Suwanee, by Zora Neale Hurston

This is, on some levels, a really messed up and troubling book. But it is also an irresistably beautiful love story, with such aptly drawn, persuasive psychology, that you kind of overlook how awful it is. If you like Taming of the Shrew, you'll love this as well. The novel is the story of Jim and Arvay, their marriage and life together. More concretely, it's the story of how Jim teaches Arvay to overcome her insecurities and be a good wife. That probably puts you off, and indeed, there are plenty of moments that make you squirm, where Jim bosses Arvay around, or rapes her. But honestly, brutal though these moments are, the narrative also tips the balance strongly in Jim's favor by making it clear that Arvay not only benefits from, but also somewhat enjoys this kind of treatment, for the most part. Her misery comes from herself, for the most part, and Jim is the greatest joy in her life. It's actually a pretty incredible portrayal of insecurity and how it warps a person's mind. But it's also just a beautiful, beautiful portrayal of love. I was so utterly drawn into this novel; I actually stayed up until 3am reading the last third of it because I didn't want to put it down.

Incidentally, there's also an interesting racial dynamic at play, which I hadn't really thought about until after I finished and went back and read the introduction. Zora Neale Hurston is well known for her portrayals of African American life, but this novel, for the most part, is about poor white people. Apparently Hurston wanted to show that what is known as Black English is actually just the language of the South. I think you could extend that further and say that she wanted to show how similar black and white culture were overall. As the introduction points out, this is most explicit in her decision to make one of the children a successful blues musician. To quote Hurston:

There is no more Negro music in the U.S. It has been fused and merged and become the national expression, and displaced the worship of European expression (...) what has evolved here is something American.

There are relatively subtle racial undertones in the novel - for the most part, Hurston avoids giving her characters any really nasty racist thoughts, though they do clearly feel themselves superior to the black people in their lives. There is one moment where lynching is mentioned, and casual though it is, it cannot fail to induce a shudder and a reminder that this was a reality of those times. But her focus is more on the class divide between the poor "crackers" and the more affluent whites.

All in all, it's a pretty incredible book, one that deserves a lot more attention.

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