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Seraph on the Suwanee (thoughts)

August 6, 2010

When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God last year, it was such a magical experience I knew I had to read more Zora Neale Hurston sooner rather than later. So when I suddenly wanted to put more older books on hold, I typed her name into my library’s catalogue and selected this one because of its title. I couldn’t wait to begin reading it, and ended up gobbling it up within a couple of days.

The writing is just as marvelous; it has that Southern lilt to it, and there’s immediately a strong sense of Florida as a place, instead of Florida the idea. Here’s a passage from the first couple of pages, when Hurston is setting the scene:

Few were concerned with the past. They had heard that the stubbornly resisting Indians had been there where they now lived, but they were dead and gone. Osceola, Miccanope, Billy Bow-Legs were nothing more than names that had even lost their bitter flavor. The conquering Spaniards had done their murdering, robbing, and raping and had long ago withdrawn from the Floridas. Few knew and nobody cared that the Hidalgos under De Sota had moved westward along this very route. The people thought no more of them than they did the magnolias and bay and other ornamental trees which grew so plentifully in the swamps along the river, nor the fame of the stream.

As soon as I began reading, I could hear Hurston’s voice in my mind, telling me the story. Here’s another of my favourite bits, just for fun:

She did observe that folks down in these parts did seem to be powerful fond of painting houses and planting flowers. It was a very pretty habit, though, and Arvay put out to have herself a flower yard too. Outside of the miles and miles of orange groves, the people raised nothing but vegetables to eat. Not a speck of cotton or tobacco, or the things she was used to seeing growing. Things had a picnicky, pleasurey look that, while it was pretty, made Arvay wonder if folks were not taking things too easy down in here. Heaven wasn’t going to be any refreshment to folks if they got along with no more trouble than this.

The book follows the married life of Arvay and Jim and spans about twenty-five years; it still feels like a story, though, since Hurston keeps to specifics and just jumps over the intervening years between chapters when necessary. Arvay and Jim felt very real to me, and as I read about their misunderstandings and communication problems, I kept turning the pages hoping that everything would turn out right. I also kept my fingers crossed that Jim’s business ventures would work out…how’s that for getting involved in the story?

So this is a wonderfully written book, featuring vivid characters, that I highly recommend to everyone. I wanted to say that now, because I also need to talk about two aspects of the book that rather bewildered me: the way rape is talked about and the gender relations in general.

Arvay and Jim are engaged, and they’re both really in love, but Jim’s not sure about Arvay (since she’s too afraid to show a lot of affection). So he comes over to her house one day after telling her to put on her nicest dress, with the promise of taking her somewhere as a surprise. Then he asks her to show him her favourite mulberry tree out back, and once they’re under there (hidden from view of the main house), he forces himself on her. Afterwards, they begin driving (Arvay has no idea where) and have this conversation:

“Why, sure you’re married, Arvay. Under that mulberry tree.”
“All I know is that I been raped.”
“You sure was, and the job was done up brown.”
“I could have hollered for Pa.”
“And it would not have done you a damn bit of a good. Just a trashy waste of good time and breath. Sure you was raped, and that ain’t all. You’re going to keep on getting raped. You couldn’t be hollering for your Pa every day for the rest of your life, could you?”
“Every day?” Arvay looked across and up at Jim in startled bewilderment. “You sure got plenty nerve.”
“So I been told. But that’s the way the cloth’s been cut, and that’s the way it’s made. No more missionarying around for you. You done caught yourself a heathen, baby. You got one all by yourself. And I’m here to tell you that you done brought him through religion and absolutely converted his soul. He been hanging around the mourner’s bench for quite some time, but you done brought him through religion, and saved him from a burning shell. You are a wonderful woman, Arvay.”
“You talking about me and you, ain’t you, Jim?”
“You know so well that I ain’t talking about nobody else.”
“But, but, you just got through saying that you meant to keep on raping me. That…”
“You got that right, and I mean to tell you, rape in the first degree. We’re headed for the courthouse now, just as fast as we can wheel and roll. And the minute we get there, we’re going to take out some papers on it.”
“Jim!”

When older Arvay looks back on that scene under the mulberry tree, she primarily remembers her pleasure. And later in the book, when her daughter’s courting, Arvay overhears this conversation:

Arvay’s ears caught a long silence, then some sort of quick and sudden movement, then Hatton’s voice, husky and drugged like.
“Angie! Do that again, and so help me, I’ll rape you!”
“So rape me, and I’ll help you!” came just as fervently from her daughter’s lips.

From a twenty-first century perspective, this mingling of the word rape with love-talk is repugnant. But putting myself back to a time when women weren’t to show any sexual desire, perhaps they used the word ‘rape’ so they could have sex and still retain their womanly modesty? But when Jim rapes Arvay under the tree, there’s no consent, and Arvay definitely feels a lot of shame immediately afterwards (even if later she remembers the incident with a certain fondness). I don’t know: it left me quite confused, so if any of y’all want to chime in feel free!

As far as gender relations more generally, this book is almost the opposite of Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is about Janie finding true love and fulfillment by bucking society’s norms. Arvay, on the other hand, really loves Jim, who believes that a wife should be pretty and have babies and obey him and make him happy and in return he’ll work for her and think for her and take care of her. It’s a testament to Hurston’s writing that I didn’t loathe Jim…yes, his values are not my own, but he holds true to those values and is honourable. He often tries to figure out Arvay’s motivations when she’s frustrating him, and for much of the novel he’s portrayed as the one putting more work into their marriage. There are a lot of tender scenes between them, and Jim works so hard so he can give Arvay the life he thinks she deserves. That being said, there is this ugly scene, which occurs after Arvay has insisted on coming home from a party when Jim didn’t want to, and which felt ‘out-of-character’ for Jim (in the sense that he never behaved like this otherwise, not in the Hurston is a bad writer sense) and took me aback:

“Did I tell you that you could leave this room, Arvay?”
“N-n-no, Jim.”
“Well, what did you start out of here for, then?”
“I th-th-thought.”
“You thought like Lit! Did I tell you to do any thinking?”
“No, Jim, you didn’t.”
“Well, don’t let me hear none of your thinking unless I give you my command.”
Jim stood and frowned down on the thoroughly frightened Arvay for a long time. She felt like a mouse under the paw of a cat. She looked up at him fearfully, caught his eyes on her, and then down quickly.
…”Didn’t I tell you to off with them rags? Off with ‘em! Up with that petticoat and down with them pants before you make me hurt you. Move!”
Arvay, pulled at her underclothes in a desperate effort to get them off. Her slip stuck as she got it up her shoulders, and she screamed as she felt Jim with a rough hand rip it off and hurl it away. She reached for her nightgown on the bed to cover herself, but Jim brought her up short.
“Did I command you to put on a gown, Madam? Leave it lay!”
Arvay stood with nothing on but her shoes and stockings, then remembered them and fairly clawed them off, and stood shivering with fright as naked as she had been born. She looked longingly at the closet door and took a step in that direction.
“Don’t you move!” Jim bellowed harshly. “You’re my damn property, and I want you right where you are, and I want you naked. Stand right there in your tracks until I tell you that you can move.”

Um. And while I won’t tell you the ending, I will say that it doesn’t at all subvert the gender roles that the characters believe in, and that their society believes in as well. Although we do see the power Arvay holds over Jim, that power all stems from her ‘femininity’ and willingness to play along with that. I believe that Hurston wanted to write a story about a woman who finds her own strength within society, and to validate the role of woman as a wife and mother…to show that that role is just as important and just as much work as the man’s role. If so, she succeeds marvelously, and in this day and age of so-called ‘Mommy wars’ (can we even talk about the inherent dismissiveness in that phrase and how much it upsets me?), that argument still has relevance. If only there weren’t those two scenes of Jim asserting power over Arvay in the worst way! But they didn’t feel manufactured, and I’m sure for the time they were spot on…in other bits of the book, it talks about how Jim is a model husband because he doesn’t sleep around and doesn’t ever hit Arvay. It’s a tough, complicated thing…but isn’t that how life is sometimes?

The funny thing is, despite the ugliness of those two moments, this really does read like a tender love story. Here’s one of my favourite quotes from Jim:

I feel and believe that you do love me, Arvay, but I dn’t want that stand-still, hap-hazard kind of love. I’m just as hungry as a dog for a knowing and a doing love. You love like a coward. Don’t take no steps at all. Just stand around and hope for things to happen out right. Unthankful and unknowing like a hog under a acorn tree. Eating and grunting with your ears hanging over your eyes, and never even looking up to see where the acorns are falling from. What satisfaction can I get out of that kind of love, Arvay? Ain’t you never stopped to consider at all?’

I don’t know what to make of it all. But I do know that Hurston is a marvelous author, and I can’t wait to see what her other books are like. I hope that my long discussion of these issues hasn’t made you decide to completely skip the book: as regular readers of mine know, I’m quite sensitive to discussions of rape, and I didn’t find it at all prurient or ‘secondary’ to the story, even if Hurston’s historical views are not the same as my own. This is an incredible piece of literature, and I would hate to have made anyone miss out on it.

(I also want to make it clear that I’m not at all condoning abusive relationships in real life or the ‘men will be men and just can’t help themselves’ attitude that is so pervasive in rape culture. I’m sure you can understand that my exploration of the ‘grey’ bits are a sign of the high caliber of writing in this book, and not a sign of my feelings towards rapists and abusers in life, who I’m also aware are sometimes the women.)

Have you read this one? What did you think of Jim & Arvay’s relationship?

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2010 11:53 am

    Oh, this sounds half delightful and half really strange, like you said. I’m as perplexed as you and I almost want to read the book now to make up my mind about their relationship. I don’t really like the rape thing, but I think I agree with your perception of it – it lets them be okay with their sexuality in a time when women weren’t supposed to be. Rape is never okay but if they’re using it as a code word, that might be something different. Arvay clearly views that first encounter through rose-coloured glasses, regardless of what it was.

    I don’t like that second to last quote at all, though. I would not be okay with a man who said things like that.

    • August 7, 2010 6:30 pm

      I definitely wouldn’t be ok w/ a SO who said things like that either! In the context of the book, it was really unexpected for me (compared to how Jim usually acts towards Arvay), and I’m not sure why Hurston included it. Maybe to show the kinds of things women had to deal with? I don’t know.

  2. August 6, 2010 12:01 pm

    I haven’t read this yet, but I own it and love Hurston – am looking forward to reading it.

    One thing that occurs to me – this is Hurston’s only novel (and to my knowledge her only piece of writing of any kind) in which the primary characters are white: “Florida crackers,” as she said. Do you think that has anything to do with the gender dynamics at play here? I’m not sure why it would, but if the novel as a whole were an exercise in trying to imagine how someone different – with a different set of values, or a different personality, who lived in a different social milieu and had a different skin color – might still find value & identity, it seems like there might be a connection. Certainly the idea of precious, virginal White Womanhood has been put up on a pedestal in the South to a disgusting degree – maybe Hurston is commenting, as you suggested, that things have gotten to such a pass that white Southern women can’t express their sexuality except through the lens of rape? Don’t know, just playing with ideas. In any case, thanks for the thoughtful review, Eva!

    • August 7, 2010 6:35 pm

      I can see how Hurston trying to imagine different things might lead to different gender roles. I wonder if she just figured she was already experimenting with race, so perhaps she should stick more to traditional gender stuff? It’s quite fun to speculate, isn’t it? And yep: I think the White Southern Woman thing could definitely have been a factor.

      I didn’t bring up the race issues in my review, because it was so long already, and since (according to the intro in my book), Hurston partly wrote the book to show that white and black Southern cultures were more similar than most people allowed for, it didn’t have a ‘look at me! I’m a black author writing about white characters!’ feel to it at all. In fact, I thought part of the reason she might have written them as white is because much of the book is about their (esp. Arvay’s) gradual social climb and the psychological effects of that, and she might have felt freer re: social status with white characters than black ones at that time period. I don’t know though, since Their Eyes Were Watching God had social climbing too. :)

      I happened to see a copy of this in Goodwill for a $, so I nabbed it and am quite happy it’ll be on my shelves! (Now I just need the rest of her books, lol)

  3. August 6, 2010 12:47 pm

    Really thoughtful review, I read it with a lot of interest!

    Personally, I’ve read and loved Their Eyes Were Watching God which is one of my favourite books. I’m not sure about this one, though; I definitely agree that Zora Neale Hurston writes wonderfully and she makes her characters complex and fascinating. I just worry that I’d find the difficult passages a bit too much.

    Have you read Dust Tracks on a Road? That’s one I picked up a while ago and would really like to read.

    • August 7, 2010 6:36 pm

      Thank you Jenny! I can understand your worry: those two passages are the only difficult ones in the book though, so since you’ve already read one (and I can tell you the page/e-mail you the quote of the rape scene if you’d like to skip it/be prepared), I think you should give the book a try. I haven’t read Dust Tracks: this is only my second Hurston. I do want to read all of her stuff though!

  4. August 6, 2010 1:09 pm

    I have read Dust Tracks on a Road and enjoyed her picture of her life. From a biography, however, I learned also how much she left out and how she fudged her age so you wouldn’t realize how old she was when she finally finished high school.

    Seraph on the Suwanee is on my shelf and I look forward to reading it. I think you are on to something in that the word “rape” is being used to not to mean violence against a woman but forceful overcoming of her reluctance. Not that I like that either, but I consider it possible. It reminds me of that scene in Gone with the Wind when Clark Gable forces himself on Vivian Leigh and she smiles about it afterward.

    • August 7, 2010 6:37 pm

      I tried reading a biography and ended up giving up about 100 pages in, but from what I read she loved to reform her life! You’re so spot on about the GWTW scene: what a good parallel! It’s odd that even though I read quite a few older books, I haven’t encountered that use of the word ‘rape,’ so maybe as Emily speculated it’s a Southern thing.

  5. August 6, 2010 1:24 pm

    Ick.. those bits are definitely more than questionable. Odd that the rest of the book was so good, but maybe it is to point that no one and no relationship is ever perfect? I guess I’d have to read it myself to decide for sure what I think. Just from your review I have to say that I’m quite turned off of the book for that reason, but you say more of it is good, so I will try it anyway!

    • August 7, 2010 6:39 pm

      I’m so glad you’re still willing to give it a try! (This is why I hesitated to even bring up those bits.) It’s difficult to explain, but it never feels like Hurston is *condoning* Jim’s behavior, which is perhaps why I still loved the book as a whole. But I’ll be curious to see what you think of it. :)

      • August 7, 2010 6:40 pm

        I also just realised that having read Their Eyes Were Watching God probably helped me have more tolerance for this one, since I knew Hurston had other views on what brings a woman happiness. So if you haven’t read that one, read it first!

  6. August 6, 2010 4:31 pm

    “…so-called ‘Mommy wars’ (can we even talk about the inherent dismissiveness in that phrase and how much it upsets me?)”

    Um, YES. This really bothers me too.

    As for the rape dialogue and stuff you mention in this book…well, I haven’t read it, so yeah, totally bewildering…interesting theory though that it might have something to do with society not allowing women to claim sexual pleasure…for if they can’t enjoy it, then what else can it be?

    • August 7, 2010 6:41 pm

      Just seeing the phrase ‘Mommy wars’ can get my blood boiling!

      Have you read Their Eyes Were Watching God? I think knowing Hurston wrote that helped me keep a more open mind w/ this one.

  7. August 6, 2010 5:18 pm

    Whenever I have one of these responses to reading a book–like, I know I love the author, but the book baffles me by appearing to say things that I distinctly don’t love–I am glad there is such a thing as literary criticism to offer me some possible explanations. I finally managed to force myself to read Taming of the Shrew this week (I’m reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order. Very very slowly.), and now I am kind of mad at Shakespeare. Some good literary criticism will straighten me out (I hope).

    • August 7, 2010 5:38 pm

      I’ve been made at Shakespeare for years now. What ticks me off is Othello. Of course, he made a terrible mistake, but no one seems to point out that his presumed right to be judge, jury and executioner because he is a man and she is a woman is wrong, rather or not she is guilty of anything.

    • August 7, 2010 6:43 pm

      I have avoided Taming of the Shrew AND Othello so as not to be angry w/ Shakespeare. ;)

      I think having a previous relationship with the author helps in my response too…I LOVED the strong, independent woman in Their Eyes Were Watching God, so I was willing to cut Arvay more slack. And Hurston’s a woman…I think I would’ve reacted differently if this book was written by a man, although I’m not sure I *should* have a different reaction.

  8. August 6, 2010 5:54 pm

    I think I would skip this, but I agree that if a character commits rape, it takes a very good writer to make it something grey instead of something black and white. I just wrapped up a book where the lead considers it towards his romantic interest, and I absolutely shut down against the book.

    • August 7, 2010 6:44 pm

      Yeah: even Arvay’s shame is more in worrying that her parents will find out/thinking Jim isn’t going to marry her than a sense of being violated. It was confusing, but I’m glad to have read it.

      In most cases, I’m insanely sensitive to rape and sexual harassment, so I can’t pinpoint exactly why I didn’t shut down over this one.

  9. August 6, 2010 10:16 pm

    Wow….um, I think I’ll have to read this one for myself because I’m just so freaking curious about it now!! I don’t even know how I would begin to feel about it! The whole situation about rape sounds so confusing in this book. I’m confused as to what Hurston is saying or trying to do with those scenes. Might have to check this one out. Sounds truly interesting!

    • August 7, 2010 6:46 pm

      I really want you to check it out so we can talk about it (especially considering our awesome discussions that arose from our differences over Wicked Lovely!). So go read it!

  10. August 7, 2010 4:48 am

    Great review, Eva! It was interesting to read that you liked Zora Neale Hurston but you were not sure about parts of the book. I think that sometimes when a writer depicts her times accurately in her book and we don’t share the values of those times, then sometimes we tend to not agree or to feel unsure about some of the things in the book.

    Thanks for writing glowingly about Zora Neale Hurston! I can’t wait to read her ‘Their eyes were watching God’! I will think of giving ‘Seraph on the Suwanee’ a try too.

    • August 7, 2010 6:47 pm

      I agree: I’m used to reading classic authors, and usually I can adjust my internal compass (like in The Aeneid and its blood thirstiness), but Hurston’s pretty close to our times which makes it more relevant to my own experiences, you know? I HIGHLY recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God, and this one after that!

  11. August 7, 2010 5:22 am

    This book sounds good excepot for the two strange parts. I’m not sure how that would make me feel about the book as a whole either. Very questionable indeed.

    • August 7, 2010 6:49 pm

      You know, even though I had ‘issues’ with the book in that sense, I still loved it overall. Weird but true!

  12. August 7, 2010 2:13 pm

    Wow! I will have to read this one. She was a genius. Amazing her books still speak to us today. Thanks for the beautiful quotes and really wonderful review.

    • August 7, 2010 6:48 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Tea! Genius is very good description. :)

  13. August 8, 2010 5:21 am

    Wow, this sounds like a fascinating read. I’m going to put it on my Amazon wishlist right now. I’ve never read anything by Hurston. Would you recommend this one as a good starting point? :)

  14. August 10, 2010 5:05 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and after reading your comments on this book, I will be searching for it. Thank you for all the interesting comments.

    Blessings,
    Sandee61

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