Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Hurston uses the biblical story of Moses and the Hebrews as an allegory representing the oppression of the American black. The identification of the two groups is made clear through the portrayal of the Hebrews: They speak a black dialect, and their diet consists of food that is traditionally associated with Southern blacks: watermelons, cucumbers, and pan-fried fish. In addition, much of what is described concerning the Hebrews before their emancipation is true of blacks before the Civil War. Both groups live in shacks; both groups are whipped to produce more work. The children of both the Hebrews and the blacks are threatened; the Pharaoh orders male babies killed, and the plantation owners often sold the children of slaves. Even the paternalistic attitude is similar; the Egyptians argue, “What would slaves want to be free for anyway? They are being fed and taken care of. What more could they want?” The novel is first a discussion of the slave issue in the American past, but at the same time it comments on the problems that faced the blacks in the 1930’s when, although institutionalized slavery no longer existed, blacks were still victims of discrimination.

The book, while focusing on American blacks, is also a study of the problems associated with emancipation. It is not enough to be rid of shackles, one must also internalize freedom. One must grow into freedom, developing a sense of worth. In Egypt the Hebrews felt that somehow the Egyptians...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Moses, Man of the Mountain Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Moses, Man of the Mountain is foremost an allegory. Hurston retells the biblical story of Moses and the Israelites without changing any of the important elements of this well-known episode. At the same time, her novel is the story of African Americans in white America. Although the author does not declare that the Hebrews stand for African Americans or that the Egyptians stand for white Americans, the way in which African American folklore and folkways permeate the novel leaves no doubt about its allegorical structure. The Hebrews speak in African American dialect, while Moses, at least in the beginning, speaks in the voice of a white American liberal.

The themes of power and the use of political power dominate the novel. For example, both Ta-Phar and his father use power to keep the Hebrews in slavery. The possible loss of political power drives Ta-Phar to continue the Hebrews’ bondage and to lead his army in pursuit of them even after he has agreed to let them go.

Moses’ power to perform miracles originates in his own personality, in his use of magic, and in God. Born with leadership qualities, he is able, as all good leaders are, to learn whatever will be of use to him. Mentu, Jethro, the palace priests, and the book of Thoth at Koptos provide him with knowledge that he uses to demonstrate his powers. The line between the power God gives him and the power he gains through studying magic is somewhat blurred in the novel.


(The entire section is 511 words.)