Study Guide

Mules and Men

by Zora Neale Hurston

Mules and Men Summary

Introduction

This is essentially a nonfiction account of Zora Hurston’s own trip to Eatonville, Florida, taken in order to collect African-American folktales. Her own adventures in Eatonville are occasionally interrupted by fables and songs collected from the people she meets in her travels. The second section of Mules and Men is a record of her trip to New Orleans to do field study on the practice of hoodoo. Zora records her experience as an apprentice to several hoodoo doctors and as a hoodoo consultant.

However, in addition to the story, the book may also be used for its collection of folk stories. The glossary at the end of the book and the appendices filled with old folk songs and hoodoo recipes make this book very useful as a textbook for African-American folklore, in addition to its value as a work of art.

Estimated Reading Time
Mules and Men, 247 pages long, is divided into two sections, not including the glossary and appendices at the end. The first section is devoted to various folktales and can be read from beginning to end in about 6-8 hours, depending on the reader. Given the book’s unique narrative style, teachers using the book in a classroom setting might choose to focus on a specific folktale or song as an example of African-American folklore.

The second section is devoted to Zora Neale Hurston’s study of hoodoo in New Orleans. It is smaller than the first section and more self-contained as a narrative, and can be read in 2-4 hours, depending on the reader.

Mules and Men Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In writing Mules and Men, Hurston not only found a way to make a crucial bridge between her anthropological and literary ambitions but also created a lasting treasure of stories that captured the authentic voices of southern black storytellers in the late 1920’s. The book is divided into two parts. The first part details her collecting of folklore in Florida, the second part in New Orleans. The order in which the tales are related is ostensibly random, simply the order in which people told them to her, but as her biographer Robert Hemenway points out, and as inspection of the text reveals, the clusters of the stories are, to some extent, thematic.

Though there are a few stories about men and women in the first part of the book, most of the earlier stories deal with the days of slavery and with competition between the races in general. In the tales of slavery, the most common character is John, sometimes called Jack, who is often introduced as “Ole Massa’s” favorite slave, though he inevitably ends up tricking the slave owner somehow or another. John is a consummate trickster figure who, though he will often engage in hard physical labor, always triumphs through the power of his wits, and occasionally, good luck.

Sometimes John’s triumphs are smaller than at others—sometimes he merely survives—but at times, when he has been attacked brutally or viciously, his revenge is brutal indeed, as in “Ah’ll Beatcher Makin’ Money,” in which he tricks Massa into killing his own grandmother, then into being drowned. John shows his proudest, most dignified, side in the story Hurston calls “Member Youse a Nigger,” in which he works extra hard for a year to arrange a banner crop for his master, on the condition that he be freed at the end of the year. Ole Massa does indeed keep his side of the bargain but shows his true self when, as John leaves, he keeps calling to him, “Member John, youse a nigger.” John replies to him after every call but keeps walking until he gets to Canada.

...

(The entire section is 834 words.)

Mules and Men Chapter Summary and Analysis

Part I, Introduction & Chapter One: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Zora Hurston: a student who returns to her hometown, Eatonville, in order to collect folktales.

George Thomas, Jack and Charlie Jones, Gene Brazzle, B. (James) Moseley, and “Seaboard”: a group of cardplayers who are the first to greet Zora when she arrives in Eatonville.

Hiram Lester: the mayor of Eatonville.

Ellis and Armetta Jones: a couple who lives in Eatonville. Armetta is Zora’s childhood friend.

Summary
Zora Hurston is a folklore student in New York who is chosen to do some field research aimed at the collection of African-American tales. When asked where she wants to go, she chooses Florida because it is her birthplace and she knows from her own experience that it would be a wonderful place to collect folklore.

When Zora arrives at the general store in her hometown, Eatonville, she is greeted by several locals who immediately recognize her, including the mayor of the town. Everyone seems surprised that people would be interested in the “big old lies” that they like to tell each other, but once Zora reassures them, they immediately oblige her with the story of “John and the Frog.”

After Zora is a little rested, some men invite her to a “toe-party” over in a neighboring town, Wood Bridge. Although she has no idea what a “toe-party” might be, she quickly agrees to go. While everyone gets ready to leave, James tells her the story of the “Witness of the Johnstown Flood in Heaven.”

The “toe-party” involves the women present at the party hiding behind a curtain with only the toes of their shoes visible. Each man chooses a girl and then dances with her and treats her to whatever she wants. Zora is paired off with many different partners and has a wonderful time. She returns to Eatonville early in the morning, and, although tired from last night’s party, she wakes up early, eager to collect more stories.

Analysis
Before we begin the analysis of the book, it will be helpful to review some literary terms which will be used throughout the guide. The student who is unfamiliar with literary analysis might be confused by the...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Part I, Chapter Two: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Bennie Lee: a drunk man who tries to tell stories for the group.

Shug: Bennie Lee’s stepsister. She argues with Bennie Lee while she is trying to tell a story.

Gold: a woman who breaks up the storytelling by arguing with Gene.

Summary
The day after the “toe-party,” the same people Zora met on the store porch are there again, playing cards. Seeing Zora, they invite her over and let her know that if she wants to hear folktales, they plan to tell a lot that night. Since there is a church lesson going on while Zora is talking to them, they begin to talk about preachers. A couple of fables about how to become a preacher are traded among the townspeople. Zora then wonders why different church factions are fighting against each other. Charlie tells a tale that explains why the churches are separate.

Once the tale is finished, Gene and Gold start arguing about who has darker skin, which leads to the legend “Why Negroes Are Black.” This leads to a discussion about the difference between women and men. Mathilda Moseley tells a fable that explains why women are able to take advantage of men. The discussion continues until Shug’s attempt to tell a story is interrupted by a drunk Bennie Lee. The two begin to argue (rather than playfully tease as the townspeople had been doing), but Bennie Lee is so drunk that he falls asleep.

Analysis
In this chapter, the reader should notice that the telling of tales takes up much more space than the telling of tales in the previous chapter. Furthermore, the issues discussed in these stories are much more serious than the lighthearted tales exchanged in the first chapter. Themes, such as man’s...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Part I, Chapter Three: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Julius Henry: a young boy who tells stories for Zora and the people of Eatonville.

Henry Byrd: a man who responds to Shug’s story about speed.

John French: a storyteller who wants recognition for his tale.

Summary
Once Bennie Lee falls asleep, the storytelling session can continue, and Shug tells a story in which three men compete for a pretty girl: “The Quickest Trick.” Henry “Nigger” Byrd responds with another folktale about speed. Young Julius Henry, “who should have been home in bed,” jumps into the conversation. Although the other men joke with Julius because he is so young, Julius responds with an excellent tale, “Ah’ll Beatcher...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Part I, Chapter Four: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
“Babe” Hill: a woman who lives in Polk County and becomes friends with Zora.

Mrs. Bertha Allen: Babe’s mother, who runs the boardinghouse where Zora stays. Jim Allen is her husband.

Cliffert Ulmer: Babe’s son, who works in the swamps as a logger. He befriends Zora and invites her to go into the swamps with the crew.

James Presley and Slim: local musicians who play at all the parties.

Joe Willard: the man who “calls the figures” at all of the parties.

Good Black, Blue Baby, Jim Allen, Handy Pitts, Joe Wiley, Tush Hawg, Eugene Oliver, and Will “Office” Richardson: the workmen who clear the Florida swamps every day; Zora goes to...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Part I, Chapter Five: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Lonnie Barnes, Larkins White, and Peter Noble: more workers who participate in the storytelling session at the sawmills.

Summary
The storytelling session continues as the swamp workers and Zora walk up to the mill. Finally they reach the mill, but no one is around to tell them what to do. Jim Allen thinks that they should go inside the mill and ask the mill-boss if he has any work for them to do, but the workers finally decide not to attract attention to themselves and instead sit outside one of the buildings. Once the workers are comfortable, they begin to share stories with each other. The chapter is a series of tales about John and how he is able to outwit Old Massa. John is...

(The entire section is 761 words.)

Part I, Chapter Six Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Tookie Allen: a pretty young woman who catches the eye of the swamp workers.

Big Sweet and Lucy: two women who join Zora’s group on a fishing trip.

Summary
The storytelling session is interrupted when Tookie Allen, who is wearing a new dress, walks by the group of men. Although a couple of men comment on her appearance, the focus of the conversation quickly returns to storytelling. Finally, the straw-boss appears and the men go inside the mill. The mill-boss tells the men that there isn’t any work for them, so they may as well go home. The men are happy to receive a day off but are annoyed that their bosses waited so long to tell them they weren’t needed. When...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Part I, Chapter Seven: Summary and Analysis

Summary
The previous story about Br’er Rabbit reminds the fishing party of other stories, and they trade several before they reach the lake. As they walk to the lake, Larkins White shows off his new gun, and a lying contest starts between Jim Allen and him. Jim Allen says that everyone should tell fewer stories and concentrate instead on fishing, but he is dismissed by the younger people in the group. Jim then responds with a story, “The Hawk and The Buzzard,” which reflects the differences between the young and the old. The levity of the fishing trip is then disturbed when Big Sweet alludes to the infidelity of her man, Jim Willard. Jim Allen tries to restore the good humor with some tales about nature and...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Part I, Chapter Eight: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Dad Boykin: an old man living in Polk County.

Summary
With the fishing trip winding down, Dad Boykin tells one final tale of John’s fight with the lion in order to discover who was king of the world. After the tale is told, the men gather up their fish and everyone heads for home. Jim Allen starts to comment about how young people don’t know how to eat fish properly, and when he is teased by the others he teaches them how to eat fish. Dad Boykin then gives the younger people a lesson on how to warm themselves by the fire.

As the group reaches the shacks, there is talk of the big party that night; talk is made of whether Joe Willard and Big Sweet will fight later,...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Part I, Chapter Nine: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
The Quarters-Boss: the white man who is in charge of the personnel down in the swamps.

Summary
At the jook joint, Big Sweet gets into a big card game and impresses everyone with her risky bets. She ends up winning a big pot and gives her money to Zora. Zora, however, is nervous because she has heard rumors that trouble was going to start at the party and Big Sweet may be in danger.

When Lucy is seen talking to Ella Wall, Big Sweet realizes that Lucy is telling Ella that Big Sweet had threatened Ella and Joe Willard during the fishing trip. Zora is scared because she knows that Lucy is already jealous of her. Ella starts yelling insults at Big Sweet in order to provoke...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Part I, Chapter Ten: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mack C. Ford: an excellent storyteller living in Mulberry.

Good Bread: a heavy-set woman with a temper who tries to break up the storytelling session.

Summary
Zora travels around Polk County and stops at various phosphate towns such as Mulberry, Pierce, and Lakeland. She starts up another storytelling contest and meets Mack Ford, an expert storyteller. He tells her why the porpoise’s tail is crooked, why the dog and the cat are enemies, and why people say “unh hunh.” One of his jokes, however, offends Good Bread, who brandishes a knife and threatens to cut him. Although Zora is scared, the other townspeople tell Good Bread to go away, and Zora leaves without...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Part II, Chapter One: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mrs. Rachel Silas: a woman who Zora meets on the way to New Orleans.

Mrs. Viney White: Mrs. Silas’ neighbor.

Eulalia: a hoodoo doctor who specializes in cases involving relationships between men and women.

Summary
A few months after the events in Part I, Zora decides to head over to New Orleans, “the hoodoo capital of America.” Zora then explains how hoodoo, “or voodoo, as pronounced by the whites,” has had a long, rich history dating back to ancient times. According to Zora, as great a man as Moses was, he “would never have stood before the Burning Bush, if he had not married Jethro’s daughter.” Jethro was “a great hoodoo man” who...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Part II, Chapter Two: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Luke Turner: a famous and notorious hoodoo doctor in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Summary
After spending four months in New Orleans, Zora meets with several people who all have minor knowledge in the field of hoodoo, since all of them claim some sort of connection with a Marie Leveau. Zora hears so many different contradictory stories of Leveau that she travels to the French Quarter to find out more about her. In her travels, she meets with Luke Turner, a hoodoo doctor who claims to be a nephew of Marie Leveau.

Zora has already undergone five initiation rituals before meeting Turner but is refused when she asks to become Turner’s pupil. After many more...

(The entire section is 720 words.)

Part II, Chapter Three: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Anatol Pierre: another hoodoo doctor in New Orleans.

Muttsy Ivins: a local man who seeks Anatol Pierre’s help. Mr. Ivins has an enemy he wants eliminated.

Summary
Anatol Pierre is another doctor who works in the French Quarter. Unlike Luke Turner, Pierre is not very aloof and quickly accepts Zora as a student once he hears of the people with whom Zora has already worked. Zora undergoes another initiation ritual and quickly becomes Pierre’s student.

Soon after Zora becomes a disciple of Pierre, a man called Muttsy Ivins comes in and asks Pierre to help him with one of his enemies. Ivins claims that he found things outside his house and fears for his...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Part II, Chapter Four: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Father Joe Watson (“Frizzly Rooster”): a “two-headed” doctor of great power.

Mary Watson: the wife of the “Frizzly Rooster.”

Mrs. Murchison: a woman who comes to the “Frizzly Rooster” for counsel.

Summary
Zora becomes a pupil of Father Joe Watson and his wife Mary. Father Watson, the “Frizzly Rooster,” is proud of his ability to “read people,” or his ability to know a person as soon as he or she walks into a room. While studying, Zora learns that Mary Watson actually fears her husband and would leave him if she could but is afraid of what he might do to her with his powers.

After Zora undergoes her initiation ritual,...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Part II, Chapter Five: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Dr. Duke: a hoodoo doctor who specializes in the collection of herbs and roots.

Dr. Samuel Jenkins: a man who specializes in reading the future through cards.

James Beasley: a man awaiting trial for assault.

Summary
Zora tells about the time she spent with two hoodoo specialists. Dr. Duke is known as a “swamper” since he spends most of his time in the swamps collecting the herbs and roots that are important to the practice of hoodoo. Dr. Duke is a practitioner as well and has two specialties, which are outlined in this chapter. His first specialty is law cases, both criminal and civil. Zora assists Dr. Duke in many rituals involving the aid of those...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Part II, Chapter Six: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Old Lady Celestine: a woman who lives in the French quarter of New Orleans. She tries to perform a hoodoo spell on her neighbor.

Mrs. Grant: a hoodoo apprentice who tries to counter a hoodoo spell placed upon her.

Pierre Landeau: a man who recounts his accidental encounter with a hoodoo doctor.

Summary
This chapter is devoted to tales about hoodoo which Zora has overheard and relates to the reader in order to “illustrate the attitude of Negroes in the Deep South toward this subject.”

Old Lady Celestine borrows some change from a neighbor, but the neighbor later finds out from a friend that Celestine probably borrowed change from her in...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Part II, Chapter Seven: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Kitty Brown: a “two-headed” doctor who specializes in relationships.

Rachael Roe and John Doe: a couple who become involved in a pair of cases with Kitty Brown.

Minnie Foster: a woman who visits Kitty Brown several times for help with her relationship.

Summary
Zora’s last experiences are with Kitty Brown, a hoodoo doctor who specializes in marriages and relationships. Rachael Roe comes to Kitty Brown because John Doe deceived her and took her possessions. She wants John Doe to be put to death, so Kitty agrees to hold a hoodoo dance. Zora recounts the elaborate preparations for the dance and participates in the dance itself, despite being so...

(The entire section is 788 words.)