Seraph on the Suwanee signals Hurston’s departure from her usual subject matter, the African American people and their culture, both of which are inextricably intertwined in her other novels. With the depiction of Arvay Henson Meserve, a poor, white, “cracker born, cracker bred” woman, Hurston focuses on the ambitious poor white class of the South.
When the novel opens, Arvay has spent the last several years retreating into a type of religious hysteria resulting from sexual repression. Believing herself to be in love with her brother-in-law, the uninspired preacher Carl Middleton, she alternates between feelings of guilt and erotic fantasy. Perceived by the poor white community of Sawley as “odd,” Arvay finds herself alienated. She constantly compares herself with her voluptuous, flirtatious sister ’Raine, Carl’s wife, and comes up wanting.
When Jim Meserve, the attractive, ambitious newcomer to the “teppentime mill,” decides to court Arvay, she is distrustful. Jim sees her as a woman of beauty and character. Arvay sees only her lack of sexual attractiveness as defined by the Sawley community. She views her mental adultery with her brother-in-law as a reason she is not fit to be the wife of Jim Meserve. In an effort to cleanse herself of her guilty thoughts, she leads Jim to the old mulberry tree, a “cool green temple of peace.” Instead of being purged of guilt, Arvay is raped by her suitor under this natural temple. Seeing his chance now that Arvay has been deflowered—and therefore “ruined”—he sweeps her off to the justice of the peace to cement their bond legally and properly.
The enterprising Jim knows that the turpentine mill offers no financial security or social mobility. He makes plans to make a new start in the Florida citrus groves but must delay the family move when Arvay becomes pregnant with their first child, the mentally and...
(The entire section is 783 words.)